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Reflection: How one German Geographer Saw his Science under the Third Reich

February 12th, 2012
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    Carl Troll (1899-1975)

    by Jindan Chen*

    What were German geographers up to under the Third Reich from 1933 to 1945? What were their researching emphases in this period? How did politics and World War II influence the development of geography in Germany? With these questions in mind, I came across Carl Troll’s review article, “Geographic Science in Germany during the Period 1933-1945: A Critique and Justification” (Die geographische Wissenschaft in Deutschland in den Jahren 1933 bis 1945: Eine Kritik und Rechtfertigung). Carl Troll was a German geographer during the administration of Third Reich. The first part of this review was published as the opening article of the new German geographical journal after the war, Erdkunde: Archiv fur Wissenschaftliche Geographie. Immediately after its issue in May 1947, the article was translated into English by Dr. Eric Fischer of the University of Virginia and published in Annals of the Association of American Geographers in June 1949.

    I suppose the initial motivation of Troll to craft this article was, as he argued in this article, to confirm “German geographers were able to produce genuinely scientific work in spite of the Nazi pressure.” The word “genuine” appeared ten times in this article. The high-frequent use of “genuine” could make you have a strong sense that Troll was making every effort to emphasize the sound and honest work done by German geographers under harsh conditions particular to this period. Nonetheless, the more he stressed the achievements, the more severe one feels the damage must have been due to the intervention of political doctrine.
    Troll scrutinized almost every aspect of the development in German geography. There was damage and there were achievements. The damage was caused principally by forcing researchers to pander to the need of political ideology. Research results were loaded with political meanings. The conclusions were no longer simple reflections on relations between geographic factors. Instead, these geographical relations indicated certain political values. In this situation, some research areas coming up with results opposed to the preference of Nazis administration were forbidden, and some research areas were flooded with tons of faked data in order to agree with what the Nazi leaders advocated.

    Take economic geography for example. One branch of this geography dealt with how resources for economic activities are distributed across the world. One student of German economic geographer Leo Waibel took up a statistical study on the proportion of imports from tropical countries to German over the past thirty-five years. The study reflected that the German economy largely depended upon the import of raw materials. The problem with this finding was it implied there would be a high risk of waging a war of long duration. This was absolutely against the desire of Nazi administrators. Therefore, any study in regard to the dependence of German economy on foreign resources was shut down.

    On the other hand, achievements were made, but with great pains and wise tactics. The most interesting example to me was the progress in physical geography. At first, the development of physical geography was repressed by the Third Reich. The reason was administrators found it hard to make use of the research results in support of their political contentions. Ironically, as the war started, knowledge in air force, marine meteorology, military geography, cartography, and military terrain science was in high demand. Consequently, research in every branch of physical geography gained support. Whenever political leaders tended to interfere with the investigation of this field, researched resorted to “military importance” to protect their normal scientific research. In this sense, war spurred and protected the development of geography.

    It is no doubt that in this article we see again the effects of political intervention on the course of science. At least there are two things we could learn from the struggle. For one thing, it is extremely problematic to judge research that is tied to political implications, as in the case of the choking of economic geography. For another, when the research is directly related to the interests of the administrative power, like the application of physical geography to war, politics acts as a stimulation to promote scientific research and shields research activities from political manipulation.

    C. Troll, “Geographic Science in Germany during the Period 1933-1945: A Critique and Justification,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 39: 2 (Jun., 1949), pp. 99-137

    Image from http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/chronob/TROL1899.htm

    *Jindan Chen is pursuing a Master’s degree in History of Science at Oregon State University.

    Please share our work with others!

      One Response to “Reflection: How one German Geographer Saw his Science under the Third Reich”

      1. Rick says:

        Jindan-
        Excellent article, Jindan, congratulations! I find highly admirable intuitive linkage in this passage, a pivot in your argument: “the more he stressed the achievements, the more severe one feels the damage must have been…” -Rick

      Leave a Reply

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