Geography and geopolitics during the Cold War

Posted by Florian Pantazi on 16/11/13
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Since the onset of the sovereign debt crisis, it has again become fashionable to explain southern Europe’s economic troubles in the light of the Mediterranean countries’s natural habitat, climate and lifestyle. The people of Greece, Spain and Italy, for example, are regularly portrayed in the popular press as less productive and laid back, in contrast with northern EU nationals. The latter are presented as industrious, thrifty and unlucky enough to be part of a union which makes them dip into their hard-earned savings to pay for the excesses and profligacy of southern EU members.

A heightened interest among philosophers, historians, economists and geopoliticians in the influence of geography/natural habitat over the course taken by human history or economic development is quite normal, especially during major crises. This type of intellectual inquiry happened to be the object of my research for my licence thesis in 1979 at Iasi University. Trouble was, during the bi-polar world both superpowers shared a common dislike of Geography and its potential role in human history and economic affairs. Their respective satellite-countries largely fell into line during that period, with the shining exception of France, where the research and study of Human Geography continued regardless.

Indeed, for decades both Russians and Americans all but banned academic research along these lines. The very mention of geopolitics was regarded as subversive. In a book written at the end of the ‘90s (« The Wealth and Poverty of Nations »), Harvard historian David S. Landes explains how after 1945 US authorities actually closed down the geography departments at Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Columbia, to mention but a few academic establishments. The Soviet Union also developed a powerful aversion to geography, probably because during the 1930s Stalin fell for McKinder’s well-known Heartland theory, which had led him to conclude the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with the Nazis (Pascal Lorot).

This is the reason why it took me a long time, as an undergraduate, to convince one of my gutsier professors to supervise my thesis. To make matters worse, documentation behind the Iron Curtain was painfully scarce, especially from American sources. In the background, the dean of the faculy was constantly at pains to impress upon me that we were only 25km away from the Soviet border. What would we do if my thesis incurred the wrath of the Russians ?

These days, when both geographers and experts in geopolitics are back in vogue, I think it is worthwhile remembering how detrimental the Soviet-American duopoly really was for the development of social sciences in general and that of geography and geopolitics in particular.

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