THE signal that a new fashion had arrived -- the fashion called geopolitics -- was given by the flashy journalism which suddenly raised the Professor-General Haushofer to the rôle of the "man behind Hitler." Since then new books rolling off the press almost weekly make this "new science of power politics" the "inside story" of National Socialism's secret desires and drives. The Professor's presumed power and prestige appeal no less to some American geopoliticians. What Haushofer is supposed to have done, Professor Renner thinks can be tried as well over here. Let the geopoliticians dictate the future peace; let amateurish statesmen step aside. Like any fashion, geopolitics will pass. Even so, it will leave its mark and therefore should be taken seriously. The term has come to stand for a danger zone of muddy thinking and shady ambitions. It is imperative to delineate the chief features of the new science and to give it a critical airing.

Geopolitics has three aspects, three distinct dimensions -- as a science, as a political weapon, and as a world outlook. First, it is a modern version of political geography, or anthropo-geography. As such, though neither new nor novel, it has accumulated a respectable body of scientific material. Second, it serves as a weapon of modern National Socialism, a rationalizing ideology of imperialist expansion. It is this side of geopolitics which has naturally aroused wide interest and many misunderstandings among the non-academicians. Finally, it is an all-embracing Weltanschauung which has filled the imagination and won the loyalty of a small yet significant group of ardent followers. This, the least discussed aspect of geopolitics, probably is the most crucial. Not only does it explain the appeal of this pseudo-science to so many young and susceptible minds, but it also brings out clearly its power and peril.

The difficulty of analyzing geopolitics lies not least in the fact that the three aspects are inextricably intermingled in the minds of friend and foe alike. With its enemies, this confusion often is simply the result of a lack of factual information or of clarity of thought. As far as its own representatives go, it may well represent a conscious realization that ambiguity can be a powerful weapon, screening political drives and ambitions behind terms of "inviolate and unfailing scientific findings." Science then becomes a "front" for politics.


As a study of "the dependence of political events on the character of the earth," following Haushofer's own definition, geopolitics is certainly not an invention of the general-geographer of Munich. It has a long and distinguished tradition; and much of what has recently been added by his Institut für Geopolitik to its scientific riches will probably not stand a critical review.

One does not have to go back (as one naturally can) to the Greeks, to Herodotus and Thucydides, in order to find an understanding of the fact that political geography is a key to human affairs. It was recognized as such by the first modern social scientists, philosophers and historians alike. Bodin and Montesquieu, Ranke and Ritter, gave elaborate proof of the great importance of climate and environment in the history of mankind. It would also be easy to present an impressive list of "forgotten men" who made special studies in a geopolitical vein more than a century ago. Baron Dietrich Heinrich von Bülow with his "Spirit of the New System of War," published in 1799, has recently received a new hearing, and there are many others.

Every new movement naturally reënforces itself with such testimonials, especially from respectable forerunners who carry weight in the intellectual history of their nation. Yet it is well to remember, if only for the scholarly assignment of priorities and influence, that the geographical approach to history and politics was already well-established long before the emergence of Geopolitik. One need only be reminded of H. T. Buckle, Hippolyte A. Taine, and Heinrich von Treitschke. Especially Treitschke, dynamic historian of the Bismarckian era, had all the makings, and the phraseology too, of the modern myth-makers of space and race. And there was Otto Hintze, master of Prussian history, who made continuingly valid statements concerning the relations of institutional structures and geographical environment. His analyses of the divergent political fate of the democratic island Britain, and of Prussia, the militant continental state surrounded by competing land Powers, have by now become accepted textbook knowledge. At the very same time, American historical science was no less deeply impressed by geographical influences, as the writings of Frederick Turner prove and as the analyses of Ratzel's faithful disciple, Ellen Churchill Semple, reaffirm.

In the meantime geography had acquired a new name for its human side, which had been constant in its interest, though not in its form, since Herodotus -- anthropo-geography. Geopolitics came into its own with Friedrich Ratzel, who developed the first great scientific and systematic analysis of the environmental basis of society, and later on with Rudolf Kjellen, who popularized Ratzel's findings and gave geopolitics an exciting nomenclature. This is not the place even to enumerate the achievements of this young science in half a century. A vast amount of factual data was collected dealing with topography and configuration, with strategic location and population pressures, with climate and natural resources, together with a well-developed technique of cartography. All this material supplied a working basis for the extensive investigations of geopolitics in the period after the last war. While the Haushofer school is enormously indebted to these earlier findings, even on this elementary level it contributed to a vitalization of the collected raw material. Many a conservative laughed at the antics of the young geopoliticians when they started drawing their visual maps with arrows pointing at the heart of the enemy's country and circles defining kernels of strength or disturbance. They employed much verbiage, raised a great hullabaloo and called in great showmanship and advertising; yet they certainly succeeded in awakening a wider interest in geographical thinking. Maps became purposeful weapons. Mountains and rivers were moved right out of the textbooks and made into real dynamic forces, threatening or promising. The Haushofer school made a whole generation think spatially. It is on this first level of geopolitics that much can be learnt by an American world which still has not outgrown its grammar school days of scanty geographical instruction. One of the many failings of American higher education is that its curriculum has not lived up to the needs of a world which in war and peace has taken on literally global dimensions.

Since the days of Ratzel and his "Seven Laws of Expansionism," geopolitics has built up a most impressive armory of rules and concepts. Many of them merely contain half-truths or commonplaces, though embedded in a glittering vocabulary which makes geopolitical books and journals awe-inspiring and hard reading for the uninitiated. But in the voluminous and often cryptic utterances are hidden some substantial realities, and these should not be dismissed simply because they have been applied unscrupulously to suit preconceived political ends.

Three fundamental considerations of geopolitical thought may be singled out. They are not original with Haushofer, the eclecticist, but are borrowed from his three outstanding sources: Ratzel, Kjellen, Mackinder. Ratzel's basic law of the spatial growth of states had clearly indicated that there was an increasing discrepancy between nationalism as the organizing principle of political order and the natural movement toward greater empires. Geopolitik seized, after Versailles, upon this idea of "space-conquering forces" and claimed to be the liberator from provincial nationalism and the spokesman of a rising though still inarticulate longing for a new and wider World Order. The myth of nationalism, strained by the bitter experiences of that period, was ripe to be superseded by a new ideology. Geopolitics entered the void. Its ambitious scheming was in harmony with the economic realities of a shrinking planet and the military considerations of mechanized warfare. It predicted the doom of small nations, especially the succession states created at Paris out of the former Hapsburg Empire. Geopoliticians labelled these bits of states "the witches' cauldron" of Europe. Ratzel redivivus made the whole trend towards the building of new empires look scientific and irresistible.

Geopolitics fed on the ineffectualness of the system of nationalism, and it also capitalized on the inner unrest of individual nations. Here again Haushofer could simply take up where his predecessors had left off. Kjellen's whole theory of "the state as a form of life" was an attempt at emancipation from the predominantly legal concept of the state, at filling "the legal skeleton with social flesh and blood." True, his new system of Realpolitik was only another scheme. Complex though it was, and impressive in its verbiage, it did not correspond to the reality of the body politic. Yet Haushofer learned from his pathfinder that a multiplicity of forces must be included in a coherent thought pattern if geopolitics was to be made the guiding star of a synthetic science. When the Institut für Geopolitik extended its interests into practically all fields of human activity, this was not merely the natural expansion of a young science but a sincere and necessary attempt at integration because, as Haushofer said, only "about one-quarter of the questions posed by human evolution can be explained from earth-determinant causes."

The third great influence on the pattern of geopolitical thought came from Sir Halford J. Mackinder and his doctrine of land power, which represented a corrective of Admiral Mahan's thesis of the predominance of sea power in history, so uncritically hailed as a dogma of universal validity both in the Anglo-Saxon world and in the Germany of William II.

Ten years before the First World War, Mackinder's classic lecture on "The Geographical Pivot of History" conceived world politics as basically a conflict between oceanic and continental powers. He did not reject the importance of sea power outright, but emphasized its changing prerequisites. To maintain its supremacy in the twentieth century, it needed broader land bases than in the nineteenth century. The development of railways, submarines and airpower dictated a new orientation. Each century has its own geographical perspective, he said coolly, and this carried a warning to Britain. "So impressive have been the results" of British sea-power that there has perhaps been a tendency to neglect the warnings of history and to regard sea-power in general as having, because of the unity of the ocean, the last word in the rivalry with land-power." This warning was reiterated at the time of the Versailles Peace Conference, but his "Democratic Ideals and Reality," recognized twenty years later as a prophetic book, warned in vain against the emergence of a land bloc that would find its center in the Heartland stretching from the Arctic to the Himalaya Mountains and from the Volga to the Yangtze River. The great world island of Europe-Asia-Africa would be invulnerable to sea power.

The Versailles system dictated by the great sea Powers neglected the potentialities of such compact land masses. Haushofer accepted and exploited the great Englishman's theory, yet abandoned its circumspection and neglected its underlying human elements. Haushofer offered the doctrine of land-power pure and simple. It was Mackinder in a strait jacket. Taken with Haushofer's belief in the doom of the British Empire, this doctrine seemed to give scientific promise for an early recovery of Germany, strategically situated as the key to the wide-open spaces of Eurasia. Mackinder had proclaimed: "Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland: Who rules the Heartland commands the World Island: Who rules the World-Island commands the World." Now the hour of German world dominance had come. Haushofer felt sure that he was its prophet -- Germany's Mahan, or better. Geopolitik was ready to dictate its "global scheme of political strategy" and to give orders for the march on the world.


Geopolitik's hour of birth was the period between the wars. "Geopolitik aims to furnish the armature for political action, and the principles for guidance in political life . . . ." Thus the official definition continues, stepping far beyond the sound basis of political geography. "Geopolitik must become the geographical conscience of the state." Description and analysis do not suffice: norms and blueprints for action are required.

It is on this second layer of geopolitics as a political weapon that Haushofer made his "contribution" and that his school of fanatic disciples won historical significance. "Military understanding passes from the victor to the defeated," Haushofer had confidently stated. Born of German defeat, the new science was meant to be no mere academic discipline but a workshop for tools of revenge. In Haushofer's forge all the raw materials of generations of great scholarship were melted together and bent towards one purpose: Germany's quest for world power. Thus we come one step closer to an understanding of the true character of geopolitics. It is not only political science clarifying the issues, specifying the techniques, and preparing the decisions; it is politics itself-- action and combat.

By no mere accident, the founder of the geopolitical school started his career not as a professional academician but on staff service for the army. In this capacity he had been sent on a military mission to Japan. His years in the Far East awakened in him a lasting sentiment for Japan and the greatest interest in the Indo-Pacific area. His observations and experiences there developed all the leitmotifs of his dynamic political theory, which in 1924 found full expression in his "Geopolitics of the Pacific Ocean."[i] Yet long before the First World War he had conceived the idea that "whoever could make an alliance with that part of the globe [the Indo-Pacific area] with its rich resources and superabundant population could rule the rest of the world." His conclusion that Germany should coöperate with the rising "giant of the monsoon lands" had not been shared, however, by the Imperial Government. William II had made himself the protagonist of the White Race against the "Yellow Peril." Then followed the war, in which Haushofer saw active service, leading his division in combat. After the German defeat he retired from military service. When in 1921 he was appointed to the Chair of Geography and Military Science at Munich he remained basically the general, only changing his assigned post from the field quarters to the study in preparation for a renewed and better-planned drive toward world conquest. He at once revived his prewar credo regarding an alliance with Japan.

Germany's desperate plight after the White Man's Great Civil War put sharper weapons in Haushofer's hands to argue for a German-Japanese alliance. In his opinion it had been a fatal mistake of the Allied Powers to dispossess Germany of her Far Eastern colonies. The Reich could turn defeat into a great victory by awakening to its geopolitical opportunities. Free from commitments and conflicts in the Far East, it now could and should return to that area as the champion of "the oppressed people of India and Japan." With the satisfaction of a fatalistic Spengler, he foretold the pending doom of the White Man in Asia, and linked to it Germany's opportunity to make a comeback in world politics. There was grandeur in the conception, and utter cynicism. When it became the basis of the Berlin-Tokyo Axis, the General won the greatest victory of the campaign he was conducting from his study.

What was true of Haushofer was no less true of his disciples. They were soldiers first and students only second, and even in their classrooms they were fighting the battles of the coming Reich. Indeed, many among them had been officers in the Imperial Army, and, still stunned by the unexpected defeat, were restlessly looking for a new hold on life and a new rôle in it. The electrifying effect of the soldier-teacher on his audience derived from the fact that he did not offer them a mere academic discipline but a promise and direction for their empty life. It was a natural climate for dynamic geopolitics. How different was this excited atmosphere from the one in which a Karl Ritter had said: "The still power which nature exerts demands a like peaceful soul to watch its workings."

Orientation in international affairs, Haushofer taught, should be directed not by political ideologies but only by the iron laws of the great spaces. A transcontinental bloc including Germany, Russia and Japan would represent a natural alliance that could not be defeated. And, in fact, long before Haushofer's star rose, the German Republic had accepted his maxim that a German-Russian understanding offered a way out from Versailles. Count Brockdorff-Rantzau had early proclaimed the idea, and Walter Rathenau had put it into practice in 1922 in his master stroke: the Treaty of Rapallo. The Reichswehr tried to keep friendly relations with the Red Army even after the rise of National Socialism.

When the geopolitical school was officially launched in 1924 -- the very year Germany overcame the inflation -- it signaled the rise of a new imperialism. Friedrich Naumann of Mittel-Europa fame and Paul Rohrbach's Berlin-Baghdad Railway scheme reappeared, reënforced by new slogans. First among them was the dubious formula of the "have" and "have-not" nations. Well-meaning American publicists like Frank Simonds were the godfathers of this glittering phrase, which became most welcome ammunition in the arsenal of the "young nations" fighting for a place in the sun and their share in the world's resources. To be a "have-not" nation gave your quest for the redistribution of worldly goods a moral blessing. Germany, according to Haushofer, was in such a case. Squeezed between colony-possessing Powers in the West and space-possessing Powers in the East, the Germans were "a people without space." But population pressure, which was declared to be a major incentive for an expansive foreign policy, could be made to order by the dictators, who simply started intensive drives to increase their people's birth rate. Thus was demographic imperialism justified.

Though victorious National Socialism was able to make good use of the well-forged weapons of geopolitics, it nevertheless is an erroneous simplification to make Haushofer the ghost-writer of "Mein Kampf" and the guiding hand of Nazi foreign policy. True, Hess had been a disciple of Haushofer and had brought Hitler and Haushofer together. Report even has it that at the time Hitler was a prisoner in the fortress of Landsberg the Professor visited him every Wednesday to teach him the fundamentals of geopolitics. For years, however, the policies of National Socialism were dictated by other forces. There was Rosenberg with his "ideological" crusade against Bolshevism and there was Hitler's own wishful thinking about an alliance with England -- both in stark contradiction to geopolitical teaching. In fact, up to September 1938, Hitler's only declared aim was the German Volksstaat, e.g., the inclusion in Greater Germany of all compact groups of German nationality within reach. At the height of the Sudeten crisis, Hitler had proudly proclaimed: "We want no Czechs."

The day after Munich, however, the whole concept of Nazi foreign policy was completely reversed. This was Haushofer's hour. Greater Germany having been practically achieved, new dynamic concepts were needed for further expansion; and the school of Geopolitik took the reins for the time being. Theirs was the timely formula of the "natural right of the capable peoples to living space as against that of the possessors of territory who were unable to develop it."

The advantage of this concept of living space (Lebensraum) consisted in the fact that it gave practically unlimited possibilities to an ambitious people. One had a right to as much living space as one could control; one's ambition was the only limit to further expansion. People who live happily in two rooms will soon feel crowded and will gladly move into a three-room apartment if they can afford it. Their drive toward more spacious living quarters will be limited only by their budget. But while such an ambition may be the principle underlying many human actions, it is not the organizing principle of human society. Actual need and social status are continuously adjusted to and limited by the social whole. The same principle must be and is prevalent in international affairs under normal conditions. The nations represent the political units in a world structure which must guarantee their mutual right to existence and equality. The concept of living space, however, not only carries in itself the seed of unlimited dynamics, but fails to recognize the neighbor's equal right to living space. The complete absence of any sense or feeling of reciprocity is a characteristic of National Socialist thinking.

Lebensraum was granted or denied to nations in the court of the geopolitical potentates. If the British Empire would play the game with the "renovating Powers," she might keep a sphere of interest of her own. If not, then the "declining empire" would have to abdicate, and the spoils would be redistributed among the rising World Powers. The final outcome was obvious: a world empire for one supreme Power dominating the entire globe. This dangerous trend was carried further in the substitution for Lebensraum of the even more flexible Befehlsraum -- the area in which Germany was "to give orders." Obviously, so long as another Befehlsraum exists, the New Order is endangered. In consequence, the concept of Befehlsraum not only is a glorification of the well-known idea that "might is right" but it also carries in itself an unlimited dynamism. From the concept of Greater Germany to that of Lebensraum, and thence to that of Befehlsraum, a direct way leads the modern dictatorship towards world control.

The marriage between National Socialism and Geopolitik reveals the nature of both. By its very definition, National Socialism is ready to make use of any elements of unrest that will feed the fire of permanent revolution, and then to abandon them after they have served their purpose. It may have done so by now with Haushofer. Geopolitik, for its part, proved by its acceptance of Nazi tutelage that it utterly lacked scruple, for various basic concepts of National Socialism -- the idea of the master race, for one -- contradicted well-established ideas of the geopolitical school. This shows that the geopoliticians are as unprincipled and cynical as the Nazi leaders. Here we reach the essential aspect of their school: Geopolitik as Weltanschauung.


Geopolitik is not only a pseudo-science and a political expedient; it is, above all, a pseudo-philosophy. In the first phase of its triple attack it embraces the world in its general concept of a dynamic political geography. It then turns to the nation with promises of power and prestige. It finally reaches man -- and fails him completely. It is in this third incarnation, as a world outlook, that it stands fully revealed and demonstrates its utter failure. Yet here it is part and parcel of a much deeper crisis. It is another signpost of man's fatal "retreat from reason."

Geopolitik's basic appeal is its simultaneous promise of stability and dynamic action. Man, having lost confidence in himself and in his ability to choose between good and evil, is ready to surrender his freedom for security; for in a world which seems to have lost all the basic values, his primary concern is to find again stable concepts, indisputable tenets, absolute standards.

This is exactly what the new theories of space and race claim to offer. Their attractiveness resides above all in their "scientific" absoluteness and their presumed concreteness. They merge the disturbing complexities of life into one single and seemingly objective factor. And with the return to the primitive mind, space becomes the most tangible and concrete manifestation of life. In the unending flood of continuous change, space is the invariable, independent of man and events. Rootless man seeks a new hold outside of himself. His loud call for action -- speedy, glamorous, continuous -- in the big world is a desperate move to make him forget the emptiness of his small inner life. The "powerful" dynamics of the modern world conqueror is only his escape from his despair of real values and of himself. He is at war with the world, because he is not at peace with himself. Yet man cannot escape his responsibility as man. Nor can a science of society and social order establish itself as a "natural science" without missing its challenge completely. In this most important respect Geopolitik fails.

Needless to say, the crucial study of the relation of man to earth does not need to exclude man altogether. There are geopoliticians (Albert Demangeon and other Frenchmen significantly in front) who have even emphasized the primacy of man in the interplay of human and geographic factors. Geopolitics is divided into as many schools as there are divergent geographical conditions, political constellations and cultural landscapes. German geopolitics is sui generis, reflecting many German traits: rigid systematization and passionate flight into the clouds, pedantry strangely mixed with romanticism. Though the Haushofer school has become influential far beyond its own boundaries, it is only one geopolitical school, the school of German Geopolitik.

By no mere accident, the great forerunners of German geopolitics started out as students of the natural sciences. This was true of Alexander von Humboldt as well as of Friedrich Ratzel, the young apothecary. Their approach to geography was that of a natural scientist. Kjellen, no doubt, sensed the weakness of the embryonic political science of his day. Yet it was this very preponderance of the natural scientist in him which petrified his endeavor to instill social reality into a stillborn concept of the state as a "social organism." Ratzel and Kjellen were children of the age of natural science. They became the prototype of a social science which, since it lacked confidence in its own way of thinking, simply translated the techniques and experiences of the older sciences into the new field. While their findings seemed to result in the creation of a very impressive scientific edifice, they never reached the center of the social sciences, which is man. In the "struggle for areas" corresponding to the "struggle for existence" in the biological evolution, man did not count and continuous war was inevitable.

Their world was mechanistic, and, translated into politics, the best they could do was the theory of the "balance of power." It is worth noting today that believers in the "balance of power" and the efficiency men of "managerial revolutions" all over the world easily surrender to the glittering concepts of Geopolitik without fully realizing how much they capitulate, at the same time, to its Weltanschauung.

It is true that "space" had been a neglected factor in the dynamics of politics. During the period of awakening social and economic forces, Marxian ideology had penetrated the minds of both its friends and foes. Geopolitics must be considered as reaction against Marxism or, better, as its counterpart, bourgeois Marxism. As such it was greeted by its followers; but its new and ardent adherents made the same mistakes as their opponents. Now instead of economics it was space that became the absolute and exclusive yardstick.

It should not be difficult to prove the basic fallacy of a political system which raises "space" to such an illustrious position. Geography can be the most permanent factor in the foreign policy of states, without being the most fundamental one. Technology changes, if not the face of the earth, most certainly the meaning of its never-ceasing influence on human affairs. Human ingenuity can blast out an Alaska highway and can tunnel the Swiss Alps, it can control rivers, and with modern airplanes it can penetrate even the "Heartland." In the final analysis, it is up to man to decide what he will do with nature and its barriers. It is not space that makes history or even defines frontiers. Such a warning is pertinent and necessary at a time when everyone carries his own blueprint of a postwar Utopia in his pocket. The drawing of a new world map will be a thorny undertaking, and those who undertake the task will have to respect historical traditions, national peculiarities and human values. A good order can evolve only gradually. Blueprints are dangerous. Especially deadly are those of the geopoliticians.

Nazi Germany's New Order teaches the world a bitter and needed lesson. Professor George T. Renner's "Maps for a New World" offers an American version of that New Order, a weaker edition to be sure, yet permeated with the same basic fallacies. One cannot dismember Switzerland, Belgium, Portugal and Hungary simply in order to set up nine large European blocs (and incidentally create a Greater Germany, a Greater Italy and a Greater Spain!). To do that may satisfy a technician's view of a well-balanced Europe, but it shows an utter disregard of Europe as a living body.

The self-appointed demiurges of the natural forces of the great spaces consider man and society mere marionettes. They have no respect for human dignity and freedom, for man's yearnings and sufferings. They see no limit to their wilful play but their power to enforce the "natural laws," whose sole interpreters they are. Geopolitical materialism is devoid of any moral evaluation and restraint; it is driven only by "political expediency;" it is an ideal weapon in the hands of those who are striving for unlimited power and dynamic nihilism, and in such hands only.

[i]Editor's Note. For an analysis of "Geopolitics of the Pacific Ocean" see "Haushofer and the Pacific," by Hans W. Weigert, FOREIGN AFFAIRS, July 1942.

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  • SIGMUND NEUMANN, Associate Professor of Government and Social Science, Wesleyan University; author of "Permanent Revolution"
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