Ratzel, Friedrich

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(b. Karlsruhe, Germany, 30 August 1844; d. Ammerland, Germany, 9 August 1904)

geography, ethnography.

Ratzel was one of the four children of the manager of household staff of the grand duke of Baden. He spent six years at La Fontaine Gymnasium in Karlsruhe, before being apprenticed at the age of fifteen, to an apothecary at Eichtersheim, a village between Karlsruhe and Heidelberg. After six years as an apprentice there, at Rapperswil, Switzerland, and at Mores, in the Rohr, he decided to follow an academic career. After a short time at the Karlsruhe Technische Hochschule he studied zoology at Heidelberg and then at Jena, where he produced a thesis for a degree in 1868. In the following year he published a popular history of creation which showed an uncritical acceptance of Darwin’s main concepts and an obvious reliance on the views of Haeckel.

Ratzel subsequently traveled in the Mediterranean countries and assisted the French naturalist Charles Martin at See and Montpellier. After his recovery from wounds suffered in the Franco-Prussian war, he studied for a short while at Munich, where he met the geologist Karl von Zittel and Moritz Wagner, the curator of the university ethnographical museum, whose ideas on the importance of the migration of species made a lasting impression on him.

In 1871 Ratzel traveled widely in the Danube countries, the Alps, and Italy. In 1874 and 1875 he made a long tour of North America, where he was especially interested in the black population, the dwindling habitation areas of the American Indians, and the inflow of the Chinese into California. He wrote six large volumes on North America, treated it in parts of other works, and produced a shorter treatise entitledDas Meet as Quelled dc Volkergrosse (1900).

On his return to Europe, Ratzel began a full-time academic career, lecturing on geography at the Technische Hochschulc in Munich. He began to criticize Darwin’s theory of natural selection and Haeckel’s views on evolution but always remained convinced of the application of concepts of organic evolution to human societies. His lectures covered a wide range of geographical topics; and although he was mainly interested in human aspects, he also wrote extensively on physical aspects such as earth-pillars, limestone surfaces, and the snow line. During his eleven years at Munich, Ratzel produced the first volume of Anthropo-geographie (1882) and the first two volumes of his Volkerkunde (1885–1886), as well as at least 160 shorter items.

In 1886 Ratzel accepted the chair of geography at Leipzig, succeeding Ferdinand von Richthofen. During his years at Leipzig (1886–1904), he wrote thirteen books and about 350 sizable articles. His shorter articles range from useful observations on physical phenomena, such as the measurement of the density of snow (1889), to numerous obituaries and polemics. They also include several important analyses of his concepts of Lebensraum and “scientific political geography.”

An accurate assessment of the scientific importance of Ratze’s work is difficult because of his changes of view, his enormous output, and the emotions aroused by the disastrous political results that stemmed from perverted versions of his concepts.

Besides the patient amassing of knowledge on terrestrial objects and phenomena and their spatial distribution, Ratzel’s main scientific accomplishments were in ethnography and human geography. His chief contribution to ethnography was to popularize the importance of the diffusion of culture by migration and by borrowing. He assumed, often correctly, that agreement of form which was independent of the nature, material, and function of an object or artifact indicated a historical connection or borrowing.

The bridge between Ratzel’s ethnography and geography appeared clearly in his Anthropo-geographie, in which the central themes are spatial distributions of a culture and their dependence on the physical environment and on migrations and borrowings over the centuries. The first volume deals mainly with the causes or dynamic aspects of human distributions, and the second emphasizes the static aspects. The development of a society or a people is considered to be governed largely by its situation relative to other geographical phenomena, by the space in which it moves, and by the frame that limits those movements and is itself related to the development of adjacent peoples.

In his later years Ratzel took a keen interest in contemporary philosophy, and in his Politische Geographie (1897) he attempted to combine practical politics with physical-philosophical material. He began to favor the idea of a “sense of space” that influences the collective psychology of its inhabitants, and believed that great space confers great rights and virtues. This important book was probably the first political geography to tackle each problem methodically and to treat the subject scientifically.

Ratzel’s deep concern with spatial relations and especially with the covariants of cultural distributions were truly fruitful concepts. When carried to extremes their political aspects could he perverted into crude master-race theories, which had a disastrous effect during the rise of Hitler. Ratzel did occasionally criticize such extreme racial views, but his criticisms were drowned amid the mass of his writings. Apart from his major works he published many important articles on political geography and the spatial relationships of geographical phenomena. The most famous was the article “Der Lebensraum. Eine biogeographische Studie” (1901), which summarized his earlier efforts to associate organic activities with the physical environment and to link biology and biogeography with human geography.

Ratzel’s ideas on man-milieu relationships could, if advertised more clearly, have developed into modern notions on the cultural landscape and on the conservation of the environment. Similarly, his ideas on spatial economic and cultural distributions were among the most fruitful concepts ever devised in scientific human geography. The Lebensraum concept, as he showed, was applicable to units of different size. His essays on the sites and development of cities and on the hinterlands of seaports (in which he defined the areal extent and overlap of the limits in regard to nature, politics, delivery, supply or production, and traffic) were the precursors of studies that appeared after 1930. Despite his misfortunes at the hands of extremists, Ratzel must be regarded as the true founder and greatest single contributor to the development of modern human geography.


I. Original Works. The most complete bibliography of Ratzel’s publications is that by Viktor Hantzsch in Hans Helmolt, ed,, Kleine Schriften von Friedrich Ratzel, II (Munich-Berlin, 1906), l-lix. Harriet Wanklyn gives a selective bibliography in Friedrich Ratzel, 57–94.

Ratzel’s books include Sein und Werden der organischen Welt. Eine populare Schopfungsgeschichte (Leipzig, 1869); Die Vorgeschichte des europaischen Menschen (Munich, 1874); Die Vereinigten Staaten von Nordamerika, 3 vols. (Munich, 1878–1893); Die Erde… (Stuttgart, 1881), 24 popular lectures on general geography; An thropogeographie oder Grundzuge der Anwendung der Erdkunde auf die Geschichte, 2 vols. (Stuttgart, 1882–1891; 1, 2nd ed., 1899); Volkerkunde, 3 vols, (Leipzig, 1885–1888; 2nd ed., 1894–1895), translated by A. J. Butler as The History of Mankind, 3 vols. (London, 1896–1898); Die Schneedecke, besonders in deutschen Gebirgen (Stuttgart, 1 889); Anthropogeographische Beitrage. Zur Gebirgskunde, vorzuglich Beobachtungen uber H?hengrenzen und H?hengurtel(Leipzig, 1895); Politische Geographic (Munich-Leipzig, 1897), 2nd ed. enl. as Politische Geographie oder die Geographic der Staaten, des Verkehrs und des Krieges (Munich-Berlin, 1903), 3rd ed. edited by Eugen Ober-hummet (Vienna-Berlin, 1925); Beitrage zur Geographic des Mittleren Deutschlands (Leipzig, 1899); and Das Meer ah Quelle der Volkergrosse. Eine politisch-geographische Studie (Munich, 1900); Die Erde und das Lehen. Eine vergtcichende Erdkunde, 2 vols. (Leipzig, 1901–1902).

Among Ratzel’s papers are “Zur Entwickiungsgeschichte des Regenwurms,” in Zeitschrift fiir wissenschaftliche Zoologie, 18 (1868), 547–562; “Uber die Entslehung der Erdpyramiden,” in Jahresbericht der Geographischen Geselischaft in Munchen for 1877–1879 (1880), 77–88; “Uber geographische Bedingungen und ethnographische Folgen der Volkerwanderungen,” in Verhandlungen der Gesetlschaft fiir Erdkumle zu Berlin, 7 (1880), 295–324; “Die Bestimmung der Sechneegrenze,” in Naturforscher, 19th annual special issue (1886), 245–248; “Uber Messung der Dichtigkeit des Schnees,” in Meteorogische Zeitschrift, 6 (1889), 433–435; “Uber Karrentelder im Jura und Verwandtes,“in Leipziger Dekanatsprogramm (1892), 3–26; “Ober die geographische Lagc. Eine politisch-geographische Betrachtung,” in Feestbundel aan Dr. P. J, Veth aangehoden (Leiden, 1894), 257–261; “Sludien iiber politische Rimme,” in Geographische Zcitschrift, 1 (1895), 163–182, 286–302; “Die Gesetze des raumlichen Wachstums der Staaten.. ,” in Petermanns, A. Milteilungen am J. Perthes Gcographischer Anstalt, B (1896), 97–107; “Der Staat und sein Boden geographisch betrachlet,“in Abhandlungen der philotogischen Klasse der Koniglichcn Sachsischen Gesellsehaft der Wissenschaften m Leipzig, philolog. Kl., 17 , no. 4 (1896); “Der geographische Methode in der Ethnographic,” in Geographische Zeitschrift, 3 (1897), 268 278; “Der Lebens-raum. Eine biogeographische Studie,” in Festgaben fur Albert Schaeffle (Tubingen, 1901), 103–189; and “Die geographische Lage der grossen Stadte” in Grosstadt, Gehestifiung zu Dresden, 9 (1902–1903), 33–72.

II. Secondary Literature. See P. Vidal de la Blache, “Friedrich Ratzel’ in Annales de geographic, 13 (1904), 466–467; J. O. M. Brock, “Friedrich Ratzel in Retrospect,” in Annals of tin- Association of American Geographers, 44 (1954), 207; Jean Brunhes, “F. Ratzel (1844–1904)” in Geographie, 10 (1904), 103–108; W. J. Cahnmann. “The Concept of Raum and the Theory of Regionalism,“in American Sociological Review, 9 (1944), 455–562; Paul Claval, Essai sur l’evolution de la geographic humaine (Paris, 1964), 18, 37–45; R. E. Dickinson, The Makers of Modem Geography (London, 1969), 62–76; Y. M. Goblet, Political Geography and the World Map (London, 1955), 8–12; Kurt Hassert, “Friedrich Ratzel, Sein Leben und Wirken” in Geographische Zeitschrift11 (1905), 305–325, 361–380; R. H. Lowie, The History of Ethnographical Theory (New York, 1937), 120 and passim; O. Marinelli, “Frederigo Ratzel e la sua opera geografica,” in Rivista geografica italiana, 12 (1905), 8–18, 102–126; Hermann Overbeck, “Ritter, Richl, Ratzel…” in Erde, 3 (1951–1952), 197–210; und “Das politischgeographische Lehregebaude von Friedrich Ratzel…,“ibid., 9 (1957), 169–192 —articles reproduced in Overbeck’s Kulturlandschafts-forschung und Landeskunde,” in Heidelberger geographische Arbeiten.14 (1965),60–103; Louis Raveneau, “L ’element humain dans L’ ageographie: L’anthropo-geographie de M. Ratzel,“in Annales de geographie1 (1891–1892), 331–347; E. G. Ravenstein, “Friedrich Rated,” in Geographical Journal, 24 (1904), 485–487; Johannes Steinmctzler, “Die Anthropogeographie Friedrich Ratzels und ihre Ideengeschichtlichen Wurzeln,“in Bonner geographische Abhandlungen, no. 19 (1956), an indispensable account of RatzePs cultural anthropology; and Harriet G. Wanklyn, Friedrich Ratzel: A Biographical Memoir and Bibliography (Cambridge, 1961), a small but valuable book.

R. P. Beckinsale

Ratzel, Friedrich

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Ratzel, Friedrich



Friedrich Ratzel (1844–1904), German geographer, started his professional life as an apprentice pharmacist but at the age of 21 began seriously to study the natural sciences, especially zoology. After periods of training at several German universities, he received his ph.d. from the University of Heidelberg in 1868 for a dissertation on the oligochaetes, a group of annelids. A year later he published his first book, a popular treatise on the organic world (1869). In 1868–1869 Ratzel traveled in southern France and began a series called “Zoological Letters from the Mediterranean Region,” which was published in the Kolnische Zeitung. The success of this venture led to his employment as a traveling correspondent. In this capacity he visited eastern and southern Europe before interrupting his journalistic work to serve as a volunteer in the infantry during the Franco-Prussian War. After the war he studied briefly at Munich with the naturalist-ethnographer Moritz Wagner, who exerted a strong influence on his subsequent career. In 1872 Ratzel resumed his work as a traveling correspondent for the K?lnische Zeitung, visiting southern Europe, the United States, Mexico, and Cuba. As a result of essays based on these travels and a monograph on Chinese emigration (1876), he was appointed lecturer, in 1875, and then professor, in 1876, at the Technische Hochschule in Munich. Ratzel was now well on his way as an academic geographer; in 1886 he was called to the University of Leipzig, where he remained as professor of geography until his death.

Ratzel’s creative life can be divided into two periods, that prior to 1876, when he worked as a journalist and perfected his knowledge of biology and geography, and that after 1876, when his work took on a more scholarly and theoretical character. His total output of published work is enormous, consisting of 25 books and 518 shorter works. His first substantial geographic study, a two-volume treatise on the United States (1878–1880), is not markedly different in scope or organization from twentieth-century regional texts. But Ratzel’s reputation is not derived primarily from this work or indeed from any of his regional studies. Rather it is based on three systematic treatises, each devoted to a major aspect of human geography. Two of these works, his two-volume Anthropogeographie (1882–1891) and his Politische Geographie (1897), made him the center of prolonged controversy. The third work, his three-volume History of Mankind (1885–1888), outdated as it is, still merits respect as a milestone in the history of ethnography.

The controversial aspect of Ratzel’s Anthropogeographie results from his tendency, mainly in the first volume of the work, to assert the existence of a direct causal relationship between features of the natural environment and works of man. However, Ratzel’s environmentalism was tempered with a historical perspective, and he asserted the man-land relationship with reservations; thus he does not entirely deserve to be labeled an “environmentalist.” Indeed, in the English-speaking world this label more properly belongs to Ellen Semple, who studied with Ratzel in the 1890s and published a substantial book based on the first volume of his Anthropogeographie (Semple 1911).

The second volume of the Anthropogeographie is concerned with the distribution and movement of peoples and cultures, an interpretation of the changing character of the habitable world. The content of this volume, especially its stress on diffusion and migration as major cultural processes, is compatible with more recent conceptions of the essential task of human geography (Steinmetzler 1956).

The controversy over Ratzel’s Politische Geographie centers on his use of biological analogy in interpreting the expansion or contraction of states. Ratzel emphasized Raum (area) and Lage (location) as basic elements in the constitution of states and suggested that such entities might be subject to natural processes of growth and decay. Since states, in this view, function as organisms, they cannot be contained within rigid bounds, and the survival of a nation or culture is linked to its capacity for expansion.

During the Third Reich, Karl Haushofer and his school of Geopolitik carried these suggestions into political ideology, and the doctrine of lebensraum (living space) became the pseudoscientific justification for national expansion. However, it is important to realize that Ratzel was not concerned primarily with national policy. A geographer initially trained as a biologist, he simply tried to apply ecological and evolutionary concepts in his studies of political and economic development (Overbeck 1957): for Ratzel, human geography was but one part of a general biogeography, and in trying to formulate principles for this more comprehensive science, he used biological terminology in descriptions of cultural phenomena. Indeed, the concept of lebensraum, as applied by Haushofer and his school, was not taken directly from Ratzel’s writings, but rather from the derivative work of the Swedish political scientist Kjellen (1916).

The least controversial of Ratzel’s major works, The History of Mankind, must also be ranked as a major contribution to modern social science. The work is a richly illustrated survey of primitive peoples (Naturv?lker) on a world-wide scale. Detailed information is offered on the natural environment, racial characteristics, social organization, religion, and material culture of each group described. The primitive condition of the Naturv?lker is explained primarily by social, technological, and locational factors, and only incidentally by circumstances of the natural environment or by race. Errors of fact and interpretation abound, as one might expect in a work of this scope based on nineteenth-century data. Nevertheless, Ratzel’s general ideas remain valuable—“the conception of humanity as a unit, the tempering of environmentalism with a historical perspective, the demand for a conversion of space into time relations, the depreciation of spectacular migrations in favor of slow, continuous infiltration, the postulation of marginal peoples” (Lowie 1937, p. 127). Ratzel’s most impressive contribution may well have been this pioneer effort to integrate the methods and concepts of biology, ethnography, and geography.

Marvin W. Mikesell

[Other relevant material may be found inEnvironmentalism; Ethnography; Geography, article onPolitical Geography; and in the biography ofKjellén.]


1869 Sein und Werden der organischen Welt: Eine populate Schopfungsgeschichte. Leipzig: Gebhardt & Reisland.

1876 Die chinesische Auswanderung: Ein Beitrag zur Cultur- und Handelsgeographie. Breslau (Germany): Kern.

1878–1880 Die Vereinigten Staaten von Nord-Amerika. 2 vols. Munich: Oldenbourg. → Volume 1: Physikalische Geographie und Naturcharakter der Vereinigten Staaten von Nord-Amerika. Volume 2: Kultur-geographie der Vereinigten Staaten von Nord-Amerika.

(1882–1891) 1921–1922 Anthropogeographie. 2 vols. Stuttgart (Germany): Engelhorn. → Volume 1: Grundzüge der Anwendung der Erdkunde auf die Geschichte, 4th ed. Volume 2: Die geographische Verbreitung des Menschen, 3d ed.

(1885–1888) 1896–1898 The History of Mankind. 3 vols. London and New York: Macmillan → First published as V?lkerkunde.

(1897) 1923 Politische Geographie. 3d ed. Edited by Eugen Oberhummer. Munich and Berlin: Oldenbourg.

1906 Kleine Schriften. 2 vols. Edited by Hans Helmolt, with a bibliography by Viktor Hantzsch. Munich and Berlin: Oldenbourg.


Heine-Geldern, Robert 1964 One Hundred Years of Ethnological Theory in the German-speaking Countries: Some Milestones. Current Anthropology 5:406-418.

Kjellén, Rudolf (1916) 1924 Der Staat als Lebens-form. 4th ed. Berlin: Vowinckel. → First published in Swedish as Staten som lifsform.

Lowie, Robert H. 1937 The History of Ethnological Theory. New York: Farrar & Rinehart.

Overeeck, Hermann 1957 Das politischgeographische Lehrgeb?ude von Friedrich Ratzel in der Sicht unserer Zeit. Die Erde: Zeitschrift der Gesellschaft fur Erdkunde zu Berlin 88:169-192.

Semple, Ellen C. 1911 Influences of Geographic Environment, on the Basis of Ratzel’s System of Anthropogeography. New York: Holt.

Steinmetzler, Johannes 1956 Die Anthropogeographie Friedrich Ratzels und ihre ideengeschichtlichen Wurzeln. Banner geographische Abhandlungen 19:1-151.

Wanklyn, Harriet G. 1961 Friedrich Ratzel: A Biographical Memoir and Bibliography. Cambridge Univ. Press.

Friedrich Ratzel

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Friedrich Ratzel

The German geographer Friedrich Ratzel (1844-1904) was the author of several books on ethnology and human and political geography in which he described his observations during extensive travels in Europe and the Americas.

The father of Friedrich Ratzel was the manager of the household staff of the Grand Duke of Baden, and Friedrich was born on Aug. 30, 1844, at Karlsruhe. He went to a high school in Karlsruhe for 6 years before he was apprenticed to an apothecary in 1859. Ratzel stayed with him until 1863, when he went to Rappeswyl on the Lake of Zurich, Switzerland, where he began to study the classics. After a further year as an apothecary at M?rs near Krefeld in the Ruhr area (1865-1866), he spent a short time at the high school in Karlsruhe and became a student of zoology at the universities of Heidelberg, Jena, and Berlin. In 1868 Ratzel presented a thesis on the characteristics of worms and, a year later, a book on the work of Charles Darwin, whose Origin of Species had appeared in 1859. But Ratzel's work was overshadowed by Ernst Haeckel's.

Journalist and Geographer

Partly by good fortune Ratzel had the opportunity of traveling with a French naturalist, and he wrote up his experiences for a Cologne newspaper. Ratzel's travel and journalism were interrupted by a short but distinguished army career in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. In 1871 he went through the Hungarian plains, where he was fascinated by the signs of recent agricultural settlement, and the Carpathians, where he found German-speaking communities. In 1874 he went to North and Central America, where he once again saw successful German settlers. In 1876 he published a thesis on Chinese emigration, partly from his own experience in America, and in 1878 and 1880 he published two large books on North America.

In 1875 Ratzel joined the staff of the Technical High School in Munich, and in 1886 he moved to the University of Leipzig. Always an avid journalist, he also published several large books during these years, including V?lkerkunde (2 vols., 1885-1888; Ethnology), Anthropogeographie (2 vols., 1882-1891; Human Geography), Politische Geographie (1897; Political Geography), and Die Erde und das Leben (2 vols., 1901-1902; Earth and Life).

Some of Ratzel's work was of uneven quality, for example, in the world survey of ethnology, but much of it was based on acute observation in his wide travels. He was anxious to interpret the observed movements of plant and animal life—and of people—to settle and establish themselves in a new environment, and he saw in biogeography the essential link between scientific and human phenomena. Immensely industrious throughout his life, he died of a stroke on Aug. 9, 1904, while on holiday with his wife and daughters in Ammerland, Bavaria.

Further Reading

A terse biography of Ratzel is Harriet Wanklyn, Friedrich Ratzel: A Biographical Memoir and Bibliography (1961). Background is in Robert H. Lowie, The History of Ethnological Theory (1937), and Marvin Harris, The Rise of Anthropological Theory (1968). □