Sir Halford John Mackinder (1861-1947), a British geographer, developed the Heartland Theory in the beginning of the 20th century. He first published it in his essay to the Royal Geographical Society, titled The Geographical Pivot of History, in 1904.
In the essay, he came to the conclusion that controlling the "pivot", a region in Central and Eastern Europe, would allow a nation to dominate the world. He further developed the theory after the First World War
, based on the lessons learned from it. In 1919
he published Democratic Ideals and Reality
, where he revised the theory extensively. As the balance of power
in the world changed over the years, he gave the theory its final form in his article The Round World and the Winning of the Peace
in a 1943 issue of Foreign Affairs
Mackinder thought that, after the 19th century, the world had become a "closed system". Colonialism had run its course, all the available land had been claimed and settled, and nations would have to fight each other to make any territorial gains. This would bring conflict back to the Old World. With steamers and locomotives the entire world was now one big battlefield, and to win the battle, the best position to fight it from had to be located.
Mackinder divided the world into two areas: the World Island and the Periphery. The continents of Eurasia2 and Africa form the World Island, and the smaller continents and islands surrounding the World Island are the Periphery. The Periphery is smaller in size and population than the World Island, and its nations depend on naval power3 to project their strength and to build up their economies, through trade and conquest.
The World Island, in turn, is a single slab of land whose all corners can be reached with simple and reliable transport. The railroads and the combustion engine would allow very rapid and even more efficient transportation, that could now surpass the mobility of sea power, tipping the scales in favour of land power. The World Island also contains more population and more of the resources a modern (at the time) economy needs.
The differences in transportation potential and the distribution of natural resources give nations of the Periphery a clear disadvantage in a conflict against adversaries sitting comfortably on the World Island. The Periphery could use naval power to reach the coastal areas of the World Island, but most of the World Island's resources and industrial strength are located deep inside the land mass, where naval power or an invasion would have no hope to advance before being beaten back.
Thus, a great power dominating the World Island could repulse any invasion and maintain a industrial and population base that would win any war of attrition. To top it off, the World Island's resources could also be used to build and maintain a fleet so larget that it could eliminate the navies of the Periphery.
"The oversetting of the balance of power in favour of the pivot state, resulting in its expansion over the marginal lands of Euro-Asia, would permit the use of vast continental resources for fleet-building, and the empire of the world would then be in sight."
The greatest natural and industrial resources of the World Island are in Central and Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Northern Middle East, far from the coasts, deep inside the landmass, safe from the forces of the Periphery. This core area Mackinder named the Heartland1, "the greatest natural fortress on earth". It would feed the dominant power of the World Island all it would ever need in a conflict, and give it a significant advantage over any foes sharing the World Island with it. Therefore, dominating Eastern Europe was essential to dominate the entire World Island, and control of the World Island would ensure victory over the Periphery.
The Heartland Theory's Relevance Since Its Creation
Germany, with her copious resources and industry, had become a great power after her birth in 1871. Austro-Hungary, her flank presumed secure by Germany's infamous carte blanche, provoked Russia into a war by invading Serbia. The alliance system brought France and the United Kingdom into the war against the Central Powers, but the crux of the conflict was the war for the East.
Mackinder was relieved that Germany directed some of her forces towards the west in the daring Schlieffen Plan. The Allies' fate would have been to remain, said Mackinder, "overshadowed by a German East Europe in command of the Heartland", had Germany managed to quickly expand eastwards.
Not to say Germany wasn't eyeing the East greedily - her problem would be the division of strength on two fronts. The German goal in the west was merely to knock her two dangerous enemies out of the war, so that a decisive attack in the East against Russia could be organised.
The German dream was to establish Mitteleuropa, a Eastern Europe vassalised under German rule, to create a unified commercial and industrial region that could compete against British hegemony. Germany did accomplish this in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918, signed by the revolutionary Russians as their country was in a fragile state, but it was too late to rescue Germany from defeat.
In the halls of Versailles, Central and Eastern Europe were partitioned into smaller nation-states under the guise of respect for the sovereignity of peoples. This way the dangerous Heartland was divided into small pieces, none of which could take all of it alone.
The smaller countries would also act as a buffer zone that would keep the two bullies of Europe, Germany and Russia, from fighting over the Heartland - such a fight, Mackinder feared, would cause a global war. His warning to the victors as the Treaty of Versailles was being worked on in 1919 was:
"Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland.
Who rules the Heartland commands the World Island.
Who rules the World Island commands the world."
Mackinder urged the creation of an effective security system that would keep the Heartland out of the hands of any conqueror. The League of Nations did not impress him, and he prophetically stated:
"No mere scraps of paper, even though they be the written constitution of a League of Nations, are, under the conditions of to-day, a sufficient guarantee that the Heartland will not again become the center of a world war."
The ambitions of Russia (later on the Soviet Union) and Germany, as Mackinder had feared, were not extinguished by the new system of collective international security. As the 1930s rolled in, both countries had been able to use their remaining portions of the Heartland to rebuild their economies after a bloody war and a great depression.
Ideological geopolitics, Geopolitik, was an essential part of Hitler's doctrine of conquest. His book Mein Kampf, which detailed his ideas for the future of Germany, included the famous principle of Lebensraum ("living space"). The German people and nation was a living organism that had to fight other nations for survival, and its ultimate prize would be the lush and rich lands in the east.
The idea of the Heartland had influence on Karl Haushofer's theories on Lebensraum and geopolitics. He is said to have called the Heartland Theory "a geopolitical masterwork". The Nazi leader Rudolf Hess studied under him, relating the influence on to the Nazi party. When this was discovered Mackinder faced antagonism in the United Kingdom, as he was suspected of sympathising with the Nazis. Mackinder always rebuffed these accusations, and there has been nothing linking him directly to the practitioners of Geopolitik.
Hitler's original concept of the push to the east
was most likely developed without any knowledge of Mackinder's theories, and the two simply came to similar conclusions due to geographical and historical facts. The German geopolicy did bring Mackinder's ideas back to the limelight in the Allied countries.
After Hitler's rise to power, Germany once again concentrated on the Heartland. The first steps were Germany's pre-war territorial demands. While they were politically based on the rights of people of German origin living on foreign soil, Germany's acquisitions had remarkable industrial strength. Czechoslovakia, created in Versailles, was especially such a powerhouse.
Finally in 1941, the Lebensraum policy, mingled with racial superiority and distaste for the other end of the political spectrum, brought forth the conflict between Germany and Russia. The grain fields of Ukraine and the oil wells of the Caucasus were both targets Hitler lusted after when Operation Barbarossa was put in motion.
Like in the previous great war, there was no geopolitical interest in the West. The invasion and occupation of France was merely revenge for the humiliating Versailles dictate, and Hitler did not wish to conquer the British Isles, merely to subdue them to prevent Germany from ending up in another war on two fronts. This was evident both in his reluctance to attack the fleeing British troops in Dunkirk and Germany's pitiful preparations for a landing.
Mackinder had feared that a war between Russia and Germany would lead into a world war, but looking at the casualties suffered by Germany during its campaign in the east, one can say that the conflict actually brought the war to an end. And, ironically, it was the nonaggression agreement made between the nations in August 1939 that allowed the war to start. The agreement must have given Mackinder quite a few grey hairs, though, as he had previously suggested that a Russo-German alliance would be a very good candidate for the creation of a world empire. In this light, the Russo-German conflict in WW2 was certainly the lesser of two evils.
Yet the weaknesses of the theory were starting to show by the Second World War. The Heartland was supposed to rely on geographical isolation and long distances to remain safe, while a central position would allow quick transportation through land to the different parts of the empire. New aircraft, launched from ships or island bases, could now reach the Heartland's factories, exposing them to strategic bombing. The German V-1 and V-2 rockets were a similar invention. Technology was quickly making the theory, now decades old, obsolete.
The British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had always urged the Western Allies to invade continental Europe through the Balkans. He had first proposed this during World War I, which resulted in the failure at Gallipoli. While the Heartland theory probably was not his motivation, Churchill was, for a good reason, afraid that the power vacuum left by a falling Germany in Eastern Europe would pull in another totalitarian rule that would control the Heartland.
When the Iron Curtain descended over Europe, its Eastern parts and half of its Centre had been left behind it. The Soviet Union controlled practically all of the Heartland as Mackinder passed away in 1947, and the large population of China was also under the Communist banner by the end of the 1940s.
The Soviet Union and its satellites, however, did not command the World Island despite their command over the Heartland. The next triumph of technology over the Heartland came in the form of the strategic triad: bombers, ballistic missiles, and submarines armed with nuclear weapons. They could reach any spot on the globe and utterly annihilate everything unfortunate enough to be on it. The Heartland's resources or location did not give much of an advantage in the nuclear arms race. Meanwhile, an ideological divide between the Soviet Union and China kept the industrial giant and the population giant from joining forces. A similar crack was showing up in the rank and file of the Soviet satellites - when the Soviet Union had enough trouble maintaining control over so many different nationalities, would it, or any other empire, have any hope of subjugating even more of them?
Strategically speaking, while the Soviet Union was in control of the fortress of the Heartland, it was also surrounded by enemies. This was perfectly depicted in a cartoon of the era, where Uncle Sam with its allies around the world surrounds the Russian bear, isolated in Eurasia. A central position had already cost Germany two wars, both based on land, where it was supposed to be at its strongest.
The final blow to both the Heartland and the Soviet Union was delivered by the microprocessor. The global economy's focus was no longer on factories and natural resources, but computers and bytes. A successful information economy required the free flow of ideas and data, which a communist government could not allow. The Soviet economies were crippled.
The existence of weapons that could reach and destroy the Heartland with impunity, and a new economic system that did not need the resources the region was so full of, meant that the Heartland could not give the Soviet Union global domination - instead, its fate was collapse.
In a World after the Cold War
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Eastern and Central Europe have ended up in a situation not unlike the one after World War I. Between Russia and Germany there is now a sprawl of small nations, temporarily ruined by the rapid transition from one form of society to another. The interdependency of nations, based on the global economy, has made a third world war unlikely, but internal and regional conflicts are plentiful in the Heartland. These, though, have not been resource-grabbing ventures, but mainly ideological squabbles or manifestations of imperialism.
As the 21st century is getting started, the Heartland has not given up yet. The economies of the New Europe are soaring4, and the countries are rushing to join the European Union and the NATO. Russia is waging a bloody war in Chechnya and the US has military presence in Iraq and Georgia. Peak Oil is dreaded, while there may yet lie pristine oil deposits in the Caucasus. With the strategic axis between the USA and the Soviet Union broken and replaced with the Axis of Evil, there is lots of strife to go around.
The independent nations of the Heartland are rising to relevancy in the international community, and they may yet play an important role in world politics, but just controlling the area will not be enough for an aspiring overlord.
1. In his 1904 essay, he called this area "the pivot". It became "the Heartland" in his 1919 essay. The country controlling the pivot would be "the pivot state".
2. "Euro-Asia" in 1904, "Eurasia" in 1919.
3. Mahan advocated the use of sea power as a method for global supremacy. He too recognised the need for land-based resources, however, and Mackinder in turn recognised the need for navies, and he noted that sea power had allowed Europe to gain its hegemonic position in the world. Mahan's ideas facilitated the naval arms race that heightened tension between pre-WW1 Germany and United Kingdom, so one could say Mahan's theories contributed to the outbreak of WW1 while Mackinder's contributed to the outbreak of WW2.
4. Their economies and their Eurovision Song Contest scores.
Apunen Osmo, Murrosaikojen maailmanpolitiikka. Ulkopolitiikan, kansainvälisen politiikan
ja kansainvälisten suhteiden kehityslinjat ja rakenteet, Studia Politica Tamperensis, 1998.
Tuomioja Erkki, Finnish Foreign and Security Policy Anno 2004