One strain of geographic history holds that our desires as nations are rooted in the unchanging features of our terrain. Illustration by Emiliano Ponzi.
The first history we write is a history of races. Our tribe’s myth is here, yours is over there, our race is called “the people” and blessed by the gods, and yours, well, not so blessed. Next comes the history of faces: history as the epic acts of bosses and chiefs, pharaohs and emirs, kings and Popes and sultans in conflict, where the past is essentially the chronicle of who wears the crown first and who wears it next. Then comes the history of places, where the ingathering of people and classes in a single city or state makes a historical whole bigger than any one face within it. Modern history is mostly place history, of an ambitious kind: what all the little faces were doing while the big faces were looking at each other. Modern place history has produced scholarly masterpieces, like Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s “Montaillou,” the densely inhabited tale of one region in France in medieval times, and a lot of collective social history “from below.” (It has also produced great pop writing: Robert Hughes on Barcelona, Peter Ackroyd on London.)
But beyond, or beneath, these histories is the history of spaces: the history of terrains and territories, a history where plains and rivers and harbors shape the social place that sits above them or around them. As a form of poetry, space history is very old. Milton sang of “the Mountain Nymph, sweet Liberty,” implying there was a reason that the Swiss were freer than the French, and the idea that geography shapes character is essential to Montesquieu: southern peoples are sweaty and stolid; mountain dwellers are springy and defiant, and so on. France, in his view, is ideal, because it is, like Mama Bear’s porridge, neither too cold nor too hot. (Actually, it is too cold, but the myth that the French live in a beautifully temperate climate is impossible for them to surrender, even in January.) In recent years, space history has been armed with data and detail and an urge to explain everything. Like the “naked ape” anthropology of the nineteen-seventies, sure in its belief that the missionary position in sex explains all of human bonding, the new space history has imperial ambitions. Russians always want a warm-weather port and will always have a huddled, suspicious culture, whether Tsarist, Soviet, or Putinish. Ideology is mere summer clouds above an unchanging terrain.
Two new books meant for a popular audience lay out this geographic turn in eloquent and encyclopedic form, though with two different purposes: Robert D. Kaplan’s “The Revenge of Geography” (Random House) is mostly predictive, while “Why Geography Matters: More Than Ever” (Oxford), by Harm de Blij, a professor at Michigan State, is essentially retrospective. De Blij wants students to study more geography; Kaplan wants journalists to think first of all about terrain. Kaplan’s book can be summed up in a single phrase from Ambrose Bierce: “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.” In particular, Kaplan insists, the Iraq war was a way of teaching neoconservatives to pay attention to terrain. That war, of which he was an enthusiast, was a catastrophe, he now admits, and he lays the blame for that on a failure to pay attention to the lay of the land. The view, prevalent among “humanitarian interventionists,” was that you could build liberal institutions more or less wherever you wanted: tiny island Trinidad and cold, vast, latitudinal Canada; rainy Scotland and sunny northern Italy; the tropics of Taiwan and the deserts of Israel. Let smart people make money with new ideas in a society where the cops can’t easily be bribed and the judges aren’t entirely bought, and liberal democracy will prosper. This thesis, simple and majestic, has banged its shins against reality; Kaplan’s book is the howl.
“Mountains and the men who grow out of them are the first order of reality,” Kaplan writes now. In Iraq, it was the deserts that did us in. He praises the eloquent silence of the war hounds who fell mute after the invasion (though perhaps insufficient homage is paid to the eloquent silence of a hundred thousand dead Iraqis), but, though chastened, he’s still talking. He now recommends a geostrategic realism that replaces history with geography. Even if Russia could get that warm-water port it is supposed to want, nothing much would change: it would still be cold and flat and depressing to be a Russian. Our desires as nations, like our desires as individuals, are rooted in the unchanging features of our terrain. The mogul who dreams of marrying a supermodel is rarely content once he has; he is exactly the man most likely to betray his wife and look for another.
Kaplan means to rehabilitate the sort of geography associated with certain Victorian and Edwardian scholars, especially the British historian Halford J. Mackinder. Mackinder, who was born in 1861 and died just after the Second World War, looked at the past thousand years in Europe and proposed a surprisingly simple geographic explanation for everything that had happened. The “heartland” of Europe, he insisted, was not Western Europe, even though it dominated the world; the heartland was the Eurasian flatland. Across those horse-welcoming plains, all the real shapers of history, from Attila’s Huns to Genghis’s hordes, had marched. History was what happened when Italians fled horsemen. Western Europe had largely resisted the Mongol hordes, and had prospered; Russia had been conquered and hadn’t. Eventually, whoever survived this struggle would control what Mackinder called the World Island, by which he meant Eurasia and Africa (true Victorian that he was, he regarded the United States as peripheral).
The West made history, but the East drove it. Though Europe saw itself as the pilothouse of fate, in truth it was more like a fort, which had been shaped by the constant assault of those horsemen. Venice was the model of Western European culture: its founders, driven to the marshes and the lagoon by invaders from the steppes, built the great and beautiful city essentially in retreat. This approach was seconded, in its geographic absolutism, by other pre-First World War space-history explanations. Alfred Thayer Mahan’s theory of world history, for instance, argued that control of the oceans by big navies was mostly what mattered: the best answer to a horseman with a scimitar in his hand was a boat with a cannon in its hold. (Mahan had a not entirely helpful influence on both Churchill and Roosevelt in their conduct of the Second World War.)
Kaplan recognizes the historical cartooning that these essentially forgotten guys were given to, and sees as well the risks of a too neat determinism of space—sees it, but does not totally avoid being seduced by it. He sobers up every few pages and tosses out a “to be sure” with regard to some grand claim, but Mackinder and Mahan and the rest have taken up his soul. He says that space history easily becomes not a descriptive science but an ideological cover for conquest: the notion that states by their very nature seek to dominate the homeland, or the World Island, he sees, eventually became the ideological ground for Hitler’s theory of Lebensraum. But still he says of his masters that he will “adhere to their sensibilities as well as to their theories,” and try to be a kind of postmodern Mackinder.
In trying to bring these views up to date, Kaplan plunges into a planetary review that is often thrilling in its sheer scale, its encyclopedic breeziness. With a confidence born of many years of travelling as a journalist—a confidence that recalls the British imperial travellers of the nineteenth century—Kaplan whisks us from the Hindu Kush to the Congo. We learn of the ancient struggle between China’s inlands and its outerlands; of India’s claustrophobic geographic dilemma (too many religious passions in too little space); of the crucial and easily overlooked place of Kazakhstan in modern history. How many of us have stopped to think that one key to Islamic history is that the Turks control the sources of the two great rivers of the region, the Euphrates and the Tigris—or know of the vast new Southeast Anatolia Project that has dammed those rivers and changed the shape, and the water politics, of the Middle East? For that matter, when Afghanistan makes its inevitable appearance—geographic history always ends in Afghanistan, the way baseball history ends in Yankee Stadium—it is hard not to be struck by the news that Indian trade overland across Central Asia is expected to grow by a hundred billion dollars annually, and that all that stands in the way of this growth is an unstable Afghanistan. Pacify the place, and India’s economic empire would explode. Maybe the Great Game for Afghanistan really is worth playing.
As the terrains fly by beneath us, however, we begin to sense that Kaplan has laid out a vast, Ptolemaic astrolabe, with cycles and epicycles and turning inner orbits and mechanics of the sky, elaborating everything and explaining little. Whatever circumstance springs up is accounted for, even when it seems to contradict geostrategic logic. The geographic turn can at times seem uneasily like the astrological turn. Kaplan’s big picture includes the idea that a natural geographic force has driven European power over the centuries from the arid Mediterranean toward the more fertile north, and we hear about the north’s rich, mineral “loess earth.” To make this picture plausible without distorting history beyond recognition, though, any moment that contradicts it—the centuries of Iberian greatness that left South America speaking Spanish and Portuguese, the entirety of the Italian Renaissance, in Venice and Florence—has to be rushed past in a breathless half-sentence concession. We feel like tourists on a ten-day bus trip covering all Europe as we hurry northward:
Great, eclectic, and glittering empires there certainly were along the Mediterranean in the Middle Ages, notably the Norman Roger II’s in twelfth-century Sicily, and lest we forget, the Renaissance flowered first in late medieval Florence, with the art of Michelangelo and the secular realism of Machiavelli. But it was the pull of the colder Atlantic which opened up global shipping routes that ultimately won out against the enclosed Mediterranean. While Portugal and Spain were the early beneficiaries of this Atlantic trade—owing to their protruding peninsular position—their pre-Enlightenment societies, traumatized by the proximity of (and occupation by) North African Muslims, lost ground eventually to the Dutch, French, and English in the oceanic competition. So just as Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire succeeded Rome, in modern times northern Europe has now succeeded southern Europe with the mineral-rich Carolingian core winning out in the form of the European Union: in no small measure because of geography.
Are there any rules to this game? One moment, it’s great to have a protruding peninsular position, and the next moment it’s not, because living in a pre-Enlightenment society has traumatized you. Except that perhaps you have been kept pre-Enlightened because you are so near North Africa! But if Northern Europe’s ascent over Southern Europe was presaged by Charlemagne’s ascent over Rome, doesn’t this imply that the South made some kind of comeback in the long centuries between Charlemagne and the rise of the Eurovision Song Contest? What happened to geography, then? That’s an awfully long time for the magnetic pull of the north to have been in remission. If you compress and expand the time scale just as you like, you can make any event look inevitable. Elsewhere, Russia’s adherence to forms of authoritarian government is explained in terms of its cold climate and enormous size, the added proof presumably being that in Canada, too, one sees the same resistance to liberal institutions and the same trope toward authoritarian government. Right. So the Canadians, offspring of the British parliamentary tradition, have to be explained away as closet southerners clinging to the border.
Geostrategic thinking seems not just resolutely unfalsifiable but cozily improvised at a moment’s need. De Blij’s book reinforces this worry: though far more desk-bound and donnish in tone than Kaplan, he is just as bewildering about causality. He relates, at length, the story of the Little Ice Age, the five-hundred-year period, in the early modern age, when Europe was colder than it has been since or was before. It is, for him, a cautionary tale: “In Europe, there was little respite. The decade of the 1780s brought one crisis after another.” Yet though he grants that the cold helped sharpen farmers’ tools, he doesn’t quite see that the Little Ice Age coincided with the late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century era that the historian Ian Morris recently (and rightly) identified as the greatest and most decisive leap forward in human prosperity that has ever taken place. Cold folks, in this case, made hot ideas. Once again, the link between the geostrategic event and the real-world consequence is, to put it mercifully, attenuated.
Important as geography might be, the idea of geography’s importance seems still more important. Though geography is offered as a sobering up after the intoxications of end-of-history ideology, it soon reveals itself as another brandy bottle, with intoxications of its own. See, the Chinese are making a pincer move there, and—look!—the Indians are once again seeking to dominate the Gurdaspur-Kathiawar salient. Kaplan luxuriates in phrases of this kind: “Some years back I was in Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, from whose vantage point Tehran and Mashad over the border in Iranian Khorasan have always loomed.” It’s the same language that you find in John Buchan novels of the Great War era; the Chinese are on their way here, Russia is probing the hinterland, the Germans conspire with the Balts. “I have reports from agents everywhere—peddlers in Samarkand and bullion dealers in Cologne” is the way Buchan might put it.
Writers dream of playing Risk, but life is more like Parcheesi. One small step, one opportunistic leap, and if you get to the end of the board you become a king. It’s significant that these geostrategic ideas were popular in the years just before the First World War. Mackinder saw history being made on the Northwest frontier of India, but the Empire bled to death on the fields of France in fear of what might happen elsewhere, and by the time it got to India it handed over that frontier, out of exhaustion and a growing reluctance to fight for a possession that did not want to be possessed. The ideas propelled history as much as the geography they concerned; they encouraged people in power to think about the big picture when they might have done better to think small.
The little pictures tell the larger truth. Germany in 1914 would have triumphed if it had continued to be the productive, industrializing country that it was; the notion that Germany needed, or would benefit from, colonies in Africa or a vast naval presence was chimerical. A wise counsellor would have said to the Kaiser, “Keep doing what we’re doing, and, given the productivity and discipline of our people, we’ll be the major power in Europe by default.” But the Kaiser and his generals were intoxicated by the myth of maritime power and the perils of the World Island and the need for space and all the rest of it, and so they woke up to four years of pointless slaughter on the Western Front. The same thing was true on the liberal side. Read the account of the Great Game, the English-Russian conflict in the nineteenth century, and it becomes pitifully clear that the Tsar no more had the ability to take India (or Constantinople) than he did to dance a jig in the Paris Opéra Ballet, but that didn’t stop the British from obsessing over the long-term risk that he might. The geographic turn gets bloody.
Another version of space history is available these days, though. This might be called the cartographic turn, and is characterized by the argument that, while geography matters, it is visible only through the maps that we make of it. Where borders fall is as much a matter of how things areseen as how they really are. We can know the shape of the planet only through maps—maps in the ordinary glove-compartment sense, maps in a broader metaphoric one—and those maps are made by minds attuned to the relations of power. All nations are shaped by belligerence and slaughter. Their borders are a fretwork of scars; they are the history of violence made legible on earth. A new field of “border studies” has grown up around this insight, with its own journals and its own institutions: there’s a much respected Journal of Borderlands Studies, and there are institutes of border studies at several European universities. The newly published “Borders: A Very Short Introduction” (Oxford), by Alexander C. Diener and Joshua Hagen, makes an excellent and, well, very short introduction to the subject.
Border scholars argue that making borders is the essential modern gesture: ancient empires and medieval states had fluid and flexible borders, or none at all, and people lived and thrived in what were in every sense gray areas. The growth of the nation-state made the border an indispensable bureaucratic tool of mind and body control. Borders told us where to stand, and where we stand. We watch the red grow and shrink in the atlases as the British Empire expands and recedes. We see straight, ruled lines on a map—whether they mark the peaceful states of the American plains or the warring muddles of the Middle East—and we know that those lines were drawn by some yawning bureaucrat in a big building in the capital. And yet these arbitrary lines make cultures as much as they express them. The Canadian-American border, the longest border in the world between two countries, is as willful an act of imagination as a work of conceptual curtaining by Christo, but its existence has made two separate peoples, with two separate stories.
At times, this cartographic turn gestures toward a “Matrix”-like pessimism: what you think is natural is manipulated; that nation you live in, and the country you live in, were fiendish contraptions made by power to catch your soul. That’s the sense you get from “The New Violent Cartography” (Routledge), a collection of academic essays edited by the Hawaii political scientists Sam Okoth Opondo and Michael J. Shapiro, on the problems of why people fight over borders—or, rather, in one case, “an articulation of geographic imaginaries and antagonisms, based on models of identity-difference.” They make perhaps too much of the truth that the things rich people need are better mapped than the things they don’t, and that people with power tend to be able to impose their maps on people without it. Nonetheless, the idea that imaginary lines can have real victims is a powerful one.
Some mixture of the geographic and the cartographic underlies one of the most widely discussed works of serious history of the past few years: “Bloodlands,” by the Yale historian Timothy Snyder. A much praised, and occasionally reviled, history of the massacres in Poland, Belarus, the Baltic States, and Ukraine before and during the Second World War, Snyder’s book certainly grants modern ideas their force and power to ravage the world. He knows that Hitler and Stalin were not strange tubers that somehow grew naturally from the eastern earth. But he also wants to “contextualize” the story of the Ostkrieg—to understand the horrors as a specific set of events rising and rebounding against one another in a specific set of spaces among a specific set of peoples. He wants, in a word, to desacralize the story, make it less of a fable and more of a history. No one quite owned the land between Belarus, the Baltic States, Ukraine, Poland, and eastern Germany, and that made it ripe for massacre and counter-massacre. Bad fences make bad neighbors.
Snyder is seeking to overcome what one of his admirers has called the “Hollywood version of the Second World War,” where evil men in a Berlin suburb plan occult murders and carry them out with industrial efficiency in a distant land. In that version of what happened (“Schindler’s List” is a good example), Nazi ideologues decide to murder all the Jews; their work is done by other Germans, with dogs and guns, and, apart from a handful of heroic Gentiles, everyone else is a bystander. Eventually, Russian soldiers arrive to find a few emaciated survivors.
Snyder, by contrast, wants to localize the Holocaust, to make it part of a geographic and spatial history. He sees Eastern Europe not as a denuded wasteland, a battlefield where modern man could execute any plan he chose, but as Europe’s cluttered attic, stuffed with used oil rags and open paint cans and old newspapers; a single spark could set it on fire. What happened was not a war on the Jews so much as a convulsion in a long-disputed territory, in which everyone killed everyone.
Rather than a slow, moldering evil, with a horrific climax, Snyder sees twelve years of total war. Stalin starves Ukrainians to death on a genocidal scale; Ukrainians then aid in the execution of Jews (identifying them with the Communists, who had caused the great famine); Soviets and Nazis kill Polish officers; Germans kill Jews on the western side of the fence by gassing them, and on the other side by shooting them; and then, in a last horrible descant, Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Russians invade Germany, and rape, in unimaginable numbers, the undefended wives and daughters of the soldiers who, four years earlier, had marched off to kill the Slavs. It is a scene out of Bosch, not a blueprint from an industrial factory. Snyder wants us to see Hitler and Stalin and the fourteen or so million they murdered in the bloodlands by starvation and shooting (far more than by gas) as parts of a single story, which we betray by picking out any one horror and saying, There it is, the heart of darkness! (After all, Conrad’s heart of darkness ought to have been less Kurtz’s corruption in the jungle than King Leopold’s holocaust in the Congo.)
Snyder draws more people into the evil: where postwar mythology has enabled the view of an honorable German Army independent of the hideous S.S., he makes it plain that the Wehrmacht, not the S.S., created the first death camps, where Soviet soldiers were crammed together in the open, behind barbed wire, and were starved standing up. Nor does he let us off the hook. The book’s most original and most audacious charge is that Hitler’s model for his actions in the East was America’s ethnic cleansing of the West: “The East was the Nazi Manifest Destiny. In Hitler’s view, ‘in the East a similar process will repeat itself for a second time as in the conquest of America.’ As Hitler imagined the future, Germany would deal with the Slavs much as the North Americans had dealt with the Indians. The Volga River in Russia, he once proclaimed, will be Germany’s Mississippi.” Hitler, as he went about killing the Jews, was supposed to have said, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?,” but it was also the world’s proved indifference to the fate of the Apaches that gave him the confidence that he could get away with it.
At the same time, Snyder also asks us to extend our circles of compassion, making us see that the child dying in the gas chamber was no different from the one being starved to death in the siege of Leningrad, or that the fate of the zek in the Gulag was not very different from that of the Russian prisoner in a German lager. Snyder wants to make the slaughter less ideological and technological than it has seemed, and more geographic and territorial: a question not so much of evil ideas carried out by industrial means as of ancient hatreds brought to life by modern monsters in ancient terrain.
The counterclaim—made most loudly by the historian Richard Evans, in an angry review in The London Review of Books—is that Snyder’s account clouds the significance of the Holocaust and of the Gulag, and makes modern evil merely folkloric. Of course, massacre and counter-massacre were commonplace in history—but these twentieth-century massacres were increasingly a pure product of ideology, enforced by technology. Evans accuses Snyder of ignoring ideology, “despite the fact that this was the driving force of mass murder in both the Nazi and Soviet cases.” The Nazis murdered a lot of Jews in the bloodlands, but they were happy to wipe out whole villages in Czechoslovakia and France, too. The real voice of the new kind of killing is that of the railroad bureaucrat who, in Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah,” calmly discusses the scheduling of trains to Treblinka. And, indeed, there is a difference between a pogrom, where men kill their neighbors in rage, and a genocide, where children are shipped in from distant parts in order to be killed. The first makes you despair of man’s inhumanity to man; the second makes you despair of humanity. The instant popularity of the diary of Anne Frank in the postwar years suggests an intuitive grasp, on the part of its readers, of what made their war different from previous wars. That a modern state was searching, at great expense and at a cost to its own war effort, to find a fifteen-year-old girl in an attic in Amsterdam in order to get her on a train bound for a concentration camp in Poland showed something new in the theatre of human action. You had to be the captive of an idea, not the inhabitant of a bloody terrain, to do that.
In this sense, the argument for the primacy of geography is always an argument about trains. It’s always about technology, and the question of whether new machines make modern times different from all other times. Modern productivity is technology applied, and technology is, among other things, a repudiation of geography: it’s a way of insisting that the limits of the planet are not the limits of our lives. A train, or a telegraph, or a jet or a rocket ship, not to mention the Internet, collapses space and terrain. Flying machines get us over very high mountains. Borders disappear to bombers. New machines killed more people more quickly, and the authority of ideas, warped and misused by fanatics, gave the killers more absolute reasons for doing it. That’s why many accounts of the Holocaust—Hannah Arendt’s, for instance—put ideology and technology at the very center of the horror. The new geographers are asking us to make more modest claims for abstract ideas and modern machines than we like to. We make bloodlands and kill in order to remake our borders. We are as enmeshed in our past as we have ever been. Mass slaughter is not the modern bit. It is the human bit.
The new space history has one great virtue. It forces upon historians, the amateurs we all are as well as the pros we read, a little more humility. American prosperity looks like a function of virtue and energy, but the geographic turn tells us that it’s mostly a function of white people with guns owning a giant chunk of well-irrigated, very well-harbored real estate off the edge of the World Island, bordering a hot land on one side and a cold one on the other. Really, you can’t miss. Our geographic truth enters our songs and sagas even if it evades our sermons: O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, for purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plain; this land is my land, from the redwood forest to the gulf-stream waters. The geographic truth beneath our prosperity is as naturally sung by our bards as the olive oils and wine-dark sea at the heart of Greek culture were sung by theirs.
Yet there’s a difference between humility and fatalism. The continuities of geography are striking. But the discontinuities produced by thought are more striking still. The fruited plain did little for the idea of brotherhood until brotherhood took things into its own hands. Once, the sight of a Viking prow coming down a river was as terrifying a sight as any European could imagine. Now the Scandinavian countries are perhaps the most pacific in the world. Whatever changed, it wasn’t the shape of Scandinavia. Those Viking ships turned around, and the Vikings eventually became do-gooding Danes, because sense prevailed in the snows. England certainly is an island, and it was water, as much as will, that stopped Hitler. But the transformation there from the gang ethics that dominate human history to democratic reformist ones can hardly be accounted for by mere insularity. Tyranny flourished in the British Isles; and, when it ended, England had not drifted any closer to the Continent. Good ideas matter, as does the creation of the prosperity that good ideas need in order to flourish. Conversation shapes us more than mountains and monsoons can. Human history, like human love, is still made most distinctly face to face. ♦