Hitler’s geographer: Walter Christaller and Nazi Academics

Who was Walter Christaller, and why do so many still deem it necessary to whitewash his employment under Heinrich Himmler?

Walter Christaller 311 (photo credit: Creative Commons)
Walter Christaller 311
(photo credit: Creative Commons)
“People have become too easily satisfied with slogans about the power that is to be found in a space, or that emanates from it, about the narrowness of space, the domination of space, the magic of space. Space is not a sorcerer or a supernatural being.”
– Walter Christaller as quoted by David Blackbourn, The Conquest of Nature: Water, Landscape and the Making of Modern Germany

“Germany’s student body is on the march” – Martin Heidegger, 1933
Walter Christaller died quietly in his home at Jugenheim, Germany, on March 9, 1969. He was 75 years old. To judge by the outpouring of grief in American academic circles, it becomes clear this was an important and well liked man.
Brian Berry and Chauncy Harris wrote an “appreciation” in the journal American Geographical Society. In it they described how Christaller “as a child longed to travel.” In 1983 an even more sycophantic article was published in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers by Ruth Hottes entitled simply “Walter Christaller.” According to her, “Walter Christaller needs no introduction in the United States.” She described how he was “ignored in his native country for a long time, but his ideas had an early impact upon the thinking of geographers in the United States and Sweden. It was only in old age that Germany recognized his achievements with honors and awards.”
People who knew him personally remember his modest, friendly character. His admirers kept repeating, “He did not sell himself well.” But perhaps this was not always true. Perhaps he had sold himself well. Perhaps Germany had once recognized his achievements. Perhaps he had once been at the center, not a poor boy to whom “maps provided solace,” but a mapmaker whose maps impacted the lives of individuals.
It is a nagging question for anyone who googles the name of Christaller.
Staring back at the reader is the shocking truth. He served under Heinrich Himmler in the SS Planning and Soil Office. And he wasn’t simply a functionary. He was a dramatic thinker living out the dark dream of any intellectual. He was given the chance to have the ear of the government in a position where his models and ideas of a new mathematical geography, an efficient, logical theory of settlement, might be put into practice.
In the case of Christaller, there is not only a double life, there is not only his own apparent attempt to whitewash his past but there has also been a longterm struggle by his disciples to rewrite his history, lest the thought of his complicity in Nazi crimes tarnish theories that many found exciting. Thus one social science Web site claims “he was somewhat less fortunate, at least initially, in his own readers, who included Nazi settlement planners for Eastern Europe.”
Hottes argues that “Christaller did join the National Socialist party in 1940 and used Nazi terminology at various times. Between 1940-1945 he lived and worked mainly in Berlin... he was blind to the political misuse being made of [his ideas].” Barry and Harris claim that “as a result [of the Nazis using his ideas] this gentle and kindly man was shunned politically by both East and West.”
Another persistent story regarding Christaller was that he was always a secret socialist or communist. In the academic world of the 1950s to 1980s, when Christaller’s theories were most popular, it was obviously not acceptable to be outwardly right wing and fascist. So Christaller’s supporters removed the word “national” from National Socialism and reinvented their hero as a socialist, a social thinker struggling against reactionary elements, eager to transform society for good.
He had supposedly been a socialist since his return from the Great War. In the early 1930s he had fled to France for fear of being persecuted by the Nazis. One supporter writes, “Like many young Germans, he aligned with left-wing causes during the 1920s.”
But Christaller’s supporters were not without an ally in Christaller himself. After the war he had apparently become a communist. He joined the party in 1951 and became a local leader. According to Hottes, he was even arrested and charged with espionage; “legal proceedings lasted several years, but in the end all charges were dismissed.”
The “modest genius” rehabilitated himself after the war slowly. He began writing again. In 1964 the Association of American Geographers gave him its Outstanding Achievement Award (he could not travel to the US to accept it “because of visa difficulties”), and in 1968 he was apparently given an honorary doctorate by the University of Lund in Sweden and University of Bochum in West Germany. He received money from state governments and an award from the federal government. An award was eventually established in his name, the Walter Christaller Award for Applied Geography.
Which is the real Christaller? What were his theories that appealed so much to the Nazis and to American and Swedish geographers? What was his past, whitewashed so successfully?
He was born in April 1893 in Berneck in southern Germany. Postcards from 1900 show a quiet town situated among the undulating hills of the Black Forest. His father, Erdmann Gottreich Christaller, was an evangelical pastor and writer who wrote a satirical novel about the church called Prostitution of the Spirit. His mother was a more prolific writer, whose novels were still being reprinted in the 1980s. Oddly enough some of them were banned by the Nazis for reasons that are not clear.
Just prior to the outbreak of World War I, Christaller entered the University of Freiburg where he studied economics and philosophy. It is not clear if he was called up or rushed off to enlist when the war broke out, but either way he ended up in the army during 1914. Wounded, he returned home. He took a job as a secretary of the Cooperative Building Society of German Office Holders in Berlin in the early 1920s and also worked in construction and apparently as a miner. It was during this decade that he also got married, in 1921, and divorced, in 1928. The marriage produced three children of whom little is known.
In 1929, freshly divorced and perhaps relieved of the responsibility of supporting his family, he entered the University of Erlangen at Nuremberg. It was here, in three short years, that he produced his influential thesis entitled Die zentralen Orte in Süddeutschland or The Central Places in Southern Germany (republished in English in 1966). The thesis examined the question “why was it that towns were so regularly spaced along routes? Why did large towns follow small ones... in apparently regular progressions?”
Christaller would follow up on his thesis with a book entitled Die ländliche Siedlungsweise im Deutschen Reich und ihre Beziehungen zur Gemeindeorganization (Rural Settlements in Germany in Their Relation to Community Administration) published in 1937. His publications serve as a basis of what has come to be known as Central Place Theory. According to one explanation, “centrality is the quality of a place of possessing a higher order of significance when compared with other places in its surrounding areas. It is achieved by supplying such goods and services as are not available or are insufficient in settlements.” It is essentially a “theoretical account of the size and distribution of settlements.” His groundbreaking theory focused on the city as a system of cities, rather than a single entity with defined hierarchies. A Central Place is a settlement or a nodal point that serves the area around with goods and services (Mayhew, 1997). Christaller's model also was based on the premise that all goods and services were purchased by consumers from the nearest central place, that the demands placed on all central places in the plain were similar, and that none of the central places made any excessive profit.
IN THE 1930S the new fads for futurism and the economic theories then prevalent among communists and being carried out by the Soviets under the name “collectivization” were popular. Combined with the new manufacturing techniques, such as the assembly line and mass production, the idea that settlements could be ideally spaced to provide maximum efficiency and access to resources was deemed practical.
The Nazis were already beginning to take notice. According to one source the publication of Christaller’s 1932 thesis in 1933 was financed by none other than Heinrich Himmler, who in 1940 was appointed Reich commissioner for the strengthening of Germandom and through it he created an Office of Planning and Soil. The innocuous word “soil” had deep implication in Nazi ideology of blood and soil, where the greatness of the Aryan nation was supposed to be deeply connected to the soil on which it lived and from which it had sprung forth.
Mechtild Rössler writes that that Himmler “saw his agency as an instrument to realize his far-reaching plans for selection and breeding, of agrarian culture and Aryan race.” This was to be realized after Poland and the Slavic countries were conquered and they could be Germanized. German peasants would be settled in these regions, and what better than to make their settlement logical, based on the newest models. Himmler was quick to tap Christaller for a job in his newly created department.
At the time Christaller had recently moved from his appointment at the University of Freiburg (1937-1940) to the Kommunalwissenschaftlichen Institute run by Theodore Maunz, who was involved in creating the legal basis for, among other things, the concentration camps. Maunz, another University of Freiburg academic and Nazi party member, would be rehabilitated after the war and do work for the Federal Republic of Germany. Christaller was known to support the idea of “strengthening Germandom” and he was a perfect choice to rationalize planning in the east. From 1940 to 1945 Christaller would be a loyal member of Himmler’s staff.
The staff was composed of other academics and planners, all under Konrad Meyer, a professor of rural and area planning. Erhard Mäding recalled that there was “no precedent for the reshaping of the eastern landscape.” The planners set to their task with “warm hearts.” Christaller suddenly became more prolific, publishing basic ideas for municipal and institutional development in the east. He also began to produce maps for his idealized new western Poland. One entitled “The Central Place in the Eastern Regions and their Culture and Market Sector” was made in 1941. That particular map was still in use in 2006 for a course at the University of Michigan, with no mention of its nefarious origins.
The maps and the plans were all for a tabula rasa, to re-create Poland in the shape of the new Aryan nation, using the latest methods of planning. It was not to be of course. After the battle of Stalingrad Hitler’s empire in the east crumbled and by 1944 the Soviet Red Army was in Poland. By 1945 it was all over.
Christaller was an opportunist and he foresaw, incorrectly as it turned out, that communism was the new Nazism, the new winning philosophy and one that lent itself to his planning theories. So he became a devoted communist. He reinvented himself as a geographer of tourism, publishing papers in 1955, 1960 and 1964. According to a list compiled by Richard Preston of the University of Waterloo, “He produced at least 50 articles and chapters, four monographs, three review articles, 24 book reviews, several comments, six travel books, one textbook, two atlases and seven unpublished manuscripts.” His ideas traveled abroad, particularly to the US and became mainstream. Few bothered to ask about his past. Those who did, such as Mechtild Rössler, were not received well.
Why were those who spoke up about Christaller’s history silenced? Why were the academic devotees of his so unwilling to acknowledge what geographer Arnon Golan of the University of Haifa has called “the dark side of Central Place Theory”? The silence about Christaller is not unique, for he is not the only Nazi academic whose influence survived the death of National Socialism.
Martin Heidegger, considered one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century, was also a member of the Nazi Party and in 1933 he was elected rector of the University of Freiburg. In his inaugural address he proclaimed “Germany’s student body is on the march... the much celebrated ‘academic freedom’ is being banished from the German university; for this freedom was not genuine, since it was only negative.”
It appears Heidegger was committed to Nazism. He wrote “the German people must choose its future, and this future is bound to the Führer.” The philosopher was also involved in the dismissal of Jewish faculty from the university and disdainful treatment towards his former Jewish colleagues and friends, such as fellow philosopher Edmund Husserl.
After the war Heidegger was subjected to denazification and forbidden to lecture from 1945 to 1951. However, in a strange and never fully understood twist of fate, his former student and mistress, Hannah Arendt, who was Jewish, defended him and supported his rehabilitation as a public figure. His ideas deeply influenced French philosophy, including such luminaries as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida.
For many years revisionism in the academy meant that the Nazi connections of Heidegger, in fact his influence on Nazism and his own involvement in it, were covered up. Any mention of it was met with disapproval. After all, had Heidegger been a Nazi, why would his former Jewish student and fellow intellectual, Arendt, defend him? In fact it was not until Emanuel Faye published Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism in Philosophy in 2005 in France that the subject gained widespread attention. Even today in philosophy departments the truth about Heidegger’s influence and the need for philosophy to account for his Nazism is not acknowledged. Like the hostile reaction to Rössler’s exposing of Christaller, any discussion of Heidegger is frowned upon.
What has never been examined in detail is that fact that Christaller and Heidegger were not only contemporaries but probably knew one another. Christaller studied philosophy at the University of Freiburg in 1913. In that same year Heidegger was putting the finishing touches to his doctorate at the same university. Heidegger was a professor at Freiburg from 1928 to 1934. It is not clear where Christaller was located from 1934 to 1936, but in 1937 he also returned to Freiburg.
They were not the only Nazi academics at Freiburg in those years. Theodore Maunz, who was Christaller’s boss in 1939, was a professor at Freiburg from 1935 to 1945 and was one of Nazism’s foremost legal scholars and, like his colleagues Heidegger and Christaller, he too was rehabilitated after the war where his influence lived on.
The only member of Christaller’s circle to be indicted at Nuremburg was Konrad Meyer, who was convicted of being a member of a criminal organization but not of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Sentenced to time served, he had been arrested in 1945, he was released and continued his academic career as a professor of planning at the University of Hanover.
The subject of Nazism’s corruption of the academy and the role of academics in the Third Reich has been explored by scholars and writers. However, what has never been fully understood is why so many of the academics who enthusiastically joined the Nazi Party and worked for it were never held to account, either in a court of law or in the court of public opinion. What does it say about the academy in the West which speaks so much about “freedom of speech,” and the “requirement to critique” that the postwar role of Nazis in academic institutions and in shaping modern day discourse has not been explored?