Political Impact and Deterministic Content of Ratzel’s Geography

Against the background of such statements most commentators, after the end of World War II and up until today, have come to think of Ratzel's geography in rather ambivalent terms. While the central role Ratzel played for the development of the discipline is mostly recognized, his anthropogeography has been criticized for being deeply environmental deterministic. Ratzel, so the general opinion, is to be blamed for having suspended the will of humans in favor of eternal spatial laws governing the fate of mankind. Such judgments about the deterministic nature of Ratzel's writings often feed in with judgments about the effects of Ratzel's political engagement, connecting his spatial determinism to the imperialist considerations of his time, if not to the ideological excesses of the national socialist era.

More recently, however, scholars like Wolfgang Natter or, in the German speaking context, Ulrich Eisel, have bemoaned what they regard as a certain one sidedness in the appraisal of Ratzel's work. Underlining Ratzel's interest in the globalizing tendencies of the world market, it is suggested that Ratzel had developed a dynamic and modern theory of space which precisely did away with the static and environmental deterministic approach pursued by classical geography. Contemplating the merits of Ratzel's oeuvre on North America, Natter even maintains that ''Ratzel had identified at least part of the dynamic of uneven development and what David Harvey has described as the spatial fix'' (Natter, 2005: 175). Moreover, and with regards to the political implications of anthropogeography, Marc Bassin has detected in Ratzel's writings a ''genuine and deep rooted humanism'' (Bassin, 1987a: 128), arguing that Ratzel's political orientation cannot simply be read into German geopolitics after 1918, let alone into Nazi war aims.

In order to try and finally assess the deterministic content of Ratzel's geography, it is helpful, in a first step, to distinguish between two different forms of determinism, both relating to one of the geographical imaginations inherent in Ratzel's work. The first one is connected to the imperialist imagination and suggests that there are immanent natural forces governing the fate and conduct of humankind (e.g., the 'law of the growing areas'); the second one is more in line with the geographical imagination of the classical paradigm, drawing upon the physical environment as a causal influence on the character and development of a given Volk. For Ratzel, the fate of humankind and states is thus determined by both the programs of nature (as in the imagination of 'growing areas') and the laws of the ground (as in the imagination of 'natural lands'). While this duality eventually explains the ongoing discussions about how deterministic or how modern Ratzel's geography actually had been, it should be noted that, in both cases, 'nature' is clearly conceptualized as a causally determining force.

Moreover, 'nature', for Ratzel, had normative power in that it represented the irrevocable authority over right or wrong. As a consequence, anthropogeography could be used to provide an apparently scientific justification for political aims, serving, for instance, as a source of inspiration for geopoliticians, such as Karl Haushofer. Although Bassin has argued that the influence of German Geopolitik on the ideology of National Socialism has been overrated since the post war years, it is with some plausibility that Schultz maintains connectivity between Ratzel's geography, on the one hand, and Hitler's ideology of Lebensraum, on the other hand. According to Schultz, affinities do not so much concern the level of concrete political decision making but rather relate to more general aspects of political reasoning which could be understood as timeless stage directions in the drama of international relations. While there is no straightforward connection between Ratzel's geography and Hitler's war on Lebensraum, anthropogeography certainly belongs to the prehistory of the latter.