Of heartlands and pan-regions: mapping the spheres of influence of the great powers in the age of world wars

The second map display in my Geopolitics class this semester (for the first, see this post on geopolitical zoology) dealt with the core geopolitical theories of the 1900-1945 period. This was an era of intense rivalry between what were then known as “the great powers,” an era that will forever be remembered for its destructive world wars.

4004 Haushofer Pazifischen_cropThis era also marked the apogee of geography as a scholarly discipline, and of geographers as public intellectuals. Geographers were the quintessential “experts” of that age. They claimed to have factual, objective knowledge of all places and peoples. After all, over the course of the previous half century geographers had penetrated the darkest continents, mapped the wildest rivers, and climbed the snowiest peeks. They had enabled the spread of European empires and facilitated the mineral prospection of Western companies in every clime. Geographers were respected for their knowledge, and their knowledge was solicited by the most powerful political, military and economic institutions of the day. This became particularly evident during both world wars when the top geographers of the warring states sat in the inner cabinets of their respective governments and served as expert councilors during treaty negotiations. The four brief bios below will illustrate this point.

Sir Halford Mackinder (1861-1947)

Sir Halford Mackinder (1861-1947)

Sir Halford Mackinder gained his field credentials by being the first white man to climb Mount Kenya (1895). He was a founding member of the British Geographical Association (1893), and a founding member (1895) and later director (1903-1908) of the London School of Economics. In 1910 he was elected to the British Parliament as a Unionist Party candidate. He served as British High Commissioner to South (White) Russia between 1919 and 1920 and was knighted by King George V upon his return. He was appointed Chairman of the Imperial Shipping Committee (1920-1945) and then of the Imperial Economic Committee (1926-1931). He was also informally associated with the establishment of the grand-daddy of all conservative think tanks, the Royal Institute of Foreign Affairs (aka Chatham House) in 1920.

Paul Vidal de la Blache ()

Paul Vidal de la Blache (1845-1918)

Paul Vidal de la Blache gained his field credentials in the Orient (Athens, Egypt, Palestine, 1866-1870). He was the co-founder of the academic journal Annales de géographie (1891). In 1910 he was asked by French Prime Minister Aristid Briand to develop a new regional administrative system for the Republic. In 1917 he was appointed to co-chair the Comité d’études, a ministerial think tank tasked with preparing the post-war map. That year he also published La France de l’Est (Lorraine-Alsace) which set out France’s war aims regarding the border with Germany. He died shortly before the end of the war.

Isaiah Bowman ()

Isaiah Bowman (1878-1950)

Isaiah Bowman gained his field credentials mapping the Peruvian Andes (1912). Director of the American Geographical Society (1915-1935), he spearheaded the project to map all of Latin America at 1/1,000,000 at the request of US mining and oil companies. When the US entered WWI he became the chief territorial adviser to President Woodrow Wilson and was appointed to the (in)famous “Inquiry,” a think tank of academics assembled by the President to advise on US war aims. Founding Director of the Council on Foreign Relations (1921) and then its Vice-President (1945-1949), Bowman also served as president of Johns Hopkins University (1935-1948). When the US entered WWII he was appointed by Franklyn Delano Roosevelt to serve as territorial adviser to the State Department.

Karl Haushofer (1869-1946)

Karl Haushofer (1869-1946)

Karl Haushofer pursued a career as a military geographer and gained his field credentials in the Far East. Sent by the German High Command to observe the Japanese Army and its imperial administration (1909-1910), he traveled extensively through the Japanese territories of Korea and Manchuria. He returned to Germany to defend a thesis on Japan’s position in the world (1913). He was the founder of the academic journal Zeitschrift für Geopolitik (1924). Much has been made of the supposed “Institut für Geopolitik” he was said to have established at the University of Munich (it never existed). His student Rudolph Hess introduced him to Adolf Hitler while the latter was serving time in Landsberg Prison in 1923. Much too has been made of their six-hour meeting as the future dictator was writing Mein Kampf at the time (beware while searching for him on the web, Haushofer has become an occult genius guru figure for neo-nazi groups). Haushofer had a rocky relationship with the Nazis once they came to power. An old-school Catholic Conservative married to a “half-Jewess,” he found their ideology and tactics vulgar and he never joined the Party. He broke with the Nazi regime definitively in 1941 when Germany invaded the USSR. Interviewed by Edmund Walsh following Germany’s defeat in 1945, he was deemed not to have been implicated in war crimes and was not brought to Nuremberg to stand trial alongside Nazis.

These four geographers were the top geographers of their generation in their respective countries (I discussed a few others: Friedrich Ratzel, Rudolf Kjellén and Alfred Mahan in class as well). All four were politically conservative and deeply committed to the imperial pretensions of their respective states. Their expertise was sought after by the practitioners of statecraft, to the point where by WWII they had become household names, academic “superstars” in today’s terms. They directed the national geographical institutions of their respective countries and were forceful in promoting the teaching of geography in national public schools. Consequently, their ideas were widely known. The type of geography they promoted was deeply nationalistic, unabashedly imperialist, and often highly militarized. Today it is considered to be deeply flawed because it was essentialist, positivist, racist and environmentally deterministic. Theirs is a completely discredited branch of the discipline. Few geographer today work with their theories.

Nonetheless, the geopolitical theories of the 1900-1945 era were hugely important in their day. No survey of Geopolitics, as a state practice or an academic discipline, can ignore them. I presented two of these theories to the class.

Mackinder’s Heartland Theory

The first iteration of Mackinder's heartland theory: the Pivot Area conceived of in 1904.

The first iteration of Mackinder’s “Heartland” theory: the Pivot Area conceived of in 1904.

Halford Mackinder developed his theory of a Eurasian “heartland” over forty years. He first proposed it in an address on “The Geographical Pivot of History,” delivered to the Royal Geographical Society in 1904 (subsequently published in the The Geographical Journal, vol. 23, #4, 1904). He proposed that History and the exercise of power at the global scale in the 20th century could be understood as the product of the peculiar geography of a “pivot” in Siberia and Central Asia. This “pivot” was characterized by the fact that it was eternally immune to sea power; great Siberian rivers all ran north into the ice-bound Arctic Ocean which the British navy could not penetrate, while Central Asia had land-locked river basins equally beyond its reach. Therefore, this pivot era could not be controlled by sea-power. In the age of the rail—the trans-Siberian railway was just being completed—this inaccessibility (to the British navy) rendered the “pivot” not only impregnable but turned it into a threat to the exercise of sea-power over the Eurasian landmass that surrounded it (Central Europe, the Middle East, India, China). A lot of ink has been squandered on this theory since 1904. Mackinder himself revised it twice: first at the close of WWI (Democratic Ideals and Reality: A Study in the Politics of Reconstruction, 1919) and then again during WWII (“The Round World and the Winning of the Peace,” in Foreign Affairs, vol. 21, #4,  1943). It proved a seminal theory for US strategists during the Cold War and is clearly the geopolitical scheme behind George Orwell’s novel 1984 (published in 1948).

No-one should begrudge Sir Halford Mackinder for not having taken air power into account in his “pivot”  (later re-labeled as the “heartland”) theory. It was based on the dichotomous sea-power/land-power theory which Alfred Mahan had proposed in 1887 (a theory also used by the top World Historians of the time: H.G. Wells and Arnold Toynbee). After all, the airplane had just been invented when the “Geographical Pivot of History” was published in 1904. What beggars belief is the fact that 40 or 80 or 100 years later the central premise of the geographical impenetrability of an Asian “heartland” was still taken seriously as a basis for analysis of world power. Air power anyone? Long-range bombers? Intercontinental ballistic missiles? Drones? The career of Mackinder’s “heartland” theory is truly a testament to the power of ideology over science, and of the vapidity of “geopolitics” as a social scientific discipline.

Haushofer’s Pan-Regions Theory

One ofseveral representations of Haushofer's "Pan-Regions" theory

One of several representations of Haushofer’s “Pan-Regions” theory

Karl Haushofer developed his theory of pan-regions by analyzing the growth of the American and the Japanese empires in the period prior to WWI. According to his analysis, the world was dominated by four industrial heartlands: Western Europe, Russia, Japan and the United States. Each needed the resources (minerals, fuels, labor, markets) of vast continental hinterlands in order to thrive. The US had already established its “sphere” in Central and South America (established by the Monroe Doctrine and Theodor Roosevelt’s Corollary). Russia had already established its territorial empire across Siberia and Central Asia. Japan was in the process of creating a sphere for itself in the Far East (what we call today Asia-Pacific), where it faced the entrenched interests of the British, French and Dutch overseas empires. The Western European sphere had been established in Africa and South Asia but its two historic metropoles, Britain and France, were no longer competitive with the growing manufacturing power of Germany—Germany must replace these two older empires and establish its own pan-region in Europe-Africa-South Asia.

Japanese WWII representation of its Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere"

Japanese WWII representation of its “Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere”

The pan-regions theory found great favor among intellectuals and practitioners of statecraft in Germany and Japan in the 1920s-1930s. In fact, Haushofer was convinced that Germany could only succeed in establishing a pan-region for itself, at the expense of the existing British and French empires, if it came to an accommodation with the other three industrial heartlands: Russian, Japan and the US. Germany’s non-aggression treaty with the USSR (August 1939) and its Axis Pact with Japan (September 1940) seemed to vindicate his theory and set Germany on the road to victory in WWII. However, Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 and its reckless declaration of war against the US later that year shattered Haushofer’s life’s work.

1940 Italian map representing the US hegemony in the Americas (in an art deco esthetic). By this time strategic thinkers in the US were looking well beyond this established pan-region.

1940 Italian map representing (in art deco graphics) US hegemony in the Americas. By this time strategic thinkers in the US were looking well beyond this established pan-region.

Not surprisingly, British and French geographers and statesmen were not at all seduced by Haushofer’s pan-region theory. Neither was the Soviet leadership. As for the United States, which had effectively created a pan-region for itself by WWI, by the 1920s it was already looking beyond the Americas at a global regime of “liberal internationalism” (Isaiah Bowman’s concept) characterized by unfettered investment and free trade—neoliberal globalization avant la lettre. Like Mackinder’s “heartland,” Haushofer’s “pan-regions” has had a long life, which is not over. The “Eurasian heartland/pan-region” current in Russian geopolitical thinking (Aleksandr Dugin’s “Fourth Political Theory”) owes much to these earlier theories.

No geographer should lament that the discipline has fallen out of the high-tone limelight. Today’s geopolitical “experts” are not geographers: Aleksandr Dugin and Samuel Huntington (“The Clash of Civilization?,” Foreign Affairs, 1994) are political scientists, Thomas Barnett (“The Pentagon’s New Map” Esquire Magazine, 2004) is a military analyst, Robert D. Kaplan (“The Coming Anarchy,” The Atlantic, 1994) is a journalist. They can all draw scary maps but none is a geographer.


Political cartoon web catch illustrating the imperial brutality of the Entente Cordiale.

Geographers no longer provide grand master-narratives of global power, and for good reason. We have learned the hard way that the reality of this power is far messier–and bloodier–than the narratives let on, and that no grand narrative is ever divorced from the great power it is describing. Today’s geographers are far more likely to critique geopolitical discourse, past and present, than to contribute to it. If, in retrospect, the two grand geopolitical narratives of the early 20th century described above look wonky and quaintly Edwardian, they allow us to better see the flaws and limitations of the equally bombastic grand geopolitical narratives of today.


Suggested readings

The geopolitical writings of the 1904-1945 era present a fascinating collection of virulently nationalist, imperialist, racist and fascist theorizing, if one has the stomach for it. There has been much excellent recent scholarship about it.

Some primary sources

  • Mahan, Alfred Thayer (1987), The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783. New York: Dover Publications (first published in 1890).
  • Mahan, Alfred Thayer (1902). Retrospect and Prospect: Studies in International Relations, Naval and Political. Boston: Little, Brown & Co.
  • Ratzel, Friedrich (1896). “The Territorial Growth of States.” In Scottish Geographical Magazine (12), pp. 351-361.
  • Mackinder, Halford. J. (1904). “The Geographical Pivot of History.” In The Geographical Journal, vol. 23, #4, pp. 421-437.
  • Mackinder, Halford. J. (1919). Democratic Ideals and Reality: A Study in the Politics of Reconstruction. London: Constable & Co. (reprinted in 2012 by Forgotten Books).
  • Mackinder, Halford. J. (1943). “The Round World and the Winning of the Peace.” In Foreign Affairs, vol. 21, #4, pp. 595-605.
  • Vidal de la Blache, Paul (1917). La France de l’Est (Lorraine-Alsace), Paris: Armand Colin (republished in 1994 by La Découverte with an introduction by Yves Lacoste).
  • Bowman, Isaiah (1921). The New World: Problems in Political Geography. New York City: World Book Company.
  • Bowman, Isaiah (1942). “Geography vs. Geopolitics.” In Geographical Review, vol. 32, #4, pp. 646-658.
  • Chéradame, André (1925). Les causes lointaines de la guerre. Evreux: Ch. Hérissey.
  • Haushofer, Karl (2002). An English Translation and analysis of Major General Karl Haushofer’s “Geopolitics of the Pacific Ocean: Studies on the Relationship between Geography and History”. Edited by Lewis A. Tambs. Translated by Ernst J. Brehm. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press.
  • Spykman, Nicholas J. (1938). “Geography and Foreign Policy I & II.” In The American Political Science Review, vol. 32, #1, pp. 28-50 & #2, pp. 213-236
  • Spykman, Nicholas J. (1939). “Geographic Objectives of Foreign Policy I & II.” In The American Political Science Review, vol. 33, #3, pp. 391-410 & #4, pp. 591-614.
  • Spykman, Nicholas J. (1942). “Frontiers, Security and International Organization.” In Geographical Review, vol. 32, #3, pp. 436-447.
  • de Seversky, Alexander P. (1942). Victory through Air Power, New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • Walsh, Edmund (1948). Total Power: A Footnote to History. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

Some excellent recent scholarship on the geopolitics of that era

  • Arrault, Jean-Baptiste (2008). “Une géographie inattendue: le système mondial vu par Paul Vidal de la Blache.” L’Espace Géographique, vol. 37, #1, pp. 75-88.
  • Blouet, Brian W. ed. (2005). Global Geostrategy: Mackinder and the Defense of the West. London & New York: Frank Cass publishers.
  • Dodds, Klaus & David Atkinson, eds. (2000). Geopolitical Traditions: A Century of Geopolitical Thought. London & New York: Routledge.
  • Kearns, Gerard (2009), Geopolitics and Empire: The Legacy of Halford Mackinder, Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Murphy, David Thomas (1997). The Heroic Earth: Geopolitical Thought in Weimar Germany 1918-1933. Kent: Kent State University.
  • O’Tuathail, Gearoid, Simon Dalbi & Paul Routeledge, eds. (2006). The Geopolitics Reader (2nd Edition). London & New York: Routledge.
  • Smith, Neil (2003). American Empire: Roosevelt’s Geographer and the Prelude to Globalization. Berkeley: University of California Press.

About ericrossacademic

Professor of Geography at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco
This entry was posted in maps, teaching and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Of heartlands and pan-regions: mapping the spheres of influence of the great powers in the age of world wars

  1. Rajae says:

    big brother is watching your every move …i really love dystopian novels :):)

  2. Yes, this one is much better. Thank you.

  3. Pingback: Discursively mapping the geopolitical menagerie | Eric Ross, academic

  4. Pingback: Just published: four entries in the Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Urban and Regional Studies | Eric Ross, academic

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