geopolitical maps

Download Geopolitical Maps

Post on 09-Jan-2017




0 download

Embed Size (px)




  • 278

    Geopolitics, 13:278308, 2008Copyright Taylor & Francis Group, LLCISSN: 1465-0045 print / 1557-3028 onlineDOI: 10.1080/14650040801991522

    FGEO1465-00451557-3028Geopolitics, Vol. 13, No. 2, Mar 2008: pp. 00Geopolitics

    Geopolitical Maps: A Sketch History of a Neglected Trend in Cartography

    Geopolitical MapsEdoardo Boria EDOARDO BORIAFaculty of Political Science, Universit La Sapienza, Rome, Italy

    Between the two world wars a new strain of cartography emergedin Europe, which disregarded the standards of precision of tradi-tional geodesic, or scientific, cartography. Its scope was strictlypolitical and its approach openly ideological. In Germany, cradleof this new genre, it was called geopolitische kartographie orsuggestive kartographie. These terms were later borrowed from thelanguages of other countries where the allure of German cartogra-phy was felt. Elsewhere, in Great Britain and the United States,these maps were generally termed propaganda maps or persuasivemaps.

    Despite a recent rise in studies on global geopolitics duringFascism and Nazism, little attention has been devoted to the carto-graphic innovations of the time. Studies that have touched on thistopic, mostly monographic papers, do not allow for an evaluationof possible links between earlier and later cartographic develop-ments, or between developments occurring in different countries.This approach, which separates the phenomenon from its histori-cal context, gives the impression that geopolitical cartographybetween the two world wars appeared, like a comet, out ofnowhere and then simply vanished; that it was an isolatedphenomenon with neither precursors nor successors.

    Following World War II, geopolitical cartography was largelyabandoned, presumably for the same reasons that had discreditedgeopolitical publications in general during the period in question:(1) the genre was considered a direct product of the propagandamachine of the dictatorial regimes; (2) it lacked scientific basis(on a par with traditional cartography); (3) it had no practicaluse, other than as a tool of propaganda.

    Address correspondence to Edoardo Boria, Universit La Sapienza, Faculty of PoliticalScience, Rome, Italy. E-mail:

    Downloaded By: [University of Colorado Libraries] At: 20:22 27 December 2010

  • Geopolitical Maps 279

    This paper intends to refute these three assumptions and to shedsome light on this remarkable cartographical phenomenon. Whatwere the origins of this new way of representing space? Who used itand why?


    The map is not just a tool for the advancement of knowledge, but also apossible weapon of propaganda. Only recently, though, with the studies ofJohn Brian Harley, has the close link between cartography and the interestsof the power elites clearly emerged. Indeed, despite ample evidence attest-ing to the obvious limitations of cartography, geography as a science haslong avoided dealing with the consequences of this state of affairs. Nine-teenth-century geography, espousing the positivistic premises of determin-ism with regard to the existence of laws governing nature and humanbehaviour, believed in objective knowledge, and thus considered the map afaithful representation of the land. Later came possibilism, which wasinspired by ideas partly antithetical to those of determinism, but was none-theless led (by its idiographic approach) to similar conclusions regardingthe meaning to be attributed to the geographical map an essentiallyneutral descriptive instrument. The advent of functionalism did not changethis basic concept. The use of quantitative techniques in a neo-positivistphilosophical context, the use of calculators and satellite data collectiontechnologies, the emphasis on the accuracy of measurements all of theseenhanced the technical aspects of cartography, but did not affect the theo-retical reflection on the meaning of the map, which was still being evalu-ated based on technical precision.

    Hence, despite continuous developments in theoretical geography,embodied in a succession of schools and approaches that renewed andinvigorated the discipline, the perception of the geographical map as a neu-tral instrument representing reality has remained unchanged for more than acentury. Only recently have stimulating, alternative views been put forward:from perception geography, focusing on the individual sphere, to the criti-cal analysis of postmodern radical geographers. Among the latter, in thefield of cartography, John Brian Harley, authentic father of the school ofcritical cartography, stands out with his extremely efficacious analysis of themap as a product of power.

    These conceptual innovations are still fresh however, so that muchwork remains to be done on the subjective nature of maps its causes andimplications. Yet, two things clearly emerge: first, that since all maps areintrinsically subjective and persuasive, it follows that propaganda throughmaps and atlases cannot be considered the invention of Nazism or Fascism;and second, that the devices used to make propaganda are manifold:

    Downloaded By: [University of Colorado Libraries] At: 20:22 27 December 2010

  • 280 Edoardo Boria

    distorting information, emphasising one topic, choosing place-names,colours, titles and captions, excessive highlighting of certain elements, etc.This paper will address some innovations pertaining to method, whichappeared in Germany and Italy in the 1920s and 1930s. It should be notedhowever, that these innovations coexisted with the aforementioned tech-niques of cartographic propaganda, but did not supplant them. For example,the practice of focusing on a specific issue, such as ethnicity: The presenceof millions of Germans living outside the Reich was repeatedly evoked dur-ing the Nazi period and used to legitimise any action, including militaryaction, to redress such injustice. One of the most widely used Germanschool atlases of the time,1 for example, obviously engages in propagandawhen dedicating a section to the nationalist revolution.2 But it is not themaps themselves that are the culprits here; the maps are in fact scientificallyacceptable, factually correct: there are legends and scales, the borders of theReich are marked correctly, and the events illustrated are real: the Fhrerstravels, the results of the elections, assassinations of members of the Naziparty, Jewish migrations. It is the choice of subjects that is biased, not themaps themselves.

    Obviously, the creation of a biased narrative through the compilationof an atlas is independent of political leaning. An example in point, fromthe same period, is the atlas by the Hungarian Marxist geographer AlexRad.3 Here too, the maps do not seem partial in and of themselves. It is thechoice of topics that gives the atlas its ideological slant (e.g., the scramblefor raw materials between capitalistic world powers, the universality ofcommunist brotherhood).


    Setting aside the classical tactics used to instrumentalise maps, we willinstead focus on the innovations in graphical language introduced inthe 1920s in so called geopolitical maps. These maps represent agenuine leap forward, an added sophistication in cartographic communi-cation techniques. Indeed, these new maps are not limited to showingplaces, theatres of historical events or the distribution of geographicalobjects. Instead, they openly aim to illustrate existing or potential bal-ances of power in a particular region. In other words, while traditionalcartography presents few political elements (e.g., borders, capitals) andportrays a static political situation, a geopolitical map renders the picturedynamic, showing the historical causes of a given political situation,possible future developments thereof, or both. Obviously, such interpre-tation is bound to be subjective. The intent is not merely descriptive, butrather interpretive, inevitably leading the author to express subjectivevalue judgements.

    Downloaded By: [University of Colorado Libraries] At: 20:22 27 December 2010

  • Geopolitical Maps 281

    In terms of content, a geopolitical map tends to correlate a multitude ofphenomena (political, economic, cultural, social, demographic, religious,historical, ethnic, technological, etc.) and factors (space, distance, time, rela-tive position, etc.). These maps take into consideration opposing politicaland economic interests and spell them out to the reader through highly sim-plified, stylised cartographic drawings aimed at conveying a specific pointof view with regard to the represented situation or phenomenon. Suchpoint of view is clearly not inherent to the phenomenon in question, butrather the product of the authors interpretation.

    For this purpose a new set of specially designed graphic symbols wascreated. Geopolitical maps in fact differ from traditional political maps inthat they use geometric shapes to represent factors affecting the organisa-tion of political space: arrows to indicate territorial conquest or commercialpenetration, axes for alliance systems, circles or half-circles for spheres ofinfluence, parallel lines to mark equivalent or reciprocal tendencies, brokenlines for uncertainty, radial and linear structures, interrupted lines as a signof disintegration, stars and diamonds to indicate the hubs of political forcesin action, as well as borders and shadings in abundance all are graphicsolutions ty

View more