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Eighty years later: Under the map of Europe

Maps are more than just visual aids for understanding the land around us. They give valuable insight into history as well.

July 12, 2019 - Tomasz Kamusella - History and Memory

Map shop in Seattle, United States of America. Photo: Nicola (cc) flckr.com

Maps are a figment of the imagination. Cartography is a set of customs adopted for presenting territorium. Territorium is the actual surface of the planet as observed unmediated by humans. Cartographies differ from society to society in the ways in which they are applied for representing territorium from a given perspective. In this way, territory is produced, which means an image or a segment of territorium, created in line with the views and needs of a particular society. In 19th-century Europe, maps became a staple and the basis for the novel discipline of geography. It entered university curricula during the latter half of this century and was increasingly taught as a natural science. In this manner, geographical determinism was born, which claimed that differences between peoples stemmed from the geographical location where they happened to reside. “Laws of geography” supposedly ruled humanity. In the 1910s, this view yielded the “applied science” of geopolitics. In 1919, the English geographer, Halford Mackinder, coined its central dogma by proposing that the one “[w]ho rules East Europe commands the Heartland; who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; who rules the World-Island commands the world.” In this scheme, the Heartland is the core of Eurasia, extending from the Volga to China and from the Arctic to the Himalayas.

Both world wars were fought over this imagined Heartland, the belligerent parties vying for dominion over the world. Additionally, each power proposed itself to be better and stronger than the other, due to its “superior racial stock.” Rassenkunde (science of race) mixed well with geopolitics, and supposedly explained why non-European territories and their inhabitants had to be colonised by Europeans. At the turn of the 20th century, this violent deterministic discourse, perfected outside Europe, was introduced to European politics. Geopoliticians and rassenkundists announced the ill-defined “east” of the old continent (seemingly “dissolving” into Asia) to be insufficiently European and “cultured,” “half-Asiatic,” and racially “impure.” As a result, the eastern half of Europe had the misfortune of becoming the main theatre for total warfare — twice in the span of the three decades between 1914 and 1945.

The First World War came to an end in 1918. At least, many school textbooks say so. But in the case of post-Ottoman Turkey, the war lasted until 1923, and as late as 1926 in Soviet Central Asia. Neither Germany, nor Hungary, nor the Soviet Union, nor Japan accepted the terms of the post-1918 political settlement. As a result, it can be credibly argued that the Great War never came to an end — it just lessened in intensity. The first salvo of World War II, Japan’s 1931 invasion of Manchuria, was its continuation, followed by Japan’s full-scale war on China (1937-1945). At the same time, the Soviet-Japanese border war (1932-1939) — formally fought between Mongolia and Manchukuo (the Soviet and Japanese satellites, respectively) — led to the first widely acknowledged major battle of the Second World War. The Battle of Khalkhin Gol, in the very east of Mongolia, raged between May 11th and September 16th in 1939.

Just a year before in 1938, Europe’s great powers agreed in Munich that Hitler’s Germany would annex western Czechoslovakia’s border areas, which were also known as the Sudetenland. Prague was not consulted. On behalf and in the interest of the leading Central European autocracy, the Western European democracies issued an ultimatum to the last remaining democratic polity in Central Europe. Who said that democracy could not find a pragmatic working middle ground with totalitarianism? In March 1939, Berlin and Budapest partitioned Czechoslovakia out of existence, leaving the new nation-state of Slovakia in the wake. This was the beginning of World War II for the Czechs, Slovaks and Rusyns. The Albanians disagree and claim that this war commenced, at least for them, when Italy invaded Albania in April 1939.

Eighty years ago, the two aspiring totalitarian powers of interwar Europe, the German Empire (popularly dubbed the Third Reich) and the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact in Moscow on August 23 1939. It was accompanied by a secret protocol, under which Berlin and Moscow planned to partition the countries intervening between these two powers. On September 1 1939, in accordance with this plan, Germany attacked Poland. The Soviets, distracted by the Battle of Khalkhin Gol, attacked Poland only on September 17th, just a day after defeating the Japanese army in eastern Mongolia.

Dual German and Soviet attack on Poland and the defeat of this country in September 1939 (Kurt Krause and Fritz Scheibner. 1941. Soldaten-Atlas. Berlin: Tornisterschrift des Oberkommandos der Wehrmacht, Abt[eilung] Inland, p 12)

German cartographers had no doubt that the German and Soviet armies wiped Poland from the political map of Europe. But the Kremlin preferred to equivocate. Soviet propaganda rather spoke about the reunification of Belarus and Ukraine. In 1940, the Red Army followed with the piecemeal annexation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. In turn, Soviet propagandists presented this event as a fulfilment of the earnest wish on the part of the toiling masses in these countries, who “requested” membership in the Soviet Union. On the other hand, Moscow did not embrace the German term Generalgouvernement for central Poland not directly incorporated into the Third Reich and opted for the vague ad hoc collocation “Area of Germany’s State Interests” (Oblast’ gosudarstvennykh interesov Germanii). Interestingly, on Soviet maps of Europe produced in 1940 to 1941, all the countries located west of the Soviet border (including Scandinavia and the Balkans, alongside France and Spain’s colonial possessions in northern Africa, namely, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia) were designated as Western Europe. In this manner, Soviet geopoliticians did away with the long-established German-language term Mitteleuropa (Central Europe), which Berlin customarily deployed for justifying the desired extension of German control over the ethnically non-Russian areas of Central and Eastern Europe.

Soviet-German frontier in 1941 (P A Velikii, ed. 1940 [1941]. Karmannyi atlas mira. Leningrad: Glavnoe upravlenie geodezii i kartografii pri CNK SSSR, map 31).
Generalgouvernement in Germany, 1941 (Justus Perthes’ Taschenatlas der ganzen Welt. 1941. Gotha: Justus Perthes, map 3)

Neither Berlin nor Moscow had any doubts that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were already incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1939-1940. Additionally, in the course of the Winter War Finland lost its second largest city, Viipuri (Vyborg), to the Communist state in March 1940. And at the turn of July 1940, under Soviet pressure, Romania gave up Bessarabia and northern Bukovina to the Soviets. Unlike Finland, Bucharest could not afford a war, because, at the very same time, Berlin and Italy made Romania give up northern Transylvania to Hungary. However, the Soviet administration had not been fully established in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania by August 1940. That is why, in the summer of 1940, Soviet censors did not stop the publication of the Estonian-language pocket atlas of the world (Väike maailma atlas) in which the three Baltic states are portrayed as independent. On the other hand, in this atlas, Poland was not featured on the political map of Europe, while Vyborg (Viipuri), Bessarabia and Bukovina are shown as duly incorporated into the Soviet Union. Strangely, northern Transylvania is erroneously shown as still included within the boundaries of Romania.

Estonian map of Europe in the summer of 1940 (J Kents, ed. 1940. Väike maailma atlas. Tallinn: Töökool, pp 6-7)

Cartographers in neutral Turkey did not share these spatial political illusions of the Estonian atlas. They placed Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania within the borders of the Soviet Union. It appears that Ankara took a highly legalistic view of the annexations and border changes that occurred from 1938 to 1940. The Austrians genuinely desired a union with Germany and sealed it with the follow-up referendum, while the western powers gave up on Czechoslovakia in the Munich Agreement. In the wake of the Winter War, Finland signed a peace treaty with the Kremlin, agreeing to the loss of Viipuri. Under duress, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania contracted mutual assistance pacts with Moscow. Subsequently, all three Baltic states were forced to formally request membership in the Soviet Union. Likewise, in a negotiated manner, Romania gave up northern Transylvania to Hungary and Bessarabia and northern Bukovina to the Soviet Union. But Ankara did not accept the 1939 partition of Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union, because no formal agreement was secured between the Polish government on the one hand and Berlin and Moscow on the other. Turkey did not recognise this de facto obliteration of interwar Poland. Hence, this country continued to feature on maps of Europe in Turkish school atlases published during the Second World War. In a way, Turkey’s principled stance on the issue was reminiscent of the Ottoman’s obstinate non-recognition of the partition of Poland-Lithuania, as carried out in the late-18th century, by the Habsburgs, Prussia and Russia.

Europe in summer 1940 (Faik Sabri Duran. 1940. Orta atlas. Ortaukullar için. Yeni basi. Istanbul: Kanaat kâğıtevi, p 11)

From the official Soviet perspective, World War II broke out only in 1941 with allied Germany’s treacherous onslaught on the Soviet Union on June 22. The stabilisation of the political situation and borders in Europe from 1940 to1941 under Soviet-German tutelage proved illusory. The Soviet-German (communist-nazi) alliance did not even last two years. Both totalitarian powers, in awe of the dogmas of geopolitics, secretly hoped for dominion over the Heartland and then over the entire world. Curiously, despite the experience of the Munich Agreement, Berlin did not predict that the western democratic powers of Britain and the United States would enter a pragmatic alliance with the anti-democratic and totalitarian Soviet Union for the sake of defeating the Third Reich. Likewise, the Kremlin was unable to foresee that the United States would invent nuclear weapons, which helped prevent the Soviet Union from taking over all of Europe and Asia. Obviously, between 1945 and the turn of the 1960s, Moscow extended indirect control over China, northern Korea and northern Vietnam. Effectively, the Kremlin came into the military and political possession of the Heartland. But the logic of the Cold War was steeped in nuclear deterrent, succinctly summarised in the doctrine of MAD, or mutually assured destruction. Geography had nothing to do with it, but the sheer number of nuclear warheads at the disposal of the two superpowers, together with the means of rapid deployment across the globe.

Europe in 1949 (Atlas escolar moderno (Universal). Barcelona: Seix y Barral hnos., S. A.-Editores, p III)

Following the genocidal civil war (1936-1939) between the republicans (socialists) and nationalists (fascists), Spain chose to remain neutral during World War II. Madrid would have nothing to do with the communists, nor did the Spanish government recognise the Potsdam Agreement ⁠— on the basis of which the Soviet Union and the Western Allies divided Europe. In 1949, persisting in this official denial of the actual political reality on the ground, the Spanish educational authorities recommended that schoolchildren should be taught the 1937 map of Europe, as if nothing had occurred since then. In school atlases of geography, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Finland, Poland and Romania were shown with their interwar borders.

Asia in 1949 (Atlas escolar moderno (Universal). Barcelona: Seix y Barral hnos., S. A.-Editores, p VII)

Francoist Spain’s deeply anti-communist denial of the rise of the communist bloc and the beginning of decolonisation is even more visible when considering how the political map of Asia was presented to schoolchildren in 1949. The map featured the British Empire and the former colony partitioned into the two new independent nation-states of India and Pakistan, though it had disappeared two years earlier in 1947. The presence of the Dutch East Indies is more understandable because the Netherlands recognised the independence of Indonesia only in 1949. What is surprising, however, is the Republic of China depicted within the borders it claimed upon its founding in 1912, but never actually controlled. The republican forces lost to the communists in late 1949, when they withdrew to Taiwan. So the year the Spanish school atlas came off the press, the republican forces still formally controlled mainland China. But the Spanish map of Asia in 1949 did not recognise either the independence of Mongolia or Tibet, which was gained prior to World War I. Communist China invaded Tibet in 1950, but Mongolia remains independent to this day.

Like geography, cartography is not an exact science governed by discoverable and unchangeable laws of nature. How territorium is transformed into territory, and subsequently presented to the viewer, depends on who creates a map, in accordance with which values, in whose interest, with the use of which instruments and concepts, and for what purpose. States or political borders are not visible from an aeroplane or spacecraft, and neither is the overlap of cultures, languages, nations or religions. It is humans and their groups who imagine all these phenomena into being and act in accordance with them. These phenomena are not perceivable to non-humans (be them animals or putative extraterrestrials), or humans who do not share the widespread belief in these phenomena. Borders, cultures, religions and languages are only visible to those
people who share these concepts and act in accordance with them.

But if they do and have at their disposal coercive state administrations, they are capable of horrendous acts of mass violence, be it ethnic cleansing or genocide. Obviously, conducted for “the greater good of all of us,” or a “better future,” as dictated by a god, “science,” ideology, or the geopolitical myth of the Heartland. Unfortunately, in Anno Domini 2019, geopolitics is squarely back in the public discourse and riding high on the wave of populism, which has engulfed the west and much of Asia during recent years.

Of course, climate change will not heed any political frontiers. Neither will any political ideology or religion itself stop a stray asteroid on a collision course with Earth. It is high time to part with such childish delusions.

Tomasz Kamusella is a Reader (Professor Extraordinarius) in Modern Central and Eastern European History at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. His latest monograph Ethnic Cleansing during the Cold War: The Forgotten 1989 Expulsion of Turks from Communist Bulgaria was just published by Routledge. 

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