Halford Mackinder: The Pivot and the Heartland by Brian Blouet

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Brian Blouet

College of William and Mary

Why does Mackinder evolve from the Pivot paper (1904) to the Heartland thesis (1919)? 

            In 1904 Mackinder identified four possible contenders for control of the core of Eurasia. The contenders were: the German empire, the Russian empire, China, and Japan. Mackinder added, should Germany and Russia ally, “the empire of the world would be in sight” (Mackinder, 1904, p.436). By implication the British empire would be eclipsed. Mackinder wanted his audience to consider this unpleasant reality and understand that it was time to federate the Empire, to give Britain more weight in world affairs.

            In Democratic Ideals and Reality (1919), Mackinder declared “… Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland” (Mackinder, 1919, p. 150). The Heartland was an enlarged version of the Pivot. Only two major powers abut East Europe: Germany and the emerging Soviet Union, and Mackinder leaves no doubt which is the stronger “…The Russians are… hopelessly incapable of resisting German penetration…” (Mackinder, 1919, p.158). China and Japan, not abutting East Europe, were downgraded as threats. Mackinder is correctly predicting that the immediate threat to peace will come from a resurgent Germany. Was this, at the time, regarded an eccentric view? No. It was commonplace. 

            Arthur Balfour, a member of the British War Cabinet, believed that Germany, in WWI, was making a bid for world supremacy (Tomes, 1997, p. 148). In a Cabinet paper of October 4th, 1916, Balfour declared that even in defeat, Germany would remain “…wealthy, populous and potentially formidable… more than a match for France…” (Llyod George, 1933, 877-888). 

            The future restraint of Germany was not solely a Franco-British concern. A few days after Balfour submitted his Cabinet paper, the first issue of New Europe appeared. The leaders in the venture were Seton-Watson and Thomas Masaryk. Masaryk, the future first president of Czechoslovakia, left Prague as the war began and took a post at Kings College, London University, where he was a colleague of Seton-Watson. 

            New Europe advocated the breakup of the Austria-Hungary empire and warned of Germany’s determination to expand territorially. The first number of New Europe contained Masaryk’s article “Pangermanism and the eastern question,” in which he states that Germany is no longer satisfied with bringing people of German race, speech, and culture into a Grossdeutsland but wanted to dominate the Balkans, the Danube valley, together with the Berlin to Baghdad corridor, giving access to the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. Germany was “determined to become an Asiatic power.” Masaryk suggested that the war was an “attempt to organize Europe, Asia, and Africa – the old world under the leadership of Germany” (Masaryk, 1916, p.19). Later, Mackinder labelled Europe, Asia, and Africa, the World Island. 

            Mackinder knew Seton-Watson well, collaborated with him in founding the Serbian society and joined the editorial board of New Europe in 1917. So far there is no documentation of interaction between Mackinder and Masaryk but they were linked via Seton-Watson. Kings college and the London School of Economics where Mackinder taught, are relatively close to each other, so close that, later, the two colleges set up a joint school of geography. 

Peace Negotiations?

            Late in 1916 Germany suggested a peace in which the Central Powers would retain much territory they had occupied since the start of the war. If the allies agreed to this, they were gifting control to Germany of a Mitteleuropa, stretching from the North Sea to the Middle East, via the Ottoman empire, and including, in eastern Europe, much territory wrested from the Russian empire. Members of the British War Cabinet could not agree to this, realizing they were allowing a major German war aim and providing an enlarged platform from which Germany could launch a later thrust to achieve, at least, European hegemony. 

            With one exception, no British Cabinet member was prepared to negotiate for peace on German terms. To quote the Labour Party leader Arthur Henderson, M.P., a member of the Coalition Cabinet led by the Liberal Prime Minister, Lloyd George, “A peace…with Belgium and France, Serbia, in the condition they are! No!” (Lloyd George, 1933, 888-889). A Conservative member of Cabinet, A.J. Balfour, put it bluntly, victory and then treaty negotiations. 

            The one dissenting Cabinet voice was Lord Landsdowne, who reasonably enough, asked how long could Britain go on expending manpower and financial resources, thus weakening itself economically? 

            As the French geographer Albert Demangeon put it in his Decline of Europe (1920) the war robbed all Europe of people, wealth, capital, and reduced the region to debtors. The United States came out of the war with an enlarged economy, as did Japan. 

Halford Mackinder, M.P.

            In 1908, Lord Milner, a leader in the Imperial Federation movement, and L.S. Amery, persuaded Mackinder to resign the directorship of LSE, to campaign for Imperial Unity and seek a seat in Parliament. Mackinder was an imperialist: an enlightened imperialist who lectured his audience on the need to spread economic activity around the empire, accept that India would become a democracy, stop thinking Britain’s were superior to other races, and stop thinking of Muslims as pagans. The empire had to develop a culture of tolerance (Mackinder, 1910, Blouet, 2013, pp.39-68). Milner arranged for Mackinder to receive €850 per annum, for four years, to replace the LSE directorship salary. Mackinder retained his London University lectureship and continued to teach at the London School of Economics. In 1909 Mackinder, unsuccessfully, contested the Howick Burghs constituency as a Conservative candidate. In 1910 he won the Camlachie seat in Glasgow and held it until 1922. L.S. Amery was elected to Parliament in 1911. 

            As an M.P. Mackinder had access to information and access was enlarged in 1916. In that year a Cabinet Secretariat was established, led by Sir Maurice Hankey. The Secretariat kept, and distributed, minutes. Amery was appointed to the Secretariat where in addition to recording, and organizing material, he wrote incisive position papers. 

            All Mackinder scholars will recall that Leo Amery and Halford Mackinder were members of the Co-Efficients dining club first convened, by Beatrice Webb in 1902, (Blouet, 2010, p. 134-135). It was Amery who made powerful comments in discussion of the 1904 Pivot paper (Mackinder, 1904, pp. 439-441). Amery and Mackinder worked together in the cause of Imperial Federation and, by the time they entered Parliament were well connected politically, via Lord Milner. 

            The Commons was a clubby place. Members met and talked in the restaurants and bars of the House or chatted on the terrace overlooking the river Thames. Information flowed freely and not just within the walls and halls of Westminster. The American Ambassador to the Court of St. James, thought he had an excellent intelligence service through reports brought to him by staff, returning from dinner parties where insiders spoke easily about the war and war issues (Brock, 1982).

            From late 1916 Mackinder, via Amery, had a window on Cabinet strategic thinking. On February 17th, 1917 Amery recorded in his diary: 

Lunched at the Carlton and had some talk with Mackinder, who afterwards came over to the office and went through the general territorial situation with me… he can get use of the map room at the London School of Economics for some of our research work (Amery Diary, Amel 7/13).

            Two days later Mackinder came to Amery’s office again to read the Territorial Committee papers. Thus, before he drafted segments of Democratic Ideals and Reality, in 1918, Mackinder had, via the Commons and L.S. Amery, considerable knowledge of War Cabinet views on the post-war world. The Cabinet was determined that Germany would not end the war in control of Mitteleuropa and was agreed that new states should emerge in East Europe – Mackinder’s Middle Tier. 

            Early in WWI Mackinder welcomed the likely break up of the Austria – Hungary empire (Mackinder, 1915, p.11) but understood this would create a power vacuum in Eastern Europe. He hoped for alliance between states, at one point advocating a defence agreement between Serbia and Romania (Mackinder, 1916, p. 5). A Little Entente involving Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Romania did emerge, in the early 1920s, but was ineffective when Germany and Russia re-emerged as great powers.

            As Walter Lippmann, a member of President Wilson’s Enquiry, along with the geographer Isaiah Bowman, put it: 

No one who knows anything of the internal conditions of the new states of Eastern Europe can for a moment imagine that they will survive squeezed in between gigantic revolutions in both Germany and Russia. The new states are fragments of destroyed empires, and each contains within itself problems that have all the seeds of disorder (Lippmann, 1919, quoted by Larry Wolf. Woodrow Wilson and the Reimagining of Eastern Europe. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2020).

Mackinder was fully aware of the weaknesses of new states. He advocated economic development (Mackinder, 1919, p. 154) and urged that the League of Nations provide support (Mackinder, 1919, pp. 170-171).

            Political leaders in Britain and France sensed that defeating Germany, in WWI, would not end German ambition to become the European hegemon, and, as we now know, Hitler’s ambitions were global (Goda, N. 1998). Relating to German ambition post-WWI, Professor Strachan states:

If the current war did not secure the full package of German war aims, it would have to be followed by another. In that case it would be… important to conclude this one with gains which would enable the next to be fought to a victorious conclusion (Strachan 2003, 293). 

Recent research reveals the extent of German territorial ambitions even in 1918 (Jenkins, 2018). This was not just hindsight, others saw the situation during WWI, including Balfour and Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary, 1905-1916. Grey wrote in his memoirs:

…that Germany was deliberately aiming at world predominance…not content with the greatest Army the world had ever seen, she was building a big Navy as well. Her object was first the hegemony of the Continent and then predominance over Britain. Passages from the German Emperor’s speeches could easily be used to show that he believed the Germans to be a chosen people… (Grey 1925, Vol 2, 29).

            Sir Edward’s view was written from experience. In 1908, Foreign Secretary Grey, along with Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lloyd George, lunched with the German ambassador to the Court of St. James. Grey suggested slowing the naval arms race which would allow Britain to retain a superiority of Dreadnought battleships. Nothing came of this and subsequently it became known that the Kaiser was annoyed that his ambassador had even discussed naval arms limitation. (Llyod, George, 1933, Vol. 1 pp.14-30).

We know from the research of Fritz Fischer that towards the end of WWI Germany was determined to retain control of a Mitteleuropa which stretched from Antwerp via Hamburg, Vienna, Sofia, and Constantinople to Baghdad; if it also proved possible to detach Finland from Russia, a German Mitteleuropa would extend from the North Cape to the Persian Gulf (Fischer 1967, 442-443). Certainly, early in WWI, German war aims included a continuous colonial empire stretching from German West Africa to German East Africa, presumably incorporating the Belgian Congo.


This short essay attempts to illustrate several points regarding Mackinder’s evolving strategic perspective in WWI. Firstly, as he had long feared, Germany was determined to rule Europe, at least. Secondly, when Mackinder drafted Democratic Ideals and Reality, towards the end of the war, he had via L.S. Amery, access to Cabinet material on the form of the post war world and the fear of ministers, that, in defeat, Germany would remain formidable. Thirdly, from the beginning of WWI, Mackinder’s view evolved independently, but tended to parallel those of British Foreign Secretaries: Sir Edward Grey (1905-1916), A.J. Balfour (1916-1919), Lord Curzon (1919-1924). Grey and Mackinder were members of the Co-Efficients dining club, Balfour was leader of the Conservative party, Curzon and Mackinder overlapped, as undergraduates, at the Oxford Union and it was Curzon who appointed Mackinder as British High Commissioner to South Russia.

            Let us look at an early statement of Mackinder’s view on post war Europe. On December 7th, 1914, Professor Lyde, of University College London, delivered a paper at the Royal Geographical Society on “Types of Political Frontiers” in Europe. He was criticized for being overly theoretical and Mackinder added: 

You are not going to crush out the German nationality. That is impossible; nor would it be desirable, if it were possible. You have sixty-one or sixty- two million Germans in the German Empire, and you have to add to them, I suppose, some eight or ten million German Austrians. A nationality of seventy millions in the centre of Europe, with an intensely national character, will have to be dealt with. It will still be so strong a power that I question whether there will be very much of ideal map-making. If you conquer that power, the object will be to clip its wings… (Lyde & Mackinder 1965, 142).

A little less than a year later Balfour, as we have seen, was telling the Cabinet that even in defeat, Germany would remain formidable. This fear was widely understood. 

            Fourthly, Mackinder wrote in an environment where the future form of Europe was widely discussed, both in Parliament and beyond. Mackinder was not isolated from the debates.  Which brings us to the possible influence of Tomas Masaryk. In a 1916 public lecture, chaired by Britain’s Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Lord Salisbury, Masaryk stressed the political significance of “the zone of small peoples in Europe that lies between the Germans and the Russians” (Masaryk, 1916). Does this contribute to Mackinder’s idea of a Middle Tier of independent states? Masaryk went on to suggest that WWI was a daring attempt, by Germany, “to organize, Europe, Asia, and Africa” under German leadership (Masaryk 1916, p. 19). 

            Many ideas were floated but it was Mackinder who coined “…Who Rules East Europe commands the Heartland.” Brilliant prophecy. Germany and Hitler did attempt to command the Heartland, in WWII. After Hitler’s defeat the Soviet Union ruled East Europe and held the Heartland. The U.S.S.R. wanted to spread communist doctrine and Soviet control, worldwide.

            With the collapse of the Soviet Union, we return to the Pivot paper of 1904. Of the four contenders for control of the Pivot of Eurasia two, Germany and Russia, have tried and failed, Germany twice. Of the other contenders identified in 1904, Japan and China, we can rule out the former because Japan lacks the population and wealth to challenge China for control over the interior Eurasia. As William Parker warned us, before the U.S.S.R. collapse, if the Soviet Union ceased to exist, China’s control of the Heartland would be unstoppable (Parker, 1982, p. 211). Now we are reading about One Road One Belt penetrating the core of Eurasia with all its strategic implications (Sloan, 2017, Ispahani, 1989) and a string of pearls stretching from the South China Sea, across the Indian Ocean to African shores, for China is an amphibious power, with territory deep into the Heartland and oceanic frontage on the Pacific. 

            Of course, Mackinder did not ignore China. In the 1904 paper it is seen as a possible contender for control of the core of Euro-Asia. Further, as Francis Sempa reminds us that Mackinder states in Nations of the Modern World (1911) that if China takes full advantage of its resources, population, and location it will become a great power (Sempa, 2019). We may view the road and rail penetration routes into the core of Eurasia as a purely economic enterprise. But the building of artificial islands in the South China sea, in order to exert control over the region, can only be seen as an aggressive stance. However, China’s geopolitical aims are a story explored elsewhere (Brewster, 2016).


This handout for my Geostrategic Thought Seminar – Gov. 482 at William and Mary – is a shorter version of the article “From the Pivot to the Heartland: Mackinder in W.W.I.” Geographical Review 2020. With some material added at the suggestion of Len Hochberg who edited the essay. The online version is hard to access.


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