Heartland vs Rimland, Continental vs Maritime Power: The Geopolitics of the First World War*

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Hew Strachan

On 25 January 1904, Halford Mackinder, Reader in Geography at Oxford and Director of the London School of Economics, delivered a lecture entitled ‘The geographical pivot of history’ at the Royal Geographical Society of London.  He described a world which had been fully explored and fully politicised – in that its territories had all been allocated to states and their frontiers had been defined.  It was, he said, ‘a closed political system’.  As a result, in Mackinder’s opinion, ‘Every explosion of social forces, instead of being dissipated in a surrounding circuit of unknown space and barbaric chaos, will be sharply re-echoed from the far side of the globe, and weak elements in the political and economic organisation of the world will be shattered in consequence’.[1]

Mackinder’s characterisation of the world before 1914 emphasised the interdependence of its elements: like many of his contemporaries, he used vocabulary which anticipated the phrases employed today – often rhetorically and frequently vacuously – to describe the phenomenon which we have come to call globalisation.   Most of Mackinder’s peers located their early twentieth-century understanding of globalisation in the adoption of the gold standard.  On the eve of the First World War, 59 countries cleaved to a system of international finance, which established an exchange system dependent on the pound sterling and delivered a measure of economic stability.   The City of London was dominant in other respects, as Britain’s merchant banks, and its insurance and shipping companies, underpinned the patterns of world-wide trade.[2]   

While others saw Britain and its maritime and financial strengths as the hub of this world-wide closed political system, Mackinder stressed their vulnerability.  For him, the states of western Europe, with their ready access to the Atlantic ocean and global trade, were no longer ‘the geographical pivot’.  The latter now lay further to the east, to an expanse that he called ‘Euro-Asia’, or the ‘world island’.  This was a land mass of 21 million square miles, ‘or half of all the land on the globe, if we exclude from reckoning the deserts of Sahara and Arabia’.  The heart of Euro-Asia was Russia, and at the dawn of the twentieth century others – not just Mackinder – began to recognise that it had the military and economic potential to exploit its central position.  As Mackinder put it, ‘Trans-continental railways are now transmuting the conditions of land-power, and nowhere can they have such effect as in the closed heart-land of Euro-Asia, in vast areas of which neither timber nor accessible stone was available for road-making.  Railways work the greater wonders in the steppe, because they directly replace horse and camel mobility, the road stage of development having been omitted.’   Thanks to the railway, even as Mackinder spoke, the Russian army in Manchuria provided ‘as significant evidence of mobile land-power as the British army in South Africa [in the war of 1899-1902] was of sea-power’.[3]  As Japan’s threat to its foothold on the Pacific coast grew, Russia planned to reinforce its base at Port Arthur on the Yellow Sea with troops brought from the Baltic, a redeployment dependent less on Russia’s fleet than on the trans-Siberian railway.[4]  The conclusion which followed was popularised by Mackinder in 1919 as: ‘Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland: Who rules the Heartland, commands the World-Island: Who rules the World-Island commands the World’.[5]

Mackinder’s lecture was important for three reasons.  First, it marked the arrival in the Anglophone world of geopolitics as a form of study.  Secondly it provided a challenge to the prevailing orthodoxy which rested on the supremacy of maritime power and was most popularly articulated by Alfred Thayer Mahan in The influence of seapower upon history, published in 1890. Mackinder set his notion of a dominant land mass against Mahan’s idea of (in Mackinder’s formulation) ‘the one and continuous ocean enveloping the divided and insular lands’.  This he said was the basis of ‘the whole theory of modern naval strategy and policy as expounded by such writers as Captain Mahan and Mr Spenser Wilkinson’.[6] (Spenser Wilkinson, the military correspondent of The Morning Post and soon to be Oxford’s first professor of military history, was in the audience for Mackinder’s lecture.).  Thirdly, Mackinder’s thesis, that sea power was losing out to land power, and western Europe to eastern, has come to provide one of the foundations for a grand strategic analysis of the Anglo-German antagonism and its playing out in two world wars.

Paul Kennedy has been the most important exponent of this last approach, first in an article published in the Militärgeschichtliche Mitteilungen in 1974[7] and then in The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery in 1976. Part 2 of the latter book, called ‘Zenith’, ends with a chapter entitled ‘Mahan versus Mackinder’. That chapter is immediately followed by part 3, ‘Fall’.  Kennedy’s thesis, put simply and possibly over-simplified, was that Mackinder replaced Mahan, and that, because the former was more right about the future than the latter had been, he explained more satisfactorily the ebbing of British power.  Kennedy concluded his chapter on the First World War with these words: ‘”History”, Mahan had asserted, “has conclusively demonstrated the inability of a state with even a single continental frontier to compete in naval development with one that is insular, although of smaller population and resources”.’   History was indeed part of Mahan’s problem: his understanding of strategy rested on the past, and specifically both on that of Britain and on the technologies available to eighteenth-century maritime powers.  The application of steam power to navigation in the nineteenth century raised serious questions about Mahan’s approach to naval strategy in particular, quite apart from what it might say about strategy more broadly defined.  As early as the 1840s Britain had worried about the threat of a sudden steam-borne invasion from France, a fear reflected in the formation of auxiliary ground forces for home defence and in the construction of coastal fortifications.[8]  Kennedy concluded that ‘by the twentieth century, with the rise of super-powers rich enough to support both a large army and a navy,’ Mahan’s point about the inherent strength of insularity ‘was no longer true.  Mackinder, as it turned out, had proved to be far more prescient.’[9]

The purpose of this essay is to challenge that presumption.  What was striking about Mackinder’s lecture, given the freight which it is now made to carry, was how limited its immediate effects were, not least in Britain, Mackinder’s own country and the one which stood to lose most if he were right.  

Mackinder had been President of the Union in 1883 when an undergraduate at Christ Church, Oxford and had stood for Parliament as a Liberal Imperialist in 1900.[10]  His lecture was attended by Leo Amery, also a Liberal Imperialist, and both a Fellow of All Souls and the correspondent of The Times in the South African War.  Through Amery, Mackinder was associated with the groups (all of them with strong Oxford links) which advocated imperial efficiency and tariff reform, such as Lord Milner’s ‘Kindergarten’, the ‘Co-efficients’ and the ‘Compatriots’.  As Britain faced relative industrial decline because of the rapid growth of others in the late nineteenth century, especially the United States and Germany, these groups sought to reconstruct its empire on lines which would maximise its economic and military potential.  Mackinder’s lecture ought by rights to have appealed to them, and especially to the leading Liberal Imperialist politicians with whom he consorted, including Joseph Chamberlain, the Colonial Secretary between 1895 and 1903, and Richard Burdon Haldane, who would become Secretary of State for War at the end of 1905.

But there is no evidence that it did, or at least not in Kennedy’s terms.  The point that Mackinder wanted the British political classes to draw from his geopolitical presentation was not so much that they should accept inevitable decline but that they should wake up to the challenge and think how best to confront it.  They needed to answer a geographical problem with a political solution.  Britain could not re-position itself in the world, but it still had to make its empire and its navy work more effectively in order to off-set the growth of continental powers and their armies.  In 1902, Mackinder had published Britain and the British Isles, a book which dealt with –among other things – Britain’s strategic geography.  It manifested, as did other publications in Britain at the time, a view of strategy which was much broader than the conceptions prevalent either on the continent of Europe or within armies.  At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Clausewitz had defined strategy as the use of the battle for the purpose of the war, and most pre-1914 interpretations still reflected that approach: strategy was a matter for generals and its function was to aid them in their employment of the forces at their disposal within a specific theatre of war.  By contrast, Mackinder saw defence as ‘essentially the protection of economic subsistence’, and regarded the distinction between war and peace as irrelevant since ‘the pressure of strategical considerations is urgent upon governments at all times’.[11]  Nothing in this would have struck a British reader as either new or remarkable.  Sir John Colomb had made similar points in 1867, and they were popularised by works like Sir Charles Dilke’s and Spenser Wilkinson’s Imperial Defence, published in 1892.  This understanding of what later generations would call ‘grand strategy’ reflected the need to address imperial defence and to sustain a navy and its bases to protect it.[12]

In Britain and the British Isles, Mackinder did not reject Mahan.  Indeed he embraced him (and Spenser Wilkinson), averring that the defence of Britain ‘rests fundamentally upon the theory implied in the command of the sea‘.  What this meant ‘in a military sense’ was that in its wars  Britain ‘has destroyed the enemy’s fleet or securely blockaded it, and has thus carried the natural frontier for the purpose of the war, and for that purpose only, to the enemy’s coast’.[13]  However, Mackinder was concerned that economic decline might mean that ‘Britain may no longer have the means of building and maintaining an adequate fleet’, and so would lose command of the sea.  He feared Russia and Germany not because of a geopolitical shift from maritime power to continental power, but because both aspired to be like Britain – maritime powers with large navies.  If Britain declined to such an extent that it could no longer maintain a fleet to match those of its competitors, it should – he said – create a navy of ‘all the Britons’, to be resourced not only by the empire but also by the United States.[14]  The views which he expressed in his lecture of 1904 did not represent an abdication of this position.  When Britain and the British Isles came out in a second edition in 1907, Mackinder changed nothing that he had written on command of the sea.  His views on British strategy displayed a continuity which is obscured if his 1904 lecture is read in isolation.[15]

What ‘the geographical pivot of history’ did not say was therefore at least as important as what it did say.  Leo Amery, who was present at the lecture, commented – extensively – on Mackinder’s remarks.  He praised them for their presentation of ‘the whole of history and the whole of ordinary politics under one big comprehensive idea’.  However, he then took up the rivalry between railway-mobility and sea-mobility: ‘Sea-mobility has gained enormously in military strength to what it was in ancient times, especially in the number of men that can be carried.  In the old days the ships were mobile enough, but they carried few men, and the raids of the sea-people were comparatively feeble.  … I am merely stating a fact that the sea is far better for conveying troops than anything, except fifteen or twenty parallel lines of railway.’[16]

For Amery too the question facing Britain was how it could make sea power work.  Moreover, he was right about the superiority of sea-mobility over rail-mobility, at least for the time being.  In 1904 Euro-Asia was not in fact a direct threat to Britain for, as Mackinder acknowledged, Russia lacked the capital to develop its resource base.  In the following year, the Russian army, operating at the end of a long but single railway line, was defeated in Manchuria by a Japanese army, dependent on ‘sea-mobility’. Any immediate threat from Russia was subsumed first by its military humiliation at the hands of a non-European power and then by the revolution which accompanied its defeat.  In 1905 the danger to Britain came not from Russia, but from Germany, whose suzerainty in western Europe looked even more imposing as any danger to its east receded.  Britain’s vulnerability as a ‘rimland’ would only be manifested if Germany allied with Russia, something which briefly looked possible in October 1905, or if  – as Mackinder himself was to argue in 1943 – Russia defeated Germany.[17]

At bottom Mackinder’s famous lecture was an endorsement of Britain’s policy of pursuing a balance of power within Europe.  He saw that France could be the counter-weight to Russia, and to that extent his lecture could be read as an argument for a different sort of change – for British diplomacy to move from isolation to alliance. [18]  Indeed at this level his remarks did no more than reflect the direction that British policy was already taking.  In 1901 the Hay-Paunceforte treaty with the United States and in 1902 the Anglo-Japanese alliance had addressed some of the Royal Navy’s problems of maritime ‘overstretch’ in the western Atlantic and in the northern Pacific respectively.   The ententes with France in 1904 and then with Russia in 1907 went on to deal with the more proximate issues which Mackinder had raised at the Royal Geographical Society, those of British interests within Euro-Asia.  Within three years Britain both had a west European ally to balance Germany if the latter defeated Russia or allied itself with it, and an Asian ally to ease its security concerns in what it would come to call the southern arc of empire – the swathe of British interests running through south Asia from Egypt to India.

So the reason for the lack of resonance within Britain from a lecture which we are now encouraged to see as epoch-making was simple.  It may have been revolutionary for the study of geopolitics in Britain; it was less so for British policy.  Britain already had some answers in hand, and they rested on the reformulation of maritime power, not on its ultimate rejection.  Nor was this response simply a product of ill-founded British complacency.  Both its immediate rival, Germany, and the potential super-power of the Euro-Asia land mass, Russia, were also bent on the acquisition of maritime capabilities.  Logically, the power to which Mackinder’s view of geopolitics ought to have appealed was not Britain, but Germany.  At the core of the lecture was an argument about continental power and its vulnerability to an industrialised Russia. This was indeed the fear that caused German leaders to lie awake at night, as Russia recovered in the years leading up to 1914.  Yet before the First World War, Mackinder had little, if any, impact in Berlin. 

In the very same month in which Mackinder delivered his lecture, January 1904, Curt von Maltzahn, who had been director of the German Marine-Akademie until the previous month, also gave one, at the Institut für Ozeanographie at Berlin University.  Entitled ‘Das Meer als Operationsfeld’, this too was a lecture on geopolitics.  Maltzahn used Mahan to stress the importance of the global choke points, such as Gibraltar, Hawaii and the Dardanelles, for the control of the world’s sea lanes, but he also deployed the work of Friedrich Ratzel, the founding father of German geopolitics and an influence on Mackinder, to deny that geographical position would determine the outcome of a naval war.[19]

Ratzel, professor of geography at the University of Leipzig, had published Politische Geographie in 1897, and had added a chapter to its 1900 edition on ‘Gesetz der Seeherrschaft’ which he called ‘Das Meer als Quelle der Völkergröße’.  Like Mackinder, he had been influenced by Social Darwinism, and saw the state as an organism which was required to expand its territory in order to survive.  Like Mackinder too, he recognised that the world had become a closed political system, and that the living space, the ‘Lebensraum’, into which a flourishing state could expand was therefore no longer available.  The sea provided a solution to the problem.  Here there was space; the sea could enable Germany to grow just as it had enabled other smaller states, like Greece, Rome, Venice, Portugal, Holland and Britain, to acquire empires.  Trade followed the flag, and sea power both protected trade and expanded trading freedom.[20]

Two policy conclusions followed for Germany.  First, Germany had to support the principle of freedom of the seas in order to prevent their domination by Britain.  This was an argument played out in 1909 at the London conference, called to address the laws of maritime warfare.  If Britain were a neutral in a future war, it would benefit from a narrow definition of contraband, which was restricted to munitions of war and their direct inputs.  Since on 30 June 1914 the ship-owners of the British empire possessed 47.9 per cent of the world’s registered tonnage, they dominated the carriage of goods not only to and from the United Kingdom but also between other countries.[21]  In the event of war, they stood to profit from their neutrality.  But, if Britain were a belligerent, it would need the definition of contraband to be as wide as possible so that it could use the weapon of economic warfare and prevent other powers from cross-trading as neutrals.  In that case its aim would be not to maintain the trades to mainland Europe but to close them down.  Some Germans argued that Britain would not in practice be able to mount a blockade that would be legal.  International maritime law required blockade to be effective to be lawful.  Britain would have to have enough warships physically to be able to enforce a blockade and, to do that, its ships would need to be close to the German coastline and so vulnerable to mines, coastal artillery and shore batteries.  Maltzahn did not subscribe to this view.  He recognised that Britain, equipped with a broad definition of contraband, could mount a blockade that would work through the use of the right to stop and search merchant ships on the high seas and to seize the goods they were carrying.[22]

Maltzahn’s second conclusion was that Germany must concentrate its naval forces in order to exercise great and disproportionate influence from a small area of coastline.  Unlike Britain, France and even Russia, Germany had no direct access to any ocean of the world.  Its traditional trade had been confined to the Baltic.  Its North Sea coast gave it better access to the Atlantic, but primarily through the ports of the Elbe and Weser estuaries, Cuxhaven and Wilhelmshaven, neither of them optimally positioned.  A German cruiser fleet, designed to wage ‘guerre de course’ across the world’s seas, would be easily cut off from its bases.  As Ratzel had put it in 1900: ‘Das Zusammenfassen aller Kräfte an einer Stelle is die Grundregel des Seekrieges …. Der Seekrieg verneint die auf dem Lande geltenden Machtanschläge.  Ein kleiner Staat, der auf dem entscheidenden Punkte eine kampffähige Flotte zusmmenbringt, setzt den Großstaat matt.’[23]

Maltzahn liked this argument because it reflected his desire to adapt Clausewitz’s ideas to a maritime context, and particularly the principle of concentrating mass in order to seek a decision through battle. But he confronted an intellectual problem.  An operational principle derived from military strategy, while it made sense in relation to Germany’s confined geographical position within Europe, made less sense at the level of  what later generations would call ‘grand strategy’.  As Maltzahn put it in a book first published in 1905, ‘the naval warfare of to-day has assumed a different position in national life and in politics from that which it occupied a few decades ago.  And the reason for this is that all the great civilised countries have now become States that carry on a world-embracing commerce, and are thus dependent upon maritime trade and the results of naval wars.’[24]  The global dimensions of commerce had led Maltzahn to argue in 1899 that Germany needed a capacity to wage oceanic cruiser war, which did not necessarily depend on its exercising command of the sea but did require it both to be able to operate on the world’s trade routes and to fight a battle in the North Sea.  For his old school friend, Alfred von Tirpitz, appointed in 1897 to head the Imperial Naval Office, this was heresy, since it threatened a dangerous division of finite resources.  The difference between the two was sufficiently major to cause Maltzhan’s retirement.[25]

Tirpitz’s suppression of internal differences within the navy did not resolve the fundamental dilemma posed by ‘globalisation’ and cruiser warfare.  In 1897 Bernhard von Bülow, as foreign minister, and from 1900 as chancellor of Germany, had embraced a new direction in German foreign policy, ‘Weltpolitik’.  Its salient feature in the present context was that it was more Mahanian than Mackinderite.   It recognised Germany’s need for overseas markets and the necessity of supporting its trade, and acknowledged the fact that the navy could contribute to this.  In the same year, Germany acquired Tsingtao on the Chinese coast, specifically so that it could become a naval base for cruiser warfare in the Pacific, while at the same time Tirpitz set about creating a battle fleet for the North Sea.   Germany’s naval policy between 1897 and 1911, and the growth in spending on ships while spending on the army stagnated, suggested that nobody in Berlin in 1904 read The Geographical Journal, where Mackinder’s lecture was published, or that if they did they did not believe it.

Germany, since it was the second largest industrial power in the world, had an interest both in free trade and in access to global markets. As Britain had done in the nineteenth century, it stood to gain far more from peaceful economic penetration than it could achieve through war and territorial conquest.[26]   The idea of Mitteleuropa, a central European and closed economic bloc, or even of German domination of the Euro-Asia ‘heartland’, only made economic sense after 1914, when the advent of war cut Germany off from the rest of the world’s markets.  It was a default position, not an optimum one.  Friedrich Naumann’s popularisation of Mitteleuropa was published in 1915, not before the war.[27]

Ratzel had died in 1904, and if geopolitics found a spokesman in Germany during the First World War it was not a German, but a Swede, Rudolf Kjellén.  His publications supported a view of Lebensraum which depended less on the ideas of Ratzel, with their attention to the sea, and more on those of Naumann.  They also chimed with the war aims programme of September 1914 drawn up by Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, Bülow’s successor as chancellor.  A dynamic polity like Germany had to expand, Kjellén argued, and it could do so through creating regional power blocs.  For him, as for many others in Germany, the pivotal battle of the First World War had become that between Germany and Russia.  The issue was which of the two was to control central Europe, not who was to control the world.[28]

In this respect Mackinder’s lecture found echoes throughout the war.  Germans launched a number of policy initiatives which recognised that their country had to resolve the heartland problem before it addressed the issues of wider world power.  First was the determination in November 1914 of the chief of the Prussian general staff, Erich von Falkenhyan, to seek a separate peace with Russia.  Falkenhayn, unlike the majority of Prussian officers, had served in China before the war, and had seen at first hand the reach of British imperial and naval power.  As a result he correctly identified Britain as the financial and industrial hub of the enemy alliance.  Germany’s problem was that it lacked the maritime power to deal with Britain directly; and so its best hope was to knock out the principal military power on the continent, France.  If it did that, Britain would no longer be able to sustain a land war.  Falkenhayn therefore believed that the western front should be the focus of the German armies’ efforts, and that accordingly they should be freed from simultaneously fighting the Russians on the eastern front.  He wanted to resolve the heartland problem by securing a negotiated settlement with Russia.  For him, this was as logical politically as it was strategically: the autocratic rule of the Romanovs had more in common with that of the Habsburgs and Hohenzollerns than it did with that of their ally, republican France.[29]  

In practice, however, the outbreak of the war had shifted the geopolitical framework.  As Mackinder realised, a Russo-German alliance made sense for Germany; it no longer made much sense for Russia.  On 5 September 1914 the three powers of the Entente, France, Russia and Britain, had agreed that none of them would seek a separate peace.  Over the course of the same month, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Sazonov, went on to define his country’s war aims in terms designed to consolidate Russia as the dominant power in ‘Euro-Asia’.  Acquisitions in Silesia, Poland and Galicia would enhance its position in central Europe.  Moreover, as the British attitude towards the Ottoman empire hardened, so did London’s readiness to offer Russia access to the eastern Mediterranean from the Black Sea, an ambition which much of British foreign policy throughout the nineteenth century had been designed to foil.  When at the end of October Turkey attacked Russia’s Black Sea ports, so finally fulfilling the commitment which it had made by allying with Germany on 2 August 1914, Britain responded by offering its eastern ally control of both Constantinople and the Bosphorus.  The immediate pressure on Sir Edward Grey, the British foreign secretary, was the need to wage the war and to win it; but in the longer term he preferred to see Russia rather than Germany controlling the straits, particularly if the effect was to draw Russia westwards to Europe and away from Asia and India.  These agreements meant that victory over Germany now offered Russia the opportunity to achieve domination of the ‘heartland’ in a way which a Russo-German peace deal could not.  In the words of one German historian, ‘Die Gebietsforderungen, die die russische Regierung selbst an Deutschland stellen wollte, ließen sich allgemein ebenfalls aus der Absicht erklären, das Deutsch Reich machtpolitisch zu schwächen und seine Desintegration zu fördern’.[30]

In these circumstances there was not much prospect of Falkenhayn’s peace initiative finding favour in Russia. But, even if it had, it faced obstacles which were as great, if not greater, at home in Germany. Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff, the self-declared victors of Tannenberg and now the national heroes of Germany, were bent on further conquests in the east.   They rejected the chief of the general staff’s determination to concentrate on the west.  Their solution to the ‘heartland’ problem was not an accommodation with Russia, but its defeat.  By pushing Germany’s frontiers into the Baltic states, Russian Poland and even to Ukraine, Germany would control ‘Euro-Asia’.  Not least because of their mass appeal in Germany, they were able to drag the chancellor, Theodor von Bethmann Hollweg, in their wake.  This improbable alliance between military demagogues and a politician isolated Falkenhayn, even if he continued to enjoy the backing of the Kaiser.  During 1915 the Austro-German solution to the ‘heartland’ question was to overrun the Baltic states and Poland, so pushing Russia’s actual frontiers away from Europe and into Asia.  Nonetheless, even as the ‘great retreat’ ended in September 1915, Russia would still not discuss terms with Germany.[31]  

Ultimately, this, the second approach to resolving how and by whom ‘Euro-Asia’ would be mastered, found its fulfilment, albeit through somewhat different means, at Brest-Litovsk in early March 1918.  Soviet Russia agreed to concede a million square miles of territory and a third of its population, including the Baltic states and Poland.  To the south Romania accepted similarly damaging terms at Bucharest on 7 May 1918.  Its territories in Wallachia were handed to Austria-Hungary and in southern Dobrudja to Bulgaria, both of them indirectly controlled by Germany.  These were the headlines.  More remarkable during the remainder of 1918 were the attempts by the majority parties of the centre and left in the German Reichstag, supported by two foreign ministers, Richard Kühlmann and then Paul von Hintze, both of whom wanted to keep the Bolsheviks in power, to turn the defeat of Russia into a framework for Russo-German cooperation.[32]  The revival and pursuit of the idea of a Russo-German alliance continued to spur technical and economic collaboration, particularly in terms of military equipment, in the 1920s.

German success in the ‘heartland’ did not bring victory in the First World War.  Instead, a maritime strategy employed by the ‘rimlands’ proved sufficient to counter all Germany’s victories in ‘Euro-Asia’.  This strategy was not Mahanian in the sense which Maltzahn had anticipated, in that there was no decisive naval battle in the North Sea.  Many in the German navy had realised before the war’s outbreak that Britain could have no interest in seeking battle. The memory of Trafalgar may have been burnished by the Royal Navy, but the outcome of battle – as Nelson himself knew well enough – depended on chance.  At the strategic level, Britain exercised maritime control without battle. At the tactical level, as the original strategic gurus of the Napoleonic wars, Jomini and Clausewitz, had stressed, contingency could prevail over logic.  If the British Grand Fleet had decisively defeated the German High Seas Fleet at Jutland on 31 May 1916, the effect would have been to consolidate a pre-existing situation, not to change it.  Although ironically it was the Royal Navy which was so anxious to lure the Germans to battle, it was only Germany that stood to benefit from it.  In the event the Germans sank more British ships than the British did German, but not to the point that the balance of power in the North Sea was changed.

For the rest of the war British strategy owed less to Mahan than to Julian Corbett.  In 1911 Corbett, who was close to Jackie Fisher, the First Sea Lord in 1904-10 and again in 1914-15, had published his major work of theory, Some principles of maritime strategy.  The fruit of his teaching on the Naval War Course at Greenwich, Corbett’s book memorably (and controversially) argued that the navy alone could not produce a decision in war.  To that extent Corbett might appear to be the product of a post-Mackinder age, and yet he – like Mahan – drew his examples not from some imagined future but from the past, from the age of sail and of Britain’s wars in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  Moreover, he did not conclude that a ‘rimland’ power could not adopt an effective strategy.  In fact the reverse applied: Britain had the privileges both of being able to fight a limited war within a major conflict and of choice as to its preferred mode of action.  As an island state close to Europe, it had two maritime options.  The first was to use its amphibious capabilities to intervene on the continent, choosing a point calculated to maximise their strategic effect.  On one reading, except for the years 1916-18 and 1944-45, when it both adopted conscription and concentrated the mass of its army on a principal European front, this is what it did in both world wars.   Corbett’s conception was what in the inter-war years Basil Liddell Hart would popularise as ‘the British way in warfare’, precisely because he was determined to prevent Britain repeating what he saw as the strategic errors of the First World War.  The second option was to wage economic warfare through the use of maritime blockade: as Corbett put it, ‘by closing [the enemy’s] commercial ports we exercise the highest power of injuring him which the command of the sea can give us’.[33]

In the crisis of July 1914 both France and Russia had wanted Britain to make its position clear and to commit itself to a coordinated allied diplomatic effort, either to deter Germany from its support of Austria-Hungary or – if that failed – to ensure that the Entente entered the war on the best possible footing.  They did not chivvy Britain because they needed its army on the continent.  As Ferdinand Foch memorably remarked in 1909, France needed only one British soldier in France, and he needed him to be killed, so that Britain would be committed to the war.  The presence of the remainder of the British Expeditionary Force of roughly 100,000 men was a mere bagatelle in a war in which each of the armies of the other major belligerents would approach a strength on mobilisation of three million.  The arguments presented before the war to the Committee of Imperial Defence in 1911 by the Director of Military Operations, Henry Wilson, that the six British divisions of the BEF would prove decisive in swinging the balance in the west were to that extent specious.[34]

What France and Russia wanted in July 1914 was not Britain’s army but its sea power.  At its meeting on 18 April 1913, the French Conseil Supérieur de Guerre concluded that in the event of war Britain was not obliged under the terms of the Entente to support France on land, but it reckoned that the Anglo-French naval agreement of 1912 did create a moral obligation to do so at sea.  It was to this understanding, which had left the French navy responsible for the security of the western Mediterranean, but charged the Royal Navy with the protection of France’s northern coasts, that the French ambassador in London, Paul Cambon, referred in late July 1914.  Although Cambon’s concern revolved around French vulnerability to the German navy if war broke out, this was not the only French interest in the Royal Navy in the event of war.  They also believed that, if Britain showed its solidarity with France and Russia, the threat of the Royal Navy’s participation would be sufficient to deter Germany from hostilities.  The British ambassador in Paris, Lord Bertie, told Grey as late as 30 July 1914 that a British decision to support France would ‘almost certainly’ prevent war, as Germany ‘would not run the risk of having her sea-borne trade destroyed and of being starved out by the British fleet’.[35]  

The continental powers of the Entente rated the contribution of British sea power so highly in part because they massively exaggerated the speed with which blockade could take effect.  At the beginning of August 1914 the deputy chief of the French general staff, Edouard de Castelnau, told Bertie that victory was assured provided Britain used its navy to close Germany’s maritime approaches, since Germany would then be starved out within four months.  In Russia, according to the British ambassador in St Petersburg, Sir George Buchanan, Britain was seen as the only power which could strike a mortal blow against Germany.  Sazonov had told him that a special conference held in Russia on 13 January 1914 convinced itself that British involvement could lead to a German defeat within six weeks through ‘a full inner social collapse’.[36]  Britain’s hesitations about blockade revolved around their fear that it would take too long to have an effect; that was not a deficiency recognised by some allies.  In particular the Russians, for all their geographical position at the centre of ‘Euro-Asia’, were clearly more Mahanian than Mackinderite.

Paul Kennedy’s argument about the decline of British naval mastery, and his presumption that Mackinder triumphed over Mahan, rests on the premise that the blockade of the First World War was less effective than its pre-war proponents argued that it would be or than some of its post-war advocates believed it had been.[37]  The weapon of blockade, Kennedy concluded of the First World War, ‘unless it be used against an island state heavily dependent upon overseas trade, is bound to be only a subsidiary one’. Waging land warfare in early twentieth-century Europe, he went on, sapped ‘the manpower, economy and morale of the Central Powers at a far higher rate than did the maritime blockade’.[38]  Kennedy’s argument was therefore a corrective, and a very necessary one for British thinking at the time, in favour of the fighting on the western front.  Others in the 1970s, including Michael Howard and John Terraine, were also concerned to put the argument in favour of ‘a continental commitment’. [39]  Moreover, the case against the blockade’s contribution to the war’s outcome seemed to be reinforced in 1989 when Avner Offer concluded that Germany did not starve.[40]  As in Kennedy’s case, his caveats – that his food consumption figures were averages, that Germany certainly thought it had a food problem, and that such perceptions affected morale – proved less important than the headline.

The point here, and one which both Kennedy and Offer fully recognised, is that, in what came to be called a ‘total war’, the causes of victory and defeat cannot be isolated in this way – or not without a gross over-simplification of much more complex phenomena.  The blockade and the fighting on land had reciprocal effects.  The former prevented Germany both from importing (and so securing supplies from overseas) and exporting.  Because it could sell neither its goods abroad nor its treasury bills on the New York stock exchange, it had to internalise its war debt by borrowing from its own banks and its own population.  In funding its war effort it stoked inflation.  So did the Entente, but it avoided the worst inflationary pressures by tapping overseas money markets, at first those of Britain in the case of the other powers, and then those of the United States.[41]   Moreover, the fact that Germany had enough food to feed its population did not mean that it managed to do so on an equitable basis.  It did not, and even those privileged by the rationing system, like soldiers and workers in heavy industry, could still feel hungry by comparison with pre-war expectations.  Such calculations tend to forget Germany’s allies, whose subsistence levels seem in many cases to have been much worse.  Parts of the Ottoman empire certainly confronted famine by 1918.  Food shortages had psychological and socially divisive effects.  High prices stimulated the black market, with the result that those with sufficient incomes were well fed, while others were not.  Some regions, particularly rural ones, had readier access to food than others, especially those that were more urbanised.  The blockade therefore undermined the sense of social unity which all the original belligerents had trumpeted at the war’s outbreak, giving the lie to Burgfrieden and creating the sense of an enemy within – the war profiteer, the civilian factory worker, and even the peasant farmer.[42]

The debate over the blockade highlights the centrality of economic warfare to the waging of the First World War.  While Germany and its allies scrapped over chunks of Europe, and particularly the division of the spoils in eastern Europe, the Balkans and ultimately the Caucasus, Britain harnessed the resources not just of its empire but also of neutral states to tighten the allies’ hold on the Central Powers.  Germany saw its geographical location not as one which gave it the opportunity to dominate ‘Euro-Asia’, but as a source of isolation, encirclement and weakness. Much of its effort with its allies, whether using the Austro-Hungarian army to bear the brunt on the eastern front, or seeking a partnership with the Ottoman empire to take the war into central Asia and North Africa, was an attempt to escape the strategic consequences of its geopolitical position.[43]  It failed.  By 1917-18 the western allies dominated the world’s markets not only in money but also in trade, and Britain had become the link which had brought the new world to the rescue of the old.

In the aftermath of the war, opinion in both Britain and Germany concluded that the blockade had been decisive, even if the evidence was disputed, not least in Germany because of the argument’s contribution to the Dolchstoßlegende.  There was collusion here.  It suited the German army to accept the argument that the blockade had caused the revolution at home, and that the revolution had brought down the Kaiser and ended the war.  This interpretation ‘proved’ that the army had not been defeated in the field.  And it suited those in Britain, who had opposed a continental commitment and been appalled by the decision to adopt conscription.  Because they could not accept that the best response to Prussian militarism had been ‘British militarism’, they wanted to believe sea power had been decisive.  The historiographical consequences of this debate, with their impacts on both inter-war German politics and twentieth-century British defence policy, have overshadowed its effects on geopolitical thought. 

In 1904 Mackinder had anticipated the growing influence of the United States, pointing to its capacity to use the Panama canal (which it was then in the process of acquiring) to apply its resources in the Pacific as well as the Atlantic.  ‘From this point of view’, he had argued, ‘the real divide between east and west is to be found in the Atlantic ocean.’[44]  For Mackinder the First World War had confirmed the point: Britain had used its maritime and commercial power to leverage the maritime and commercial power of the United States.  The outcome of the war suggested that in terms of what was now called ‘grand strategy’ Britain, not Germany, still controlled the geographical pivot of history. For some this still continued to involve reconfiguring the empire through tariff reform so that it became an integrated economic and defensive bloc.  Staff College students learnt about the resources of the empire from texts on ‘imperial military geography’, the best known of which, by Major D.H. Cole, had gone through nine editions by 1937.  For others, including those who like Mackinder had associated with Milnerites and Liberal Imperialists before the war but who were now less sure about the empire’s future, it prompted a closer association with the United States and the hope that it too would put its faith in the League of Nations.

The point that the Atlantic, not Euro-Asia, might be the geopolitical pivot of the world was one which had been recognised by a German naval officer, Korvettenkapitän Wolfgang Wegener, in three memoranda written in the summer of 1915.  Wegener appreciated that, with Britain as Germany’s major enemy in the war, Germany could not just embrace a land-centric, continental strategy, backed up by a robust defence of Germany’s coasts.  If Germany really was a world power, or aspired to become one, it needed access to the Atlantic and so to the world’s shipping routes.  Germany therefore had to secure the western seaboard of France and to breach Danish neutrality to open the route from the Baltic to the North Sea through the Skagerrak.  The memoranda enjoyed a wide circulation and in 1929 Wegener revised them for publication as Die Seestrategie des Weltkrieges.  To escape its geographical position, he argued, Germany did not need to seek a decisive naval battle, but to coordinate its sea and land strategies, using the army to secure the bases in northern and western Europe from which its ships could bypass Britain and get direct access to the Atlantic.[45]

This was Ratzel’s interpretation of ‘Lebensraum’.  Wegener sent a copy of his book to Karl Haushofer, the Nazi geopolitician who most obviously inherited Ratzel’s mantle and whose admiration of Mackinder has given both Mackinder and geopolitics a bad name in Britain ever since.  Mackinder’s appeal to Germans in the 1920s and ‘30s lay – obviously enough – in the case he made for forging a German-led continental empire.[46]  However, Haushofer, like Ratzel, wanted freedom of the seas, and he both admired Wegener’s book and met him in 1933. Four years later, in Weltmeere und Weltmächte, Haushofer argued that Germany had to use the sea to enjoy world power status.  His solution to the problem of Euro-Asia was not the conquest of Russia but the Russo-German pact of 1939.  His world collapsed with the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941.  In Weltmeere und Weltmächte, Haushofer had imagined a Berlin-Moscow-Tokyo axis which would dominate the Eurasian world island.  Admittedly, Germany, not Russia, would be its leader, but Eurasia would have access to both the Atlantic and the Pacific.  Its enemy would be the United States.[47]  Like Mahan, and like German admirals from Maltzahn to Wegener, and ultimately to Erich Raeder, Haushofer saw the seas as a single theatre of operations.  In 1940, with western Europe overrun, another German sailor, Rear Admiral Adolf von Trotha, exulted: ‘Die neue deutsche Seegrenze läuft nun von den Pyrenäen bis zum Nordkap.  Der Zugang zum Weltmeer ist frei.  Das einst so stolze britische Weltreich ist im Zusammenbrechen.  Das deutsche Volk aber hat nun doch die See verstanden; auch das Meer ist unser Lebensaum geworden.’[48]

Von Trotha’s view of ‘Lebensraum’ was not Hitler’s.  Beginning with the publication of Mein Kampf in 1924, Hitler’s desire for living space was expressed in terms of agriculture, in creating viable units for the German peasant farmer who voted for him in 1933, and so looked to the east, not to the west.  The conquests of 1939-40, although they gave Germany the iron ore of Norway, and the labour and plundered military equipment of France, did not resolve Germany’s core economic problem as he understood it.  This is not to say that Hitler had ruled out an eventual battle between ‘Euro-Asia’ and the maritime empires of Britain and the United States, as his decision to declare war on the latter on 11 December 1941 made clear.  It was just that he preferred to fight his wars sequentially, not simultaneously, and the first task was to secure ‘Euro-Asia’.[49]  The ‘Z’ plan for the German navy in 1939 intended to create a German fleet which could compete with the Royal Navy by 1944 and would total 798 vessels by 1948.  Hitler abandoned the ‘Z’ plan in September 1939, and the navy’s share of arms expenditure never thereafter rose above 15 per cent.  Ironically, it was Stalin, a Georgian, who recognised the weakness of this strategy.  He told Stafford Cripps, the British ambassador to the Soviet Union, in July 1940 that he realised the dangers of the German-Soviet pact and appreciated that Germany was seeking hegemony in ‘Euro-Asia’, ‘but what I am convinced of is the physical impossibility of such hegemony, since Germany lacks the necessary seapower’.[50]

In the Second World War even more than in the First, Germany fought desperate battles for the control of Mackinder’s ‘heartland’, but ultimately Mackinder was wrong about the effects of railways and the mobilisation of land power.  The key point about the ‘world island’ is inherent in the title: Euro-Asia is an island, albeit a very big one, and therefore the application of maritime and economic strength, by Britain in the first instance and then by the United States, proved ‘pivotal’ (to use Mackinder’s word) in both world wars.  The battle of the Atlantic, waged between 1940 and 1944, underpinned the delivery of lend lease and the eventual reopening and maintenance of the fronts in western Europe.  Moreover, despite the battle’s length and demands, the United States, if not the United Kingdom, was able to engage in it while still also fighting a decisive maritime campaign against Japan in the Pacific.  Even in 2012 90 per cent of the world’s trade moved by sea, and over 70 per cent of the world’s population lived on the world’s littorals.  When President Obama announced in January 2012 that the United States proposed to ‘pivot’ its strategy from Europe to Asia, his use of geopolitical and Mackinderite vocabulary obscured a very real continuity.  America’s concerns over China revolved around its aspirations as a Pacific and maritime power, not its undoubted status as an Asian and continental one.  If in 2012 American (and Chinese) strategic thinkers turned to old texts, they were not those of Mackinder, but once again those of Mahan.


*This piece was originally published as ‘ Kontinentales Kernland oder maritime Kuestenzonen: Zur Geopolitik des Ersten Weltkriegs’ in Michael Geyer, Helmut Lethen and Lutz Musner (eds.), Zeitalter der Gewlat. Zur Geopolitik und Psychopolitik des Ersten Weltkrieges (Campus Verlag, Frankfurt and New York, 2015).

[1] The lecture was published as ‘The Geographical Pivot of History’, in The Geographical Journal, 4 (1904), pp. 421-44.

[2] Barry Eichengreen, Golden Fetters: The Gold Standard and the Great Depression, 1919-1939 (New York, 1992), pp. 29-67.

[3] Mackinder, ‘The Geographical Pivot’, pp. 429, 434. 

[4] On Russian thinking before the Russo-Japanese war, see Evgeny Sergeev, Russian Military Intelligence in the War with Japan, 1904-05: Secret Operations on Land and at Sea (London, 2007), pp. 45-52. 

[5] Gerry Kearns, Geopolitics and Empire: The Legacy of Halford Mackinder (Oxford, 2009), p. 5.

[6] Mackinder, ‘The Geographical Pivot’, p. 432-3.

[7] Reprinted in Paul Kennedy, Strategy and Diplomacy 1870-1945 (London, 1983).

[8] Michael Stephen Partridge, Military Planning for the Defense of the United Kingdom, 1814-1870 (Westport CT, 1989).

[9] Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery (London, 1983; first pub 1976), p. 265.

[10] The most recent study of Mackinder is Gerry Kearns, Geopolitics and Empire: The Legacy of Halford Mackinder (Oxford, 2009); see also B.W. Blouet, Halford Mackinder: A Biography (College Station TX, 1987); W.H. Parker, Mackinder: Geography as an Aid to Statecraft (Oxford, 1982).

[11] H.J. Mackinder, Britain and the British Isles (2nd edn, Oxford, 1907; first published 1902), pp. 309-10.

[12] John Colomb is discussed in D.M. Schurman, The Education of a Navy: The Development of British Naval Strategic Thought 1867-1914 (Chicago, 1965), and Dilke and Wilkinson in Jay Luvaas, The Education of an Army: British Military Thought 1815-1940 (Chicago, 1964).

[13] Mackinder, Britain and the British Isles, pp. 309-10.

[14] Ibid, pp. 350-1.

[15] Ibid, p. 314.

[16] Mackinder, ‘The Geographical Pivot’, p. 441.

[17] Ibid, p. 436; Kearns, Geopolitics and Empire, pp. 154-6.

[18] Mackinder, ‘The Geographical Pivot’, p. 436.

[19] Rolf Hobson, Maritimer Imperialismus.  Seemachtideologie, seestrategischen Denken und der Tirpitzplan 1875 bis 1914 (München, 2004), p. 317.

[20] Ibid, p. 316.

[21] Archibald Hurd, The Merchant Navy (3 vols, London, 1921-9), 1, p. 85.

[22] Hobson, Maritimer Imperialismus, p. 314.

[23] Quoted in ibid, pp. 316-17.

[24] Curt von Maltzahn, Naval Warfare: Its Historical Development from the Age of the Great Geographical Discoveries to the Present Time (1905; English edition, London, 1908), trans. John Combe Miller, p. 109.

[25] Patrick J. Kelly, Tirpitz and the Imperial German Navy (Bloomington, Indiana, 2011), pp 17, 228, 358, 461; Ivo Nikolai Lambi, The Navy and German Power Politics, 1862-1914 (Boston, 1984), pp. 165-6.  

[26] Georges-Henri Soutou, L’or et le sang: les buts de guerre économiques de la première guerre mondiale (Paris, 1989), is the most intelligent guide on these topics and a robust refutation of Fritz Fischer, Griff nach der Weltmacht (Dusseldorf, 1961).

[27] For the text itself – and the antecedent works of 1914, see Friedrich Naumann, Werke, 4 Schriften zum Partiewesen und zum Mitteleuropaproblem, ed. Thomas Nipperdey and Wolfgang Schieder (Köln, 1964).

[28] Rudolf Kjellén, Die politischen Probleme des Weltkrieges, trans. Friedrich Stieve (Leipzig, 1916).

[29] Holger Afflerbach, Falkenhayn. Politisches Denken und Handlen im Kaiserreich (Dusselfdorf, 1994), pp 17-45, 55-6, 99-102, 198-210.

[30] Horst Günther Linke, ‘Rußslands Weg in den Ersten Weltkrieg und seine Kriegsziele 1914-1917’, Militärgeschichtiliche Mitteilungen, 32 (1982), p. 17; see also C. Jay Smith, Jr, The Russian Struggle for Power, 1914-1917: A Study of Russian Foreign Policy during the First World War (New York, 1969; first published 1956), pp. 43-66, 76-114; C. Jay Smith, Jr, ‘Great Britain and the 1914-1915 Straits Agreement with Russia: The British Promise of November 1914’, American Historical Review, 70 (1965), pp 1015-34; Georges-Henri Soutou, ‘La France et les marches de l’est 1914-1919’, Revue historique, 260 (1978), pp. 343-9.

[31] Afflerbach, Falkenhayn, is the most recent guide to these events; see also Karl-Heinz Janßen, Der Kanzler und der General.  Die Führungskrise um Bethmann Hollweg und Falkenhayn 1914-1916 (Göttingen, 1967).

[32] Georges-Henri Soutou, L’or et le sang: les buts de guerre économiques de la première guerre mondiale (Paris, 1989), pp. 633-706, 744-5; Wilhelm Ribhegge, Frieden für Europa.  Die Politik der deutschen Reichstagsmehrheit 1917-1918 (Essen, 1988), pp. 269-73, 299-314.

[33] Julian Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy (London, 1911), p. 185.

[34] Samuel R. Williamson, Jr, The Politics of Grand Strategy: Britain and France Prepare for War, 1904-1914 (Cambridge Mass, 1969), pp. 193, 226.  

[35] Stefan Schmidt, Frankreichs Außenpolitik in der Julikrise 1914.  Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des Ausbruchs des Ersten Weltkrieges (München, 2009), pp. 132, 166.

[36] Ibid, pp. 100, 166-7.

[37] See especially Basil Liddell Hart, A History of the World War 1914-1918 (London, 1930), pp. 587-8; A.C. Bell, Sea Power and the Next War (London, 1938), pp. 80-2.

[38] Kennedy, Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery, p. 254.

[39] On this point, see Hew Strachan, ‘The British Way in Warfare Revisited’, Historical Journal, 26 (1983), pp. 447-61.

[40] Avner Offer, The First World War: An Agrarian Interpretation (Oxford, 1989), p. 53.

[41] Theo Balderston, ‘War Finance and Inflation in Britain and Germany, 1914-1918’, Economic History Review, 2nd series, 42 (1989), pp. 222-44.

[42] Anne Roerkohl, Hungerblockade and Heimatfront.  Die kommunale Lebensmittelversorgung in Westfalen während des Ersten Weltkrieges (Stuttgart, 1991); Belinda J. Davis, Home Fires Burning: Food, Politics and Everyday Life in World War I Berlin (Chapel Hill, 2000); General [Ottokar] Landwehr, Hunger.  Die Erschöpfungsjahre der Mittelmächte 1917/18 (Wien, 1931), pp. 103-54; Maureen Healy, Vienna and the Fall of the Habsburg Empire: Total War and Everyday Life in World War I (Cambridge, 2004), pp. 31- 86; L. Schatkowski Schilcher, ‘The Famine of 1915-1918 in Greater Syria’, in John Spagnolo (ed.), Problems of the Modern Middle East in Historical Perspective (Reading, 1992).

[43] Hew Strachan, The First World War, vol 1, To Arms (Oxford, 2001), esp. pp. 694-712.

[44] Mackinder, ‘The Geographical Pivot’, p. 436.

[45] The best edition of Wegener is in English: Wolfgang Wegener, The Naval Strategy of the World War, trans. and ed. Holger Herwig (Annapolis, 1989).

[46] Albert C. Wedemeyer, Wedemeyer reports! (New York, 1958), pp. 52-3; Hans-Ulrich Seidt, Berlin, Kabul, Moskau.  Oskar Ritter von Niedermayer und Deutschlands Geopolitik (München, 2002), esp p. 25. This side of the argument is developed in Hew Strachan, ‘Die Ostfront. Geopolitik, Geographie und Operationen’, in Gerhard P. Gross (ed.), Die vergessene Front. Der Osten 1914/15 (Paderborn, 2006), pp. 11-26.

[47] Jörg Hillman, ‘Maritimes Denken in der Geopolitik Karl Haushofers’, in Werner Rahn (ed.), Deutsche Marinen im Wandel. Vom Symbol nationaler Einheit zum Instrument internationaler Sicherheit (München, 2005), pp. 305-29.

[48] Ibid, p. 329, fn. 104.

[49] Ian Kershaw, Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions that Changed the World, 1940-1941 (London, 2007), pp. 302-426.

[50] Adam Tooze, Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy (London, 2006), p. 396; see also pp. 289, 338.