A Historical View of Geopolitics – Karl Korsch


Living Marxism: International Council Correspondence, Vol. VI (1941-1943), No 3 (Spring 1943).

Ever since the summer of 1941 when the “Thousand Scientists Behind Hitler” were first introduced to the American public by The Reader’s Digest, the new science allegedly invented by Major General Prof. Dr. Karl Haushofer in Munich has been the subject of mixed emotions for the good people of America. Like most other things associated with Nazism it was admired and hated, imitated and rejected all in one breath. Even those few military specialists for whom Geopolitics had no novelty and no mistery, because they had known and practiced it themselves for a long time, felt obliged to repeat certain standard phrases which became imperative for all writing on Geopolitik after Pearl Harbor. Thus we find such a long-time admirer of Haushofer’s theories as Colonel Beukema referring to German Geopolitik at one time as an undoubtedly scientific work “which must not be confused with propaganda” (Fortune, Jan. ’42), at another time as “a curious medley of unscientific jargon, irrefutable facts, and plain hokum”. (Introduction to Dorpalen, p. XVI).

The Status of Geopolitik in the U.S.

Until recently the discussion of the theories of Geopolitik has been based on a deplorable ignorance of their real contents. With the exception of part of the work of Ratzel, none of the great source books of geopolitics has been translated, not even the works of Haushofer nor those of his forerunner who founded and named the new science during the first World War: the Swedish scholar Rudolf Kjellén.

On the other hand, almost all contributions to the subject in any language have been carefully translated and exploited by German scholars. They were the only ones to take an interest in even the comparatively unsuccessful efforts in this direction made by Brooks Adams in the U.S. They studied the magnificent work of the British geographer Sir MacKinder, which has been completely overlooked for more than twenty years by the English-speaking people.

The new and daring concepts advanced in the post-war period by Haushofer and his school were eagerly discussed from every conceivable point of view, including the various shades of the Marxist creed. The disciple of Kautsky, G. E. Graf, bewailed the fact that the primary importance of such nature-given factors as climate, population and the gegraphical formation of the earth had been neglected by Marx and all his followers, with the possible exception of Engels; he attempted to make up for this deficiency by a “synthesis” of geography and political economy – Ratzel and Marx. On the other hand, the distinguished Sinologist K. A. Wittfogel subjected the whole complex of “Geopolitics, Geographical Materialism, and Marxism” to a critical analysis that appeared both in the German and the Russian editions of the periodical Unter dem Banner des Marxismus. The school of Haushofer, while reprinting the greater part of Wittfogel’s article in its own periodical, took the edge off his theoretical attack by a shrewd reference to the wholesale acceptance of the geopolitical principles by the practical statesmen of Soviet Russia (Zeitschrift fuer Geopolitik, vol. IX, p. 587).

The lack of a documentary basis for the discussion of geopolitics in the U.S. has been amended to a certain extent, but not wholly removed, by the four books listed above. Of these, the first, by Andreas Dorpalen, can be described as a good textbook for the classroom as well as for the general reading public. It is well informed, lucidly written, and does not go beyond the task of presenting the ideas and theories of Geopolitik in the form in which they have been presented by the German geopoliticians themselves. Of particular interest, and a welcome substitute for the original works not available in this country, are the carefully selected excerpts from the writings of Haushofer, Ratzel, MacKinder, Kjellén, Obst, Lautensach, Maull, Seiffert, Billeb, Siewert, Schmoelders, Vogel, Kraemer and Schenke, which take up 144 of the 337 pages of Dorpalen’s book.

Derwent Whittlesey sets himself the more comprehensive task of presenting Geopolitik as a current in the main stream of German thought and, at the same time, part of a gigantic, carefully designed scheme of world conquest. Yet the extension of the theme does not add to the value of the book. It does not lead to, but rather distracts from, the peculiar features which distinguish present-day geopolitics from earlier types of imperialist aggression. The author is at his best when he illustrates the general theory by a well documented analysis of certain arcana of the geopolitical theory and propaganda which have not been sufficiently explored by Dorpalen and other writers on the subject. Most interesting in this respect are the twenty-eight characteristic geopolitical maps attached to Chapter VII, and the author’s critical discussion of the ten basic and the more than a hundred other symbols commonly used by their makers. There is, in the same chapter, an elaborate analysis of some dozens of catch-words and phrases seized upon and reiterated int he writings of the geopoliticians.

Of a different nature is the contribution of Hans W. Weigert. The publisher’s blurb describes the author as “one of the German liberals who, unable to compromise with the forces of Hitlerism, left Germany in 1938.” Five years’ experience in Nazi Germany has left an all too visible trace in the author’s mind. Even today, he is deeply enthralled by the “genius” of Haushofer, that “political seer of the twentieth century” (pp. 12, 112). In spite of the author’s vehement repudiation of the revolutionary features of Geopolitik as a particularly Teutonic creed, the violently subjective theories adavanced in the book are still imbued with the same outlandish Weltanschaung. In all this he reminds one strongly of the similarly ambivalent attitude of Rauschning who attacked not the whole theory and practice of totalitarianism, but only its particular aspect as “the revolution of nihilism”.

An original contribution to the theory of geopolitics, or geography applied to politics, is contained in the timely reissue of MacKinder’s masterwork of 1919. The brilliant theories and original discoveries embodied in this book and in even earlier paper, dating back to 1904, have led many enthusiastic reviewers to describe this great work as the only true and undistorted expression of the essential contents of present-day geopolitics. The work has also impressed them by its superior formal qualities, its scientific detachment, wealth of ideas, and the inescapable logic of its conclusions. One of its admirers (E. M. Earle), though aware that the book was written in 1919 with special reference to the then impending settlement with Germany, ascribes to it “the rare quality of timelessness”.

This universal praise of MacKinder’s book at the present moment is not wholly due to its undoubtedly great scientific discoveries. For the present-day American experts it has the additional merit that it provides them with an opportune escape from open agreement with a Teutonic creed which has become somewhat disreputable since Pearl Harbor. The belated discovery of MacKinder’s theories presents a convenient disguise for what is in fact an outright acceptance of the main tenets of the German geopoliticians. There is, as far as the present writer can see, not a single writer on Geopolitik in this country today who does not exploit this welcome opportunity. Even the most Teutonic among the recent explorers of Geopolitik, H. W. Weigert, prefers to describe himself as a disciple of MacKinder rather than of Haushofer (p. IX) or, in a more daring mood, as “the disciple of MacKinder and Haushofer” (p. 258).

The Historical Approach

What is at stake in the present-day discussion is not the theoretical validity of Geopolitik as a “timeless” science. Emphatic denial of its validity is today just as much of a propagandistic device as the equally emphatic claim against which it is directed. For the detached observer – if such a thing can be found in the present world struggle when all previously cherished ideas of a non-partisan science have been shelved “for the duration” – the whole clamor betrays, if anything, a lack of confidence in the unreinforced strength of the arguments put forth by either side. If Haushofer’s theories have a particularly German bias, those of MacKinder seem to have a particularly British flavor. Both agree in classifying the Americas, together with Australia, as merely secondary zones of the total area of the world-historical development. This emphasis on the “insular” and “satellite” character of the three so-called new continents, as compared with the old Eurasian-and-Eurafrican continent, is even stronger in the British writer than it is in Haushofer who at times seems to be more interested in the big area of the Pacific and its enjoining land regions than in the more restricted German-European zones. Nor is there any greater freedom from a particular national outlook in the theoretical schemes of the American geopoliticians. What Beukema candidly admits of his own recent scheme applies to them all: they are “obviously postulated on a decisive victory for the United Nations” (Fortune, Jan. ’43).

The historical approach has the further advantage that it leads away from such generalities as the concepts of a “global”, a “closed”, or a “shrinking” world. The global form of the earth has been generally accepted at least since Copernicus and Columbus. The “closed world” has a widely recognized phenomenon in the last decades of the nineteenth century; it played an important part in the discussion of the nature and causes of the modern “imperialistic” form of capitalist politics both before and after the first World War. Finally, every new form of communication (railways, electrical current, motorcars, radio) was invariably hailed as a decisive step towards a “shrinking” as well as a global, a closed and closely interrelated world. These theories had so little to do with present-day geopolitics that on the contrary the whole development was in most cases presented as a tendency towards an ever greater independence from the geographical properties of the various regions of the earth. The same Utopian ideia recurs in the present-day sentiment about the alleged importance, both for global war and global peace, of the recent developments in the use of airpower. Impressive examples of this kind of generalities and half-truth are found in the beatiful airmaps and grandiloquent advertisements apread all over the country by American Airlines, Inc.

The real truth which is only dimly perceived by the prophets of the new “air-age geopolitics” is that all those earlier concepts have assumed a new and enhanced significance within the modern theory and practice of geopolitics. At the same time they have been integrated with a number of other ideas and realities which are today represented by the forces of totalitarianism, Fascism and Nazism as well by those opposite tendencies which describe themselves as anti-Nazism, anti-Fascism and anti-totalitarianism.

The ideia that Geopolitik in its present form is a particular phase of a great world-historical process has been presented, first of all, by Haushofer himself. He has always carefully distinguished between the evolutionary strategies based on sea-power, which are followed by the old empires, and the revolutionary strategies of the newcomers who tried to establish unchallenged control over a wide continental area and to build on this enlarged basis a great combined force of land, sea and air-power. A striking example is the discussion of the various evolutionary and revolutionary schemes advanced by the representatives of the Pan-European, the Pan-Asiatic, the Pan-Pacific, and other Pan-movements, contained in Haushofer’s Geopolitik der Pan-ideen of 1931.

The same ideia seems to underlie the somewhat crude theory by which certain American writers have explained Geopolitik as a mere dogmatic rationalization of an “axe to grind” and of the consequent “emotional efforts”. The connection of this psychological explanation with a more objective historical insight appears in Whittlesey’s phrase that “Geopolitics was sired by war and born by revolution” (p. 113). It appears again in the concluding chapter of his book where the author hints at the possibility that after all there may be some more important cause for the present upheaval than Germany’s “ingrained habit of aggression”, namely, “an economic system disintegrating under blows dealt it by a changing technology”. He also speaks of a cure for the present unrest, more efficient than a mere psychological re-education, which might be found in “a suitable political framework for the technological age” (pp. 261, 268).

The nearest approach to a genuine historical interpretation is made by Weigert who describes Geopolitik as the philosophy of “that deadly fight for world domination, that represents the world-revolution of our age” (p. 252). Yet the historical view of the author is obstructed by the fact that he does not break through those particular ideological barriers within which the German geopoliticians have moved from the very outset. He may exert himself in a frantic attempt to turn Haushofer’s theories against Haushofer himself. He may strive to offer to the Americans a new “Heartland” and a new “World Island” based on the recently discovered potentialities which, according to Vilhjalmar Stefansson (Fortune, July, ’42), are inherent in the great new continent formed by the regions surrounding that new Mediterranean – the Arctic Ocean. But all this amounts in the end to nothing more than an imitation of the scheme which has been worked out on a comparatively more realistic basis by Haushofer and his disciples in Nazi Germany. In striking contrast to the realism of the original model, the new version of a geopolitical program starts from an altogether ideological assumption. The decisive importance of the new World Island (the land-masses of North America, Asiatic Russia, and China) is said to lie not in the “tangibles of power assembled in the inland regions” but in the “intangibles” which will “mold the future of man” and which are alleged to be “nowhere more at work than in the continental land-masses” (p. 255).

There is a twofold fallacy underlying the objections raised by Weigert and other critics against the “materialist philosophy” which is supposed to be inherent in the new science of the German geopoliticians. First, one should not turn up his nose at a materialist approach in a field in which, since time immemorial, all true experts have been imbued with more than a moderate dose of materialism. Second, the geographical materialism of Haushofer is not a “materialistic” creed in the sense in which the term is used by the critics. It is not a passive, deterministic and fatalistic belief in the irrelevancy of the organized will of man. In spite of the tremendous difference which – as will be shown later – exists between the two conceptions, the new materialism of the geopoliticians is just as critical, activistic and, in the traditional sense, idealistic as was, in an earlier period, the so-called historical materialism of Marx. The hotly contested distinction between political geography and geopolitics is of exactly the same order as that which in the nineteenth century existed between the political economy of Quesnay, Smith and Ricardo, and the critique of political economy of Marx.

Just as Marxism aimed at a conscious control of the economic life of society, so Haushoferism today can be described as an attempt at the political control of space. This character of the new materialism appears most clearly in the following formulation which we select from the one hundred and more “definitions” of Geopolitik discussed in the current literature. According to O. Schaefer, as quoted by Whittlesey, p. 80:

“Political geography is directed toward the past, geopolitics toward the present. Political geography shows how space influences the state, imposes its laws upon the state and so to speark overwhelms it. Geopolitics considers how the state overcomes the conditions and laws of space and makes them serve its purposes. The former places more emphasis upon the simples presentation of the qualities of space. The latter is interested in space requirements, with the outspoken aim of finding norms for the behavior of the state in ever increasing space. To sum up, political geography views the state from the standpoint of space; geopolitics view space from the standpoint of the state.”

From MacKinder to Haushofer

We shall not embark here upon a detailed analysis of that gigantic and not yet concluded historical process by which in our time the old form of imperialism, based on sea-power, is transformed into a new imperialism no longer primarily based on sea-power but on control of the big continental areas of the world. Nor shall we try to describe the forms in which sea-trade and sea-power had a decisive share in the genesis of the whole economic, political and ideological structure of that older type of bourgeois society which prevailed to the end of the nineteenth century, nor to show why the domination of large and contiguous (“continental”) areas has become of the basic foundation of the new monopolist and imperialist structure of capitalist society. Instead, we take our departure from the often observed capitalist society. Instead, we take our departure from the often observed contrast between the form in which Geopolitik was presented by Haushofer roughly from 1920 to 1940 and the form in which it had been presented by MacKinder during the preceding two decades, that is, in the period overshadowed by the first World War. We shall try to discover the historical basis for the daring antecipations of future development found in MacKinder’s work of 1919 and which appeared, even more miraculously, in his earlier paper, The Geographical Pivot of History, read before the Royal Geographical Society in London in 1904 and now reprinted by Dorpalen, pp. 185-201.

How did it happen that at this particular time, after many centuries of comparative self-assurance, a British scholar, equipped with an all-comprehensive geographical knowledge and endowed with a particular historical sensitivity, became aware of the tremendous contradictions between the survival of his own British empire and the new potentialities inherent in the material formation of the inhabited earth? Like Ricardo in the early 19th Century, this political geographer of the early 20th Century no longer shared the naive faith of his contemporaries in a preestablished harmony of the then-existing economic and political structure of the world. Like Ricardo again, he lived at a time when the secret tremors under the surface of the then-existing world system had just come to the open in the outbreak of a world-wide economic crisis in the one case and of a world war in the other. Yet in each instance, that first menace had been safely overcome and the threat of a new and greater danger was a yet but dimly perceivable in the distant horizon. This explains the almost super-wordly quality of serene detachment for which both these writers were admired by the best among their contemporaries and by subsequent generations. “Mr. Ricardo”, said Lord Brougham, “seemed to have dropped from another planet”. The same strange feeling fills those who today, after reading MacKinder’s book, reflect on the immature historical conditions in which those daring discoveries were made, and on the tremendous isolation of the man who made them.

The whole situation had changed in the new period in which Haushofer turned MacKinder’s theories against MacKinder’s world. In the meantime the entire traditional system of society had been shaken in its foundation by the first waves of a world-wide social and political revolution and the conquest of state power by the representatives of a formerly suppressed class. The impact of this experience was not weakened by the fact that the revolution was arrested and frustrated. The manifold broken and distorted forms in which the revolutionary forces reemerge after a short respite finally destroyed the faith of the rulling class, and of all classes, in the security of the existing economic, political and ideological structure of society. The defeated revolution returned in the more terrifying and brutalizing forms of a totally disenchanted, cynical and ruthless counterrevolution.

From this historical source derives the glaring contrast between the scientific detachment of the geopolitical writings of MacKinder and the impassioned and strangely perverted yet terribly efficient theories of Haushofer and his disciples. Geopolitik represents the expression as well as the weapon of a desperate attempt to solve the revolutionary problems of our times in a different way – through the cataclysm of a world-wide counter-revolution.

A furthed difference between MacKinder and Haushofer arises from the fact that MacKinder’s thought, in spite of a critical awareness of the impending changes, still corresponded to a structure of society based on trade and on the production of commodities. As such it was still bound to the characteristic fiction of competitive capitalism by which each producer in seeking his private gain is assumed to serve, at the same time, a more general end. What is good for one member of the bourgeois “community” should be good for all. This principle was supposed to apply to scientific theories and political programs as well as to the production and exchange of material goods. Even the imperialist conquest and exploitation of colonial territories and zones of interest was deemed to promote, in the last instance, the progress of the exploited peoples as well as of the exploiters. Thus in the eyes of MacKinder, and in those of his belated eulogists today, there is no contradiction but rather a profound harmony between the fact that his theory served the ends of the British Empire and the assumption that it served the true interests of the whole earth. In contrast, the repetition of MacKinder’s theories by Haushofer at the present time serves nothing but and insatiable lust for aggrandizement and conquest. The real difference is, of course, that the new imperialism of monopoly capitalism as represented by the totalitarian forces, is no longer formally bound to the traditional obligation of the bourgeois class to represent its group interests as the general interests of humanity – though it still indulges occasionally in the now entirely hypocritical use of the old ideological language.

There is no sense then in explaining the difference between MacKinder and Haushofer in psychological, ethical, or ethnical terms as the difference between true and pseudo-science, a gentleman and a knave, or a Britisher and a Teuton. Nor is it helpful to refer to Haushofer’s use of MacKinder’s texts as a case of “the devil quoting scripture”.

When Haushofer reviewed MacKinder’s book in the second volume of Zeitschrift fuer Geopolitik in 1925, he was fully aware of the ambiguities of MacKinder’s position. He advised his readers to make good use of this highly valuable work which is “poison”, he said, for “good peace-loving Europeans but wholesome for empire builders” – a work of lasting importance for those who know how to think in the great coherent schemes of geopolitical thought and to travel the unbeaten paths of Geopolitik. He showed that, through the very contradiction of his standpoint, the British geographer had become the most logical geopolitical educator in a course of continental politics which must be followed by the land powers of the one world unless they want to remain forever the victims of foreign exploitation. There is still another reason, he added, which makes MacKinder’s theories valuable for the German reader. They should not be regarded only as a lesson that can be learned from a “hateful enemy”. It is even doubtful whether in the coming fight between democracy and totalitarian statesmanship this Britisher is to be regarded as an enemy at all. “MacKinder“, he said, “combines polite bows to the democratic ideas with a devastating criticism of the democratic practice”.

Such duplicity of purpose seems indeed to be expressed in the very title of MacKinder’s book which confronts “Democratic Ideals” with “Reality”. Again, in a short note to the 1942 repint, the author described his book as an attempt to check the “wave of Idealism” which after the return of peace will “sweep the English-speaking nations” by a “counterbalancing realism”. Finally, all the expert reviewers of MacKinder’s book in this country, the military specialists as well as the geographers and political scientists, have praised the strong sense of reality which prompted the author to supply the arsenal of democracy “with the weapons and means which democracy can maintain and still remain democratic” (Major Eliot).

Yet from a careful study of the whole of MacKinder’s book, including its generally overlooked final chapter, there arises a suspicion that the author was not content after all with that trite distinction between a lofty but impractical “ideal” and a brutal but intensely practical “reality” by which the average democratic citizen hides from himself the fact that he pays lip-service to the former for the purpose of serving the latter. The last surviving representative of the more open-minded attitude that prevailed among European scholars until the decade preceding the first World War, the friend and collaborator of Elisée Reclu and prince Kropotkin, seems to remember another concept of reality which has not lost its importance even in the present time of crisis when (in the words used by him in 1935) “men may become cruel because imprisoned”, and their first impulse will be “to make sure of their castles of refuge”.

In the last chapters of his book which follows the discussion of The Freedon of Nations and in entitled The Freedom of Men, MacKinder turns his back on that traditional “ideal” of Democracy which can be put into practice only by transforming it into its opposite; nor does he deal any longer with that “reality” which exists only for the purpose of being so opposed to the “ideal” in a world which “still rests upon force”. (The words in quotes are taken from the Note on an Incident at the Quai d’Orsay 25th January, 1919, which is added to the book as an Appendix – a fine ironical gesture that escapes the eye of the superficial reader). He contrasts the traditional type of Democracy, which after its earliest phases became equivalent to the organization of society in national states and empires and culminated in the League of Nations, with the altogether different type of a thoroughly decentralized democracy based on local communities, provinces and regions which are ultimately connected in a federal system of a well-balanced humanity.

In presenting this essentially anarchistic ideia of democracy, MacKinder is no longer afraid of a clash between his “ideal” and the so-called “realistic” claims of the “practical men”:

“I have no doubt that I shall be told by practical men that the ideal of a complete and balanced economic growth in each locality is contrary to the whole tendency of the age, and is, in fact, archaic. I shall be told that you can only get a great and cheap production by the method of world organization and local specialization. I admit that such is present tendency, and that it may give you maximum material results for a while. But… great specialist organizations, guided by experts, will inevitably contend for the upper hand, and the contest must end in the rule of one or other type of experts. That is empire, for it is unbalanced.” (pp. 198-200).

This ultimate creed professed by MacKinder seems to lead far away from the “realities” of geography and power with which, in the preceding chapters, he had contrasted the allegedly too lofty “ideals” of the Democratic statesmen. Yet the mental picture of a new and untried type of democracy which is here designed by a great scientist and statesman may still turn out, in a no longer remote future, to be more realistic than both the “ideals” and the complementary “realities” of present-day Democracy. There is no particular reason to expect that the “ideals” advanced by the leaders and spokesmen of totalitarianism will have a better chance to survive the test of practice than had the democratic ideals of the recent past. All the same, we must point to a peculiar resemblance which seems to connect MacKinder’s view of a world organized in well-balanced regions with certain leading concepts of the geopolitical creed of his authoritarian antagonists. As pointed out elsewhere[1], the tendency toward unlimited expansion and conquest was much more inherent in the old system of competitive capitalism than it is in the geopolitical concepts of Haushoferism. Whatever will be the ultimate outcome of present struggle between ideals as well as realities, it is a sad fact for capitalist Democracy that today it is attacked by its friends and foes alike, not only for the permanent conflict between its ideals and its realities but also for the increasing obsoleteness of its very ideals.


Andreas Dorpalen, The World of General haushofer. Geopolitics in Action – with an introduction by Colonel Herman Beukema, U.S.A., Farrar & Rinehart, Inc., New York, 1942, xx1 and 337 pp.

Derwent Whittlesey, German Strategy of World Conquest. With the collaboration of C. C. Colby and R. Hartshorne and a Foreword by E. J. Coil, members of the National Planning Association, Farrar & Rinehart, Inc., New York, xiii and 293 pp.

Hans W. Weigert, Generals and Geographers. The Twilight of Geopolitics, Oxford University Press, New York, 1942, x and 273 pp.

Halford J. MacKinder, Democratic Ideals and Reality. A Study in the Politics of Reconstruction, 1939 – reissued with an introduction by E. M. Earle and a Foreword by Major George Fielding Eliot, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1942, xxvi and 219 pp.

[1] The World Historians, From Turgot to Toynbee. Partisan Review, September-October, 1942.

All transcriptions were done by Felipe Andrade. Did you find any mistakes? Suggestions? Send e-mail to:
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