Alexander von Humboldt - great man, bad influence?
May 26, 2006 5:11 PM   Subscribe

Alexander von Humboldt was a German naturalist, botanist and explorer. His discoveries were many, and as such various animals and geographic features are named after him (even on the moon and elsewhere). His writings inspired many, and many foundations and scholarships exist with his name. One of those he inspired, with great tales of the American frontier (PDF) and Humboldt's oft-used word "Lebensraum", was Adolf Hitler (no link needed). That may have been an influencing factor for the creation of the outdoors-oriented Hitler Youth, and even pushed Adolf into expanding to the vast unpopulated expanses of Russia, via Poland, of course.
posted by Kickstart70 (8 comments total)
dunno; Romanticsm was all about getting out, and the HJ was something of a co-opting of the Scouting movement, with of course the indoctrinational benefits of getting German youth ready for service in the Wehrmacht.

As far as lebensraum goes, I guess the most interesting thing I've learned about that would be that Hitler's reich had plans to eventually run its autobahns out to the Crimea, pensioning off retired soldiers along the way. Part of the background of German expansionism was the contrast of its intensive and well-developed capital investment -- buildings, developed, farmland, roadways, factories -- of the Fatherland compared to the relatively untamed wilds of the East, where good ol' Kapitalism hadn't yet worked its magic.

There is some argument to be made that the Germans saw the Slavs as we saw the American Indians ... peoples who were in the way of Progress. That the Slavs were being led by a Jewish Bolsheviks made them enemies on the existential level.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 7:43 PM on May 26, 2006

From the supplied Wikipedia link for Lebensraum:

The idea of a Germanic people without sufficient space dates back long before Adolf Hitler brought it to prominence. The term Lebensraum in this sense was coined by Friedrich Ratzel in 1897, used as a slogan in Germany referring to the unification of the country and the acquisition of colonies, as per the English and French models. It was adapted from Darwinian and other scientific ideas of the day about how ecological niches are filled. Similar concepts are still used today in geography and biology.[1]

I think it's fair to say Humboldt was inspired by naturalism from his German roots, which were shared by Hitler, who thus shared common terms.
posted by Brian B. at 8:29 PM on May 26, 2006

I'm embarrassed to admit this, but I had no idea who Humboldt was. So thank you, Kickstart70, for helping to fill me in on yet another bit of history that I have missed.
posted by meringue at 8:31 PM on May 26, 2006

Don't forget the inspiration by a less learned source; the Wild West adventure novels of Karl May.

(Are books by Karl May known at all in the US? I read them a lot as a child.)
posted by jouke at 8:43 PM on May 26, 2006

No problem, meringue. I just learned about him today as well, when a coworker was discussing him. He'd just watched an episode of Connections2 that covered much of this.

PS. Sorry for using 'many' so many times in my post.
posted by Kickstart70 at 9:11 PM on May 26, 2006

I'm less inspired by the Hitler angle than Humboldt himself - he was an amazing naturalist. I got to reading about him late last year and collected a few nifty images from one of his works and some other links here (self link). Thanks for the post Kickstart70.
posted by peacay at 9:26 PM on May 26, 2006

as brian correctly quotes the wikipedia, the social-darwinistic "lebensraum" ideology doesn't go back to Humboldt, who may have used this term in it's biological sense (it simply translates to "habitat"). He was a humanist and strong opponent of slavery, so I can't think of how Hitler could possibly be inspired by him. Could it be that this theory is only based on the fact that he was german? You should provide some sources here.

Daniel Kehlman recently wrote a novel about the lives of Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Gauß, "Measuring the World", which was translated into english and to appear in november. It's a fun and clever read and I can absolutely recommend it.
posted by kolophon at 5:46 AM on May 27, 2006

His brother Wilhelm was one of the first European linguists and "is credited with being the first European linguist to identify human language as a rule-governed system, rather than just a collection of words and phrases paired with meanings"; he also "introduced a knowledge of the Basque language to European intellectuals."
posted by languagehat at 6:33 AM on May 27, 2006

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