Friedrich Ratzel

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Friedrich Ratzel is viewed as one of the founders of German geopolitics, which he provided with a theoretical corpus. He was influenced both by the scientific thought of his time and by the pan-germanism of Wilhelmine Germany, and he was one of the first to theorise the relationships between the power of a State, its peoples and its territorial expanse.

Ratzel was born in Karlsruhe in the Grand Duchy of Baden, and he was still young at the time of the process of unification of Germany (1860-1870). As an adolescent, he was apprenticed to a pharmacist, and in 1962 sat examinations to become a pharmacy assistant. He then set out in this profession, but at the same time undertook to study Greek and Latin. In 1866 he gave up his post in pharmacy and enlisted in the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology where he attended course in palaeontology and geology. This was Ratzel’s first real encounter with biology and evolutionism, and it had a profound effect on his work. He next enlisted in Heidelberg university, attending courses in palaeontology and zoology, and he graduated with a thesis on oligochaetes. In 1869 Ratzel published his first book, Sein und Werden der organischen Welt (nature and development of the organic world), where it is already possible to discern considerable enthusiasm for the ideas of Darwin and Haeckel, although his thought in this first work had not fully matured and was still far removed from the field of geography. In this period, on the occasion of field work on the Mediterranean, the young Ratzel began to write articles on Mediterranean lands and peoples for the journal Kölnische Zeitung. In 1870, at the start of the Franco-Prussian war, Ratzel enlisted in the 5th infantry regiment of Baden. A few months later, he was seriously wounded in the ear (losing his hearing on one side) in the course of combat. In 1871-1872, in Munich, Ratzel became very close to Moritz Wagner (1813-1887), a Darwinist zoologist who had a lasting influence on him, in particular via his organicist view of States and nations. Also in the setting of his work for the Kölnische Zeitung, Ratzel went on a long journey in the Americas, passing through the United States, Mexico and Cuba. The United States made a considerable impression on him, and he devoted a number of articles to the subject. At the age of 32, Ratzel became an assistant professor in 1876 (and professor in 1880) at a time when geography was becoming institutionalised as a university discipline in Germany. Until then it would be incorrect to talk of geography as a fully-fledged discipline in Germany, despite the fact that there had been teaching in secondary schools and universities for some time – for instance the philosopher Emmanuel Kant lectured in geography in Königsberg from 1756 to 1798, and as early as 1807 «Karl Ritter» was appointed geography teacher in a school in Frankfurt, before being appointed in the same city as professor of geography in the newly created department a few years later. It is undoubtedly Ratzel’s appointment as professor of geography that enabled him to produce his most dense and cogent work. From the 1870s, his work focused mainly on the United States, but his written production developed considerably from 1880.

The first volume of his Anthropogeographie dates from 1882 and the second from 1891. In this work, Ratzel explores the influence of environmental conditions on the evolution of societies, going on in the second volume to attempt to derive "laws", in line, in this respect, with certain positivist principles. It can be said that this work marks the beginnings of human geography, even if a little later the use of the phrase "human geography" by the Vidal de la Blache school was mainly intended to signal their distancing from Ratzel’s "anthropogeography". It should be said, however, that Vidal de la Blache alter