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Sea Power vs Land Power: the Geopolitics of Germany’s Defeat in the First World War

2012 Global Britain Lecture

10 May 2012, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Co-sponsored by the Centre for British Studies (http://www.gbz.hu-berlin.de/the-centre)

Professor Hew Strachan
MA, PhD, FRSE, FRHistS, Hon D.Univ (Paisley)
Chichele Professor of the History of War, University of Oxford

In 1904 Halford Mackinder, in the lecture which established the study of geopolitics in the English-speaking world, divided the world into the heartland, which he also called Eurasia (the land mass which runs from the Atlantic and the Pacific), and the rimlands. He predicted that the latter would diminish in relative importance as the heartland industrialised and in particular as the railway made land mass an asset, rather than an obstacle, to communication.  Russia would be able to tap its manpower and its natural resources, and would become the dominant power of Eurasia, overshadowing the west European powers.

In the 1980s scholars like Paul Kennedy argued that Mackinder’s arguments spelled the end of sea power as a means of exercising geopolitical leverage, a historical process which contributed to the decline of Britain over the course of the 20th century.  But in 2012 the argument looks premature: the majority of the world’s goods are still carried by sea, the United States projects its global reach not least thanks to sea power, and both China and India see the acquisition of navies as vital components of their emerging economic status.

Mackinder’s lecture looks no better as a short-term prediction of his own times.  He confirmed the fears of Russia entertained by the other great powers of Europe before the First World War.  His lecture suggested that the sensible strategy for Germany was rapprochement with Russia, a policy favoured by Falkenhayn, the chief of the Prussian General Staff in 1914-16.  But Germany’s pre-war policy of Weltpolitik took it in a very different direction, recognising that maritime and overseas strength was the future for a rapidly industrialising economy, and that the greater markets lay to the west and south, rather than to the east.  Fritz Fischer was wrong: a German war aims programme built round Mitteleuropa was a second-rank option forced on Germany by the circumstances of the war’s outbreak not as the result of a long-term design.

Britain’s only effective strategy for waging continental war rested on the sea, but this did not prove to be the impediment that Mackinder suggested that it might.  Maritime power proved vital to victory, enabling Britain to be the arsenal and financier of its allies, and also enabling the United States to be a key player in the war’s outcome both before its formal entry and afterwards.

Germany’s geopolitical position was not weak because it was overshadowed by Russia but because it was blockaded by sea.  Its army’s decision to focus on the west more than the east reflected that reality, even if the decision was largely justified in operational terms.  Geopolitics were and are vital to understanding the war’s outcome, but not as Mackinder had anticipated.

Curriculum Vitae

Hew Strachan was born in Edinburgh in 1949, has been Chichele Professor of the History of War and Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford since 2002.  He is also Director of the Oxford Programme on the Changing Character of War.  He was a Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge 1975-78 and 1979-92 (and is now a Life Fellow of the College); Senior Lecturer in War Studies at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst 1978-9; and Professor of Modern History at the University of Glasgow 1992-2001.  He is a member of the Chief of the Defence Staff’s Strategic Advisory Panel and of the Defence Academy Advisory Board, a Trustee of the Imperial War Museum and a Commonwealth War Graves Commissioner.  He has been joint editor of War in History since its establishment in 1994, and in 2010 was asked by the Prime Minister to chair a task force on the implementation of the military covenant.  He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Short bibliography

European Armies and the Conduct of War (1983)

 The Politics of the British Army (1997)

The First World War: Volume 1: To Arms (2001)

The First World War: a New Illustrated History (2003)

Clausewitz’s On War: a biography (2007)

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