Chapter 1 - Friedrich Ratzel. States as spatial organisms

1.1 Education: German "organic school"

Friedrich Ratzel (1844 1904) can be considered the "father" of geopolitics, although he himself did not use this term in his writings. He wrote about "political geography." His main work, which saw the light of day in 1897, is called the Politische Geographie.

Ratzel graduated from the Polytechnic University in Karlsruhe, where he attended courses in geology, paleoontology and zoology. He completed his education in Heidelberg, where he became a student of Professor Ernst Haeckel (who was the first to use the term "ecology"). Ratzel's worldview was based on evolutionism and Darwinism and was colored by a pronounced interest in biology.

Ratzel takes part in the war of 1870, where he recovers as a volunteer and receives the Iron Cross for his courage. In politics, he gradually becomes a convinced nationalist, and in 1890 joined Karl Peters ’Pan-Germanist League. He travels a lot in Europe and America and adds ethnology studies to his scientific interests. He becomes a teacher of geography at the Technical Institute of Munich, and in 1886 transferred to a similar department in Leipzig.

In 1876, Ratzel defended his dissertation on “Emigration in China,” and in 1882, his fundamental work Antropogeography (Antropogeographie) was published in Stuttgart, in which he formulated his main ideas: the relationship of peoples ’evolution and demography with geographical data, the impact terrain on the cultural and political formation of peoples, etc.

But his most basic book was Political Geography.

1.2 States as living organisms

In this work, Ratzel shows that the soil is the fundamental, unchanging given, around which the interests of peoples revolve. The movement of history is predetermined by soil and territory. What follows is an evolutionist conclusion that “the state is a living organism,” but an organism “rooted in the soil." The state consists of a territorial relief and scale and of their understanding by the people. Thus, the State reflects an objective geographical reality and a subjective national understanding of this reality, expressed in politics. Ratzel considers the “Normal” State to be the one that most organically combines the geographical, demographic and ethnocultural parameters of the nation.

He's writing:

At all stages of their development, states are considered as organisms that necessarily remain in contact with their soil and therefore must be studied from a geographical point of view. As ethnography and history show, states develop on a spatial basis, more and more mating and merging with it extracting more and more energy from it. Thus, states turn out to be spatial phenomena controlled and animated by this space; and geography should describe, compare, measure them. States fit into a series of Life expansion phenomena, being the highest point of these phenomena

(Political Geography) (1)

From this "organist" approach, it is clear that the spatial expansion of the state is understood by Ratzel as a natural living process, similar to the growth of living organisms.

Ratzel's “organic” approach is also apparent in relation to space itself (Raum). This “space” is moving from a quantitative material category to a new quality, becoming a “living sphere”, a “living space” (Lebensraum), a kind of “geobiological environment”. From here follow two other important terms of Ratzel's “spatial meaning” (Raumsinn) and “vital energy” (Lebensenergie). These terms are close to each other and denote some special quality inherent in geographical systems and predetermining their political design in the history of peoples and states.

All these theses are fundamental principles of geopolitics, in the form in which it will develop somewhat later among the followers of Ratzel. Moreover, the attitude to the state as a “living spatial organism rooted in the soil ” is the main idea and axis of the geopolitical technique. This approach is focused on a synthetic study of the whole complex of phenomena, regardless of whether they belong to the human or non-human sphere. Space as a concrete expression of nature, the environment, is considered as a continuous vital body of an ethnos, it is the space inhabiting. The structure of the material itself dictates the proportions of the final work of art.

In this sense, Ratzel is the direct heir to the whole school of German “organic” sociology, the most prominent representative of which was Ferdinand Tennis.

1.3. Raum political organization of the soil

How Ratzel saw the correlation of ethnos and space can be seen from the following fragment of "Political Geography":

The state is formed as an organism attached to a certain part of the earth’s surface, and its characteristics develop from the characteristics of the people and the soil. The most important characteristics are size, location and boundaries. The following are the types of soil along with vegetation, irrigation and, finally, the relationship with the rest conglomerates of the earth’s surface, and first of all, with adjacent seas and uninhabited lands, which, at first glance, are not of particular political interest. The totality of all these characteristics make up the country (das Land). But when they talk about “our country”, to this everything that a person created and all memories connected with the earth is added in. Thus, from the very beginning a purely geographical concept turns into a spiritual and emotional connection between the inhabitants of the country and their history.

The state is an organism not only because it articulates the life of the people on motionless soil, but because this connection is mutually reinforcing, becoming something single, unthinkable without one of the two components. Uninhabited spaces, unable to feed the State, is a historical field under steam. Inhabited space, on the contrary, contributes to the development of the state, especially if this space is surrounded by natural borders. If the people feel naturally on their territory, they will constantly reproduce the same characteristics that, coming from the soil, will be inscribed in it.


1.4 Law of expansion

The attitude to the state as a living organism implied a rejection of the concept of “inviolability of borders”. The state is born, grows, dies, like a living being. Therefore, its spatial expansion and contraction are natural processes associated with its internal life cycle. Ratzel in his book "On the laws of spatial growth of States" (1901) identified seven laws of expansion :

  1. The extent of the States increases with the development of their culture

  2. The spatial growth of the State is accompanied by other manifestations of its development: in the areas of ideology, production, commercial activity, powerful "attractive radiation", proselytism.

  3. The state expands, absorbing and absorbing political units of lesser importance.

  4. A border is an organ located on the periphery of a State (understood as an organism).

  5. Carrying out its spatial expansion, the State seeks to cover the most important regions for its development: coasts, river basins, valleys and generally all rich territories.

  6. The initial impulse of expansion comes from outside, since the State is provoked by the expansion of the state (or territory) with a clearly lower civilization.

  7. The general tendency to assimilate or absorb the weaker nations encourages an even greater increase in territories in a movement that feeds itself.


Not surprisingly, many critics accused Ratzel of writing the Catechism for the Imperialists. At the same time, Ratzel himself did not at all try to justify German imperialism by any means, although he did not hide the fact that he adhered to nationalist convictions. It was important for him to create a conceptual tool for an adequate comprehension of the history of states and peoples in their relation to space. In practice, he sought to awaken the Raumsinn (sense of space) among the leaders of Germany, for whom the geographical data of dry academic science most often seemed to be a pure abstraction.

1.5 Weltmacht and the sea

Ratzel was greatly influenced by his acquaintance with North America, which he studied well and devoted to two books: Maps of North American Cities and Civilization (1874) and United States of America (1878 1880). He noted that the "sense of space" among Americans is highly developed, since they were tasked with the development of "empty" spaces, having behind them a significant "political-geographical " experience of European history. Consequently, the Americans deliberately implemented what the Old World came to intuitively and gradually. So at Ratzel we come across the first formulations of another important geopolitical concept of the concept of a “world power” (Weltmacht). Ratzel noted that large countries have a tendency towards maximum geographic expansion, which is gradually reaching the planetary level.

Consequently, sooner or later, geographical development must come to its continental phase.

Applying this principle, derived from the American experience of the political and strategic unification of continental spaces, to Germany, Ratzel predicted her the fate of a continental power.

He anticipated another important topic of geopolitics, the importance of the sea for the development of civilization. In his book “The Sea, the Source of the Power of Peoples” (1900) (4), he pointed out the need for each powerful country to especially develop its naval forces, since this is required by the planetary scale of full-fledged expansion. The fact that some peoples and states (England, Spain, Holland, etc.) carried out spontaneously, the land powers (Ratzel, of course, meant Germany) should be done meaningfully: the development of the fleet is a necessary condition for approaching the status of "world Powers "(Weltmacht).

The Ratzel’s sea and “world power” are already connected, although only in later geopolitics (Mehan, Mackinder, Haushofer, especially Schmitt) will this theme become complete and central.

Ratzel’s works are a necessary basis for all geopolitical studies. In a minimized form, his works contain almost all the main points that will form the basis of this science. The Swedel Chellen and the German Haushofer based their concepts on Ratzel’s books. His ideas were taken into account by the Frenchman Vidal de la Blach, the Englishman Mackinder, the American Machan and the Russian Eurasians (P. Savitsky, L. Gumilev, etc.).

It should be noted that Ratzel’s political sympathies are not accidental. Almost all geopolitics were marked by a pronounced national feeling, regardless of whether it was clothed in democratic (Anglo-Saxon geopolitics of Mackinder, Mahan) or "ideocratic" (Haushofer, Schmitt, Eurasians) forms.