Friedrich Ratzel

The German geographer Friedrich Ratzel (1844-1904) was the author of several books on ethnology and human and political geography in which he described his observations during extensive travels in Europe and the Americas.

The father of Friedrich Ratzel was the manager of the household staff of the Grand Duke of Baden, and Friedrich was born on Aug. 30, 1844, at Karlsruhe. He went to a high school in Karlsruhe for 6 years before he was apprenticed to an apothecary in 1859. Ratzel stayed with him until 1863, when he went to Rappeswyl on the Lake of Zurich, Switzerland, where he began to study the classics. After a further year as an apothecary at Mörs near Krefeld in the Ruhr area (1865-1866), he spent a short time at the high school in Karlsruhe and became a student of zoology at the universities of Heidelberg, Jena, and Berlin. In 1868 Ratzel presented a thesis on the characteristics of worms and, a year later, a book on the work of Charles Darwin, whose Origin of Species had appeared in 1859. But Ratzel's work was overshadowed by Ernst Haeckel's.


Journalist and Geographer

Partly by good fortune Ratzel had the opportunity of traveling with a French naturalist, and he wrote up his experiences for a Cologne newspaper. Ratzel's travel and journalism were interrupted by a short but distinguished army career in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. In 1871 he went through the Hungarian plains, where he was fascinated by the signs of recent agricultural settlement, and the Carpathians, where he found German-speaking communities. In 1874 he went to North and Central America, where he once again saw successful German settlers. In 1876 he published a thesis on Chinese emigration, partly from his own experience in America, and in 1878 and 1880 he published two large books on North America.

In 1875 Ratzel joined the staff of the Technical High School in Munich, and in 1886 he moved to the University of Leipzig. Always an avid journalist, he also published several large books during these years, including Völkerkunde (2 vols., 1885-1888; Ethnology), Anthropogeographie (2 vols., 1882-1891; Human Geography), Politische Geographie (1897; Political Geography), and Die Erde und das Leben (2 vols., 1901-1902; Earth and Life).

Some of Ratzel's work was of uneven quality, for example, in the world survey of ethnology, but much of it was based on acute observation in his wide travels. He was anxious to interpret the observed movements of plant and animal life—and of people—to settle and establish themselves in a new environment, and he saw in biogeography the essential link between scientific and human phenomena. Immensely industrious throughout his life, he died of a stroke on Aug. 9, 1904, while on holiday with his wife and daughters in Ammerland, Bavaria.


Further Reading on Friedrich Ratzel

A terse biography of Ratzel is Harriet Wanklyn, Friedrich Ratzel: A Biographical Memoir and Bibliography (1961). Background is in Robert H. Lowie, The History of Ethnological Theory (1937), and Marvin Harris, The Rise of Anthropological Theory (1968).