Early on the morning of September 1, 939, German tanks, troop carriers, and dive-bombers poured over the Polish border. The Polish army, outnumbered perhaps two to one, fought valiantly, but it was no match for the overwhelming surprise attack. In just a few weeks, Poland was utterly defeated by Hitler’s blitzkrieg. World War II had begun. Theories of geopolitics current at the time helped inspire Hitler’s aggressive policies. In the decades before World War II, Englishman Sir Halford J. Mackinder and German Karl Haushofer had attempted to develop geopolitics into a science.
Both had developed theories that attempted to “prove” that world domination in the future would be based on the control of Europe, Asia, and Africa. These theories treated these three continents as a single landmass, called the World Island. The World Island held the majority of the world’s population and natural resources, so control of it by any single nation would inevitably allow control of the rest of the world. The key to controlling the World Island, according to these theorists, was control of the region Mackinder named the Heartland, which included eastern Europe and the western Soviet Union.
A nation that controlled this strategic area would be self-sufficient in food and natural resources, and would be in a position to conquer the rest of the World Island. Historians are not certain to what extent Hitler was directly influenced by the writings of Mackinder and Haushofer. However, even before the Nazis came to power in Germany their political agenda included the need for Lebensraum, “living space” in which the German people could expand. Hitler rejected overseas colonies as the solution to this problem, and insisted that the necessary territory was to be found in eastern Europe. Of course, since this territory was already populated, this would require military invasion.
In Hitler’s view, people and nations were locked in a constant struggle for existence. Therefore, the German people were perfectly justified in conquering land that was populated by Slavic peoples, who were, according to Hitler, biologically inferior. This view, in turn, fit perfectly with another of Hitler’s motivations, his hatred of communism and the Soviet Union. Hitler’s racist ideas helped convince him that the Soviets would be easily defeated by the soldiers of the German “master race,” Germany was not alone in its aggressive expansionism. Japan also had too many people and too few resources, and it was heavily dependent on imports of raw materials.
Following the worldwide economic collapse in 1929, Japan developed a policy of expansionism. In 1931 Japan seized the Chinese territory of Manchuria, which had plentiful natural resources. In 1937 the Japanese attacked China, and by 1939 they controlled a large portion of eastern China, Japanese military leaders began plans for a Pacific empire that would include all of eastern Asia. The struggle for territory by both Germany and Japan ultimately failed, but not before it brought a war in which millions of lives were lost. In the end, expansionist policies brought devastation to Germany and Japan, as well as to much of Europe and Asia.
Geopolitics are still an influence on international relations today. However, they are no longer considered as important as they were in the past. Technological advances such as improved communications and transportation have helped nations overcome geographical factors that once limited them. The ability of bombers and, above all, long-range missiles to attack from one continent to another with nuclear weapons means that no geographical barrier or strategic territory can ensure military security.