The return of geopolitics? (Anthony Favro)

The return of geopolitics?

By Anthony Favro

David T. Murphy, The Heroic Earth.’ Geopolitical Thought In Weimar Germany, 1918-1933 (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1997) 338 + xv pp.

Geocentrism and late-modernity are closely related. Geographical thought connects in often overlooked ways with other contemporary ideas that play important roles in politics, economics and society. Thus the exploitation of geographical ideas to serve political purposes has been a fixture of international relations from manifest destiny to National Socialism, the Cold War to globalization. David T. Murphy compellingly captures the historical moment (Weimar Germany) in which natural law and territoriality were first dealt with as geopolitics, becoming a significant tool for understanding modern social and political life. Geopolitics made it possible to sidestep the divisive specifics of political organization and promote a vision of the nation-state as an interactive unity of culture, race and geography.

18th and 19th century scholars viewed geography as the interplay of society and habitat — that compound of climate, land, natural resources, and location which makes up the natural environment. Yet the earth’s conditions interposed themselves passively: geography played an involuntary role. Politics and economics were considered the main determinants of the world order. Shortly before the outbreak of WWI, Rudolf Kjellen put geography at the service of state policy with his vision of geopolitics. Geography, Kjellen hypothesized in Die GroBmachte der Gegenwart, could be utilized to further the objectives of statecraft. After the war, German interest in geopolitics flourished. The bitter disappointment of defeat, the onerous reparations demanded by Versailles, the loss of territory, a series of economic and social crises, and a perceived lack of strong leadership intensified the appeal of geopolitics for thinkers from many political disciplines. Among the Weimar Volk, the earth took the role of hero in political, economic and social discussions, decisively shaping national histories, the characteristic qualities of ethnic groups and even individual personalities. As Murphy writes, “The notion that geographic space, the earth’s topography, was an active force that Germans had ignored at their peril, supplied seemingly plausible explanations for the disaster that had befallen Germany, and it suggested there were ways to reverse the verdict of the war” (125).

Weimar geopolitics was foreshadowed during the later 19th century. The work of Friedrich Ratzel, a zoologist turned geographer, articulated the conviction that parts of the earth (including political areas) could be properly regarded as organisms. By analogy, organisms were assumed to obey the laws of growth (and death). Ratzel’s personal prestige threw the respectable mantle of scientific scholarship over a political dogma which had sprung up in many parts of the world, expressed in such modernist terms as living space (Lebensraum), natural boundaries, and manifest destiny. Both Ratzel and Kjellen emphasized the nation-state as the ideal primary edifice of the social order. By implication, the nation-state was the geopolitical organism par excellence.

For Weimar intellectuals, united by a desire to subvert Versailles, a focus on space promised guidance to the unstable state organism for life and growth. WWI and the subsequent crisis of German modernity — the economic uncertainty, widespread political violence, repudiation of traditional ideas of social order — proved the obsolescence of exclusively political, economic, and, of course, military solutions. Geography, on the other hand, could reveal the forces propelling social change because, as Otto Maull put it in 1928, “the organism’s struggle for existence is always a struggle for space” (29). Consequently, popular debate in the Weimar Republic centered on spatial destiny (Raumschicksal) in all its variations. Thus, in response to Weimar anguish immediately following the War over the loss of territories with ethnic Germans, the Right coalesced around the maintenance of Lebensraum; the Left, Arbeitsraum. For a state making capital of geography, attainment of the popularly-held Nietzschean ideal of”will to greatness” in terms of nationality or customs would necessarily bring in territory of considerable value. To justify expansion beyond the frontiers of common ethnicity, an alternative geographic doctrine had to be invoked. Instead of cultural affinity, Weimar geopolitical thought increasingly stressed the state’s material elements — climate, land forms, natural resources, frontier zones and location. In short, it set up a politically ideal geographical environment as the avowed territorial goal. Because the state was assumed to be an organism, it was argued that it must be allowed to grow to its destined “natural boundaries.” These were defined in such a way as to incorporate all the adjacent natural resources and to provide the sinews of warfare adequate for military security and dominance, as the excellent series of maps accompanying Murphy’s text illustrate. Such an ideal must inevitably involve the annexation of territory belonging to other nationalities. No matter, the natural law of growth in the political “organism” was paramount and must be obeyed. A program for wars of conquest was therefore the only logical or practical outcome of Weimar geopolitics. Such a program was drawn up in detail, with terrifying racist naivete, by Ewald Banse in Raum und Volk in Weltkriege (1932).

Murphy is at his best when he describes the many ways a geopolitical perspective penetrated the heterogeneous, pluralistic, and often contradictory modernist elements of Weimar society. German education, technology, folkish beliefs, expressionist art — all aspects of popular Weimar culture — were infused with geopolitical interpretations. Thus new concepts in constitutional law, such as Carl Schmitt’s Grossraum, were understood awithin the context of “geojurisprudence,” to use the words of Manfred Langhans-Ratzeburg, who praised their “earth dependence.” Because law had been removed for so long from its moorings in soil and ethnicity, he wrote in 1928, “the very sense for the mutual interconnection of constitutional law and geography has until very recently remained largely undeveloped” (114).(n1) As Murphy convincingly demonstrates, geopolitics was most vital in Germany during the Weimar years. It created in the public imagination a new vision of Germany’s place in Europe and the world. It lost its vitality in the Nazi era, becoming merely a rhetorical prop for Hitler’s war machine. Weimar intellectuals, in other words, viewed the world according to a consciously elaborated geographical program. While nature always played a part in the causing and waging of war, there was no precedent before Weimar Germany for the use of geography as a conscious incentive to fight.

Murphy concludes with the question: “Is geopolitics any more useful today?” (291). By meticulously exposing an ideological misuse of geopolitics in the past, Murphy now calls for a reconsideration of its concrete nature and relevance today. Whatever ideological agendas geopolitics served in the past, they should not be mistaken for the field itself. As Wittfogel’s Marxist writings illustrate, geopolitics was not, and is not, an essentially right-wing or even proto-Nazi perspective.(n2) With the decline of the nation-state, the return of geopolitics is a welcome development and Murphy’s work helps clarify many misunderstandindgs which still surround it.

(n1.) As Murphy makes clear, “Schmitt differentiated his use of the term [GroBraum] from geopolitics, arguing that it emphasized the dominant political idea of a region” (29). Geopolitics, according to Schmitt, largely avoided the political and therefore lacked a rigorous theoretical basis. See Joseph Bendersky, Carl Schmitt, Theorist for the Reich (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), pp. 250-63.

(n2.) See Karl Wittfogel, “Geopolitics, Geographical Materialism and Marxism,” in Antipode, Vol. 17, No. 1 (1985), pp. 21-72. This is a special issue devoted entirely to “The Geographical Ideas of Karl Wittfogel.” The Wittfogel article is a translation of “Geopolitik, Geographischer Materialismus und Marxismus,” originally published in 1929 in Unter dem banner des Marxismus, Vol. 3, Nos. 1, 4 and 5. See also Witffogel’s “Die naturlichen Untersachen der Wirtshafigeschichte,” published in 1931 in Archiv fur Sozialwissenschafi und Sozialpolitik, Vol. 67, Nos. 4-5.

[Telos; Spring98 Issue 111, p180, 3p]


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