Heinz Nissel: Human geography, politics, power, space, future of mankind, Geopolitik

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Interview by: Leonhardt van Efferink (February 2011) Tags: Human geography politics power space future of mankind Kritische Geopolitik Politische Geographie

picture Heinz Nissel

Heinz Nissel

Dr. Heinz Nissel is Reader and Advisor for diploma students and doctoral candidates at Vienna University. He worked there as Associate Professor before retiring in September 2009. In the past, Dr Nissel also worked at universities in Cologne, Berlin and Marburg.

He studied Geography, Philosophy and Sociology at Vienna University, where he obtained a DPhil in 1974.

For more information, please have a look at:

University page of Heinz Nissel

The ‘Geopolitical Passport’ series offers visitors to ExploringGeopolitics a unique opportunity to find out more about the enormous variety of views within the geopolitical traditions. The floor has been given to scholars from several countries and various disciplines. The questions address issues all people with an interest in geopolitics grapple with. How should we define it? What are the most fascinating geopolitical ideas? And how will the geopolitical future look like?

My relationship with geopolitics

At what age did you discover geopolitics and what attracted you to it?

I discovered geopolitics when I started to give lectures on Political Geography in Berlin during my stay there during 1975-1980. I picked up the subject again in Vienna during in the 1990s, studying Austrian Voting Behavior in a regional setting and teaching Political Geography.

Postmodern aspects gained momentum after 2000, and around 2005 I became interested in Indian geopolitics. This is my current research focus.

Which geopolitical topics have your focus and why did you choose especially these?

At the moment, I am mostly involved in explaining aims and methods of critical geopolitics. They are state of the art and offer new insights for geographers.

A second interest is dealing with the uprise and challenges of BRIC states. As I said earlier, I am working on India´s geostrategy and geopolitics, next to geopolitics in general in a (forthcoming?) multipolar power spectre.

What do you consider your most important contribution to geopolitics?

I consider myself only as a humble servant to the subject.

Standing in second line I can’t and don’t want to be compared with leading personalities in the field. I try to train my students as good as possible in the field.

I will mention two contributions:

  • Andrea K. Riemer, Heinz Nissel and Friedrich W. Korkisch: “Geopolitik. Zwischen Wissenschaft und Kunstlehre.”Schriftenreihe der Landesverteidigungsakademie 3/2005. Vienna. This is a book of 422 pages dealing with all aspects of geopolitics and is also used in my lectures.
  • Heinz Nissel: “Kritische Geopolitik – Zur Neukonzeption der Politischen Geographie der Postmoderne.” Österreichische Militärische Zeitschrift (ÖMZ), 1/2010, pp. 12-23. This article will show up when you google ‘Geopolitik’.

My geopolitical preferences

What is your favourite definition of geopolitics?

I have no favourite definition. It is necessary to show the development of the subject in its historical context and actual meaning. This is one of the biggest problems of geopolitics.

All in all, it has to do with Politics, Power and Space seen from different viewpoints over the ages. Maybe John Agnew, Saul Cohen or Peter Taylor will show some way.

Which geopolitical scientist do you admire the most?

Gearóid Ó Tuathail. He is the creator of critical geopolitics, I suppose, and still a leading figure.

I also admire Paul Routledge and his terrains of ressistance which opened the eyes for all of us – for instance the wonderful work “Putting politics in its place: Baliapal, India, as a terrain of resistance” (Political Geography, Volume 11, Issue 6, November 1992, Pages 588-611).

Moreover, I admire Peter Taylor for his outstanding contributions in Political Geography, something different from geopolitics, but related, and for being the long time editor of the journal Political Geography.

And, of course, I appreciate the work of David Harvey, the giant of Human Geography in ALL fields, Ed Soja, Neil Smith and so on.

In the German speaking countries, Paul Reuber and his assistant Günter Wolkersdorfer have done most to propagate postmodern political geography and geopolitics. What a loss for our subject – Günter died only 40 years old!

What is your favourite geopolitical book?

I prefer recent articles in leading journals of geography because they are on the frontier of our subject.

Books contain mostly things that have already been said elsewhere.

What is your favourite geopolitical website?

I am old-fashioned and still love to hold, to touch, to smell written paper in any form.

I fear websites will be the future – I regret.

The geopolitical future

In what direction(s) will geopolitical science be heading the coming decades?

Well, I would also like to know. I think Critical Geopolitics did a great job in deconstructing Lyotards ‘grand stories’. We still have to do this type of work for all histories and spaces ‘used’ by man. But the mere deconstruction seems to end already in some cul-de-sac as it has no connection with any ‘morale’ whatsoever. Therefore, Critical Geopolitics for me does not seem to be able to work as advisor for politicians and politics.

Maybe geopolitics will return to the hands of cold blooded architects of power – but in a different way then before. The ‘grand strategy’ of the USA and the European weakness to speak with one voice will definitely give way and shift the main focus to multipolar definitions of power. There will be (in practice) a Chinese geopolitics, an Indian, a Brazilian etc. Paramount institutions (UN, NATO, IMF etc.) will be used as sidelines for the battlefields.

As long as power, politics and weaponry exist there will be geopolitics in theory and practice.

The great game goes on – aber die Karten werden neu gemischt… [Editor: German expression, contextual meaning ‘global power is being divided again’].

Which geopolitical subject has been too little in the spotlight and needs further research?

This is connected with the previous question. So I would say we need to look much closer towards emerging powers.

Futhermore, is geopolitical reasoning universal or does there for instance exist a specific Chinese geopolitical reasoning. I would compare this reasoning with the debates in Cultural Geography.

What will be the largest geopolitical challenge for the world in the 21st century?

The biggest challenge will be to SURVIVE against all odds. Recent outcomes at conferences dealing with ecological problems are depressing.

Is it possible to learn from history??? I am not quite sure.

The biggest geopolitical challenge? Frankly, I think it’s the stupidity of mankind in general as well as in detail. Just a month ago ago NOBODY foresaw the dramatic changes in the Arab World. Of course that included all the so-called geopolitical experts.

It happens all the time. The fall of the Shah regime in Iran, the self-destruction of Yugoslavia, the no-win situation in Afghanistan, the hopelessness of a failed state called Haiti. I could go on for hours…

Yes, there will be plenty to do for the field of geopolitics in the future – jobs, institutions, eggheads, big games, fights for survival.

Maybe the biggest challenge is that we can´t foresee or plan the future as we would like. I hope this is a positive statement.

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