The Demon of Geopolitics: How Karl Haushofer “Educated” Hitler and Hess, by Holger H. Herwig

Jörg Michael Dostal on whether one German thinker directly influenced Hitler’s geopolitics

May 19, 2016
Review: The Demon of Geopolitics, by Holger Herwig

Karl Haushofer is remembered as the founding father of a German school of geopolitical thinking that gained influence after the end of the First World War. His major goal was to turn geopolitics – a term invented in 1899 by Rudolf Kjellén, a Swedish professor of politics – into an academic discipline. Closely aligned with this effort was Haushofer’s insistence that geopolitics should provide practical guidelines for German politicians to revise the conditions of the Versailles Treaty of 1919.

In the history of geopolitical thought, Haushofer belongs to a second generation of thinkers inspired by figures such as Friedrich Ratzel and Halford Mackinder. In line with Mackinder, Haushofer argued that sea power and land power gave rise to different types of geopolitical strategy. Unlike Mackinder, he suggested that the main sea powers, principally the UK and the US, constituted “pirates of the sea”, interested in putting their control of trade routes in the service of political domination. Thus, the sea powers were keen to keep land powers divided among themselves – to control the balance of power.

Haushofer argued in 1925 that Germany and Russia, as land powers, should form a counter-alliance. He also hoped to add China, then another land power, and Japan, the weakest of the three sea powers, to what he termed the “East Eurasian Continental Bloc”. He also called for German alignment with anticolonial nationalists in order to put pressure on Britain and the other colonial powers. Anglo-American thinkers were not amused.

Holger Herwig’s account of Haushofer’s life tries to restore the thesis that Haushofer directly and indirectly – via his sometime student and research assistant at the University of Munich, Rudolf Hess – influenced Adolf Hitler’s geopolitical thinking. He holds that “one needs to appreciate that Geopolitik (Autarky, Lebensraum) came directly from Haushofer to the student Hess and then from him to the ‘tribune’ Hitler”. Herwig further suggests that Haushofer tutored Hess – and perhaps Hitler – during eight visits to a Bavarian prison in 1924, when Hitler and Hess were held in neighbouring cells for their involvement in the 1923 Munich Beer Hall Putsch.

This argument was put forward by prosecutors preparing the Nuremberg trials. Yet subsequent research has strongly suggested that Hitler authored Mein Kampf without ghostwriters (the draft was largely finished before Haushofer’s visits). Hitler certainly copied other people’s ideas, yet his demand for Germany to pursue Lebensraum in the East – the project of war against the Soviet Union – had nothing to do with Haushofer. Herwig is far too keen to make Haushofer appear as a failed magician, summoning up a demon that turned against its master. In fact, Hitler never shared Haushofer’s geopolitical views.

Compared with Hans-Adolf Jacobsen’s Haushofer biography published in 1979, Herwig’s focus is narrow, and crucial information lacks footnotes. Ultimately, academic debates on Haushofer suffer from lack of access to his writings, especially the Haushofer-edited geopolitical journal Zeitschrift für Geopolitik published between 1924 and 1944. Making such sources more broadly available could help to restore balance in writings about him as a scholar.

Jörg Michael Dostal is associate professor in the Graduate School of Public Administration, Seoul National University, South Korea.

The Demon of Geopolitics: How Karl Haushofer “Educated” Hitler and Hess
By Holger H. Herwig
Rowman & Littlefield, 292pp, £54.95
ISBN 9781442261136 and 1143 (e-book)
Published 10 March 2016

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