Historical Geography: Using Geography to Interpret the Past

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the concept of historical geography, and how two different disciplines can shed new light on each other. To illustrate this, we look at a couple of classic examples using this approach.

Big Questions

Why did the Soviet Union collapse? Why was Alexander the Great so successful? Why has Greek culture sustained in popularity many centuries after its creation? No matter where you look, history is full of big questions like these. How we answer them helps shape our understanding of human history.

Though this may be surprising to some, there are often as many tools to answer these questions as there are answers. For some, it is important to view these historical events through a geographic lens. In this lesson, we will explore this approach, termed historical geography, and examine a few examples.

Geography

Geography is essentially the study of the land and its characteristics. Though this may sound simple, it is far from it. The study of geography includes far more than just knowing the shape of borders, lakes, rivers, and mountains. Geography also studies the populations that live upon the land and how people use it, be it for industry, agriculture, or some other use. This holistic study of the land and its features encompasses a wide variety of natural and man-made forces and how they relate to one another.

As such, historical geography studies the land at specific periods in our past. This study has several different facets. For example, some historical geographers study history to understand how and why the geography of a certain region has changed over time. Others are more interested in how the geography of a certain period impacted the events of history. Still others study historical geography from a more anthropological perspective, examining how humans and human civilization have changed the landscape over time.

This interdisciplinary study can trace its roots back to the ancient historian Herodotus, but as an academic discipline it has a far more recent history. Though historians of the 19th and early 20th century certainly used geography, historical geography did not come into its own as a sub-discipline until the 1950s. It truly became established in 1975 with the first publication of the Journal of Historical Geography in 1975.

Examples

The study of historical geography can play an important role in analyzing historical events and shed new light on topics where conventional explanations might fail. A few examples of historical geography in action are below.

Invading Russia

Geographically, Russia is enormous. The largest country on earth, two of the greatest military minds of the last few centuries both tried to invade Russia. Both failed, largely thanks to geography, and the Russians keen understanding of the vastness of the land in which they lived.

Napoleon Bonaparte, who had already conquered much of the rest of Europe, invaded Russia in June 1812. Rather than fight Napoleon's impressive French forces on the border, Russian forces retreated for months, even ceding Moscow to the invaders. As they retreated, the Russian forces burned crops, villages, and equipment--anything that could be of use to the invading French army. The Russians never gave the French forces the decisive battle for which Napoleon hoped. Instead, they let the land and weather do their work for them. Anticipating a quick victory, Napoleon had not outfitted his troops with winter clothing, and his quick advance had stretched his supply lines. Eventually, Napoleon was forced to retreat in the midst of the harsh Russian winter. This catastrophic failure proved to be the turning point of Napoleon's empire and the beginning of his fall.

In World War II, Adolf Hitler's Germany experienced a somewhat similar situation and fate when invading the Soviet Union. Hitler's famed blitzkrieg tactic, which used tanks to quickly capture strategic objectives, had conquered much of Europe. The tactic proved successful in Russia as well, and within weeks hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops were either killed or captured. But again, Russia proved far too big to be destroyed quickly. After early losses, the Soviet Union began using the same scorched earth tactics as their forefathers, and German supply lines became stretched. The front turned into a bloody standstill, with each side making little ground. Eventually, fighting on other fronts and poor supplies wore the German forces down and forced the Germans to retreat following several defeats.

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