Station: [8] Becoming German

For Emperor Wilhelm the Second, a long-held wish was finally fulfilled when, on the 10th of August 1890, the formerly British island of Heligoland was transferred to German ownership with a great deal of pomp and circumstance.

The German empire was facing a serious situation. Though it had a strong economy, Germany had fallen far behind other European competitors, especially the UK, when it came to expanding its fleet. The German Emperor had a vision, according to which Germany’s future was as a maritime power. World trade and world domination both depended on being a strong naval power. Heligoland, as a British island off the German coast, was seen as a threat. Following lengthy negotiations, an agreement was reached in 1890, and it was good for both sides. The UK was sick of funding a seaside resort for Germans, while Germany valued the strategic location of the island as a military outpost on the high seas, facing the UK. In exchange, Germany offered colonial control and trading rights in East Africa. The exchange was confirmed by the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty. You can find an original transcript of the treaty here in the museum.

With Emperor Wilhelm came artillery and warships. There was an end to the peace and quiet of a tranquil spa. The island was turned into a military fortress. Economically, Heligoland experienced a significant upturn across the board, including in its civilian life.

But the First World War brought that to an abrupt end. On the Emperor’s order, all Heligoland residents were forced to leave the island. The military moved in and waited for a great naval battle – that never came. Four years later, the war was over. The islanders returned and found their homeland looted and despoiled by the German soldiers that had been stationed here. 

Nevertheless: the 10th of August is “Kaiser’s Day” on Heligoland, and it’s still celebrated.

All depictions: © Nordseemuseum Museum Helgoland