Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Nazi geographies

Image above: The spatial theory of Central Places.

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Nazi spatial theory: Never not question spatial agenda

“… central to the theory was the ‘deterritorializing’ of territorities as Germans invaded lands (Poland, Czechoslovakia etc.) and removing peoples of ‘impure’ origin; and Christaller in ‘reterritorializing’ these lands with ‘legitimate’ German peoples.  In short the theories of Christaller were concerned with “space and, more fundamentally, the formulation of a larger, guiding spatial theory, was central to achieving Nazi objectives during the Third Reich.”

Whenever I am talking to a group of 1970’s geographers I can usually get immediate cognition and a degree of nostalgia if I mention the spatial theories of Walter Christaller. As geographers we were fed a diet of Central Place Theory and spatial arrangement across rural landscapes. For many of us it was our introduction to the spatial and the wonders of geographical patterns and trends.  However few of us questioned the agenda of the geographer (in fact scientist) who developed the theory. Such a scientific spatial theory had a degree of synergy in the 1970’s with geography’s desire to be taken seriously as a science, with a degree of theories and formulas to explain the spatial world. However, Christaller’s theories is really a wonderful example of how spatial technology and the understanding of the spatial can be used for the wrong reasons. As a previous Spatialworlds posting indicated in regards to spatial technology, we should not blindly accept technology as for the benefit of all but it can have a dark side of invasiveness and in the case of Christaller, an aid to resettlement and human displacement.   

What the goodness am I talking about? Is not Central Place Theory just an idea to help us understand the spatial landscape?  Not quite!  Christaller was a paid up Nazi in 1940 (apparently his Nazi membership documents show him as a very early member) when he was working on his theories. The Nazi’s funded his work in the early 1940’s for the purpose of efficiency of resettlement of the “living space” to the east which was to be opened up by the displacement of the Poles and Russians created by the German conquests.  
Christaller’s theory of Central Place has recently been described in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers as Dark Nazi Geographies. 

Central place theory is a spatial theory in urban geography that attempts to explain the reasons behind the distribution patterns, size, and number of cities and towns around the world. It also attempts to provide a framework by which those areas can be studied both for historic reasons and for the locational patterns of areas today.”
What makes much of this revelation of ‘Christallian’ agenda astounding to me is that not once in all the years of being taught (and teaching) Christaller was the issue of agenda raised and that the theory had any murky connections. Recently I came across a retired university geographer who did his Masters work on Christaller – he looked incredulously at me when I asked him how he felt about the dark Nazi geography of Christaller.

Just backtracking a little, here is a summary of the life of Christaller and his work.

Christallers ‘central place theory’ of human settlement was developed when he was a member of the Nazi Party and served in Konrad Meyer’s Planning and Soil Department. At the end of the 1930s he held a short-lived academic appointment, but then joined the Nazi Party in 1940. He moved into government service, in Himmler's SS-Planning and Soil Office, during the Second World War. Christaller’s task was to draw up plans for reconfiguring the economic geography of Germany's eastern conquests ("General plan of the East") – primarily Czechoslovakia and Poland, and if successful, Russia itself. Christaller was given special charge of planning occupied Poland, and he did so using his central place theory as an explicit guide.
At the centre of applying the perverted biopolitical logic of National Socialism required the military accomplishment and bureaucratic management of two interrelated spatial processes: deterritorialization and reterritorialization. Deterritorialization involved moving non-Germanized Germans (mainly Jews and Slavs) off conquered Eastern lands to create an “empty space” that was then “reterritorialized” by the settlement of “legitimate” Germans (although often not German citizens). Although many German academics were involved in designing and implementing these spatial strategies, Walter Christaller brought his peculiar spatial imaginary of formal geometry and place-based rural romanticism in planning the “empty space” of the East after non-Germanized inhabitants were removed. His central place theory re-created the Nazis' territorial conquests in the geographical likeness of the German homeland
Ironically after the War Christaller joined the Communist Party and became politically active. In addition, he devoted himself to the geography of tourism. From 1950 forward, his Central Place Theory was used to restructure municipal relationships and boundaries in the Federal Republic of Germany and the system is still in place today. In 1950 Walter Christaller founded the German Association of Applied Geography (DVAG). The Walter Christaller Award for Applied Geography is named after him to this day.

Despite the dark history of Christaller’s spatial theory of central places, it is still used today to give meaning to space and settlement – maybe  a use for good despite its origin as a servant of the Nazi’s.  As described by the Smart Earth site, the work of Christaller still has a role to play as we try to make sense of space.

As Christaller said:

“People have become too easily satisfied with slogans about the power that is to be found in a space, or that emanates from it, about the narrowness of space, the domination of space, the magic of space. Space is not a sorcerer or a supernatural being." - Walter Christaller

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