With his keyboard placed on a map of Europe, Karl Schlögel goes on excursions in geography and history. Photo: Gorm K. Gaare

Interviews The Return of Space. A Conversation on the Geography Renaissance with Karl Schlögel

Cultural historian Karl Schlögel reflects on what sort of components create a geographic space. Interpretations of what took place and what is taking place always occur in a spatial context.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds page 30-33, Vol II:II, 2009
Published on balticworlds.com on February 19, 2010

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The wooden stairs creak leading up to Karl Schlögel’s apartment on Prinzregentenstrasse in old West Berlin. The surroundings are light and airy, in a way that is not readily associated with a city of stone, and the fact is that large parts of this city still have an almost rustic character. Here there is place and space — two geographic elements that have characterized the mature historian Karl Schlögel’s interpretations of the past. His thesis of a “spatial turn”, in contrast to the “linguistic turn” of postmodernism around 1980, has had a major influence on historical research over the course of the last decade.

This “return of geography” is encountered profoundly in a city like Berlin — Schlögel’s vantage point on the outside world, a short distance from European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder), where he has his academic post. And there is every reason to note that precisely a city like Berlin, situated to the east of another and much older imperial city, Prague, has, so to speak, moved with the changes in political geography over the last hundred years, from having been the center of two Continental powers, to being a shared outpost in the interface between two military alliances, to becoming — perhaps not finally? — a natural center of a modern Gesamteuropa, also a city of youth and many artistic experiments. Yet again, one could say.

It is as if the young Karl Schlögel, cleansed of the doctrinaire utopian Left’s lack of interest in the actually existing world, in a coming to accounts with what remained of political left-radicalism, suddenly sensed the ground under his feet, when, in 1986, he published his thin, programmatic booklet, Die Mitte liegt ostwärts: the midpoint lies to the east! It was a battle slogan, a provocation, but also a research program. People need to see spatial totalities in order to understand long-standing cultural connections.

“What I wanted to stress was the importance of the environment in a broad sense. Even philosophical thoughts and systems have their origins in certain places, certain locations, and from there they probably move to the wider world and become global. But they are grounded somewhere. And I think one of the most fascinating questions is how this cultural texture is produced. But how had it been possible that place and space had been ignored for so long a time — in the academic research fields as well as in the public sphere?

“In Germany in particular it was entirely out of fashion to talk and reason in spatial terms. The Nazis of course had abused space to the extent that a sort of räumliche Atrophie, a weakness of spatial imagination, had come to be established. There was also a sense that new technologies of information and communication made places lose their significance, disappear, or even be liquidated. History suffered too.

“I couldn’t follow that course. It was equivalent to the notion of the end of history. What was happening was in fact the very opposite: that everything was speeding up, that history was regaining its meaning.

“Now, from that perspective, Berlin was a rather good place to be living in. The city was itself a border, a fact of geography and of history. When I wrote Die Mitte I had in mind a Streitschrift. There was a tendency to ignore what was happening at the time — I talked about things that were happening, were underway, whereas my adversaries talked about things that had already occurred, a body of established facts. They confirmed the things that were already disappearing.

“What I did — for I was not alone — was to adhere to a debate that was going on among dissidents in Eastern and Central Europe, where they really were rediscovering the meaning and importance of Europe. And now this has become history!”

The historical heritage was ignored at the same time that historical development was acquiring an accelerated tempo. In the 19th century, when new political and geographical facts were being established all over Europe, the study of history certainly had a strong upswing, but as you discuss in the book Im Raume lesen wir die Zeit, geography was separated from the study of the past. Isn’t this paradoxical?

“But at the same time you saw the invention of geography as a new science.

Geography got a new task or mission in “re-measuring” the world; the world was occupied by the colonial powers. At the end of the 19th century, I would say that there was a strong move to reintegrate the disciplines that had been separated from one another. The great achievement of the 19th century had been the creation of new disciplines and sciences.

“Progress was made by developing a division of labor between the disciplines. You specialized. But parallel to this trend was a strong desire to unite disciplines.

Die Leipziger Schule, with the cultural historian Karl Lamprecht and the geographer Friedrich Ratzel, tried to do exactly this, to bring disciplines together that had been separated. And I have the impression that today we have approached such a turning point once again. The flourishing of cultural studies, to my mind, certainly has to do with a desire to unite research disciplines.”

But Lamprecht lost his battle, didn’t he?

“Yes, he lost the battle, I would say, at least in Germany. This would really be a fascinating chapter in the history of ideas and the history of science. The heirs of Lamprecht became völkisch, trying to combine biology with geography. What became important was Kulturbodenforschung (cultural area research, research on the relationship between territory and culture), where the task was to find the soul of the nation, the Volksgeist.

We also lost many scholars and scientists through emigration.

“It was sort of a kidnapping. In the process, geography became petrified; it was defined as a science of the physical surface of the world. But Germany is a special case. Other disciplines as well, ethnography and many social sciences, were part of this disaster, even the study of languages was contaminated. My conclusion is that we have to reconquer all of this from the Nazi discourse.”

Perhaps a word such as “Middle” also became contaminated by the use by National Socialists and extremist nationalists of the terms Mitteleuropa and Mittellage as an expansionist battle formula?

“We have to be very careful of course. How do we avoid the old front lines? How do we find a language for the new situation that is non-revisionist, non-revanchist? But how can you talk about Schopenhauer without taking into account that he came from Danzig? And Königsberg was Kant’s world, and it was the center of philosophical thinking.

“Breslau/Wroclaw, which since World War II has been a Polish City, was a German city for seven hundred years, with Jewish Breslau being a part of that entity. It won’t do to portray it as a multicultural city, as Norman Davis does. It would be an exaggeration, a retro-projection. You might call it a city under Bohemian, Austrian, Prussian rule; however after 1945 it became a wholly Polish city. Today it is becoming a center of scholarship, with the MIT Europe to be located there. I am in Wroclaw quite often; it is booming. And it tries to sell itself as part of the Hapsburg and Prussian heritage!

“On the other hand, Grodno, in today’s Belarus, situated on the Niemen River and thereby in contact with the Baltic, might be taken as an example of true multiculturalism. It was a Russian city to begin with, the elite were Polish, 30–40 percent of the inhabitants were Jewish, it had a tiny portion of Lithuanians and, via peasant immigration, also Belarusians — forming a sort of Rainbow Commonwealth, what San Francisco is today. In the interwar period it was established as a Polish city with many Ukrainians living there.”

Geographic proximity is of course significant in determining the direction development takes.

“Absolutely. I am fascinated by the bridge connecting Malmö with Copenhagen. A new region is being created by increasing density. And the there’s the Trelleborg-Sassnitz ferry, with all these people, working and middle-class men and women, traveling, as they did from Bremerhaven to New York in the 19th century — a huge movement crossing this Binnenmeer. The whole Baltic space has been reactivated since 1989.”

All this points to the importance of regions.

“When I left Uppsala on Midsummer 2007, I fulfilled a long-standing wish and went by car to Hammerfest in the very far north via Kiruna and Kirkenes. It was an enormous experience: to see the North Cape gives you an entirely different perspective on Europe. You suddenly see a new transportation route from the North Atlantic to the cities of Murmansk and Archangel, an area which was an important battlefield in the Second World War! A chain of harbors will be rebuilt along the Northeast Passage, and the Russians are part of this project.

“It reminds me of the interwar period and Klaus and Erika Mann’s Northern Fascination. In the middle of that Midsummer night, at the big rock, thousands of people were crowded, looking out towards nowhere! I have seen the Nordic summer light in museums — now it became a reality.

“My feeling is that we will start to discuss the formation of a ’Northern Hemisphere’, like in Canada, where they are preparing for the reopening of a new Northwest Passage.

“I mean, even our German chancellor has paid a visit to Greenland!”

Now, going back to the Baltic area, to what extent do countries like Poland and Russia, once large continental empires, belong to that region?

”There is a clear Baltic dimension in both Polish and Russian history. They are connected to the Baltic in several respects. But national territories do not necessarily coincide with cultural regions. Krakow is certainly not a Baltic city. In a way, the Baltic area as such can be seen as the Mongolia of Europe, where the layer of culture is very thin and specific, a borderline case. It was by no means obvious to Peter the Great that he would locate his new capital in that region. His first choice was Astrakhan or perhaps Yekaterinburg. And it wasn’t a decision meant to last for an eternity.

“The places where history is made change. Russia had of course a Drang nach Westen, a desire be part of the European state system…”

As you might say that Poland had a Drang nach Norden.

“Well, as you know, Tsar Peter’s first war went southwards. He wanted to reach Persia, via Azerbaijan. And for most of the twentieth century, St. Petersburg was a dead end.”

And what about the German component in the area? The Germans arrived as conquerors and, after many centuries, left as losers.

“If ever German culture was open to the world, it was in this area! The men of letters in these cities, Dorpat, Reval, Riga, were part of world literature. They were not provincial, not at all narrow-minded, as is so often the case in main part of Germany. In normal times these places flourished, in crisis they felt threatened. This is one aspect of the cosmopolitanism of our German East.

“After Versailles, there was much talk about ’die Auslandsdeutschen in Gefahr’. Königsberg was seen as a fortress, an enclave. And that gave rise to a militant, national-conservative ideology of defense. But aggressiveness is not the whole story. I think the time has come for the rehabilitation of the German East.”

Perhaps there is a case also for the rediscovery of, let’s say, a Swedish East?

“There are many good examples. Take Fjodor Lidvall — a Swedish architect and Russian subject. Before 1914 he was one of the ones who shaped the face of the city of St. Petersburg. A great Peterburgian. His achievements in a way could be seen as part of a pre-national history.

“I think you also have to remember another great architect in the Russian realm, Franz Schechtel. His forebears came from Bavaria. He received his education in Moscow and adopted a Jugendstil with a strange English-German blend. ”

Many are now looking for a new “Baltic spirit”, a joint project which they call “Balticness”. Is this a fruitful enterprise?

“Wolfgang Schievelbusch has used the expression ’culture of defeat’, Kultur der Niederlage. If we could reformulate that concept into something positive, we might perhaps be able to reach a state of maturity. The Russia of 1999 was obviously altogether another power than the Russia at the time of the Treaty of Nystad in 1721, at the end of the Great Nordic War.

“If you listen to young Russians in the Berlin metro, you will find that they regard Germany as an efficient, cheap and comfortable country. This is a new generation without war experiences. Still, they are not at the end of a process. Maybe Russia is profiting from the new situation. Some Russians get more money than others.

“What Russia needs above all is time, to give up its pretentions.” ≈