A map of Germany's previous colonies from the Pan-German Atlas, Justus Perthes press, 1900

Creating Colonisable Land: Cartography, ‘Blank Spaces’, and Imaginaries of Empire in Nineteenth-Century Germany

This article was written by Zeynep Gülşah Çapan and Filipe dos Reis
This article was published on

Zeynep Gülşah Çapan and Filipe dos Reis discuss the key arguments from their new Review of International Studies (RIS) article. If you'd like to know more you can read the full article here - Creating colonisable land: Cartography, ‘blank spaces’, and imaginaries of empire in nineteenth-century Germany.


The mid-1880s witnessed two significant shifts in the policies of the German Empire (Deutsches Kaiserreich). First, it acquired Protectorates (Schutzgebiete) over Southwest Africa, Cameroon, Togo, and German East Africa in less than a year, from 24 April 1884 to 27 February 1885. Other colonies in Asia and the Pacific would follow in the second part of the 1890s, transforming Germany into one of the largest colonial empires of the time. Second, in 1886, the Royal Prussian Settlement Commission (Königlich Preußische Ansiedlungskommission) was established to purchase large Polish estates and sell them in smaller plots to German-speaking settlers in the eastern provinces of the German Empire and thereby spur the ‘Germanization’ of territories with large Polish-speaking communities. These events are commonly framed, in the social sciences and beyond, as belonging to different analytical spaces, namely either the expansion of the German colonial empire or policies of internal nation-building within the Kaiserreich. Why are these events associated with different analytic spaces?

We follow in our contribution the growing literature on historical connections and entanglements, which has problematised ‘analytic bifurcation[s]’ of spaces for some time. We concentrate on two dynamics that are very much part of the above example: first, making visible connections between colonial spaces (i.e., colony-colony relations) and, second, unpacking the notion of ‘Europe’ itself. We investigate this through the circulation of specific technologies of power, which are in our contribution maps and the mapping of blank spaces across different colonial spaces. We reconstruct, in particular, how ‘blank spaces’ on maps were used within the German colonial discourse to create ‘colonial spaces’ both outside of ‘Europe’, in particular Africa, and in the project of the ‘colonies of the East’, i.e. in Central and Eastern Europe. Our reconstruction aims at foregrounding both similarities and differences in the use of ‘blank spaces’. The empirical analysis in our article is based on archival material from the Justus Perthes publishing house in Gotha, the leading German-language publisher of cartography and mapping during the second half of the nineteenth and the first part of the twentieth century.

Moving beyond Analytic Bifurcations? The Study of Connections, Entanglements, and the Making of the International

By invoking connections and entanglements, the historical turn in International Relations (IR) has increasingly problematised narratives of the making of the international, which were primarily a consequence of analytic bifurcations, by invoking connections and entanglements. One of the main foci of the historical turn in IR has been to analyse connections, exchanges, and dialogues, which had previously been made invisible by analytically separating state/empire and metropole/colony. Despite their centrality, it is important to underline, however, that state/empire and metropole/colony are not the only bifurcations at stake. In this respect, another important bifurcation that has been scrutinised is the colony/colony one, whereby the connections, exchanges, and dialogues between different colonies become invisible. We expand this further as we problematise ‘Europe’ itself by showing how technologies of power developed to produce colonial imaginaries and control colonies were applied to Africa and the ‘colonies in the East’.

Moreover, postcolonial and decolonial perspectives with a focus on two interrelated dynamics, namely, first, historicising the (processes of) construction of the space of Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans and, second, foregrounding hierarchies between different ‘Europes’, have gained increasing attention. We advance this discussion by focusing on the construction of the spaces of ‘heroic’ and ‘epigonal’ Europe to move beyond the analytic bifurcation of Europe/non-Europe. To do so, we problematise, on the one hand, the construction of the space of ‘Europe’ and, on the other hand, ‘connect’ different colonial spaces that had been separated because of the divide between Europe and non-Europe. The article reconstructs imaginaries of German colonialism and the construction of Central and Eastern Europe as a colonial space. The divisions, and the respective hierarchisations, were part of imaginaries of ‘heroic’ Europe. As such, it was ‘heroic’ Europe that produced ‘epigonal’ Europe (other), and thereby ‘heroic’ Europe (self).

Empire, Mapping, and the Production of Blank Spaces

Building on contributions from critical geography and cartography, maps and mapping techniques, like ‘blank spaces’, have received increasing attention within IR. We follow, in particular, the argument that mapping is part of the making of the international, often intertwined with colonial and imperial projects. This has various implications. First, do not simply mirror a world ‘out there’ and already existing spaces, but are performative and part of the creation of spaces. As J. B. Harley once put it, ‘maps anticipate empire’. Second, maps are never stable as they are permanently (re)interpreted. The same goes for empires, which require stabilisation through technologies of power, such as maps. Third, maps function as and use technicalities. This means that they seem to convey neutral knowledge and information. However, we argue, they should be understood as rendering political projects neutral, apolitical, and scientific.

A central technicality on maps has been the use of ‘blank spaces’. Blank spaces became increasingly popular on European maps in the late eighteenth and during the nineteenth century, mainly to depict areas outside of Europe. They create the impression that one can clearly distinguish between ‘knowledge’ (‘filled’ on maps) and ‘non-knowledge’ (‘blank’). However, blank spaces also suggest that the areas of ‘non-knowledge’ consist of free, colonisable ‘no-man’s land’. We study the use of blank spaces on the basis of archival material of the mapmaking activities and writings of cartographers at Justus Perthes press in Gotha, which figured during the second half of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century as the leading German-language publisher of cartographic material, both of European and non-European territories. With the academic discipline of geography hardly established at that time, cartographic presses became throughout Europe the leading ‘centres of calculation’ when it comes to the collection, evaluation, and distribution of geographical knowledge and expertise. As such, we argue some of the cartographic work of the Perthes firm needs to be seen in connection with the German colonial movement – sometimes as a reflection, sometimes as a driving force. We underline this by studying two different episodes and their related projects at Justus Perthes.

From ‘Unknown Land’ to ‘No Man’s Land’: The Use of Blank Spaces in Africa

The first episode concerns the use of blank spaces on maps of the interior of Africa and is linked to an enlightenment-driven project in the Humboldtian tradition to explore ‘unknown’ territories. For example, blank spaces depicting the interior of Arica featured prominently on, the Stieler-Hand Atlas, one of the most successful cartographic projects at Justus Perthes. The atlas was famous for its up-to-dateness, guaranteed through regular instalments with updates, and its accuracy. It achieved its precision on the one hand by including numerous details, but also by using blank spaces. Blank spaces functioned to separate the ‘known’ from the ‘unknown’, thereby giving more authority to what is ‘known’. However, knowledge was far more precarious, as the imaginary of scientific accuracy and objectivity suggests. For instance, maps of Africa in the Stielers Hand-Atlas, as many nineteenth-century maps throughout Europe, include an extensive mountain range called the Mountains of the Kong, dividing the continent between north and south. The mountains, however, were imaginary: the Mountains of Kong never existed. Their use on numerous maps is based on the fact that European mapmakers believed in precocious European sources, often from antiquity, rather than non-European ones.

From the mid-nineteenth century onwards, and associated with the cartographer August Petermann, the Justus Perthes press started to organise various expeditions on its own, including the so-called Inner-Africa Expedition (Deutsche Inner-Afrika Expedition,1860-1863). The aim of the expedition was to explore the last ‘unknown’ areas in the interior of Africa. Even though most participants died during the expedition, Petermann considered it a success as it revealed ‘favourable natural conditions’ in this ‘“no man’s land” to which any European power could extend its hand’. Moreover, Petermann presented this expedition as a contribution to a ‘German science’, which would help to create a German nation-state and for which Germany, as other European empires, would need colonial spaces outside of Europe.

Mapping Pan-German Colonial Imaginaries: The ‘Colonies in the East’

The second episode takes place in the Kaiserreich, established in 1871 under Prussian leadership. Justus Perthes published between 1893 and 1897 the Deutscher Kolonial-Atlas (German Colonial Atlas), one of the first atlases dedicated to the newly established German colonial empire. It was designed and edited by Paul Langhans, a representative of the emerging ethno-nationalist völkische Bewegung and a member of its principal organisation, the Pan-German League (Alldeutscher Verband). While the atlas features, on the one hand, official colonies in Africa, Asia, and Oceania, which had been ‘acquired’ by Germany during the previous decade, it contains ‘significant anomalies’: it starts in Europe and constructs the European East as a colonial space in its own. For Langhans, these ‘Colonies in the East’ represent the ‘authentic’ German colonial space. He redefines here the concept of colonialism by introducing the notion of Germandom (Deutschtum), which is linked to a mythical history of a German Volk. Thereby, Langhans separates between two colonial projects, one driven bythe recently established Kaiserreich and one by the Volk. In this narrative, Germans were involved in ‘century-long colonial activities’ in the European East, building a ‘damn’ against the danger of a ‘Slavic flood’.

Blank spaces play a pivotal role within the Deutscher Kolonial-Atlas and other cartographic publications by Langhans. Whereas earlier maps of Africa were topographic, Langhans’s maps of the European East are ethnographic maps. These maps often depict the East of Europe as a vast blank space, interrupted only by smaller coloured areas, which are claimed to depict contemporary and historical ‘German colonial settlements’. Combined with other technologies of power, such as statistics, these blank spaces create the illusion of a free colonisable space in the European East.

The two examples of blank spaces, one in Africa and one in the East of Europe, demonstrate how the hierarchisation of knowledge made local knowledge and population invisible within maps. In maps of Africa, blank spaces were used to create an imaginary of ‘scientific progress’ and to differentiate between what is ‘known’ and what is ‘unknown’ to ‘the European’. Yet, knowledge was far more precarious. For instance, indigenous knowledge was excluded from maps, while, at the same time, European speculation about imaginary mountains could be included. Thus, the use of blank spaces in these maps exemplifies how ‘cartographic science became, within the European discourse, a crucial marker of difference between Europeans (the knowing Self) and non-Europeans (the un-knowing Other)’. Such a dynamic of the hierarchisation of knowledge continues in our second example of the ‘translation’ of a völkisch-nationalistic programme into cartographic products. In these maps, ‘cartographic violence’ of imperial and colonial mapping becomes visible as large populations of the East of Europe are actively written ‘off the map’. The two examples illustrate how the hierarchisation of knowledge was visualised in maps to make ‘other’ forms of knowledge and ‘foreign’ population invisible.


We believe that our contribution also draws attention to broader implications when engaging with the making of the international. First, it emphasises that focusing on one analytic bifurcation runs the danger of overlooking important connections, entanglements, events, and hierarchies. Instead, it is important to broaden the perspective by investigating different analytic bifurcations and their interplay. In our article, for example, we have explored how multiple hierarchies link spaces and processes, which have been traditionally taken as being separated and isolated. Second, it draws attention to dynamics in ‘spaces’ beyond predefined ‘metropoles’ and ‘colonies’. This enables to study relations between differently constructed spaces such as East/West, Europe/non-Europe, or inside/outside. It thereby highlights how these imaginaries produced space through the employment of technologies of power but also how these technologies produced these spatial imaginaries in the first place.

Want to know more? You can read the full article at DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0260210523000050

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Top image from the Pan-German Atlas, Justus Perthes press, 1900