The XXIII Biennial Conference of the Australasian Association for European History will be held at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, in July 2013, and I'll be presenting a paper with the following title and abstract:
'What are the Germans up to?' The British phantom airship scare of 1913
In late 1912 and early 1913, people all over Britain reported seeing airships in the night sky where there were none. The general presumption was that these were German Zeppelins, testing British defences in preparation for the next war. One result was a largely Conservative press agitation for a massive expansion of Britain's aerial forces, perceived to be outclassed by Germany's in both number and power. Another was the rapid passage by the Liberal government of legislation providing for the use of lethal force in the defence of British airspace. In many ways this panic was analogous to the much better known 1909 dreadnought scare, which itself was followed by a smaller phantom airship scare. But historians generally agree that 1913 was a period of detente in Anglo-German relations. Why, then, did British people not just imagine that German airships were a potential threat but imagine that German airships were actually overhead?
As an example of collective behaviour, the phantom airship scare offers us a rare glimpse of the state of British public opinion (as well as press and political opinion) on defence and foreign relations shortly before the outbreak of the First World War. I will place this phantom airship scare in the context of other defence panics, and will argue that the threatening nature of the new technology of flight, and Britain's perceived failure to keep pace with other nations in its military applications, amplified the German threat despite of the improving international situation. The phantom airships were the public and imaginary manifestations of private but very real fears.
This is the next stage of my mystery aircraft project, following on from the 1918 Australian mystery aeroplane scare I spoke about at the AHA this year. Next year being the centenary of the 1913 British phantom airship wave, I plan to postblog it as I did for the 1909 one a few years back, drawing upon the increased availability of digitised newspapers since then. So that will form a major part of my preparation for Wellington.
New Zealand was itself a site of at least two mystery aircraft scares, a well-known (at least to those who know about such things) one in 1909 and a much more obscure one in 1918. So if I can make it work I hope to visit Archives New Zealand and see what they have — hopefully, enough for another paper/article/chapter!
I'm really looking forward to this. For one thing, despite it being so near I've never been to New Zealand; I hear it's quite nice. I also have fond memories of AAEH XXII in Perth a couple of years ago, and I expect edition XXIII will prove equally excellent. Now to start saving up my pennies…
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