Heartland Theory and the Duality of Landpower vs Seapower


Hartford J. Mackinder, an Oxford educated British intellectual who served as the Member of Parliament representing the Glasgow Camlachie borough, is often cited as the father of geopolitics for his groundbreaking ‘Heartland theory’. He first posited the Heartland theory in an article, The Geographical Pivot of History, submitted to the Royal Geographical Society in 1904, which he elaborated on in the aftermath of the First World War in his 1919 book, Democratic Ideals and Reality. According to Mackinder, the interconnected continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa, made up what he called the World-Island. In Mackinder’s view of geopolitics, central to control of the World-Island was control of what he called the Heartland, the vast section of Eurasia, particularly Russia, that was out of range of sea power. According to Mackinder, whichever power controls the World-Island was the predominant power of the entire globe.

In Mackinder’s view, the Heartland has historically been a source of tyranny, barbarism, and is culturally backwards. He believed that European history was defined by the interplay between Europe and Asia, and that much of the dynamism of European civilization was a creative response to the predations of the nomadic warrior tribes of the East. To quote Mackinder,

“I ask you, therefore, for a moment to look upon Europe and European history as subordinate to Asia and Asiatic history, for European civilization is, in ta very real sense, the outcome of the secular struggle against Asiatic invasion.”  [1]

In fact, Mackinder credits the nomadic marauders of the Eastern steppes for the creation of the French state and people by forcing the Franks, the Goths, and the Roman provincials to stand together and face of the eastern invader. He then suggests that it was perhaps this pressure that forced the Angles and Saxons to retreat across the English Channel, thus helping to create England. He also credits this pressure from the Heartland with the creation of Venice, the predominate medieval seapower state, as a response to the destruction of Aquileia and Padua by the Huns. Mackinder even goes so far as to suggest that perhaps the rise of the Hellenic world of the ancient Greeks could be seen as a reaction against the Scythians. In Mackinder’s view Eastern Europe into Hungary has been the landing point for violent and despotic horsemen that have brutalized European civilization time and again, like a hammer. Thus, does he justify his view of the Eurasian world as barbaric, and the heart of what he describes as “despotism”.

Whereas, Mackinder contrasts his view of the violent barbarism of land based civilization with that of the coastal land of Western Europe as culturally advanced, civilized and progressive, presumably due to the influence of the sea, and the long history of commercial sea power empires in Western Europe, epitomized by the British and going back to antiquity, the middle ages, and the pre-modern eras with Carthage, Venice, and the short-lived, “True Freedom” maritime republic of the Dutch, respectively. Mackinder theorized the Heartland being divided from Western Europe by a line that went from the North Sea to the Adriatic, thus situating Eastern Europe within the Heartland. Thus it was through this lens that he viewed the conflicts of European history. For instance he viewed the Eastern half of Germany under the leadership of Prussia, which included both Russia and Austria-Hungry as all manifestations of the same force, the land power of the Heartland, and thus saw the neutrality of those two powers in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 as solidarity between Heartland autocracy. He viewed the wars in Eastern Europe as having little consequence referring to these conflicts as “family quarrels”.  Thus he believed that the divide between European and non-European geopolitics was a false distinction and instead, that the Heartland worked as “a single force in the world’s affairs”.

For the most part, it was the autocracies of Eastern Europe that dominated the Heartland, while England was dominant in the coastal area of India and Asia, which can be seen by the First Opium War, a mercantilist war waged against the Chinese Empire by England. Dominance in Eastern Europe allowed Germany to essentially control the Heartland, which in theory gave them potential global hegemony. According to Mackinder:

“Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland: Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island: Who rules the World-Island commands the World.” [2]

Mackinder viewed the expansion of Prussia, and unification of Germany under the Prussian Hohenzollern monarchy as the expansion of the tyrannical land power of the Heartland. He believed that, through the leadership of the great statesman Otto Von Bismarck, the door had been opened to “Junker militarism”, resulting in a Prussian push westward and the subjugation of what he considered the enlightened West Germans, who’s small principalities he viewed as being historically members of the coastal states of Western Europe, prior to German unification. Thus, Mackinder believed that the entire history of Europe was of the tyranny of the Eastern land power against what he characterized as “oceanic freedom”. Mackinder’s contextualization of the world no doubt articulated a deep feeling within England’s elites. One can implicitly see in the English elite’s response to Germany in the early twentieth century, and the American elite’s response to Russia today, that they have an instinctually negative reaction to land powers with a culture that bends more to Tradition, as opposed to cosmopolitanism. The British elites didn’t just see the rise of Germany as a geo-strategic competitor but an existential threat to their very way of life. As Christopher Layne a Professor of International Affairs at Texas A&M University wrote:

“British elites began to see Germany’s growing economic power as a menace. Moreover, they resented Germany’s economic success because it was the result of trade and industrial policies they deemed unfair: German prosperity, they felt, derived from state intervention rather than the liberal, laissez-faire approach that governed the United Kingdom’s political economy. British elites also harbored a deep antipathy toward Germany because they saw its political culture—which privileged the military and its values—as fundamentally antithetical to liberal values. Simply put, they believed Germany was an irredeemably bad actor. It is no wonder that once war began, the British quickly came to understand the conflict as an ideological crusade pitting liberalism against Prussian autocracy and militarism….” [3]

Mackinder places almost the entire blame for the First World War on Germany, referring to the supposed “criminal aggression” of the Germans, while only blaming the British with a sort of naive negligence in the face of such an aggressive and “militaristic” enemy. This is because these tensions represent more then just a conflict of strategic interests, but of two fundamental views of life. Land vs sea, Tradition vs cosmopolitanism, the the stability of firm and grounded roots upon dry land, like the roots of a tree vs the constant motion and fluidity of water, representing constant change. 

“Probably from about 1908 a collision was inevitable; there comes a moment when the brakes have no longer time to act. The difference in British and German responsibility may perhaps be stated thus: the British driver started first, and ran carelessly, neglecting the signals, whereas the German driver deliberately strengthened and armoured his train to stand the shock, put it on the wrong line, and at the last moment opened his throttle valves.” [4]

“The Going Concern is, in these days, the great economic reality; it was used criminally by the Germans, and blindly by the British.” [5]

British elites viewed the German methods of economic organization as a threat to their supremacy, subversive to the world order over which they were the custodians, and thus immoral. Mackinder thought that England’s welcoming of the German trade union formed in 1833 was naive, as it was not an expression of British liberalism and free trade, but protectionism. By eliminating competition from outside the German trade union it bestowed an advantage unavailable within the system of British free trade, and was thus anathema to that system. This was viewed as a sign of hostility and even aggression by the ruling powers of a commercial empire which was based upon trade and economic supremacy.

“It was not until 1878, the date of the first scientific tariff, that the economic sword of Germany was unsheathed.” [6]

For sea power states, economics is just war by other means. In his essay titled Land & Sea, German jurist Carl Schmitt expounds on the different points of view in regards to war, trade and economics for seapower states and land power empires. While land powers will seek decisive battles that often leave the civilian population alone, providing they don’t involve themselves in military affairs, this distinction between economic and security interests are much less defined for the seapower state, and therefore the barrier between civilians and militants disappears, or at least becomes much less important. This can be seen by the Allied powers blockade of Germany after both World Wars that left the civilian population starving, and in abject poverty, where it became obvious that there was no separation between civilians and military personnel, and little distinction between economic competition and warfare. The economic life, and thus the material substance upon which the entire population of a nation depends, is fair game. In practice, this tears down any real barrier between combatants and non-combatants, due to the degree to which the commercial seapower state relies upon it’s economy for national security, as historically most seapower states are commercial empires, thus economics is more often used as a tool within the arsenal of national security. This is why the British viewed the German strategy of “national economy”, protectionism through tariffs, and state management of the economy as opposed to laissez-faire, as a form of warfare, hence Mackinder’s use of the term “economic sword”. According to Schmitt,

“For land war, the states of the European continent have constructed certain forms since the sixteenth century, at the basis of which lies the thought that war is a relation between state and state. On both sides there is a state-organized military power, and the armies carry out battle amongst one another, on the open battlefield. Only the fighting hosts confront on another as enemies, while the non-fighting civilian population remains outside the hostilities. The civilian population is not an enemy and shall not be treated as an enemy, so long as it does not partake in battle. For sea war, on the contrary, at its basis lies the thought that the trade and economy of the enemy ought to be targeted. The enemy in such a war is not only the fighting opponent but also every member of an enemy state, and finally also the neutral party conducting trade with the enemy and who stands in an economic relation with the enemy. Land war has the tendency toward the decisive open battle. In sea war it can also naturally come to a sea battle, but its typical means and methods are bombardment and blockade of enemy coasts and the seizure of enemy and neutral ships according to the right of capture. It is grounded in the essence of these typical means of sea war that they may be directed at combatants as well as non-combatants. In particular, a blockade aiming at starvation strikes, without distinction, the whole population the blockaded domain, the military and civilian population, men and women, the elderly and children.”  [7]

Mackinder resentfully reflected on how Germany used it’s strategy of “national economy” to benefit the needs of both the German state and the German people, at the expense of the merchants of the British empire. The ire and alarm of Englishman like Mackinder was raised by the German strategy, which represented a completely different and competitive system, one which their mercantilism was ill-suited to compete against, and which bristled their island-merchant sensibilities. By subordinating the banks and other business interests to the state, while placing the railroads under it’s direct control, Germany was able to streamline production, give the German people jobs, and build up it’s population at a time when manpower was central to economic prosperity.

Yet, for Mackinder it was not only the build up of industrial manpower that represented a strategic danger for the coastal states of Western Europe. This surplus population gave the engines of “Prussian militarism” the ability to wreck havoc in his view. Mackinder believed that the only factor keeping the power of the Heartland at bay, was it’s historical inability to assemble the necessary manpower to be a truly terrible strategic threat, the fact that Germany had bridged this gap held terrible significance for him. He believed that it was this surplus population unleashed for military purposes that lead to the unprecedented destruction of the First World War.

Ironically, Mackinder accuses German culture or “Kultur”, of being materialistic due to what he considers a singular focus on efficiency at the cost of all else, or what he calls the German mentality of “ways and means”. However, he doesn’t take into consideration the callous materialism inherent in British culture, with the English upperclass’s preoccupation with Darwinism, and it’s focus on markets as a mechanism for determining the “good”, regardless of social outcome. It is specifically this type of utilitarian thinking that led to social Darwinism, which encouraged a cold indifference by the English upper-class to the suffering of their lower-class countrymen in the fallout of the Industrial Revolution, and the various Enclosure Acts that forced the peasants off their land and into the cities. Social Darwinism takes the logic of Darwinism, that life is a competitive struggle for survival, and applies this logic to one’s position within a social hierarchy in the framework of a market economy. The general idea being once aristocratic privileges have been eliminated, or at least blunted, and a market economy is established where everyone can participate regardless of social rank, those who fall to the bottom do so because they are of an inferior stock, or due to some other inherent flaw in their being, and thus deserve their lot.

This reflects the general feeling of disinterested isolation inherent in an island people with a commercial culture, feeling as if they are separate from the world. Whereas the German view of life is much more focused on the community as an organic whole, with the nucleus of early 20th century Germany being the Prussian military tradition.

Mackinder castigates the Germans for their historical domination and conquest of the Slavic peoples within their geographic vicinity, yet if we examine English history, we can see that the British have been at least as ruthless in their treatment of their subject people’s. Setting aside their overseas colonial projects in places like Africa or the Americas, all one has to do is examine their treatment of the Irish, a group that is a much better comparison to Germany’s treatment of the Slavs, due to their ethnic similarity and the geographical proximity to England. According to some estimates over a million people died during the Irish Potato Famine, as indebted Irish tenant farmers under the heel of British landlords were forced to eek out an impoverished living subsisting on nothing but potatoes, while every other food crop was exported abroad. A viral fungus decimated the potato crops in 1845-1851, over a million died from either starvation or diseases related to malnourishment. During the famine a quarter million tenant farmers and their families were eventually kicked off their land between 1845-1854 by their English lords. The reaction by London to the abject suffering of the Irish during the famine was cold and indifferent, with Irish historian Tim Pat Coogan accusing the British state of doing very little outside of a publicity campaign. In his book The Family Plot, Coogan makes the case that the English government intentionally stood by and let the famine take it’s course, thereby making the claim that this callous indifference qualifies as genocide. Whether or not we accept Coogan’s severe indictment, the English had no place to condemn the Germans for their treatment of subject people’s, and their insistence in doing so was so absurd that it displays an intense antipathy that I am not sure can simply be explained away by an appeal to national interest. 

The Irish potato famine was much more devastating to the Irish people then anything experienced by Germany’s Slavic population, and was at least as historically relevant at the time of his writing then any of the events he was using to demonize Germany, with the exception of the First World War, which he had a skewed perspective on. Mackinder and the English elite place the blame for World War I solely at the feet of Germany, accusing the Kaiser and Junkers of using the assassination of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand as a pretext to eagerly plunge the entire world into World War I, like a nation of mad men. Yet, as we will see in later posts, this simply wasn’t the case. Indeed this simply represents the cultural antagonisms between land and sea culture. Now, let’s examine things from the Prussian point of view.


To understand the perspective of the Germans, particularly the Prussian point of view, we shall refer to the historical philosopher Oswald Spengler, and his essay, Prussianism and Socialism. In this extensive essay, Spengler contrasts English liberalism on the one hand, and Prussian socialism on the other. However, Spengler’s concept of Prussian socialism, with it’s focus on both martial virtue and a one-for-all social cooperation, as opposed to class warfare and a proletarian revolution to seize the means of production, more resembles fascism than Marxism.

Spengler noticed a divide in the mentality of the German people, two distinct natures. There was the Prussian nature, and what he identified as a negative side of the German character, represented by German liberalism which he believed was only ever a poor imitation of the English. This parallels Hartford Mackinder’s view of the division between the German people, with West Germany being part of the culturally enlightened coastal states of Western Europe, and the despotism of the Heartland, which began with Prussia and went eastward. While Spengler didn’t recognize the conflict as geopolitical in nature or the role of the sea as the source of cultural subversion, he inherently understood this division within Germany, and saw Prussia as the driving force of a uniquely German outlook.

Unlike Mackinder, Spengler was more inclined to give his ideological rivals on the Island their due, but he acknowledged a deep divide between the worldview of the English, and that of the Prussian. Instead of the freedom of the individual to carve out an existence at the expense of any and all in his path, which is the way of the English, the Prussian view declares that it is the nation, or in Spengler’s words the “totality” which is important. This can be summed up by a quote from Fredrick the Great, the great Prussian monarch, that, “The king is only the first servant of the state”.

The Prussian view was indeed a martial view of life, not in a warlike way, but insofar as a sense of duty was first and foremost, with each citizen having a place in the whole. While, to an English mind work was a burden that one would hope to escape by getting wealthy, a true sign of God’s grace and approval, to the Prussian, work was a duty to the nation, to the state, to his people. This explains much of the Prussian preoccupation with efficiency, as one’s job, especially in the military wasn’t just a job, but a calling, a duty to which one dedicated his whole being out of a sense of service. While Mackinder viewed the Prussian mentality as mechanical, the product of a cold and mechanical military mind, Spengler saw the Prussian view in starkly different terms. To Spengler, It was the embodiment of spiritual traits and a specific way of being, one that no Englishman could ever understand due to their completely divergent nature.

While Spengler doesn’t specifically acknowledge the influence of the sea, he does recognize that the English and the Prussians have a common ancestry, and seems to believe that it was the Viking spirit that inspired his English cousins to turn to the sea in search of booty. According to Spengler,

“The organized colonization of the Slavic frontier involved Germans of all tribes, but the area was ruled by nobles from Lower Saxony. Thus the Prussian people, by origin, is closely related to the English. It was the same Saxons, Frisians, and Angles who, as roving Viking bands, and often under Norman and Danish names, subdued the Celtic Britons…

…In the Whigs we can discern the Norseman’s delight in piracy and plunder, his pursuit of quick and easy triumphs with abundant portable booty” [8]

Spengler contrasts the raiding spirit of the Viking, with the communal spirit of the Teutonic knight, which gradually diverged into two completely different views of the world, with what he defines as conflicting “ethical imperatives”. The English exalting a personal and independent freedom while the Prussians bore the mantle of a “supra-personal community spirit”. Prussians exalted martial virtues such as loyalty, discipline, selflessness, and a pronounced sense of duty. In Spenglers view, a profound sense of duty is the very essence of what it means to be “Prussian”, in this sense. A willingness of every individual to sacrifice himself for the good of the totality. To Spengler, the mentality of all for all offers, for the best examples of the Prussian stock, a “glorious inner freedom”, one that no Englishman could understand due to his notions of a private and personal freedom disconnected from the whole of society. Where the Englishman has his private firm or his shop, the Prussian has the military and the civil service.

In Spengler’s view both the German Conservative Party and the German Socialist Party of this time represented this Prussian idea of all for all. While on the surface they seemed to be at odds, they were really an expression of the same ideal and at heart were both at odds with German liberals who, in his view, were just a parody of British liberals, acting as the unwitting tools for the interests of finance capital.


Seapower states generally have little access to large swaths of land, have limited natural resources, and therefore choose to leverage maritime power in an attempt to gain an asymmetrical advantage over their land based rivals. These states turn to the sea in order to make up for their otherwise weak position, and do so by focusing on naval supremacy and trade. It is through commerce that they are able to build up economic power, which they use to fortify their naval strength and to police trading routes. Through this strategy they are able to both project power (through the control of commercial trade upon the seas) and protect their commercial interest – the backbone of any seapower state. The Delian League began as a trade union in 478 BC, but by 454 BC it essentially became the Athenian Empire. Thus, by building up it’s economic power through trade, Athens was able to become the dominant maritime power of it’s time and thereby realize it’s imperial ambitions.

It was England’s insular position that allowed the island nation to strike out on it’s own, and forsake the continental system of Europe. Under Henry the VIII, England extricated itself from the European system, including purging the influence of the Roman Catholic Church by forming the Church of England and making it England’s official religious institution. Through this action Henry was able to use the Reformation to solidify his power and challenge the notion that his authority was in any way contingent upon the continental system or secondary to that of the Roman Catholic Church or the Holy Roman Empire. To secure his newly declared independence from the European system he strengthened the Royal Navy.

Henry VIII funded the Navy by seizing, and subsequently liquidating, the assets of the Roman Catholic monasteries putting the assets into the kings treasury. [9] This lead to the creation of a new system and new aristocracy that included merchants, lawyers and other bourgeoisie, who helped the Crown capitalize on the seizure of church assets and resources which were used to construct the new Navy. [10]

Successive monarchs depended on private interests to help fund the Royal Navy, due to the constraints put on the English Crown by Parliament after “The Glorious Revolution”, and when English Monarch’s refused to share power with the City of London as in the case of the Stuart dynasty, money was not forthcoming. Eventually, the Royal Navy once again found itself funded by London’s evermore entrenched financial interests and, according to naval historian Andrew Lambert, after 1688 the Crown ceded control of the Royal Navy to the City of London [11]. Thus it was, that the insular position of England lead to the creation of a maritime commercial empire which represented the interests of merchants and bankers.

According to Spengler, the English sense of insularity began with the Viking turn to the sea in search of plunder, and of being on an Island protected from, both potential enemies and, the continental conflicts of Europe, while the opposite situation existed for the Prussians. Prussia, by simple geography and circumstance was forced into the conflicts of much greater powers, such as Russia and France. Yet, it was through this pressure and constant proximity to danger that Prussia was forced to strengthen her military prowess. While the English were shaped by their “splendid isolation”, the Prussian mentality was moulded on one hand, through the various wars and conflicts with greater powers, and on the other by the Hohenzollern monarchy of Brandenburg. Besides governing Brandenburg, the Hohenzollern monarchy also governed a collection of disparate and scattered lands, eventually consolidating them all into the Kingdom of Prussia, after which, they embarked on the conscious construction of a national identity. It was important to bring these lands together under one banner, with one identity, if the nascent kingdom was going to survive. It was this pressure, these conflicts, and the sheer power which Prussia had to compete with in order to survive that forced this small kingdom to streamline their military and punch above their weight. In fact, Prussia faced destruction on numerous occasions and was reduced to a rump state by Napoleon, before recovering her place in Europe and becoming stronger then ever. Hence the Prussian strategy of national solidarity, as exemplified by its “national economy”, was a product of a history that forced the Prussian’s to have a more communal national outlook in order to survive, and was not a strategy of universal conquest. Yet for land power states, the choice is often to conquer or be conquered.

As the German state of Prussia had to adapt to the geopolitical realities of her time, so did the other great land based power of the Heartland, Russia. In it’s inception Russia geographically was only flat lands, and had little to no geographical barriers such as mountains, or deserts and very few rivers, and was thus hard to defend and constantly attacked by the same marauding Asiatic hoards that Mackinder associates with the Eurasian Heartland. Ivan the terrible implemented an aggressive policy, best encapsulated in the phrase “offence as defence”. Under Ivan, Russia expanded aggressively, out of necessity, for it was only through this aggressive policy that the Russian state was able to pushback the Mongols. Land power empires territorially expand through the conquest of evermore adjacent lands by necessity, lest they suffer the same under a neighbouring power, and as such require a strong centralized state to administer their lands which often include populations that don’t initially identify with the ruling authority. This situation creates the incentive to culturally assimilate the new territories on the periphery of the empire. Therefore, just as Prussia needed to impose a cultural identity to solidify the Prussian state, a more totalizing central state along with communal and traditional cultural forms are needed in order to more easily hold together an empire of culturally diverse peoples with little in common to both create a sense of community and to avoid conflict. This totalizing state also often centralizes economic and military control in the capital.

Thus we can see the very real role that geography plays in the formation of nations and civilizations. To the English mentality, with it’s prejudices as expressed by Mackinder – formed by its “splendid isolation” – views the land based empires of Eurasia as a source of tyranny and despotism, not understanding the geographical and historical pressures that lead to the creation of these states. Therefore, the ideological conflict between land powers and sea power states as exemplified by England and Prussia in the early twentieth century or by Russia and the United States today, centre around their view of the state. The land power view of the state embodies the principles of unity, of class cooperation, and thus sees society as a cohesive whole, whereas the English view replaces the Prussian idea of the state with the idea of the individual interacting within the context of the market economy, pursuing their so called “rational self interests”. I will be exploring all of these ideas in much greater detail in future posts, but will have to leave it here for now, as I believe this is a sufficient introduction to a few of the central concepts we will be discussing going forward. 


[1] The Geographical Pivot of History, Hartford Mackinder, 1904

[2] Democratic Ideals and Reality, Hartford Mackinder, 1918

[3] Coming Storms: The Return of Great-Power War, Christopher Layne, Foreign Affairs October, 13th 2020

[4] Democratic Ideals and Reality, Hartford Mackinder, 1918

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Land & Sea, Carl Schmitt, 1942

[8] Prussianism and Socialism, Oswald Spengler, 1919

[9] Seapower States: Maritime Culture, Continental Empires, and the Conflict that Made the Modern World, Andrew Lambert, Yale University Press 2018

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.