Chapter 5 - Vidal de la Blach "France versus Germany"

5.1 Picture of the geography of France

Vidal de la Blach (1845 1918) is considered the founder of the French geographical school. A professional geographer, he was fascinated by Ratzel's “political geography” and built his theories based on this source, although he severely criticized many aspects of the German geopolitical school.

In his book "The Picture of the Geography of France" (1903), he turns to the theory of soil, so important for German geopolitics:

The relationship between soil and man in France is marked by the original character of antiquity, continuity (...). In our country, you can often observe that people have lived in the same places since time immemorial. Sources, calcium rocks originally attracted people as convenient places to live and protection. We have a loyal student of soil. Studying the soil will help to determine the nature, customs and preferences of the population (27)

But, despite such a completely German attitude to the geographical factor and its impact on culture, Vidal de la Blach believed that Ratzel and his followers clearly overestimate the purely natural factor, considering it to be determining.

Man, according to de la Blach, is also a most important geographical factor, ” but he is also “endowed with initiative.” He is not only a fragment of the scenery, but also the main actor of the play.

5.2 Possibilism

This criticism of Ratzel's excessive exaggeration of the spatial factor led Vidal da La Blach to develop a special geopolitical concept of “possibilism” (from the word “possible”). According to this concept, political history has two aspects: spatial (geographical) and temporal (historical). The geographical factor is reflected in the environment , historical in man himself (“carrier of the initiative”) (28). Vidal de la Blasch believed that the mistake of the German "political geographers" was that they considered the relief as the determining factor in the political history of states. Thus, according to de la Blach, the factor of human freedom and historicity is downplayed. He himself proposes to consider the geographical spatial position as “potentiality”, “opportunity”, which may become actual and become a real political factor, or may not be actualized. It largely depends on the subjective factor from the person, the given space inhabiting.

This approach was also taken into account by the German geopolitics of the Haushofer school, who considered the criticism of de la Blach quite justified and important. In this case, the role of the ethnic or racial factor in considering the political history of states obviously increased, and this resonated with the general surge in racial problems in Germany in the 1920s.

The "Possibilism" de la Blasch was perceived by most geopolitical schools as a correction of the rigid geographic determinism of previous geopolitical authors.

5.3 France for Sea Power

Vidal de la Blach paid particular attention to Germany, which was France’s main political opponent at the time. He believed that Germany was the only powerful European state whose geopolitical expansion was deliberately blocked by other European developed powers. If England and France have their vast colonies in Africa and around the world, if the United States can move almost freely south and north, if Russia has Asia, then Germany is squeezed from all sides and does not have an outlet for its energies. De la Blach saw this as the main threat to peace in Europe and considered it necessary to completely weaken the development of this dangerous neighbor.

Such an attitude towards Germany logically entailed the geopolitical definition of France as part of the common front of the Sea Force, oriented against the continental powers. The position of de la Blach was not the only one among the French geopolitics, since in parallel there was an opposite Germanophilic direction, represented by Admiral Lavalle and General De Gaulle.

In 1917, Vidal de la Blach published the book "Eastern France", in which he proved the original affiliation of the provinces of Alsace-Lorraine to France and the illegality of German claims in these areas. At the same time, he appeals to the French Revolution, considering its Jacobin dimension to be an expression of the geopolitical tendencies of the French people, seeking to unify and centralize their State through geographical integration. He also explains political liberalism through people's attachment to soil and the natural desire to get it into private ownership. Thus, Vidal de la Blach in his own way connects geopolitical realities with ideological realities: the spatial policy of Western Europe (France) is inextricably linked with “democracy” and “liberalism”.Through such an equation, it is easy to bring together the geopolitical views of de la Blach with Mackinder and Mahan.

De la Blache’s choice of “maritime orientation” fits perfectly into this pattern.