Friedrich Ratzel was a German geographer and ethnographer knowledge of biology and zoology has given rise to a truly particular conception of states and societies.
For him, a country, more than a soulless administrative and bureaucratic system, was an organism, a living being in its own way. And how every living being is born, lives, grows and dies. If he grows up, he will need a space to eat, a place where he can live fully, an idea that gave birth to the famous “lebensraum” so popularized by the Nazis under the Third Reich.
Below we will see the life and thought of this researcher through a biography of Friedrich Ratzel, A very patriotic German geographer who unwittingly developed texts would become the inspiration for the party that did the most harm in 20th century Europe.
Brief biography of Friedrich Ratzel
Friedrich Ratzel was born on August 30, 1844 in Karlsruhe, Germany. His father had direct contact with the nobility although he was not part of it because he was the domestic chief of staff of the Grand Duke of Baden.
Early years and training
Young Friedrich attended school in Karlsruhe for six years before becoming an apprentice pharmacist at the age of 15. Later, in 1863, he moved to Rapperswil, Switzerland, to begin studying classical languages and literature.
On his return from Switzerland, he worked as a pharmacist in Moers, near Krefeld in Westphalia, during the years 1865 and 1866. After this experience take the opportunity to spend time studying at the institute in his native Karlsruhe, where he would begin studies in biology, in particular zoology. He would complete these studies at the universities of Heidelberg, Jena and Berlin, finishing definitively in 1868. The following year he published
After a year as a pharmacist in Moers, near Krefeld in Westphalia (1865-1866), he spent some time at the Karlsruhe Institute, becoming a student of zoology and later studying at the University of Karlsruhe. Heidelberg, Jena and Berlin, finishing his studies in 1868. In 1869, he published “Sein und Werden der organischen Welt” (Being and becoming of the organic world)
During his youth experienced German unification, an event that had developed during the decades of 1860 and 1870, culminating with the creation of the German Empire in 1871. He was not a passive witness to these events because, motivated by a patriotic spirit, he decided to enlist in the Prussian army in 1870 as soon as the Franco-Prussian war broke out. He was wounded twice in the war, a conflict in which the German side would be victorious. This fact marked the thought and work of Ratzel.
Travel the world
After the war and the end of studies Ratzel began a period of travel that would take him from the status of biologist and zoologist to that of geographer. He began by conducting field studies in the Mediterranean and wrote several letters describing what he observed. These letters became the gateway to a more than successful occupation as correspondent of the Kölnische Zeitung in 1871.
Friedrich Ratzel undertook several expeditions between 1874 and 1875, traveling through North America, Cuba and Mexico, trips which marked an important turning point in his career and gained him considerable influence. On these trips he focused on how Germans arriving in America influenced the culture and way of life in the United States, particularly in the Midwest.
He left a written record of his travels in 1876 with his “Städte-und Kulturbilder aus Nordamerika” (“Profile of the cities and cultures of North America”), review of what he observed in the most important American cities: New York, Washington, Philadelphia, San Francisco, New Orleans, Richmond and Charleston. According to Ratzel, cities are the best place to study people because here life is accelerated and highlights the most typical and best characteristics of its inhabitants.
Teaching career and past years
Back on German soil in 1875, Ratzel became a lecturer in geography at the Technical Institute in Munich. In 1876, he became assistant professor then, in 1880, became permanent professor at the institution.
During his stay in Munich, Ratzel wrote several books and established himself definitively as an academic and prolific writer. Six years later, he would agree to work at the University of Leipzig, giving lectures attended by great minds in geography, including the American Ellen Churchill Semple.
The years during which he worked as a teacher will serve to Ratzel to lay the foundations of human geography, in particular by publishing his two volumes of “Anthropogeography” in 1882 and 1891, a work that was misinterpreted by his own followers as an environmental pro-determinist. Shortly after, he published “Politische Geographie” (1897), a text in which he spoke of the famous “Lebensraum” or “living space”, an idea which was reinterpreted in a rather distorted way decades later by the Nazis.
He spent his last years teaching and publishing new texts. Friedrich ratzel he continued to work in Leipzig until his sudden death on August 9, 1904 while on vacation in Ammerland., Germany, just two weeks before his 60th birthday.
Among the influencers in the thought of Friedrich Ratzel include Charles Darwin and Ernst Heinrich Haeckel. It should be noted that Darwin rose to fame when Ratzel was only a teenager in 1859, when the English naturalist published his more than famous “The Origin of Species”, evolutionary ideas were misinterpreted and applied to the society, serving as the seed of social Darwinism and eugenic views.
Ratzel’s life coincided with a period when Germany was developing industriallySomething that had a significant impact on the author’s way of thinking and also on his texts. After the German victory in the Franco-Prussian War, the German Empire became a superpower in competition with Great Britain and had to expand into new markets. It is from this historical fact that Ratzel begins to talk to us about the “lebensraum” or “living space”.
The main idea of his thought was that the life of a state was more like the life of an organism than a simple bureaucratic and administrative structure. And like all living things, the state / country is born, lives, grows and dies. Taking up Ratzel’s original idea of the “lebensraum”, human societies shape cultures and states by addressing the following three aspects: the “Rahmen”, which is the natural or physical environment in which society lives, the “Stella”, which is the position occupied by this society and the “Raum” which is the space that society needs to feed itself.
His first concept of the “lebensraum” had no political or economic significance, but rather spiritual and racial, expansionist nationalism but not necessarily military. As societies grow they need more “Raum”, and as was the case in German society, it was necessary for these people to develop geographically, but not aggressively.
He advocated a “natural” expansion, in the sense that in addition, more Germans had to leave German countries and populate other weaker states. He considered that the Germans would contribute to enrich culturally and economically the new countries towards which they were going to end up, geographically extending the German nation without the need for wars or invasions, only by influence.
Also it considered that so that Germany had an amorous economic growth it was necessary that it was extended terrotorial and obtained some type of control between the seas of the North, the Baltic, the Black and the Adriatic. This idea was later used by the Nazis when they reinterpreted Ratzel’s concept of “lebensraum”. Although the Nazi Party was founded in 1920, 16 years after Friedrich Ratzel’s death, the idea of a German living space has led to think that Ratzel was a Nazi, although today “realizes that was not the case.
Friedrich Ratzel was a prolific writer of academic texts whose they laid the foundations for geographic determinism. The main idea of his work is that the human activity of a given group directly depends on the physical space it occupies.
He also expresses in these works his interest in knowing and interpreting to what extent the territory represents political power. Some of his most important texts are:
- Prehistory of European man (Prehistory of Europeans, 1875)
- United States of North America (United States of America, 1878-1880)
- The Earth, in 24 conferences (The Earth in 24 conferences, 1881)
- Ethnology (Ethnology, 1885, 1886, 1888)
- Earth and Life (Earth and Life, 1902)
- Anthropogeography (anthropogeography, 1891)
- Political geography (Political geography, 1897)
- Gilman, DC; Peck, HT; Colby, FM, ed. (1905). “Ratzel, Friedrich. New international encyclopedia (1st edition). New York: Dodd, Mead.
- Dorpalen, Andreas. General Haushofer’s world. Farrar & Rinehart, Inc., New York: 1984.
- Martin, Geoffrey J. and Preston E. James. All possible worlds. New York, John Wiley and Sons, Inc .: 1993.
- Mattern, Johannes. Geopolitik: Doctrine on national self-sufficiency and empire. The Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore: 1942.
- Wanklyn, Harriet. Friedrich Ratzel, biography and bibliography. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 1961.