Island Heligoland

Early Spring 1976 - FRT
The Northfrisian Island Heligoland and its People

"Heligolanders your island is circumscribed, your population is small, but you are still a nation in yourself."
Gouverneur Maxse in a speech given in 1864

Two hours after the tourist boat leaves the Elbe estuary, the red rock of Heligoland rises above the horizon. Only one mile long, of triangular shape, and with a base of ca. _ mile, its size seems unimportant.

Nevertheless it has intrigued the imagination of man since early history. Tacitus, the Roman historian, called it the columns of Hercules which rise up in the north of Friesland. For originally the red rock had a companion of white limestone standing about a mile apart and connected by a strip of sand and stones. Protected by the ‘Witte Cliff’ (white Cliff) against the north west storms stretched another much lower sandy island called ‘Hallem’ in the local Frisian dialect.

The sandy island as well as the red rock, of course, are still there. However, during hard times in the 16th and 17th century the Witte Cliff was little by little broken down and sold as chalk. Unfortunately this lead to the complete disappearance of the white rock and the connecting strip in 1721 while a violent storm battered the island.

Whether in Tacitus' times the rock and dunes were already surrounded by the North Sea's blue-green waters is not absolutely certain. The sagas tell us that the land linked almost with Eiderstedt on the mainland. Only a ditch, it is said, separated both over which you could jump with the help of a pole. Sure is, however, that for the Frisians it was a place of worship. There they paid homage to Fosetes, the God of justice, for nothing was more sacred to our forefathers than the law. In 697 A.D., Radbod, the last Frisian king, defeated by the Franks withdrew to the island. At that time, as stated in the Biographies of Willibrord and Liudger, missionaries bringing Christianity to Friesland, it was called Fosetesland. From Adams, Bishop of Bremen, it comes to us in 1050 A.D. as Heiligland. And in a booklet 'Helgolandia' from 1643 the following names were used: Helgoland - Helgerland - Hilgeland, and Hilligeland - whereas the local people said Helgelund.

Today we hear on Sal: Heligloen, on Oomram and Feer: Haleglun, and in the Wiedingharde: Halligloin. The Hallunder (Heligolander) refers to it simply as ‘ee Lunn’ (our land) leaving no doubt about it how he thinks to whom the island belongs. A general consensus has never developed, but it can almost with certainty be assumed, that - besides the last - all are versions of 'Heiligland' meaning holy or sacred land. All the more this seems to be true since in earlier times it was believed, that whoever stole or damaged anything on the island would soon perish. Sailors and pirates even willingly offered 1/10 of their coffers to the hermits living there in order to gain the favor of their gods.

Here now is in short a record of the political fortunes of Heligoland. In 1231 it is listed as property of the Danish king Waldemar II. Up to 1714 sovereignty changed several times between Denmark and the Duchy of Schleswig with a short stint of Hanseatic Hamburg in command. After that it remained with Denmark until the English took it by force in 1807 during the Napoleonic war. In 1890 England ceded it to Germany for the rights to Wituland and Sansibar in Africa. Since then it has remained in German hands.

With such a frequent change of suzerains one may wonder what it did to the Frisian population. Starting with the economic side of life one can say it has not always been easy. The first news comes from 1402 when a fleet of the Hanseatic League set out from Hamburg and captured 80 'Liikendeelers' (pirates) who had their base on the island. Together with their leader, Claus Stoertebecker, they were brought to Hamburg and beheaded. Good times came in 1425 when large quantities of herrings showed up around the island. Soon selskaps and companies from Denmark, the Low Countries, and the cities Hamburg, Bremen, and Stade installed themselves on Heligoland. Here are some figures about the number of people and vessels engaged in those years catching herrings: 1500 A.D. ca. 220 ships and 1875 persons; 1513 A.D. ca. 200 boats and 1510 persons; from these forty came from Sal; 1520 A.D. 340 vessels and 2580 persons.
(will be continued)

Spring 1976 - FRT
The Northfrisian Island Heligoland and Its People:
(1st cont.) Unfortunately the good times soon ended with the disappearance of the herring. Since--besides of a short period of epidemics around 1550, 1,800 to 2,500 people had to find a living on an area somewhat less than 1/2 square mile--things got tough. Selling the Witte Cliff piece by piece had to keep them going until new methods and bigger ships enabled them to try for haddock and lobsters. Combined with better marketing arrangements through general cooperation in so called selskaps it allowed them for quite some centuries a comfortable living.

Here are some interesting facts and figures how catch and income looked in 1791: 50,000 lobsters with an average price of 30 Uarks per hundred, and 2 million haddocks with an average price of 6 Marks per hundred bringing in a grand total of 135,000 harks. With 219,000 Marks invested in ships and equipment it gave them a net income of 45,000 Marks. Additional income of 60,000 Marks came from piloting and salvage money from ships in distress bringing the net total to 105,000 Marks constituting the collective income of 430 families.

Another boom from a different direction came in 1807 after the British fleet, on their way back from Kopenhagen, took Heligoland for the English crown. Cut off from British trade by Napoleon's blockade, the Continent lacked the goods imported from overseas. Beginning with small boat traffic and bartering of butter and eggs against coffee and tea etc., it soon developed into big business. In 1809 300 to 400 vessels were counted during one day arriving or leaving the island. Naturally money could be made easily in such times, and the hard work of fishing was soon forgotten.

But with the war over, the ships stopped coming and with them the easy money. With markets for fish and lobsters lost through the war, and income from piloting decreasing rapidly the Heligolanders had to find new pastures.

It was the idea of Jacob Andresen Siemens, a boat builder, to establish a sea-side resort on the island. After some resistance from his fellow Frisians he succeeded, and in 1826 the first tourists came to the island. Since then the tourist traffic has gradually grown to become the major source of income.
However, a considerable change in many aspects took place after Heligoland became the German Heligoland. But for a better understanding what it all meant it is necessary to say first something about the Frisian population of the island, their kind of government, their customs, feelings and thinking. (will be continued)
Henry K. Barts, USA--Heligoland

Early Summer 1976

The Northfrisian Island Heligoland and its People:
(2nd cont.) Even though history records little about their origin, the Heligolanders are unquestionably a chip of the Frisian block, and nobody has ever come forth to challenge it. Considering the general oppression existing in Europe throughout the middle ages, credit must be given to the many suzerains that they respected the peculiarities, customs, and traditions developed and practiced by this small community. And - since (excluding the last few decades) they never experienced the uniforming, governmental pressures by which most modern nations have been created - these marked peculiarities, customs, and traditions are so typically Frisian they must have their origin in the common Frisian ground from where once the individual soul took flight.

It is hard to set forth an exact description of these singular Frisian character traits, but it could be generalized by saying that common sense rules: that liberty and equality should be absolute, and yet guarded by laws (called Beliebungen) geared to the public good, that these laws should cover local requirements and kuert (voted for) by the people, and that even elected officials and judges are subject to constant super-vision by trusted representatives of the electorate.

When trying to summarize the 'Heligolander Beliebungen' one can say, they remarkably resemble in kind those of the 'Siebenhardenbeliebung' of Feer and those of the 'Seven Sealands' in what is now West and East Friesland, although Heligolanders have lived in complete political isolation from their fellow Frisians. When, in the year 1587, these Beliebungen were written down, it was said in a foreword: "So von older to older gebruecklich gewesen." This brings out another trait of the Frisian character: an absolute attachment to the customs and traditions of their forefathers demonstrated here by the fact, that up to 158? these laws had been preserved by simply passing them on orally from one generation to the next. Henry K. Barts (USA--Heligoland)

Early Autumn 1976 - FRT
The Northfrisian Island Heligoland and its People:
(3rd cont.) Further light on the nature of the Beliebungen has been shed by the words of a chronicler which could be regarded as a preamble to their purpose and meaning: "A wholesome ordinance wherein it is said how every inhabitant should behave towards the living and the dead, and what everybody should contribute to the maintenance of harmony, peace, and concord."

Even though the Danish crown, the Duke of Schleswig as well as the English crown were represented on the island by an overseer, bailiff or governor, the Heligolander governed at all times to a very large extent themselves by elected aldermen and councilors in the same general fashion as practiced in North, East and West Friesland of the Middle Ages. Their sense of being free never left them as F.v.D. Decken spells it out in his book of 1826: "The apprehension of experiencing disturbances or even loss of liberty was the cause that at no time they attached themselves with sincere devotion to their suzerain, and often showed stiff-necked obstinacy against decrees (from the suzerain). Although since many centuries subject to foreign sovereigns, he still thinks of himself as free, and any alien rule as having been forced upon him against his will. The common man says openly in public, he is no subject, they have been raised on the island, the land belongs to them, their fathers had owned it too, and they themselves had been the protectors of their kinsfolk."

Naturally - though never developing into a truly literary language - the Heligolander stuck to their Frisian dialect, one akin to Feer’s and Sylt's and the closest to the Anglo-Saxon root of the English tongue. This affinity is most strikingly evident in the often quoted rhyme:

"Bread, butter and green cheese, is good English and good Friese." From the homespun little verses which have come forth in the local vernacular, the following has become the most widely known. The reason for it is probably because it not only explains the motive for the Heligolander colors, but also because it consists of basic words still rather unchanged existing in all languages of Germanic origin, and therefore easily lending themselves for translation. In Frisian it goes: "Green es deat lunn - roa es de cant - witt es de sunn - deat senn the cloern van Hilligelunn." In English it would change to: "Green is the land - red is the cant - white is the sand - these are the colors of Heligoland." And in German it would sound: "Gruen ist das Land - rot ist die Kant -weiss ist der Sand - das sind die Farben von Helgoland."

This green-red-and-white flag was already in 1696 well known in French, Dutch, English, and German harbors as a letter of the representative of the suzerain of those times - a Friedrich von Gottes Gnaden, Erbe zu Norwegen, Herzog zu Schlesswig, Holstein, Stormarn, und der Dittmarschen, Graf zu Oldenburg und Delmenhorst - indicates. In this letter he affirmed the right of the Heligolanders to fly their colors from the top of the mast if his coat of arms would show in the middle of the flag.
Henry Barts (Heligoland - USA)

1/1/77 FRT
The North Frisian Island Heligoland and its People"
(4th cont..)
Each time their suzerain changed - as it did again in 1714, when the Danish fleet took the island for the king of Denmark - the population quickly addressed a petition to their new sovereign. In it they asked for a confirmation of their ancient rights, liberties, and customs. These were again and again granted - in the past - this time - and once
more in 1807 when Great Britain took over from Denmark. In fact, Heligoland and its people so clearly resembled a minute nation, that the English governor Sir Henry Fitzhardinge Maxse at a special occasion in 1864 felt encouraged to say: "Do not forget (Heligolanders) that your children in years after will look back to this day, and that future
generations of Heligolanders will revere or despise your memory according to the manner in which you shall have exercised your Political Power... Heligolanders, your island is circumscribed, your population is small, but you are still a nation in yourself'."

And here are more of the fine points, which also may have helped to bring this condition about. In order to prevent an upsetting change in the nature of the population, no foreigner could buy property on the island or become a member of a selskap doing business there, nor even become a citizen - it be then - he married a Heligolander girl. Furthermore, and very much in contrast to the general history of Europe, there was a notable absence of 'Leaders', 'Commanders', 'Lords', 'Feudalism', or downright 'Slavery.' This was a society of free men - living up as good as they knew how - to the basics of their forefathers maxims:

"Rymm heart, cloar kymmen (pure heart, clear horizon)," and "no master above me, no serf below me, rather dead than slave." They managed, while the rest of Europe succumbed to feudalism, to keep their ancient right of self-government alive. And when time was lacking, the lot decided between the equally qualified. In such cases the outcome was also regarded as just and final. Tradition even provided a part of the collective income for the widows and orphans, which - happening as it was - in the 16th and 17th centuries, must be looked upon as a quite remarkable proof of warm-heartedness.
Having thus arranged the welfare of their community, they carefully avoided any close association with outsiders whether these were 'lijkendeelers’ (pirates who divided the spoils equally), or natives of nations around the North Sea. So strong was the feeling of independence and aloofness to the rest of the world, that none of the sovereigns could exact universal obedience to their decrees or even suppress criticism. Hence, since heroes always appear where the multitude feels helpless and powerless, the Heligolander never had them nor needed them in their own ranks. Without pompous airs the man chosen for the job took his place, and left again as called for by law or custom.

However, when England ceded the island to Germany in July 1890 -"sold like a crate of poultry" as a Londoner paper put it - the Heligolander soon faced a situation for which they had not been prepared by past experience Though it was said in article 12, paragraph 4 of the agreement: "Native laws and customs now existing, will as far as possible remain undisturbed," the understanding of the words ‘as far as possible’ found a widely differing interpretation. Germany s sovereign - Kaiser Wilhelm II wanted to turn what he now called his ‘Deutsches Helgoland’ into a gigantic naval base: "A bulwark and protection for the the German Sea against any enemy." This he did.

In 1914, when World War I broke out, the fortress with guns, a large harbor, and underground quarters was complete. For the islanders it had been time of rising prosperity with thousands of workmen on Helgoland and an increasing tourist traffic. But their self-government had ceased to exist. 'They had been ‘gleichgeschaltet’ with other Prussian communities, German code of law ruled, and mainlanders could settle and buy property without emotionally uniting with the native population through marriage.

he only rights left were the exemption of English born islanders from service in the German Armed Forces and duty free import of goods from overseas. Never before in their entire history had Heligolanders been subject to conscription as those born after 1890 now had become. The substructure which had formed and sustained the distinctive features of Heligolander philosophy was dismantled.
Henry Barts (Heligoland--USA)

Vol. I No. 3 1977
The North Frisian Island Heligoland and its People:
(5th cont.) During the first world war the entire population was moved to the mainland, but returned as soon as it was over in i918. In the following years a serious attempt was made to regain some of the past independence. But the once homogeneous character of the native islanders had already been lost, and was further diluted by over a thousand discharged soldiers and workmen not leaving the island after hostilities ceased. Yet even under such circumstances together with a rather hostile attitude of Prussian officials towards petitions submitted in line with the traditions of their forefathers by a core of old-time Heligolanders, memories of the Frisian conception of independence and the devotion to ancient customs lingered on, though native laws were never reinstated.

When in 1933 Hitler came to power, the fortress Heligoland - which according to the Treaty of Versailles had been demolished - rose like a Phoenix again from its ashes. Any still remaining traces of Heligolander individualism were rigorously suppressed, and their most stiff-necked defender, August Kuchlenz, imprisoned in a concentration camp.

During almost the entire duration of 'World War II the population was left on the island, though many a night had to be spent in shelters when Allied bombers passed on their way to the German mainland. As the conflict went on, also daylight attacks increased and on April 18, 1945 in 104 minutes over a thousand giant bombers emptied their magazines over the island leaving nothing but flaming ruins behind. Shelters cut into the rock protected the population and the 128 killed were mostly soldiers manning the anti-aircraft guns.

The following night the people had to vacate the island, the second time in 30 years. Then on May 5, Helgoland surrendered to the British without further resistance.
From here on began for the islanders as well as for the island itself the darkest period in their history. Gone was the 115 foot high modern lighthouse, probably hit by a 10,000 kilogram bomb dropped in the raid. It became a victim not of obsolescence - like its predecessors - the 1670 built open-fire beacon, or the 1810 constructed lighthouse with kerosene lamps - but by one of Man's rather senseless follies - total war.

Also the church, built in 1686 with the support of the Danish King Christian V, was destroyed. Its altar had been lighted by two candelabras, inscribed with: "Present of his majesty the King Gustav Adolph IV of Sweden." They were received for helping this monarch when he became a refugee in the Napoleonic war presenting historic proof that also Heligolander, in line with the general Frisian tradition, gave shelter to the unfortunates of political conflicts. Later the German poets Heine, and Hoffmann V. Fallersleben enjoyed the same privileges. Ironically it was here were the latter, living exiled from his fatherland on English territory, wrote in 1841 what is now Germany's national anthem 'Deutschland, Deutschland ueber alles.'

Now, 104 years later, the total population of Helgoland had become refugees. Spread over 60 different villages and towns, they waited for a speedy return to their island. But the outlook was bleak. Not even the 'Society to Save Shipwrecked People' (Coast Guard) was allowed to station their life-boat there again. Founded by England in 1868, it helped for example in the years from 1890 to 1912, 78 ships in distress. Daniel Denker and Rickmer Bock, both native Frisians and long time foremen of the life-boat, saved a total of 580 sailors from their sinking ships.

However, the message from the English Military Government from March 19, 1946 to the German Administration was simply this: "You will discourage all applications for visits or removing private property from Heligoland with the utmost vigor." Alarmed by such prospects an appeal was made from the ranks of 250 Heligolanders who were still born under the English flag. In their petition to the British Government they expressed their feelings with the following words: "It is almost impossible for us to believe that Great Britain and its people to whom a lot of other small nations are again thankful for their regained freedom and liberty, should have forgotten their former subjects, the natives of the Crown Colony of Heligoland. If it is impossible to come back under British rule, then we would prefer to come back under Danish protection, as the island's history has never been German but Danish for many centuries."
Henry Barts (Heligoland -- USA)

1-4-1977 FRT
The North Frisian Island Heligoland and its People: (6th cont.)
In contrast to the usual pattern of using chauvinistic arguments-when countering independent actions by Heligolanders. it must be said that this time German authorities and associations gave priority to the plight of the islanders suggesting an administration by the UN or European Parliament if this would allow a return of the population to their island.

But things moved from bad to worse. On April 18, 1947 the English Navy tried, using 6800 tons of explosives, to wipe Helgoland from the map. However, when the dust settled, the red rock was still standing, though one corner had changed into gentle hills. Again years passed while the British Royal Air Force used the island for bombing practice. Yet gradually through the contacts of young Frisians with their Frisian kinsfolk in the Netherland and the USA, letters from English born Heligolanders found exposure in the world press. Here are some lines taken from and article in the "Daily Mirror" from March 10, 1948: "We are aware of the fact that our beloved island is no more than a bare, rocky stump of no value and no importance for anybody in the whole world except for us... God our Lord has placed our Island before the shores of several nations, each of- which is in some way related to us and yet different, so that we feel somewhat apart. We are fishermen, not soldiers ...why are we Heligolanders to pay for the sins and stupidity of German imperialism? All fortifications of the island are completely destroyed. What is now happening out there in the sea is nothing but a mere sin and an act against nature."

Professor Savory, a member of the British Parliament and a friend of minorities spoke repeatedly about 'what was happening out there in the sea' bringing the attention of his fellow members to 'the horrifying picture of senseless desolation' as he called it in his great speech of July 26, 1950. Gradually also the German Federal Republic urged by letters from the exiled Helgolander community, began to plead with the Allied High Commission for a return of the islanders to their homeland. Further publicity was generated. when a small group of German students 'invaded' Helgoland. or better, what was left of it. It ended in a forced evacuation by a British-German patrol.

Finally in 1952 Helgoland was given back to German authorities, and a return for the islanders became feasible. However, not one house was intact, and thousands of unexploded bombs, mines shells etc. were covering the area, which - with crater touching crater - had to be re-landscaped before any building could begin.

Unreserved acclaim must be awarded to the way this tremendous task was handled by the German Federal Republic and the provincial government. From 250 entries of German and foreign architects a plan was chosen, that not only gave hope to restore the previous idyllic character of the narrow streets with its picturesque houses and cottages, but also promised to create a harmonious whole where homes and gardens, hotels and shops blended together in size and color as taken from an artist’s canvas.

Today, the rebuilding many years completed, it can be said, this at last - was a job well done. Millions of tourists have visited the island proving the attractiveness of the new Helgoland and bringing prosperity to the population.

Some of the old customs and traditions are still preserved, also the Helgolandish version of Frisian is still spoken by many people, but passing time inevitably brings changes. How much of the intrinsic values that formed the nature and the life of the Heligolander Frisians will be kept alive in the thoughts, pursuits, and conduct of future generations - nobody can possibly foresee. The last of the old-time Heligolanders has just about past away. Yet their impressive faces are still around on portraits, photographs, as book illustrations etc. "Characterkoepfe" they were called by German admirers (meaning the face of a man whose features indicate an extraordinary character). They proved that Man can become what he wants to be if he clearly defines his laws- by which he chooses to live.

The ancient Heligolanders, in line with general Frisian tradition, chose as their motto 'wholesome’ ordinances wherein it is said how every inhabitant should behave towards the living and the dead, and what every-body should contribute to the maintenance of harmony, peace, and concord. What better legacy could such a small and unsophisticated people bequeath to posterity. May we, the living, in times of stress, always remember their example.
Henry Barts