Mackinder and the Geopolitics of the First World War

Date:03-28-20 Time:16:55

Authored by Francis P. Sempa via

Sir Halford Mackinder (1861-1947), educator, geographer, statesman, and geopolitical thinker, was best known for three geopolitical works: “The Geographical Pivot of History” (1904), “Democratic Ideals and Reality” (1919), and “The Round World and the Winning of the Peace” (1943). In those works, Mackinder formulated and then revised his global geopolitical worldview—a geo-historical prism that continues to influence the way statesmen and strategists approach world politics.

He divided the globe into broad geopolitical spaces: Eurasia, the Heartland or pivot state, the inner and marginal crescents or Coastlands, the world-ocean, the Midland Ocean, the southern Heartland, and the World-Island. Those broad geopolitical spaces were shaped by history and, in turn, shaped history. They formed the geographical settings for the struggles for power among sea powers and land powers (and later air powers). For Mackinder, geography and history were one — scholars and statesmen could not fully grasp the significance of one without understanding the other.

Mackinder’s worldview was shaped by world events—wars, crises, diplomatic disputes, global rivalries—that gave meaning to the world’s largest geographical features. Perhaps the most important event that Mackinder studied was the First World War, or what his generation called the Great War—an event that shaped and continues to shadow all that has come after it. The American diplomat and historian George Kennan called World War I the “seminal catastrophe” of the 20th century. It shattered all the certainties—political and religious—of the 19th century world and ushered in the political and ideological struggles of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Mackinder’s Forgotten Book

In 1924, Mackinder wrote a little remembered book about the Great War and its aftermath entitled “The World War and After.” The war began in earnest, he wrote, when Germany invaded Belgium and France in August 1914, while Great Britain asserted control of the North Sea and the English Channel and dispatched five divisions of British troops to France. He lauded the foresight of First Sea Lord Jackie Fisher, Secretary of State for War Lord Haldane, and First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, who seized the initiative at sea. Mackinder compared the “instant readiness” of British sea power to the slower but still impressive mobilization of the German army.

Nevertheless, German forces swiftly penetrated into the Belgian fortress of Liege in early August and reached the Meuse River. Allied armies fell back under the German onslaught but held at the Marne River where the German advance was stopped in a battle that Mackinder called “one of the decisive battles of the world’s history.” “The great German rush had been foiled,” he wrote, “and the German reputation of invincibility, earned in 1866 and 1870, had been broken.” The miracle of the Marne.

The Marne battle was soon followed by the first battle of Ypres, Belgium, fought from Oct. 8 – Nov. 20, 1914. What Mackinder called the “splendid and terrible struggle” at Ypres ended the war of maneuver, and both sides began digging trenches. “Now for more than three years,” Mackinder wrote, “the opposing forces were to face one another in a great stalemate.”

In the east, Germany faced Russia across the vast Eurasian plain, Mackinder explained, gaining a smashing victory over Russian armies at Tannenberg. Around the same time, Russian forces under General Brusilov defeated Austro-Hungarian forces at Lemberg. After more fighting on this front, the opposing armies also entrenched near the Vistula River. Meanwhile, Austrian forces also plunged into the Balkans.

The year 1915 saw the Germans advance through Poland into Russia. “Russian losses had been colossal,” Mackinder wrote, and “the spirit of the nation ran low.” It never recovered.

England Preoccupied With Gallipoli Campaign

The British, meanwhile, got bogged down in the Gallipoli campaign. Mackinder recognized that it had long been British policy to prevent a hostile power from establishing a naval base on the Persian Gulf. In this way, “Britain protected India from overseas attack without having to occupy and rule troublesome territories in Persia and Arabia.” He compared British policy there to America’s Monroe Doctrine. The Turks of the Ottoman Empire, however, entered the war on Germany’s side, and British strategists sought a way to use sea power to circumvent the stalemate on the Western Front. If British warships could pass through the Dardanelles and British troops could seize Constantinople, Mackinder explained, Turkey could be knocked out of the war, war supplies could reach Russia, and Greece, Bulgaria, and Romania would remain neutral.

Alas, faulty timing and execution doomed the effectiveness of the passage through the straits, and by the time British, Australian, Indian and French troops landed on Gallipoli, it had become, in Mackinder’s description, a second Gibraltar—unconquerable.

The Western Front, Mackinder wrote, continued to be a “war of attrition, the aim of which was to wear down the enemy forces by constant minor losses.” There were some great battles—at Ypres, the Somme, Verdun—but little ground was won or lost, and the bodies piled up.

Mackinder described how almost imperceptibly British sea power complemented and reinforced allied land forces. First, command of the sea enabled Britain to send a steady stream of men and equipment to the continent. Second, the British naval blockade slowly began to starve the German nation. And, Mackinder wrote, “[b]ehind the screen of the trenches on land and of the blockade at sea, the vast but unready resources of the British Empire were slowly mobilized.”

Britain, he continued, “achieved undisputed command of the Outer Seas, over which . . . convoys of transports were . . . bringing to her aid from the Dominions armies larger than the army which fought at Waterloo.” German hopes to break the blockade and gain command of the seas were dashed at the naval Battle of Jutland, which Mackinder described as “a British victory, final and conclusive,” even though the losses on both sides were equal.

German war aims were ambitious. They sought a huge empire in the east, but also “a vast realm extending from the North Sea to the frontier of India and to tropical East Africa.” Germany’s Turkish allies commanded Constantinople, Aleppo, Damascus, and Bagdad, which German engineers would link by railways. Thus fighting erupted in the deserts of the Middle East, and the outcome of that fighting and the peace that followed shaped Middle Eastern politics for the next century.

Collapse of Romanov Dynasty shifted outcome of WW I

Two momentous geopolitical events decided the final outcome of the war. First, the Russian Revolution in early 1917 brought about the collapse of the Romanov dynasty, and the Provisional Government’s continuation of the war resulted in food riots, strikes, and ultimately the Bolshevik seizure of power and subsequent peace with Germany. Germany was now free to strike in the West, but her policy of unrestricted submarine warfare brought the United States into the war on the Allied side. A final German offensive in the West faltered, and the armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, ending the Great War.

The last hundred pages of “The World War and After” are devoted to “Political Geography After the Great War.” After describing how the peacemakers at Versailles redrew the map of Europe, Mackinder sought to “set this Great War in its historical perspective.”

“The Great War,” he explained, “is but one event in a sequence which we speak of as History.”

Mackinder pictured Europe and Asia divided along a Baltic, Rhine, Adriatic, Taurus line. To the west, south and southeast of that line are “the oceanic states, “ while to the east and northeast of the line are “the purely continental States.” Historically, he continued, “civilization in Eastern and Western Europe springs from different roots”—Roman and Teutonic in the west; Slavic in the east.

In Eastern Europe, Mackinder noted, the Great War resulted in the collapse of four empires: Hohenzollern, Hapsburg, Romanov, and the Ottoman Sultans. Germany and Russia, though defeated in the war, emerged as the two potentially most powerful nations, and the break-up of the other empires resulted in a tier of mostly small and independent states in the remaining portions of Eastern Europe.

Mackinder described Western Europe and North America as a “single community of nations.” “The United States came into the war in 1917,” he explained, “because it realized that the western allies were fighting for a cause which was also the cause of America.” This was a remarkable and prescient vision of the North Atlantic Alliance that emerged 25 years after Mackinder wrote those words.

In the remaining pages of the book, Mackinder described the principal geopolitical features of southwest Asia, the Far East, Africa, Latin America, and a belt of desert lands stretching across continents. He also foresaw that air power—which had its strategic birth in the Great War—would impact the geopolitical balance of the future. “The time has come,” he predicted, “when men will truly think in continents and oceans.” Geopolitics was now global and technology was making the world smaller. That meant, he concluded, that “the happiness of men will depend more than ever on the exercise or moral qualities, for man’s power of working evil will have been increased equally with his power of good.”

In the end, as Mackinder noted in “Democratic Ideals and Reality,” the Great War should have served as a warning to Western statesmen to forever guard against the control of key parts of Eurasia by a hostile power or alliance of powers. It was a lesson that the Western powers at great cost had to relearn in the Second World War and during the Cold War. It is a lesson that Western powers should be mindful of today as China seeks to expand its influence throughout Eurasia. 
Francis P. Sempa, a federal prosecutor, is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century and America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics, and War. He has written extensively on historical and foreign policy topics for The Diplomat, Orbis, the Claremont Review of Books, the University Bookman, the Asian Review of Books, Joint Force Quarterly, the South China Morning Post, Strategic Review, and other publications.

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