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Why did Britain give Heligoland to Germany? (Short Animated Documentary)

3 minutes 18 seconds

Speaker 1

00:00:00 - 00:00:27

Heligoland is a tiny island here off the coast of what's now Germany. It belonged to numerous states until the early 19th century when it came into the control of the British. They stayed there for almost a century when they handed the island over to the new German Empire. But given the island's valuable position off the coast of Germany, this raises the question, why did Britain give Heligoland to Germany? So, to go back, Heligoland had belonged to many states throughout history before it came under the control of the Danish in the early 18th century.

Speaker 1

00:00:27 - 00:00:59

It remained a part of the Danish realm until the early 19th century when the Danish opted to side with Napoleon against the British. The Royal Navy soon seized the island and Britain's control over it was formalised in the Treaty of Kiel in 1814. The idea behind Britain obtaining this miniscule island was that it would be built up as a naval base, and would then be used to patrol the seas around it against France, the Netherlands and Prussia. As you'll know, Germany unified in 1871 and its leaders wanted to establish it as an industrial and military powerhouse that could rival any other. And Heligoland presented a major issue due to its proximity to the brand new Kiel Canal.

Speaker 1

00:00:59 - 00:01:28

Now, The British didn't want to turn the island into a military base, but the problem for Germany wasn't Britain using the island, but everybody else. In 1848, the Danish and Prussians fought a war and the Danish were able to blockade the Elbe River and cut off trade by using Heligoland as a neutral safe harbour. Now the Germans weren't worried about the Danish, but the French. War between the 2 again seemed likely and if France's larger navy was able to use Heligoland as safe harbour, Germany may find itself in trouble. As such, the German government desperately wanted to get their hands on it.

Speaker 1

00:01:28 - 00:01:55

This led to a series of discussions between the 2 powers which ended in Britain handing over Heligoland to Germany in 1890. This was part of a broader deal with Germany to further divide Africa between them and improve relations. In return for Heligoland, Britain was handed this land in East Africa and Germany agreed not to interfere in whatever Britain did in the area. Furthermore, Britain acknowledged Germany's control over this land here. The British were very happy with the treaty, having received these lands and a free hand in the region, and all of it in return for an island that they didn't really care for.

Speaker 1

00:01:55 - 00:02:32

The initial hope was that by taking a step away from Germany's coast it would improve relations, and would importantly mean that the Kaiser wouldn't feel the need to build up his navy to counter Britain in the North Sea, but fun fact, no. In Germany, the response to the treaty was mostly 1 of anger. Many believed that the government had sold Germany short, and had given Britain far more than Germany had received. As a result of the handover, many German politicians took a harder line towards German imperial expansion in Africa, feeling that this embarrassment needed to be rectified by other means. 2 world wars later, the islands once again fell under British control as part of its occupation zone, and thus they had to prepare the island for a post-war existence.

Speaker 1

00:02:32 - 00:02:51

And the British plan was simple. Blow it up. Turns out that's quite hard and so the British moved to plan B, give up. And thus Heligoland, alongside the rest of the Allied occupation zones, were incorporated into West Germany in 1949, and it remains a part of Germany to this day. I hope you enjoyed this episode with a special thanks to my patrons...

Speaker 1

00:03:00 - 00:02:51

And hockey, Marcus Arsner, Captain Seidog, Marvin Casale, Spencer Lightfoot, Winston K-Wood, Boogily Woogily, Daniel Tobian, Camoon Yoon, Miss Isette, Gustav Swann, Aaron the White, Anthony Beckett, The McWhopper, Maggie Paskowski, Copper Tone, Spinning 3 Plates, Shuenin, Words About Books podcast in Charles I.