February 25, 2021

Geopolitics: How Maps Help Us Understand History, Predict the Future – Pt. 2, by Brian Miller

(Continued from Part 1.  This concludes the article.)

Geopolitics, Social Darwinism, State Survival, and “Lebensraum”

These histories serve as a simplified starting point for understanding geopolitics, and the types of influences that are embedded in the concept. With state sovereignty came the dominant understanding that a state’s purpose was that of survival. Said differently, states were seen to always be in competition with different states.

In the late 19th century, Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection was being applied by scholars to the study of societies (Social Darwinism). German geographer, Friedrich Ratzel, applied Darwin’s natural selection theory to state sovereignty (particularly Germany), and together the concept became known as the “Organic Theory of the State.”

The foundation of Ratzel’s theory was that states interact with different states through the “survival of the fittest” perspective, and that a state must grow through territorial expansion in order to thrive.

The implementation of this theory had a particular consequence. Ratzel’s theory of state survival is said to have legitimized “continual war of all against all, as each country must seek the path of the least resistance to territorial expansion and must simultaneously defend its territory at all costs.”

The term “geopolitics” was coined by Swedish political scientist Rudolf Kjellen (a student of Ratzel’s) in 1899, and inspired an intellectual movement between German and Scandinavian scholars. This movement, supported by the “science” of geopolitics, resulted in a veneer of legitimacy that a state, and its nation, should be viewed as combined elements that together produce a stronger effect.

Ratzel envisioned the nation and state relationship as a “super-organism” whose strength was determined by the size of its territory, population, and the availability of natural resources. Ratzel further published The Sea as a Source of Greatness of a People in 1901, and identified ways in which the land and sea provide opportunity for expansion. This work introduced the concept “Lebensraum,” translated to mean “living space,” which argued that stronger states would naturally take territory and resources from weaker states.

Prior to World War I, Ratzel and Kjellen’s work contributed to the idea that Germany was the “land of geographers,” as German universities were among the first to teach geography. This renewed interest, supported by such geopolitical theories, positioned geography as the “god’s eye view” of how the world “really” worked.

The Nazi Connection: Geopolitk and Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”

The relationship between geopolitics and the rise of the Nazi party is accredited to political geographer Karl Haushofer. Prior to Haushofer’s career in “Geopolitik,” he was active German military who spent time in Japan studying their armed forces between 1908 and 1910. Haushofer’s interaction with both military officials and scholars during that time would later be accredited to the rise of geopolitical institutions in Japan during the 1920s and 1930s. His influence would also stretch as far as South America.

Following World War I, Haushofer retired as a major general in 1919, and took a professor position teaching geography at the University of Munich. Haushofer, like Ratzel before him, believed that German greatness was dependent upon Lebensraum:

“If the state was to prosper rather than just survive, the acquisition of ‘living space,’ particularly in the East, was vital and moreover achievable with the help of potential allies such as Italy and Japan.”

According to Haushofer, if Germany was to grow into a world power, and rebound from the losses of the WWI defeat, its leadership would need to be thoughtful of five essential elements:

  • Physical location
  • Resources
  • Territory
  • Morphology
  • Population

Haushofer’s own geopolitical theories promoted the concept of “pan regions,” which argued that Germany and other state powers, such as Japan, should develop distinct geopolitical strategies that focus on separate regions. To do so was to carve up the map and become neighbors in world domination rather than interfering within each state’s territory of interest. For Haushofer, his geopolitical focus was to the East and Africa.

Following the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923, Rudolf Hess (Hitler’s personal secretary, and one of five people who held key positions in the Nazi party), was arrested and imprisoned for participating in the failed coup against the Weimar Republic. Hess was a former student of Haushofer, and it was this relationship that would lead Haushofer to visit Hess in prison, thus becoming introduced to Hitler.

As we are familiar, Hitler authored Mein Kampf while in prison, and the work draws from the theory of Lebensraum (living space) to support Hitler’s vision of German destiny, territorial expansion and “the master race.”

Some common misconceptions around this history (especially in America) are that Haushofer was thought to be the intellectual powerhouse behind Hitler’s ambition of territorial expansion and genocide. It is true that Haushofer was highly influential with ambitions of territorial expansion, but it was Hitler who placed the far greater emphasis on the identity of people – i.e., the master race vs. the Jewish monster.

Haushofer was never a Nazi himself, and his son had been executed in 1945 for his role in a bomb plot to assassinate Hitler the year prior. With learning of his son’s role in the assassination attempt, Haushofer would commit suicide in 1946.

It is also a misconception that Hitler manifested the hatred of the Jewish people on his own. This claim is not to undermine Hitler’s role in the atrocities of WWII, but it is useful to explore the longer history of persecution and violence against Jewish people in this part of the world long before Hitler was born. In this way, it becomes more useful for understanding geopolitical concepts to recognize the ways in which Hitler “tapped” in to preexisting prejudices and manipulated identities as to justify territorial expansion and genocide.

The Decline of Geopolitics

There were several theoretical and scientific concepts that shaped the thoughts of world leaders leading up to and during WWII that are commonly associated with the Third Reich. Some examples include propaganda (Himmler), the systematic approach to genocide (Fordism), and eugenics to only name a few. However, none of these examples originated with the Nazis, and geopolitics is no exception.

Geopolitics did play an integral role in the rise of the Third Reich, but following the Allied victory of WWII, geopolitics was seen as an “intellectual poison.” With few exceptions after 1945, geopolitics was tainted with Nazism and lost credibility in the United States, Britain, Russia, Japan and other parts of Europe.

In relation to Haushofer’s early influence stretching to South America, Lebensraum and theories of the organic state were alive and well in South American military strategy post-WWII. Geopolitics later reemerged in the West during the 1970s, due to Henry Kissinger making sense of the Cold War.

The focus in this article is only a small snapshot of a particular geography and its history in relation to a single geopolitical theory. Other influential theories around this period include U.S. Admiral Thomas Mahan’s classic on sea power, and Halford Mackinder’s “The Heartland Theory.

Mahan’s theory on sea power suggested that the Navy was the most important factor in projecting state power (Japan found this useful), and Mackinder believed that world power was not obtainable through the sea, but through the control of the Eurasian landmass with the anticipation of a rising Russian power.

There are also many other political geographies that justify the use of violence that include imperialism, both British and Spanish colonialism, and even earlier empires. Our focus here is only one of many examples. However, there are some important geographic concepts which can be taken away from this.

The Hidden Power of Maps: What’s Included (and What’s Not)

Maps are an important aspect of geography, and they all have hidden forms of power. As can be found in the earlier discussion of “imagined geographies,” it’s important to be aware that all maps (the same goes for all media today) have a creator that – either knowingly or unknowingly – projects what they value and find important onto their creation.

As such, it is always useful to be aware of what types of places, history or knowledge is not on a particular map. While we know that what is on a map is certainly useful, what is not on a map can be much more important if we are interested in charting a course to better understand the power of geopolitics.

Environmental Determinism: From Ancient Greece to Rural Appalachia

A common theme embedded in these early geopolitical theories is traced back to the Greeks, who speculated that human behavior is shaped directly by climate and geographic location. This type of thought is known as environmental determinism. Scholars who take a deterministic view suggest that intellectual advancement in Greece was a result of the mountainous landscape that inspired “loftier thoughts.” The same concept has been applied in America because our wide open plains inspire people to “think big.”

If only human behavior was this simple. The problem with the environmental deterministic view is that it suffers from a lack of attention to types of government structure, laws, history, social dynamics, coercion, violence, and types of technology that also shape human behavior. While the environment does play a part, it is only a small part of a much larger process of how human behavior is shaped. Not to mention that today, the environment is no longer understood as “nature” or the “natural” world, but also includes human-built environments (urban spaces). When clearly defined, environmental determinism is too simple of an explanation to be useful.

As an example, the American southern accent (think the TV show “Hee Haw”) can often be associated with the thought that rural people are unintelligent. However, as can be found in the work of John Gaventa, this common stereotype has its origins in a corporation violently exploiting people in the Appalachian Valley and framing their culture as too simple-minded to understand capitalism. This example is interesting in several ways because Appalachia is mountainous, but the “loftier thoughts” that attempt to explain how the Greeks were intellectually advanced is absent in this context.

Perhaps a more recent example of environmental determinism can be found in this news article that attempts to describe “white nationalism” as a characteristic of all firearm owners. According to this narrative, people who own firearms are white, violent, and are said to be on a level similar to Islamist extremists. As we know, there are many different cultures and races that understand the importance of firearm ownership.

However, this current narrative is geopolitical at its core, and has elements of every concept contained within this article. We have imagined geographies (includes both shared and forgotten histories), a strong emphasis of identity (us vs. them), a stripped-down version of Lebensraum (tying up the nation and the state for ideological expansion, rather than geographical), and the environmental deterministic view that attempts to simplify and single out a particular race.

It should also be noted that environmental determinism is commonly discussed in ways that focus on how non-white races are repressed. Many of those discussions are absolutely valid and true. Nevertheless, our focus here is not to marginalize those repressions, but rather highlight how such deterministic views do not discriminate in their political use. Environmental determinism has impacted all races and cultures in one way or another.

Applying Geography

At the outset, we posed the question: Why do so many people not know what geography is all about? The answer to that question is perhaps because geography has such a long and violent history in the project of state creation and civilization.

Thus understanding the value of geography helps us see the state’s imperatives – taxation, conscription, and the prevention of rebellion – for what they are. It also helps each of us better orient our relationship to the state: What information we divulge to it, whether that be for a gun background check or an income tax return. What state policies (up to and including war) we support. And why politicians say one thing and regularly do another.

Geography also provides an opportunity to place seemingly random histories under a microscope – to question and better understand why certain patterns and processes shape how we understand the world, and our place in it.

While some believe that geopolitics declined following WWII, later re-emerged and declined yet again with the Cold War, geopolitics is very much alive and well today. The maps of the world are still being carved up, and states are still in competition with one another either overtly or in more subtle ways.

For American foreign policy in particular, this is evidenced where the U.S. military maintains foreign bases, to whom the military-industrial complex is permitted to sell American-made weapons, why Washington orders drone strikes in certain places and not others, among many others.

Geography can certainly provide a clearer understanding of potential futures, because states have been playing by the same basic rules since the rise of state sovereignty in 1648. The better we can understand these geographic histories and the maps that define them, the better equipped we become at making sense of seemingly random occurrences throughout the world.

Editor’s Concluding Note: This guest article was first posted by Ammo.com. It is re-posted with permission. It appealed to me because–like the author–I adhere to the Geographic Detriminist school of history. – JWR

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