August 7th in German History: The Birth of Carl Ritter

Carl Ritter.

It is hard to imagine a time before accurate maps. For well over a century every distance and landmass in the world has been recorded and mapped, allowing anyone to see what the world looks like. One often forgets that as late as the 19th century large parts of the world were still relatively unknown. Modern geography has facilitated world trade and diplomacy, as well as allowing us to better visualize the world. Carl Ritter, one of the founders of modern geography, was born on August 7th, 1779.

Carl Ritter was born in Saxony and was the son of a doctor. As a result, he was able to obtain a good education at the Schnepfenthal Salzmann School, which focused on the study of nature. After completing his initial schooling, he served as a tutor to the children of the banker Bethmann Hollweg. During that time, he attended the University of Halle. He also began to study geography and in 1819 became a Professor of History at the University of Frankfurt. He maintained correspondence with numerous explorers, especially those focused on Africa, and in 1822 he was made a member of the Prussian Academy of Sciences. At this time, he was working on his “Erkunde”, a series of geographic treatises that contained theories and analysis of nearly the entire world. He gathered information and based theories on it using an inductive method of reasoning which allowed him to make conclusions as to the nature of faraway civilizations and the conditions of distant lands. He became ever more prominent in the scientific community, and was made an honorary member of the American Academy of Sciences and Curator of the Prussian Institute of Cartography. Ritter died in 1859; at the time of his death, he was one of the premier social scientists of Europe.

The study of geography, while important, has also been one of the most misused in modern history. Theories on the impacts of different climates on societies have been warped into racist beliefs of racial superiority. Ritter’s theory on the organic state was used by the Nazis to justify their invasions of Poland and Russia to obtain living space. It is unfortunate that such an important science has been blackened by the warping of its teachings.

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