We cannot interpret our past or approach the future based upon the assumption that individuals and groups are mere passive chess pieces. We must more appreciate the constraints of the earth, without capitulating to them with aggression or inertia.
In 1440, at the heart of the Rhine Valley, Johannes Gutenberg perfected the first European printing press. His invention would inaugurate a new era of mass communication, in which the spread of information would become freer, cheaper, and faster. From Gutenberg to Facebook, our advances in technology have vastly exacerbated our legitimate sense of superiority to the rest of nature. In the post-industrial West, in particular, we no longer appreciate how concerns over climate, war, and natural resources have an innate connection to the physical terrain of our planet. We live in cities and towns where our needs are catered to us by an invisible chain of supply. Nature is something we holiday in, rather than inhabit. To show how geographic territory and our attempts to surmount its challenges and communicate beyond its bounds have been at the apex of the human experience, we may investigate the heartland of Gutenberg himself.
Its territory roughly extending beyond modern-day Germany, the Holy Roman Empire was the largest political entity among the patchwork of Medieval European sovereignties. Nestled beside the North Sea and stretching across the Alps as far south as Siena at times. The midlands of the Empire were dominated by vast fertile plains fed by the rivers Rhine, Danube, and the Elbe. It was invasions from the unimpeded eastern flanks of these plains, between the Baltic and Carpathian mountains, that would threaten and consequently galvanise tribal identities, and prompt the emergence of regional princes and lords that eventually coordinated to form the successful, decentralised framework of the Empire. Feudalism in the service of these emergent rulers provided a vital barricade of identities along with material, physical fortifications in the form of walls, castles, and soldiers. While the medieval economic universe continued to centre on control of Mediterranean routes, he who controlled Germania also controlled a series of navigable rivers critical to European trade; the buffer with the East; and a North-South land route to the Italian peninsula. The shift of this centre of trade from the late fifteenth century, due to the Atlantic and eastern escapades of Spain and Portugal, was itself a reaction to geographical barriers. Namely, the interruption of trade with the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond as the Ottoman victory over the Byzantines, culminating in the taking of Constantinople in 1453, gradually eroded European links with the Silk Road, prompting the Crowns of the Iberian Seaboard Kingdoms to revive the exploration of new maritime trade routes.
By the fifteenth century this functioning patchwork of lay and ecclesiastical jurisdictions encompassed lands far beyond current German borders. Each territory managed its affairs and customs, but all pledged fealty to an “Emperor” elected by the princes and bishops heading individual territory. This fragmented network of authorities would prove abrasive to successive Emperors and more powerful regional Princes who longed to have more decision-making at their mercy. Still, this set-up was fruitful to the bustling, competitive trade of goods and ideas. Although lacking absolute power, the Emperor was far from a mere worldly king, the Emperor was the secular defender of the Catholic Church, even after the Protestant Reformation left many of his states outside of its communion. These “Holy” lands and their ruler provided a robust idea of Christian universalism, that formed a critical part of the military and ideological backbone against successive clashes with outsiders. By the turn of the sixteenth century, the ‘Empire’ was the second only to the French domains by land and population in Europe, and was indisputably the most central. It was the military, economic, and political key to the Continent, and a fortress against Ottoman land incursions to the East. The struggle to master these lands thus continued to define the balance of European power throughout the medieval and early modern periods until today.
In 1517 in the Northeast Electorate of Saxony, an Augustinian friar, Martin Luther published his 95 theses that sparked the first sustained break with the Catholic Church in western Europe. Whereas English Lollardy and the Hussites of Bohemia had failed to make much headway, Luther’s access to print, along with his ability to capitalise on pockets of local dissatisfaction with Church freedoms, provided him with the blueprint for success. The flourishing network of trade routes and universities that had contributed to the Empire’s polycentric powerhouse now became subject to Luther’s geography-defying pamphlet that spread his message of rebellion far and wide. Secular rulers such as Frederick, Elector of Saxony conveniently rallied around his message of appropriating Church wealth and employing princely jurisdiction of religious affairs.
Emperor Charles V was across the Pyrenees, occupied with gaining the favour of his Spanish subjects and quashing their rebellions in the early 1520s. By the time he found the wherewithal to summon military force against the Lutheran threat in the region, the battle was already beyond him. This context of religious fragmentation set the scene for the Empire to become the ideological and military battleground of aggrandising emerging States, against the remnants of the medieval ecclesial order that had fuelled the Empire for over 700 years. The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 signalled the finale of this era in Europe. Heralded as the beginning of modern international relations, the Treaty formed the precursor to the framework of states in which jurisdiction was centralised and secular, and the Church was deprived of its historical liberties. The growth of dual power blocs of the Habsburg Bavarians and Hohenzollern Prussians throughout the subsequent centuries contributed to a loss of identification with the Empire and its disbandment after the French invasions in 1808. In 1871 Germany emerged as a single state for the first time in the land’s history, and Europe was forever changed by the emergence of centralised modern power at the centre of the Continent.
The first half of the twentieth century is the historical period distant enough from us to appear alien, yet proximate enough to have overshadowed recent education and cultural memory. As in multiple pre-modern clashes, the German lands’ central position continued to provide a source of both strength and vulnerability as tensions grew. Germany’s excuse for its violation of France and Belgium in 1914 was its fear of being—in the event of an impending world war—fenced in by the Triple Entente: France in the West, Britain across the sea, and Russia to its East. Also playing into the juvenile nation’s inferiority complex, was its bitter envy of the vast colonial holdings of the Atlantic seaboard nations. Yet, French revanchism in the wake of its 1870 defeat by Prussia had posed a genuine threat. The French education system was ceaselessly fuelled by a virulent thread of anti-German sentiment that fed into its nationalist narrative. Its government’s scramble to woo the Russian Empire in the build-up to the First World War was in large part due to their desire to encircle the Teutonic nemesis, and reclaim lost dominions to the East.
The threat of encirclement pushed German policy-makers toward the necessity of a preemptive attack, and the Schlieffen plan was born. Familiar to any of us taught the basic History of WWI in school, Germany enacted this plan to conquer its real and perceived geographic vulnerability by unexpectedly traversing neutral Belgium and its inferior armies. They expected to swiftly quash French forces from the inferior Belgian border, and once successful, shift its resources to defeat the Russians. This plan centred on the premise that in a preemptive attack, the Russians would take longer to ready their vast and less modernised forces. Of course, Belgium was more stubborn than the arrogant Germany schemers had planned for, and they failed. The First World War left Germany militarily and politically defeated on the world stage. The German cradle of civilisation was now unmasked as a weakened aggressor. The British naval blockades of the Great War had proved disastrous for the lives of ordinary Germans, unequipped to then face the lengthy bills demanded of it from the Paris Peace Conference. Instead of cultivating a new era of peace and prosperity, the aftermath of the war emphasised Germany’s perception of its unfair weakness, set between puissant enemies. This settlement, primarily energised by French grievances, set the stage for the rise of the fascist Nazi Party. In the wake of this crushing defeat, their idea of “Lebensraum” was deliberately employed as a means to justify their planned expansions, providing many Germans with a positive and vengeful vision of the future. The policy appeared to many as a reasonable endeavour to regain historic lands unfairly expropriated by the peace settlement and cultivate postwar growth, just as the French had judged their revanchism.
Yet “Lebensraum” sought not only to regain bordering areas that were inhabited by ethnic Germans but to expand into the territories of ethnic groups they perceived as “inferior.” They then planned to decimate and enslave indigenous populations, gain vast agricultural resources, while finally eliminating the uncertainty of an indeterminate border with the Soviet Union beyond the Carpathians. Yet this attempt to overcome the dangers of geography failed due to them. In its advance toward Moscow, the army was keen first to secure the oil-rich Caucasus region, so as not to overstretch supply lines from the West. This operation failed most spectacularly (irreversibly) at Stalingrad and Kursk. Revisionism and popular History is prone to revere at the (indeed commendable bravery) of Western forces. Still, the tale of the allied victory in the Second World War is too often popularly misconstrued as a victory based on this fact. In reality, the Third Reich was defeated by the very hunger for territory that had led them to invade the USSR too soon than was wise. The Germans consequently overstretched themselves as they struggled to defend the Eurasian Steppe that had seemed easy pickings in the Summer of 1941, making their lines vulnerable to the Red Army’s vast and more winter-adept command.
Although we live in an age of increasingly remote warfare, hacking, and terrorism, geography continues to define human processes. What Kaplan affectionately dubs the “old Carolingian core,” that stretches from the bustling ports of the North Sea, down to the Swiss heartlands is no exception from this natural “grand narrative.” The region, once home to Charlemagne’s capital at Aachen, today plays host to the beating heart of European Union institutions, and an array of economic and cultural centres. Whereas the hilly geography that once blessed Greece with a string of diverse city-States, is now a hindrance to its infrastructure, it is partly the gift of geography that has placed a resurgent Mitteleuropa at the forefront of the European and world stage. While campaigns for “clean energy” rage on, access to the oil and gas line infrastructure remains a cornerstone of international policy in the Middle East, while access to water influences internal conflict and cooperation in Syria, Iraq, and Israel. These concerns have been inherited by a geopolitical scene that is much changed, while its geography has not. The European Union project, for example, makes sense when one considers the idea of France, Germany and the E8 succession states providing a powerful bloc against the vulnerable passage to Russia from the East—an expanse that Russia perceives as equally threatening.
These significant points of dispute are highlights in Tim Marshall’s recent bestselling Prisoners of Geography. Despite its provocative title, Marshall outlines how geography can and should have an impact on domestic and international affairs while pressing that it should be dealt with as seriously as any other factor. As Germany justified its subjugation of Poland as a stepping stone to Russia’s vast cultivable lands, so too does China enact brutality in Tibet as part of its mission to enforce its border with India. We cannot interpret our past or approach the future based upon the assumption that individuals and groups are mere passive chess pieces. We must more appreciate the constraints of the earth, without capitulating to them with aggression or inertia. The example of the medieval Holy Roman Empire’s association of free states ought to provide us with a powerful example of people’s ability to overcome geographic vulnerability and external threats without demanding centralised coercion and quashing of local freedoms or to propagate a dangerous victim complex such as that employed by various regimes from the Third Reich to Communist China. The process of state-building is almost unanimously regarded as positive by Western cultural and academic consensus. However, it is the modern state that has weaponised the fiction of centralised power as the core of community and identity, as the mandate for countless unwarranted incursions. The existence of territorial threats and squabbles over natural resources does not necessitate the intervention of surveillance states, nor the invasion of non-threatening neighbours.
As much as our encounters with technology will define the battles of the upcoming decades, they will too be shaped by the intellectual and military conflicts between inertia and innovation in regards to physical resources and terrain. Geography is a complex but not all-powerful, challenge to human ambitions. We must revive an appreciation for its importance, without surrendering the significance of mankind’s agency to our past and future, nor use physical challenges as an excuse for the suppression of natural liberties.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
William T. Cavanaugh, “A Fire Strong Enough to Consume the House:” The Wars of Religion & the Rise of the State
Robert Kaplan, The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate
Susan Reynolds, Kingdoms and Communities in Western Europe, 900–1300
Olivier Richard — On Free and Compulsory Education (PFS 2016)
W. Schivelbusch, The Culture of Defeat
Brendan Simms, Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy, from 1453 to the Present
Brian Tierney, Western Europe in the Middle Ages 300–1475
The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.