Christaller and Nazism

It is well known among philosophers that Heidegger was a member of the Nazi party and that this is an event that has to be taken into account in any interpretation of his work. For some people as Richard Polt points out in his excellent book on Heidegger, this means that Heidegger’s thought need not be bothered with. As he notes, this is a case of “bad man = bad philosopher” (attributed to Gilbert Ryle). For others, the opposite might be true; that Heidegger’s membership and active involvement needs to be nuanced, put in context, or perhaps divorced from the work.

A similar although lesser known case exists in geography around the person of Walter Christaller. A new and I believe, highly significant paper on Christaller is forthcoming from the Annals of the AAG by my colleagues Trevor Barnes and Claudio Minca. The paper is about the links between spatial theory and Nazi political goals and how two men, Christaller and Carl Schmitt (a longtime intellectual favorite of paleo-conservatives like William Buckley) provided the intellectual justification for a “deterritorialization” (Christaller) and a “reterritorialization” (Schmitt). They call these processes “dark Nazi geographies.”

The paper, as you might expect from these two authors, is excellent. I am especially appreciative of the work Trevor Barnes has been doing on the intellectual history of geography in the Twentieth century.

One of the stranger offshoots of Christaller’s influence (which is not discussed in the paper) is the effect he had on William Bunge. As you may know, Bunge’s own life story in the discipline is storied (he gives a potted version in the Introduction to his Nuclear War Atlas). After prematurely leaving Wisconsin (where Hartshorne reputedly failed him out) he held positions at Iowa and eventually moved to Canada, where he drove a taxi. He wrote his influential contribution to the Quantitative Revolution, Theoretical Geography (again, after some difficulty in getting it published) and a tribute paper to Fred Kurt Schaefer after the latter’s death at 49 (Schaefer had escaped from Nazi Germany in 1938, first moving to the UK and later to Iowa).

Christaller wrote to Schaefer there, as this letter in 1952 from the AGS Archives (currently in Milwaukee at the AGSL) shows (if you know German, please roughly translate in the comments): Update: See Claudia’s translation in the Comments below.

Back to Bunge. Bunge was very appreciative of Christaller’s work, and cited him frequently as an influence and inspiration. He dedicated Theoretical Geography to Christaller. (Peter Gould also had many Bunge letters, some of which he provided in a seminar once, including Bunge’s FBI files! Bunge was very clear on who his enemies and friends were.)

Bunge was not unaware of Christaller’s Nazi connections. As a communist, this perhaps makes for a strange relationship. Bunge handled it by denying that Christaller was a fascist. He made this claim after an article appeared in the Canadian Geographer in 1970 by Hans Carol, who knew Christaller. Carol mentions that Christaller admitted to him in 1949 that he (Christaller):

lent his services to the Nazi regime in order to give advice on the creation of a hierarchical order of urban settlements for the newly won Polish territories.

(This is the subject of the Barnes and Minca paper, although they don’t mention this article.)

After the war, Christaller joined the Communist Party himself, and was refused a visa by the USA in 1963 for a “grand tour” Edward Ullman had arranged for him.

For Bunge however it was not possible for Christaller to be a fascist. Writing in  Ontario Geography in 1977 in (belated) reply to the Carol piece, he states that Christaller was a man of science and since fascists can’t be scientists then Christaller was not a fascist. He also notes his Communist party membership and the visa ban. Bunge argues that the USA would have admitted him  if he’d been a Fascist, citing Werner Von Braun. Finally, he says we perhaps cannot ever really know what the case is, and cites “the bitter life [Christaller] had had to lead.”

Perhaps Trevor and Claudio’s paper can provide an advancement in this story.

If you’re interested in Schaefer on the other hand, the AGS Archives contain much material, donated by his wife. Bunge was very energetic in getting the proper tribute paid to Schaefer, writing to his family and anyone who may have known him (including Prime Minister Nehru of India for some reason). (His sister Alice’s letter is in the Archives and provides some of the information above.)

For example, he wrote a work on political geography, that was apparently never published  in which he takes up the debate between regional and systematic geography, chaffing Hartshorne slightly in the process:

It also contains work by the “Committee on Political Geography” lead by Richard Hartshorne! Schaefer apparently used this as reference material and the committee, which seemed to be operating in 1951, consists of Hartshorne, James, Platt, S. Jones, Kish, Broek, Proudfoot, Van Valkenberg. This appears to be draft material for American Geography, Inventory and Prospect, in which Hartshorne writes the Political Geography chapter.

By the way, this work was funded by the military: the ONR to be exact.

There’s lots of Schaefer–Hartshorne correspondence as well. (Hartshorne’s main papers are upstairs in the AGSL.)

5 responses to “Christaller and Nazism

  1. Here you go:

    Dear Prof. Schaefer,

    Thank you for your letter dated 28 March. My book about “Central places in southern Germany” is out of print. I have managed to find a copy, however, and have included it in this mailing. My other work, “The framework of spatial order in Europe,” I currently do not have to hand, but I will send it on in a couple of days time.

    I would really appreciate it if in exchange you could send me American works of a similar topic. I should note here that I already have the works of my friend Dickinson. Maybe you could firstly send some suggestions, which books you would be able to send me?

    With best wishes I remain

    Yours faithfully,

    Walter Christaller

  2. Thanks Claudia!

  3. Bunge’s argument that you cannot be a scientist and a fascist is nonsense in the extreme and an extremely weak defense. Especially since he thinks you can be a communist and scientist! I assume he also thinks that scientists don’t vote, nor do policy work which is inherently political. What’s even stranger about his remarks is his own work is saturated with politics and ideology.

  4. Pingback: Christaller and Nazism | Progressive Geographies

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