Kulturboden (land marked by culture) was a concept popular in interwar geopolitical thought that held that the earth could be altered by certain kinds of populations to legibly reflect national identity.

The concept of Kulturboden was developed by geopoliticians in response to Germany’s loss of continental space after World War I. Because this concept was institutionalized on a broad scale (it was taught in the school system, for example), it also came to be applied to the Earth’s space in general. Although he rarely used the term itself, Colin Ross’s descriptions of the world’s landscapes often reflect its general principles.

The geopolitical model of Kulturboden was based upon a conceptual division of the world’s populations into Naturvölker (roughly: primitive peoples) and Kulturvölker (roughly: civilized peoples). Within this ideological framework, the former lacked the ability to alter the landscapes in which they resided and, as a result, were forced to adapt themselves to the given natural environment. The latter, in contrast, were able to shape their environments to reflect their cultural identity and national will. The landscape of a Kulturvolk was thus legible as such, and could be identified as national space, even in the absence of the population that had created it.

The model of Kulturboden was developed to contest Germany’s postwar borders in the east, but it had implications for all imperial and colonial space, because Europeans could claim that they, as Kulturvölker, had created national space abroad, that they had brought space out of its primordial state of nature and into the time of civilization and progress, and created it in the image of their own national will. Once this had happened, native populations of these regions—conveniently categorized as Naturvölker—would be unable to alter the landscape and forced to live in a space that they could never really become one with, because it reflected a cultural will that was not their own. Applying this ideological model, Europeans could claim rightful ownership of all of the space they had colonized overseas, complicated only in those cases where members of multiple Kulturvölker settled in one area, preventing any coherent shaping of the landscape.

Kristin Kopp   

Kulturboden is a purely geopolitical concept. It was introduced into the geopolitical vocabulary by Albrecht Penck in a 1925 essay1 that distinguished between German “Volksboden”, i.e. land where German-speaking Germans currently resided, and “Kulturboden”, land where Germans had resided in the past, but which still continued to show signs of their cultural labor. The term was introduced as a tool for German expansionists, who were seeking a revision of the new borders that had been imposed on the country after World War I. It provided a means for laying claim to lands currently inhabited by other ethnic groups, such as the Poles. Vestiges of past German presence in a given territory allowed one to argue that it should be returned to Germany, even if the current population was not German.

Ross was largely uninterested in the eastern border question, because his attention was focused on the large-scale, continental level of conflict, not on the specifics of European internecine strife. Yet Kulturboden was a useful concept in his model of clashing continents as well. In his ceaseless questioning of the location of Europe—where were its borders with Asia? with Africa?—Ross claimed ever larger expanses of space after having established signs of its past presence.

Kristin Kopp  

1 Albrecht Penck. Deutscher Volks- und Kurturboden. In: Karl C. von Loesch, Arnold Hillen Ziegfeld eds. Volk unter Volkern. Bücher des Deutschtums. Breslau: F. Hirt; 1925; 62-73.

The claim for Germany’s superior ability to shape landscape pops up when Ross visits the former colony of German New Guinea (see: German lushness in New Guinea). But on Ross’s trips through Australasia, the concept of Kulturboden is prominent mainly through its pointed absence. Australia, especially, is described as an ‘unfinished’ continent, its vast expanses having hardly been shaped by white settlers of mainly British extraction. Ross describes the shaping of the landscape often as haphazard (see: The tricky art of shaping landscape). But more importantly, the population is low in numbers and more concerned with a comfortable life in the cities than with the cultivation of the land (see: Crowded cities, untouched forests). The failure of transforming Australia into Kulturboden casts its strict anti-immigration policy in moral terms: as wastefulness, and—in Ross’s combative racial politics—as a lack of solidarity within the white race.

Joachim Schätz

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