Keine Insel mehr (No longer an island)

Last year I tried to run to ground the phrase 'England is no longer an island', usually said to be uttered by Lord Northcliffe in 1906 after hearing of an early Santos-Dumont flight. 1 But the earliest source I could find which claimed that Northcliffe said it dated to 1922, it only became common in an aviation context after Blériot's cross-channel flight in 1909, and it was anyway used in non-aviation contexts as early as 1846, positively as well as negatively. So I suggested that Northcliffe took a phrase that had been bouncing around in the British public sphere for decades and applied it to the coming of flight. But even so, there's no contemporary evidence that he was the first to do so, or even that he ever did so publicly or influentially. As he was a powerful press baron with a deep interest in aviation it just seems plausible that he must be the origin.

In fact it seems that not only was it not Northcliffe who was the first to publicly associate 'England is no longer an island' with aviation, but that the first wasn't anyone in England at all. In May 1907, the Standard previewed a new book by the German civil servant Rudolf Martin. He had made quite a splash at the start of the year with his science fiction novel Berlin-Bagdad, which predicted that airships would enable Germany's ascendancy to world power. He quickly followed up this success with a sequel 'entitled "The Era of Aerial Navigation," wherein he seeks to advance scientific and technical proofs that the apparently phantastic predictions which he made in his former work are logically justified'. 2 According to the Standard,

one of the most interesting chapters in the new book, which will be published at the end of this month by Theodore Thomas and Co., of Leipsic [sic], is that entitled 'England no longer an Island,' which argues that the most important political results will accrue from the development of aerial navigation, the chief of which will be that Great Britain will be deprived of her present geographical advantages as an island. 3

And this book, called in German Das Zeitalter der Motorluftschiffahrt ('The age of motor airship travel'), has been digitised and so indeed it can be seen that it has a chapter entitled 'England -- keine Insel mehr': 'England -- no longer an island'. That's about as far as I trust my my Google Translate-assisted schoolboy German to take me, and Das Zeitalter der Motorluftschiffahrt doesn't seem to have been translated into English (though an excerpt or summary appeared in the London Magazine in October and November 1907). So I'm not sure if Martin expands upon 'no longer an island' in any way. Perhaps he reinvented in German a phrase that had been kicking around in English for sixty years. If he knew English, perhaps he picked it up in his reading. It's even just possible that he picked it up from Northcliffe (who was far from the simple Germanophobe he is sometimes made out to be; he had German relatives and visited Germany).

Automotor commented that

One of the chapters, and perhaps the one which will be of most interest to Britishers, is that headed 'England no longer an Island,' in which the author allows his imagination some freedom of flight as to an invasion of this land by Germany. At the present stage of aeronautics such phantasies, even if presented in a well balanced form, are apt to be a little ridiculous. That the author should have entirely overlooked any inconveniences or difficulties which the occupants of the various individual ships might experience of effecting a landing is a comparatively small matter, but we frankly fail to see that any useful purpose could be served by such a book, unless the author hopes to inspire our own military authorities with an even keener desire to keep in touch with aerial development than they already possess. 4

Automotor was right that Martin's ideas about Zeppelin invasions (as opposed to Zeppelin raids) were absurd. But what is significant here is the suggestion that Germany, or at least Germans, might want to threaten Britain from the air. As far as I know, this is the first time that anyone in Britain, at least in the press, paid any attention to the possibility. 5 It all starts with Martin.

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  1. Based on the accounts of two biographies, one of Northcliffe and one of his aviation correspondent Harry Harper; but the details differ slightly, suggesting they are drawing on different sources.[]
  2. Standard, 17 May 1907, 7.[]
  3. Ibid., 7.[]
  4. Quoted in American Magazine of Aeronautics, July 1907, 22.[]
  5. H. G. Wells's The War in the Air did not begin appearing in Pall Mall Magazine, in serial form, until January 1908, but anyway doesn't dwell Britain's fate in the war.[]

4 thoughts on “Keine Insel mehr (No longer an island)

  1. Jakob Whitfield

    Interesting stuff! My (fairly close) translation of the first couple of paragraphs of that chapter is as follows:

    "England – no longer an island
    Of all the political consequences of airship travel by far the most important is the XX of the insular character of the British Isles. England grew great as an island. The discovery of the sea route to India and the discovery of the Americas raised the importance of maritime trade immensely. Because of its insular position and its many excellent harbours, England has since 1600 achieved the preeminent position of power in the world. Because of its maritime superiority, England has a dominating influence in Africa, Asia, Australia, and America. The British people have made masterful use of their island advantages and maritime superiority. No other nation can take the same credit for the advancement of culture across the whole world. The greatest triumph of the English nation is perhaps that it has impressed its language and customs on the mighty people of America.
    This great epoch of humanity has come to a close with the emergence of the airship, which nullifies England’s insular state and eliminates the maritime superiority of the British fleet. The invention of the compass and the replacement of oar-driven craft by large sailing ships destroyed the overland trade routes from India to Western Europe and subordinated India to England’s maritime dominion. The land route gave way to the sea route. The airborne motor means in its turn the victory of land power over maritime dominion."

    So leaning into the historical importance of the airship in a fairly big way...

  2. Jakob Whitfield

    Oops, I see I managed to copy/paste a draft translation there! The first sentence of that should be "Of all the political consequences of airship travel by far the most important is the *elimination* of the insular character of the British Isles."

  3. He comes across as pretty bellicose in the next bit - cheerfully speculating about bombing the RN out of the North Sea and landing 400,000 airborne troops in Kent - but on the next page he is confident that there will be no war and that British and German interests are not only compatible, but actually complementary.

  4. Post author

    Jakob:

    Thanks so much for that! Really interesting, and that last line gives it away: 'the victory of land power over maritime dominion'. Definitely no longer an island, more of a peninsula...

    Alex:

    That's a relief, I'm sure it will all end well then!

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