Friedrich Ratzel, German Geographer


Dawn M. Hilderbrand
University of Missouri-Columbia


Jason Janke
Valparaiso University

November 4, 1996

Ratzel photo

Friedrich Ratzel was a remarkable German geographer in the late 18th century. In his book, The Makers of Modern Geography, Robert E. Dickinson states that "There is no doubt that Friedrich Ratzel has been the greatest single contributor to the development of the Geography of Man" (Dickinson, 1961, p. 64). Ratzel and his work continue to be influential in the studies of modern geography.

Friedrich Ratzel was born August 30, 1844, in Karlsruhe, Boden in Germany. His father was the head of the household staff of the Grand Duke. At age 15, he began apprenticing to apothecarys . At age 21, he began his university education and finished his work at Heidelberg in 1868. The year 1869 saw the publication of the first of many written works, Sein und Werden der organischen Welt, which was a work on Darwin and his ideas.

After he finished his education, Ratzel began the travels that would transform him from zoologist/biologist to geographer. He began field work in the Mediterranean, writing letters of his experiences. These letters would lead to a job as a traveling reporter for the Kölnishe Zeitung, which provided him the funds and means of further travel and research. Harriet Wanklyn notes in her biography that "this change in Ratzel’s prospect and interests is significant. It marks the move away from zoology towards one of the ingredients of geography, travel undertaken with the purpose of careful observation..." (Wanklyn, 1961, p. 8). Ratzel embarked on several expeditions for his work, the lengthiest and one of the most important being his 1874-75 trips to North America and Mexico.

This trip was a turning point in Ratzel’s career. He studied the influence of people of German origin had in America, especially in the Midwest. Additionally, he studied the successes of other ethnic groups in North America (Martin, 1993). Ratzel also visited many cities which he was deeply impressed with. He produced a written work of his account in 1876. From this trip, Ratzel "returned convinced of the attraction and importance of geographical work" (Wanklyn, 1961, p. 13) that would shape the rest of his career.

Upon his return in 1875, Ratzel became a lecturer in geography at the Technical High School in Munich. In 1876, he was promoted to assistant professor, then rose to full professor in 1880 (Wanklyn, 1961). While at Munich, Ratzel produced several books and established his career as an academic. In 1876, he accepted an appointment at Leipzig. Here he continued to grow in his academic teachings. Ratzel gave many lectures, some of which were attended by as many as 500 people, including influential American geographer Ellen Churchill Semple. (Martin, 1993) Ratzel continued his work at Leipzig until his sudden death on August 9, 1904 in Ammerland, Germany.

As previously stated, Ratzel’s influence on the field of geography has been monumental. Ratzel produced the foundations of human geography in his Anthropogeographie in 1882 and 1891. (See annotated bibliography at the end of this paper for more detail on this work.) In addition to this monumental work, Ratzel published his Politische Geography in 1897. In this work, Ratzel introduced many concepts, including Lebenstrum and ideas that would eventually be called Social Darwinism, that would be appropiated for use beyond Ratzel’s original intentions and ideas. His concept of lebenstraum was particulary seized upon by the German National Socialists as a basis for some of their policies in the 1930’s. (Livingstone, 1992; Martin. 1993)

In addition to introducing new concepts, terms, and theories (including human geography and ethnological theory (Livingstone,1992), Ratzel was an exceptional writer and much published author. Below are two samples of Ratzel’s writings which showcase his writing style and keen descriptive powers. (Please note the excepts are taken completely out of context for the purposes shown here. Annoted bibliographies of three of Ratzel’s important works follow for detailed analysis of his work.)


From Sketches of Urban and Cultural Life in North America

The Hudson River offers the city of New York, situated at its mouth, not only one of the most excellent harbors of the world and a mighty, valuable artery running deep into a most fertile region, but also brings the rolling country and mountains along its banks much nearer and facilitates access to a large and beautiful natural area so close to the deafening hustle and bustle of the big city that, with regard to this advantage, New York leaves European cities far behind. Below the estuary island of Manhattan on which New York has spread out, the main branch of the river expands into the splendid bay; a branch, the East River, runs in an easterly direction into Long Island Sound with all its little islands; while a trip upstream toward the north would bring one in a half-hour into the middle of a thickly wooded, rocky and hilly area filled with lakes and streams. This is a fabulous region whose significance as a resort for the mental and physical recuperation of the huge, growing population of the urban complex on the lower Hudson (New York, Brooklyn, Jersey City, Hoboken, et cetera) increases in proportion to the population, which continues to expand around the center of the metropolis. (p. 54)


From History of Mankind (Völkerkunde)

Here Nature frames a check for man, and teaches him thrift. On the other side, the tendency to settlement is encouraged. Where large provision of fruits is found, whole tribes come at the gathering time from all sides and remain as long as the food lasts. Thus, to this day, the Zanderillos of Mexico come to the sandy lowlands of the Coatzacoalco when the melons are ripe; or the Ojibbeways assemble round the marshes where the Zizania, or water-rice grows; or the Australians hold a kind of harvest festivity in the neighbourhood of the marsiliaceous plants which serve them for grain. Thus on two sides the barriers of savage nature are broken down. The son of the desert is beginning to look ahead, and is on the way to become settled. From this stage to the great epoch-making discovery that he must commit the seed to the earth in order to stimulate Nature to richer performance, may in point of time have been far, but as we think of it the step does not seem long. (pp. 88-89)

 As noted above, Ratzel was a much published author. At the end of her book, Harriet Wanklyn includes a bibliography of Ratzel’s work that is several pages long. (Wanklyn, 1961, pp. 57-94). Ratzel's writings were and continue to be important to the development of geography. Three of his works, Stadte-ünd Culturbilder aus Nordamerika Anthropogeographie, and Politische Geographie helped create geographic fields such as cultural, human, and political geography.

As mentioned earlier, as the result of his travels in the U.S. from 1873 to 1874, Friedrich Ratzel was transformed into a geographer. Stadte-ünd Culturbider aus Nordamerika, a book written as a reflection of his journeys in America, exemplifies Ratzel's work as a cultural geographer. According to Ratzel, cities are the best place to study people because life is "blended, compressed, and accelerated" in cities, and they bring out the "greatest, best, most typical aspects of people" (Ratzel, trans. by Stehlin, 1988, p.3). Ratzel traveled to numerous cities such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, Richmond, Charleston, New Orleans, San Francisco, and many more. For each of these cities, he gave a general view of the characteristics and importance of each city. Ratzel believed that once these facts about urban life are examined, they can serve as a great aid in the study of cultural history. Ratzel's work concerning the city of San Francisco provides a good example. Ratzel begins by defining San Francisco as a commercial center, then he divides the city into three sections and reflects on the cultural diversity of each section (Ratzel, trans. by Stehlin, 1988, p.278). From these facts, Ratzel reconstructs the cultural history of an area. Ratzel's interest in cultural geography would soon inspire him to explore the field of human geography.

Friedrich Ratzel's most famous two volume work, Anthropogeographie, is one of the earliest works focusing on human geography. In his first volume (1882), Ratzel examines the causes of human population distribution, or the dynamic aspect of geography (Dickinson, 1969, p. 68). He also relates geography to history. His second volume deals with the facts of distribution, or the static aspect of geography. Some viewed these works as environmentally deterministic, although Ratzel stresses that nature, physical features, culture groups, and many more items affect human action (Fuson, 1969, p.101). Physical features, such as mountains or bodies of water, are discussed with respect to human migrations. According to Ratzel, religious, linguistic, and ethnic groupings also determine population distributions (Dickinson, 1969, p. 68). Unfortunately, Ratzel's students misinterpreted his ideas and became early environmental determinists. As an outgrowth of Anthropogeographie, Ratzel began his study of political geography.

In 1897, Friedrich Ratzel published Politische Geographie, the first systematic approach to political geography (Pearcy, 1957, p. 22). In this book, Ratzel develops the concept that views the state as "a particular spatial grouping on the earth's surface." The state, as defined by Ratzel, consists of "a human group with definite organization and distribution" (Dickinson, 1969, p. 68). From these ideas, Ratzel developed the concept of Lebensraum or living space, Ratzel hypothesized that the state naturally seeks to increase its size. If the state's neighbors are weak, the state will grow larger and spread into other states. As evidenced, Ratzel believed that space was a great political force. Unfortunately, Ratzel's ideas were once again misinterpreted and used for the wrong purpose. People, such as Karl Haushofer and Adolf Hitler, used these ideas to formulate their own theories about world domination.

While he may be recognized more in France and the United States, (Martin, 1993) possibly due in some part to Ellen Churchill Semple’s influence and interpretations of Ratzel and his work, Friedrich Ratzel had a profound impact on the entire field of geography. His writings clearly depict him as a universal geographer. Although, his best work, Anthropogeographie, classified Ratzel as a prominent human geographer, which is perhaps the subject for which he is best known, (Winters, 1991) Ratzel must also be understood as an outstanding cultural and political geographer and ethnographer. Ratzel’s written works and teachings have impacted generations of geographers and will continue to influence those who partake in the study of geography.


Daintith, John; Mitchell, Sarah, et al. (1994) Biographical encylopedia of Scientists, second edition. Bristol: Institute of Physics Publishing.

Dickinson, Robert E. (1969). The Makers of Modern Geography. New York: Friederich A. Praeger publishers.

"Friedrich Ratzel" (1996). Symmetrix Ingenieurunternehmung Web Page [Online]. Available:

Fuson, Robert H. (1969). A Geography of Geography. Dubuque: W.M.C. Brown Company Publishers.

Livingstone, David. (1992). The Geographical Tradition. Oxford: Blackwell.

Martin, Geoffrey J. and James, Preston E. (1993). All Possible Worlds. New York: John Wiley and Sons, inc

Pearcy, Etzel and Russell Fifield. (1957). World Political Geography. New York: Crowell Company.

Razel, Friedrich. (1882). Anthropogeographie. Stuttgart: J. Engelhorn.

Ratzel, Friedrich. (1896). The History of Mankind, volume 1. Translated from the second German edition Völkerkunde by Butler, A. J. New York: Macmillan.

Ratzel, Friedrich.(1879). Politische Geographie. Munich: R. Oldenbourg.

Ratzel, Friedrich. (1988). Sketches of Urban and Culture Life in North America. Ed. and trans. Stewart A. Stehlin. Rutgers: Rutgers University Press.

Sauer, C. O. (1971, June). "The Formative Years of Ratzel in the United States". Annals of the Association of American Geographers 61:2.

Wanklyn, Harriet (Mrs. J. A. Steers). (1961). Friedrich Ratzel, a Biographical Memoir and Bibliography. Cambridge: University Press.

Winters, Christopher, general editor. (1991). International Dictionary of Anthropoligists. New York: Garland Publishing.

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