Titans of GeoPolitics: Friedrich Ratzel
As great thinkers go, the reputation that Herr Ratzel enjoys within the discipline of Political Geography (and perhaps even more so in the sub-field of GeoPolitics) is rather unfortunate. He is often considered by modern critics as a somewhat benighted product of his age – a kind of geographical equivalent for the associated sociological and philosophical period of “Social Darwinist” thinkers. At worst, he gets lumped in with the repellent ideologues of the NAZI era, even though he had been dead for 30 years before the rise of Hitler and his ilk, and despite the fact that in his many and varied writings, Ratzel clearly rejects many of the notions that the Übermensch vomit forth in the name of racial purity. However, it is without a doubt that much of the expansionist geographical theory employed by the NAZIs was derived from Ratzel’s work and his notion of the “Organic State” – and in particular his use of the concept of Lebensraum – a relational ideal that posits the habitat of the state as being linked to the health of the dominant culture that inhabits it, hence the need for a healthy state to expand.
Ratzel’s work was adapted (and I use the term loosely here) by other GeoPolitical theorists (most notably Kjellén and Haushofer), which accounts for much of the negative connotations associated with his name, but as with many of the other Titans of Geopolitics, remarkably few people ever seem to actually read his works themselves. A part of this failure is due to the fact that, as a whole, the discipline is spectacularly Anglo-centric, and if the great thinkers of the day are so inconsiderate as to not translate their works into the “lingua Franca,” well then oblivion awaits. However, despite Ratzel having the audacity to write in the language of his birth, with a little diligent work the enthusiastic student can still sample a little here and there – mainly through the good graces of another seminal geographer of the age, Ellen Church Semple.
Ms. Semple is, in my humble opinion, a Titan of GeoPolitics in her own right, not solely for her contributions to the history of geography in general, but also for her amazing perseverance as a woman engaged in an exclusively male (and decidedly misogynistic) era of the discipline as a whole. For those engaged readers with an interest, I heartily recommend this brief article on the woman and her impact. For the moment, suffice it to say that Ms, Semple was one of the leading disciples of Herr Ratzel, and provided a number of translations of his work for publication in the Anglophone world. The one selected for today is entitled “Studies in Political Areas (II) and lays out many of the fundamental aspects of Ratzel’s understanding of the relationship between territory, culture, and GeoPolitical imaginaries.
As you listen to this piece, it is worth reflecting on the idea that – bad reputation or otherwise – Ratzel stands out as one of the chief architects of what we now call Political Geography. His focus on the idea of the state as the central – indeed pinnacle – achievement of human civilization is not as far removed from the political rhetoric that we suffer through today as we would like to think. Many an applauded “thinker” in the modern context owes a debt of gratitude (unconsciously or otherwise) to Ratzel’s work, and the ways in which he sought to combine geography and the state into a cohesive theoretical framework – Robert Kaplan, I’m looking at you, sunshine!
However, as is often the case, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Therefore, I recommend that you sit back, pour yourself a glass of Schnapps, light up a fine zigarre, and enjoy!