Tracing Anthropogeography in Ratzel’s Work and Life

The first of these publications was a two volume regional geography of the United States, consisting of Physikalische Geographie und Naturcharakter der Vereinigten Staaten von Amerika and Culturgeographie der Vereinigten Staaten von Amerika. While the latter, according to Wolfgang Natter, contained a somewhat 'totalitarian' approach considering ''every side of cultural life in North America'' (Natter, 2004: p. 175), it was not before the publication of his second major publication – Anthropogeographie – that Ratzel presented a more systematic, albeit rather general, statement of his ideas on the principles of human geography. The first volume of Anthropogeographie appeared under the subtitle Anthropo Geographie oder Grundzu?ge der Anwendung der Erdkunde auf die Geschichte (Characteristics of Geography's Application to History, 1882, revised 1899); the second volume, which was published in 1891, was subtitled Die Geographische Verbreitung des Menschen (The Geographical Distribution of Mankind). The new science of anthropogeography pursued three principal aims of investigation: (1) to describe the regions of the ecumene, and to research the distribution and groupings of mankind over it; (2) to research human migrations in their 'dependency on the land'; and (3) to analyze the effects produced by the natural environment on individuals and societies.

The determinism insinuated in the third aim is often said to surface even more explicitly in Ratzel's third major work. In his Politische Geographie, oder die Geographie der Staaten, des Verkehres und des Krieges (1897; second edition 1903), Ratzel outlined a theory of expansionism which he developed out of the central concept of Lebensraum, defining the state as an 'earth bound organism': ''The distribution of mankind (y) over the earth' surface has all the distinctive characteristics of a versatile body which expands and contracts alternatively in regression and progression, building new connections and disrupting old ones, and thereby assuming shapes which, to the closest, resemble the shapes of other (y) versatile bodies on the earth surface'' (Ratzel, 1897: p. 1, transl. JL). While the question of precisely how Ratzel's political geography can be regarded as deterministic is discussed in more detail below, it remains to be said here that Ratzel's interest in questions of political theory was reflected by a thorough engagement in the political life of his time. Besides being a founding member of both the Kolonialgesellschaft and its successor, the Kolonialverein, he participated in the establishment of the nationalist conservative Alldeutscher Verband (Pan German League), advocating not only the need for overseas expansion but also developing an imperative for the country to develop a competitive navy.

It is at least partly due to such political considerations and obligations that Ratzel's work came to lack appreciation after the end of World War II. Especially in German academic discourse, Ratzel is widely regarded as the 'grandfather' of German Geopolitik which has been charged of being complicit in the development of the national socialist ideology. Another reason for why Ratzel is not commonly appreciated, at least in the Anglo American world, is that he is hardly translated into English, leaving English speaking scholars dependent mostly on the writings of one of his disciples, Ellen Churchill Semple. As a consequence, in the post war era, one had to turn to other disciplines, namely ethnography, to find Ratzel's work, as Robert E. Dickinson writes, ''properly'' appreciated (Dickinson, 1969: 64). It is indeed only recently that there is a renewed interest in the work of Ratzel who, despite his imperialist Weltanschauung, is widely acknowledged as ''the true founder and greatest single contributor to the development of modern human geography'' (Beckinsale, 1975: 309).