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Birkbeck professor in running for top history title

Professor Jan Rüger is shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize for his exploration of Heligoland, from the Napoleonic Wars to the Cold War.

Birkbeck’s Professor Jan Rüger has been shortlisted for the highly-regarded literary award, the Wolfson History Prize.

His book, Heligoland: Britain, Germany and the Struggle for the North Sea, is one of six titles in the running for the accolade, which is awarded annually.

The prize champions the best historical writing in the UK and since it was established by the Wolfson Foundation in 1972, it has awarded more than £1.1 million to the authors of works which are judged to be readable, scholarly and accessible to non-specialists. Past winners have included Mary Beard, Simon Schama and Antony Beevor, and Birkbeck’s Professor Nikolaus Wachsmann triumphed in 2016.

Professor Rüger’s book explores the story of the North Sea island of Heligoland, which is half the size of Gibraltar and whose history reflects the complex and troubled relationship between Britain and Germany, colonised by both nations over the years and fought over in both world wars.

Judges said of the work, published by Oxford University Press: “An engrossing and accomplished history that uses the island of Heligoland to trace the complex course of Anglo-German relations across two centuries. Rüger offers a daring account that brilliantly uses micro-history to find the bigger picture.”

As one of the shortlisted authors, Professor Rüger will speak about his work at the British Academy on Wednesday 9 May for BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking programme. The overall winner will be announced on Monday 4 June at a reception at Claridge’s, London and will receive £40,000, with each of the shortlisted writers being presented with £4,000.

Professor Rüger said: “It is a tremendous honour to be in the running for a prize that has been awarded to so many historians whom I greatly admire. And it is hugely encouraging to see that books based on a close reading of the sources and a critical dialogue with fellow historians can find a broader audience.

“How to write the history of two nations divided but also inextricably linked by their shared past was at the heart of my interest in Heligoland. From early on I thought of this outpost in the North Sea as a prism through which to view the long history of Anglo-German rivalry, conflict and, eventually, reconciliation. In making a small island the main character of the book, I tried to engage with both the large-scale conflict between the two nations and the small-scale history of how this relationship manifested itself in the everyday lives of people and their places.

“For generations this cliff-bound island expressed a German will to battle Britain; and it mirrored a British determination to prevent Germany from establishing hegemony on the Continent. I wanted to explain this struggle while not losing sight of those caught in between - the Heligolanders. I am delighted to see that this approach was seen as persuasive enough for the book to be shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize.”

The shortlist was selected by a panel of four eminent historians, chaired by Professor Sir David Cannadine, who said: “This year’s shortlist is a testament to the strength of writing on history in the UK today. It brings together established academics with first time writers, spanning a huge variety of times and places. What unites the authors is a commitment to share careful research and a deep love of their subject with as wide an audience as possible. As judges we found ourselves engrossed, challenged, and delighted by our reading.”

Paul Ramsbottom, chief executive of the Wolfson Foundation which awards the Prize said: “The Wolfson History Prize is a public expression of the importance of history to the cultural life of the country. It recognises books that sparkle with brilliance, breaking new ground in our understanding of the past – and which are written in ways that appeal to a wide audience. The Prize is awarded by the Wolfson Foundation as part of a number of wider programmes of support for history and heritage –ranging from museums to historic buildings to university research.”

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