Colin Ross’s work reflects early 20th century ideas on globalization as both fascination with mobility and racist fear mongering.
Since the early 1920s, Ross positions himself not as an explorer, but as a traveler who depends on an already existing infrastructural grid of communication and transportation technologies. Those had been linking continents for centuries, facilitating political and economic relations (including colonial rule). But arguably, the idea of the globe being essentially available through those grids reached a different stage around 1900, fueling many ambitious projects designed on a world scale (be they an interlanguage or a size standard for paper).1
This notion of the world being already discovered, and covered by ever narrower grids of exchange and transportation, is still key to Ross’s endeavors. In his writing, the journey often really is the destination. He likes to revel in descriptions of the logistics and experience of travel, rather than detail whom and what he encountered at his points of arrival. (See Family travel logistics) This global mobility is given additional weight by Germany’s international isolation after defeat in World War I. On his journeys, Ross marvels not only at how much faster travel has become within his lifetime, but also at the imminent narrowing of the grid and acceleration of transport along its lines. (See Five years too soon) The inverse of this technocratic fascination is Ross’s xenophobic stress on the much more immediate danger that other nations and races are supposed to pose to Germany’s well-being in this tightly-knit world.
Mobility as the ability to cross borders
1 See: Markus Krajewski. [Excerpt from] Verkehr stellt Welt her. In: Restlosigkeit. Weltprojekte um 1900. Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer; 2006; 56–60.
For Colin Ross in the early postwar years, the movement through foreign space was itself a political act.
In the wake of World War I, the entire institution of travel changed dramatically for Germans. Prior to the war, the modernized infrastructure of travel had led to a shrinking sense of the time and distance involved in moving through space. As a result, the mental map of the world had shrunken in size. The war, however, had damaged roads, bridges, and railways, rendering journeys much more difficult. This limitation of mobility was exacerbated by the decline in value of the German currency and the introduction of border regulations. Meanwhile, Germany had also lost control over all of its overseas colonies, and with them, a sense of effectual presence in the world.
Travel literature gained in popularity in this postwar context, because it offered readers a vicarious sense of mobility and global agency. Colin Ross capitalized on this growing readership and became the best-known German travel author of the early postwar period. His early works, on his travels through South America, Eastern Europe and Central Asia celebrate and foreground the travel itself, often to the detriment of the landscapes and cultures. Ross is fascinated by passport controls, the bureaucracies of visa offices, customs searches at the borders, along with the overall politics of his movements through space as a German national. Glossing over the moments when this identity causes him hardships (such as declined visa applications), he highlights those moments when his Germanness opens doors, greases the wheels, or elicits friendly responses from otherwise less-than-helpful station agents.
Australasia proved Colin Ross’s point about the globe’s connectedness and pushed his writing in a new direction.
Australia, New Zealand, and Papua New Guinea are frequently used in Ross’s writing and filmmaking to prove his point about a fundamentally connected globe. Time and again he finds even these remote parts of the world marked by international trade and imperial politics; they even live through crises that Europe will have to face in the near future (see Trains vs. planes vs. automobiles).
The 1928-30 journey marks a culmination of Ross’s global travel, with respect to the area covered as well as his methods. Australasia completed his set of visited continents (safe for Antarctica), and at the same time he aimed to shape his writing into a more holistic consideration of ‘the world’ and its present state. With the books Die Welt auf der Waage (1929), Der Wille der Welt (1932), and related essays Colin Ross aimed to synthesize the experiences from the last two decades of world travel into a cultural philosophy in the mold of Oswald Spengler, looking for what he called a new “world hypothesis”.1
1 Colin Ross. Zu Ende gedachte Gedanken. In: Die Welt auf der Waage: der Querschnitt von 20 Jahren Weltreise. 29. Aufl. Leipzig: F.A. Brockhaus; 1937; 8.