RUDOLF KJELLÉN – THE SWEDISH ‘FATHER OF GEOPOLITICS’

Rudolf Kjellén (1864 – 1922), a Swedish professor and politician, published his works in Swedish, which made him less accessible to those who were not familiar with the Swedish language. This denied large parts of academia the acquaintance with and examination of his work. Some of his books were translated into German, but there has been little interest in him in the Anglo-Saxon world.

The first geopolitician was a prolific writer and published a large number of works not only on geopolitics but in his later years on Swedish internal and foreign policy. One of his classical geopolitical works, The Great Powers (Stormakterna), appeared in a first edition 1905 in Sweden. It had over 20 editions in Germany.

91 years after the term geopolitik in an article on the boundaries of Sweden in 1899 his work was for instance lauded in far off India.
But who was this Swedish professor who initiated the term geopolitics?

Rudolf Kjellén was born on Thorsö, a small island in Sweden’s biggest lake, Lake Vänern. He was the third child of seven.

Today he is probably best known in South America, where classical geopolitics has remained strong (see Phillip Kelly, Checkerboards & Shatterbelts – The Geopolitics of South America, Austin: University of Texas Press 1997).

Professor Kelly has also provided a good definition of geopolitics: it is the impact of geographic factors on a country’s foreign policy. A similar definition is: geopolitics is the impact on foreign security politics of certain geographic features, the more important being locations among countries, distances between areas, and terrain, climate, and resources within states.

Directly after high school Kjellén went to Uppsala and already in 1883 received a Bachelor of Arts. In May 1891 his Ph.D. in political science followed and was appointed lecturer in the same subject at Sweden’s newest university in Gothenburg. He was later also to lecture in geography and it was his interest in geography that laid the groundwork for his new creation, the science of geopolitics.

The Swedish professor was strongly influenced by the German geographer Friedrich Ratzel and his political geography. In a report concerning Ratzel’s work in Gothenburg Kjellén mentioned geopolitics as the direction of his lectures. History was in his view not a chaos of coincidental events that just happen. It is influenced by geopolitical rules. Like Ratzel he regarded states as organic and growing. The state, in bond with the people, was an organism.

Examining the state Kjellén divided it in five main categories of which one was geopolitics, the most important one. In turn geopolitik was divided into three areas: topopolitics (relative location of the state), morphopolkitics (form of the state) and physiopolitics (area and physical features of the state). For further information on Kjellén’s system of geopolitics see Appendix 2.

In 1902 Kjellén had been appointed professor of political science and statistics at the University of Gothenburg.

Towards the end or the 19th century Kjellén had shown great interest in Japan and its rise in the Far East. In his view Japan and China, once free of Western control, would be great powers of the future. Their rise would come as the European powers declined. He was also critical of colonialism and racism.

In 1909 he was given the opportunity to travel to Japan and China, a journey that would have significant influence on his geopolitical research. On this trip around the world he travelled first by train through Siberia and arrived in Beijing in April 1909. After 12 days in the Chinese capital he concluded in his diary that the days of European power were coming to an end. The powers, in his view, acted with hubris and arrogance.

On steamer he continued to Japan and made his base in Yokohama. There he was invited to stay in the home of the Swedish diplomat Gustaf Oskar Wallenberg (1863 – 1937). For more on Kjellén and Japan see Bert Edström’s “Rudolf Kjellén och Japan”, journal Orientaliska studier, No. 89, 1996, pp. 12 – 35 and Storsvensken i Yttersta Östern – G.O. Wallenberg som svenskt sändebud i Japan, 1906 – 1918, Working Paper 52, August 1999, Center for Pacific Asia Studies, University of Stockholm.

In June he sailed on the “Empress of India” across the Pacific Ocean to Vancouver. From there he crossed Canada on the Canadian Pacific Railway to board the Atlantic liner for Europe and Sweden. On July 13 he was back in Gothenburg after a four month tour.

During the First World War the father of geopolitics actively took part in the political debate in Sweden. He believed Sweden’s front against Russia, an old enemy, was common with Germany and that the latter was a natural ally. Sweden did however not join Germany during the war but remained neutral 1914 – 1918.

It was in the third war year the father of geopolitics was appointed Professor Skytteanus at the University of Uppsala, one or the leading academic posts in Sweden. Unfortunately Kjelléns successors in Uppsala after the Second World War have chosen to denigrate him because he had been portrayed as a politician on the right wing of the Swedish Conservative Party, of which he was a member.

In the autumn of 1916 Kjellén wrote the introduction to a work that would give him international fame, The State as a Life-Form. In this book he is critical of the “old” political science, which in his view only dealt with states and judicial systems. He provided a new theory on antro-geographical base (or in his word geopolitical): state, nation, society and judicial system. See Appendix 2 for his geopolitical system.

The next year he left parliament for good to concentrate on university teaching and research. It was then a German translation of his main work was published in Germany and made him famous internationally.

After the Great War he saw England and Russia grow into “planetarian” powers or superpowers in today’s terminology. The United States is now a hegemon far more powerful than the United Kingdom. Already in 1919, he predicted a development towards superpower influence in the world. These views were based on the future strength of geographically and demographically large countries. In fact his predictions were proven correct. During the Cold War, for instance, the United States and the Soviet Union were the geographically large and dominating superpowers. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 China and India, for example, have risen to become great powers, both having large populations.

The hard work in politics, in the academic world and the extensive writing, in 1920, caught up with him. In March 1920 the doctors concluded that Kjellén suffered from angina pectoris, at that time a life threatening illness. He was forced to periods of rest but continued to write.

The Swedish geopolitician published a number of articles with sharp criticism of Lenin and communist ideology. The article on Lenin ended with the words: “Only history will in the future show if Vladimir I. Lenin was a scourge or God or the devil.” As a conservative politician Kjellén held strong anticommunist views.

The dictatorship of the proletariat was introduced in Russia and Kjellén wrote on the communist state. On Marx he remarked that he was a curious bastard of Hegel (form) and Rousseau (content). Half a million Bolsheviks ruled the 100 million of Russia. This half million was controlled by a couple of hundred tyrants in the Kremlin. If one of the usual labels is to be attached to that kind of state, it would be that of aristocracy in the degenerate form known as oligarchy.

In October he wrote his last newspaper article. A cold, frosty day in November 1922 Rudolf Kjellén died in Uppsala, 58 years old.

The most widely read book by the Swedish professor was Stormakterna (The Great Powers; see below Appendix 1), in which the character of the great powers was analyzed with an outline of his geopolitical system.

Theoretically Kjellén worked with two concepts, proper geopolitics and special geopolitics. Proper geopolitics is the geographical unit limited by borders, outward by “natural borders” and inward by a “natural territory “. Borders could be political and natural, such as mountain borders, river borders and natural border zones like deserts, swamps as well as forests and border zones created by people. The natural territory could be divided in different types: potamic, such as those around rivers like Euphrates, Tigris and the Nile or circum-luvial states and circum-marine ones (like the Roman empire around the Mediterranean Sea and the Swedish empire in the seventeenth century around the Baltic Sea). The so called law of the opposite land was a desire to create a national territory that was characterized by for instance Japan’s attempt to conquer Manchuria to create an opposite territorial copy on the mainland or attempts to create “bridge stones” like islands, capes and strips of land along the larger sea routes.

The natural territory is also treated from the point of view of production, the ability to cultivate, to hold together the state and strengthen the shares of earth’s face – through cultivation, communications and fortifications. According to Kjellén there was constant interaction between nation, people and state power. Like Mackinder the Swedish father of geopolitics believed that the development of international transportation on land was developing to such a degree that the advantage of the sea powers was more of historical importance.

After proper geopolitics he dealt with special geopolitics, that is space, shape and position. Space is basically a question of large space. The state has an instinct of expansion and this placed the great powers against small states.

The shape of the state figure is the appearance of the territory, ideally in Kjellén’s view it should be like a circle formed for instance like Iceland. Norway and Italy are extremes in the other direction. There are also enclave and exclave states like old Prussia with a number of small territories spread over a large part or Germany but also Germany as such (during his lifetime and until 1945). Examples of “corridors” are Alaska (the panhandle) and Finland’s territorial finger earlier pointing towards the Barents Sea (between 1917 and 1945). Such corridors exist also in Asia and Africa.

Position is the most important of these geopolitical categories. By position he means not only the foreign policy position (“neighborhood”) but also the “cultural position” in relation to world communications. An example of this was pre-war Germany between three great powers and five small states, with its different aspects and degrees of pressure on borders.

Finally Kjellén focused on the question of the “historical side” of a state and movements that can occur. The “historical side” of Russia has for instance been the movement from the Baltic Sea-the Barents Sea to the Black Sea-the Mediterranean and then (1878) to the Far East and after 1905 mainly southward. An important aspect of this is also the movement of capital cities: Moscow to St. Petersburg and back to Moscow and in Turkey from Istanbul to Ankara.

Geopolitics, both as Kjellén viewed it and in its main Western stream (Mackinder, Mahan, Spykman et al) is a border science between history, geography and political science but it can also be regarded as an aid to all three. It is to a great extent a matter of a method or analysis. The father of geopolitics did for instance not use maps in his books. Maps were however used extensively by for instance Mackinder and Spykman.

There were few pupils in Sweden. One of them was Edvard Thermaenius (b. 1896; assistant professor at the University of Lund). In Finland Kjellén had several followers and in the time between the two World Wars the most important was Ragnar Numelin (1890 – 1972), an anthropologist and diplomat.

Kjellén correctly predicted the collapse of the Habsburg Empire, the gradual decline of France as a great power and the decay of the British Empire.

These predictions were based on the view that the European great powers were influenced by hubris of superiority, which would lead to resistance and liberation in the colonial world. The father of geopolitics also believed Islam would be a rising threat in global politics due to the weakening of European great power. He also correctly predicted the coming of World War I already in 1899. In that he was not of course alone. Kjellén based the forecast on the growing antagonism of on one side of Great Britain and France. On the other side was Germany and Austria.

The ideas of Kjellén have not dominated the theoretical debate on geopolitics as have those of Mackinder, Mahan, Spykman and others. There is no indication that the father of geopolitics was familiar with Sir Halford Mackinder. Mahan was not mentioned in Kjellén’s writings except as a supporter of the foreign policy of President Theodore Roosevelt.

Rudolf Kjellén is today mainly remembered as the creator of the term geopolitics. He was mainly a classifier and system builder and it has rather been Mackinder, Spykman and Mahan that have stood the test of time in classical geopolitics.

Appendix 1

A chronology of books on geopolitics published by Rudolf Kjellén between 1905 and 1919:
Stormakterna (The Great Powers), first edition 1905, second edition 1911 – 13.
Staten som lifsform (The State as Life Form), lectures, 1908.
Världskrigets politiska problem (The Political Problems
of the World War), 1915
Statskunskapens objekt (The Object of Political
Science; inaugural lecture at Uppsala University), 1916.
Staten som lifsform (The State as Life Form), 1916.
Sverige (Sweden), 1917.

In Undersökningar till politikens system (Research on the System of Politics) in the context of “practical experiments” are Stormakterna (1905), Världskrigets politiska problem (1915) and Sverige (1917). In Undersökningar till politikens system (1918-19) he presented his complete geopolitical science.

Appendix 2

The system of geopolitics can according to Kjellén be divided as follows:

I The Nation: Geopolitics
1. Position of the Nation: topopolitics
2. The Figure of the Nation: morphopolitics
3. The Territory or the Nation: physiopolitics

II. The National Establishment: Ecopolitics
1. The Establishment Sphere: emporopolitics
2. Independent Establishment : autarchipolitics
3. Economic establishment: economipolitics

III The State People: Demopolitics
1. The People: ethnopolitics
2. The Population Core: plethopolitics
3. The Soul or the People: psychopolitics

IV. The National Society. Sociopolitics
1. Form of Society: phylopolitics
2. Life of Society: biopolitics

V. Form of Government: Cratopolitics
1. Form of State: nomopolitics
2. Life or State: praxipolitics
3. State Power- – archopolitics

Scheme of subdivision
1. Environment 2. Form 3. Content

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