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Geography in Germany

Elmar Kulke, Sebastian Lentz et Ute Wardenga
p. 81-95

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A brief history of geographical associations in Germany

1The current organisational structure of German geographical associations is the result of the not always conflict-free development of representation of interests.

2The oldest association is the Association of German Geography Teachers, which was founded in 1912. Its early years were characterised by considerable advertising and publicity and numerous discussions on the status of geography in schools, and of curricula suited to the various school types. These debates were dominated by different groups (Brogiato, 1998, pp. 337-347). When the association argued for an upgrading of political geography at the outbreak of the First World War and called for a politicised geography, departing from contemporary positivist scientific ideals, it found itself in opposition to university geography. Hitherto largely inactive in associations, university geographers now found themselves confronted with the strongly represented school geographers, who vigorously demanded that university geography research adapt to the needs of geography in schools (Brogiato, 1998, p. 375-386) and confidently assumed dominance within the discipline in matters of policy. The foundation of the University Association of German Professors of Geography in June 1925 was therefore born of the necessity to deflect the demands made by the school geographers. In the years up to the Nazi seizure of power, the University Association of German Professors of Geography initiated its own debate on the role of geography in schools, in an attempt to challenge the position of the school geographers, but developed into a more general platform for determining positions on methodology and the content of research. In 1934, both associations were brought into line by the Nazis, offering practically no resistance, and in the 1930s they became a platform for the Nazi ideologization of geography (Schelhaas, 1997 ; Schelhaas/Hönsch, 2001). The attempts made from 1941 on to unite all German geographers under the umbrella organisation of a German Geographical Society were unsuccessful, but led to renewed self-confidence within the University Association of German Professors of Geography, which was built on after the collapse of the Third Reich in 1945. From 1951 on, the University Association of German Professors of Geography played a leading role in the the newly founded “Central Association of German Geographers’, which represented the interests of West German geographers after the separation of the two German states.

3From the end of the 1960s, conflicts arose in German universities in the context of general movements towards greater democratisation. As the University Association of German Professors of Geography refused to admit geographers who had not completed a postdoctoral thesis required for qualification as a university lecturer (Habilitation), a growing number of teachers in third level institutions felt themselves to be inadequately represented. Thus, in a social climate open to reform, the Association of German Third Level Geographers (VDHG) and the University Association for Geographical Education in Germany (HGD) were founded in 1970/71. The VDHG, initially conceived of as a temporary solution for middle level geography lecturers who had not completed their Habilitation, concentrated on encouraging the scientific and pedagogic development of geography, the continuous exchange of ideas and information as well as regular information of its members and general publicity for the subject (Sedlacek et al., 1979).

4Likewise, since the early 1970s the University Association for Geographical Education in Germany (HGD), mediating between the specific interests of scientific geography and school geography, has sought to raise awareness by discussing new fields of research, and has especially worked for further improvement in teacher training and the development of an independent area of research into the teaching of the subject (Haubrich, 2001).

5As early as 1950 there was a body to represent the needs of all applied geographers - the Association of German Professional Geographers - renamed in 1980 as the German Association for Applied Geography (DVAG). Its activities, aimed at closer co-operation between the practice of geography and geographical research, initially concentrating on the introduction of separate Diplom (primary university qualification in Germany) courses in geography, were prompted both by the growing requirements faced by professional spatial planning, as well as being a reflection of existing efforts in the German Democratic Republic to broaden horizons for a course of study hitherto solely oriented towards teacher training, in a rapidly modernising world (Marquardt-Kuron/Klecker, 2000 ; Von Rohr, 2000 ; Schelhaas, 2000).

6In contrast to the highly fragmented structure in the Federal Republic of Germany, the German Democratic Republic had a unified representation of geographers in the Geographical Society of the GDR, founded in 1953, which in subsequent decades proved to be an effective instrument of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) (Schelhaas, 2003). The Society was answerable to the GDR State Office (later Ministry) for Universities and Technical Colleges. The Society’s activities were concentrated in the local sections during its first decade. Here, numerous lectures and field trips aimed at a general audience as well as teacher training seminars dominated. In the 1960s, the Society’s emphasis shifted to the five sections of Physical Geography, Economic Geography, Geography in Schools, Cartography and Professional Geography. The Geographical Society of the GDR reached a wider public through geographical congresses, specialised conferences, seminars, field trips and especially its publications (Geographical Reports, Petermann’s Geographical Bulletins, Proceedings of the Geographical Society of the GDR etc.). The Geographical Society’s history was coloured by SED policies and international joint policy shaped by the Cold War, which from the 1960s on led to the development of two opposing political systems and two different geographies in both the German states. The collapse of the GDR heralded the end of the Geographical Society, which was disbanded in 1991 and became part of a new common representation of German geography.

The German Society for Geography and its subsidiary associations

7With the reunification of Germany the issue of the establishment of an effectively organised general association arose again in the early 1990s. After attempts in the mid-1970s to found an umbrella organisation in the Federal Republic had failed following years of acrimonious debates, it was now possible to create the necessary foundations for the reform of the complicated structure of geographical associations in Germany, which was most ineffective compared to international examples (Ehlers, 1992). The fusion of both third level associations in 1991 to form the Association of Geographers in German Universities (VGDH) was an important precedent for the foundation of the German Society for Geography (DGfG) in 1995 as an umbrella organisation to further the common interests of all geographers working in Germany. Previous presidents of the German Society for Geography were : Günter Heinritz (1995-1997, Technische Universität München), Hans H. Blotevogel (1997-1999, Universität Duisburg), Manfred Meurer (1999-2001, Technische Universität Karlsruhe) and Peter Meusburger (2001-2003, Universität Heidelberg). The current president is Elmar Kulke, Humboldt-Universität Berlin.

8The DGfG ( represents the interests of more than 30,000 geographers working in universities, schools and in practical fields in the Federal Republic of Germany. It organises the Geographentag (Geography Congress) which takes place every two years and which, depending on the venue, is attended by ca. 2,000 geographers mainly from Germany, Austria and Switzerland. The Society works to communicate the significance of geography as a school subject, academic discipline and practical discipline to the public. It also makes available information on current research and identifies new fields of geographical research. Its publicity emphasises synergies between the specialised associations. The efficient and rapid transfer of geographical knowledge and new innovative research and applied approaches is of central significance, and is facilitated by ca. 40 working groups which are attached to the DGfG (Karrasch, 1998).

9Four specialised associations are under the umbrella of the DGfG : the Verband der Geographen an Deutschen Hochschulen e.V. / Association of Geographers in German Universities (VGDH), the Deutsche Verband für Angewandte Geographie e.V. / German Association for Applied Geography (DVAG), the Hochschulver­band für Geographie und ihre Didaktik e.V. / University Association for Geographical Education in Germany (HGD) and the Verband Deutscher Schulgeographen e.V. / Association of German Geography Teachers (VDSG) (see fig. 1).

Figure 1. Institutional structure of German geography.

Figure 1. Institutional structure of German geography.

Association of Geographers in German Universities (VGDH)

10The geographers in universities and other third level institutions are organised in the Association of Geographers in German Universities ( vgdh). The association represents the interests of ca. 800 geographers in third-level institutions and publishes the Rundbrief (Circular) six times a year. This much-read “Newsletter” contains information and reports pertaining to the association itself, the IGU National Committee, individual geography departments and the various working groups. Announcements of planned conferences, job advertisements, reports on recently published books, on funding and commentaries on current developments in the university discipline are also to be found here.

11The VGDH can establish working groups dedicated to specific themes in research and teaching. These working groups are a forum for intensive co-operation among scientists working in one area. The members and interested guests of the working groups usually meet one or more times a year for lectures and discussions. The results of their research are also presented in journals, series and monographs. More than 30 working groups are dedicated to specialised areas of geography (e.g. soil studies, hydrology, the geography of trade, economic geography) as well as regional studies (e.g. low mountain areas, Central Europe, Southeast Asia). The working groups have proved their usefulness in the areas of intra- and interdisciplinary exchange and as a basis for the development of research projects spread over several universities.

German Association for Applied Geography (DVAG)

12Geographers in “applied geography”, i.e. in businesses, consultancies, planning and public administration, can become members of the German Association for Applied Geography with a total of ca. 1,500 members ( dvag/). This association also admits students. The DVAG’s activities take place mainly in the so-called DVAG-fora and DVAG working groups. The fora address relevant issues in a broad range of events and activities. They provide a platform for discussion for DVAG members and members of the public in the regions. They also play an important role in maintaining contact with and among members and in an advisory faculty. The DVAG working groups deal with current themes and specific issues and topics. They have a professional advisory function, co-ordinate thematically linked research, develop policy statements and organise events which give the impetus for new developments in geography. The working groups are a professional network for DVAG members and represent the association’s professional standards. The DVAG edits the journal Standort – Zeitschrift für angewandte Geographie / Location – Journal for Applied Geography (since 1977) and the series Material zur Angewandten Geographie / Materials in Applied Geography, both of which deal with current issues. The DVAG regularly organises professional conferences and workshops, is involved in professional issues, publishes statements on spatially significant projects and laws and works to raise awareness of Applied Geography through the media.

13University Association for Geo­graphical Education in Germany (HGD)

14The association’s aim is to encourage the further development of geography didactics in research and teaching, including university level and the further training of teachers ( Of its ca. 260 members, about 60 % work in universities and 40 % in teacher training. The University Association for Geographical Education in Germany has edited a quarterly journal Geographie und ihre Didaktik / Geography and its Didactics since 1973, which serves primarily as a forum for information and discussion within the subject, where conceptual and stimulating teaching suggestions are published, new developments in the subject are discussed and the state of didactic research analysed. Since 1977, the series Geographiedidak­tische Forschungen / Research in Geographical Didactics has also appeared regularly, with one or two volumes per year devoted to specialised themes and where the proceedings of conferences and symposia organised by the association are published.

Association of German Geography Teachers (VDSG)

15Geography teachers in schools are members of the Association of German Geography Teachers (www.erdkunde. com), which represents geography teachers from all school types and areas of education. It works to further the teaching of geography and supports geographical education and environmental awareness. It has more than 5,000 members organised in 16 regional associations, some of which also have district and local groups. This association is responsible for the Schulgeographentag (School Geography Congress) which takes place in different locations every two years, alternating with the general Geographentag. It also organises seminars for teachers, addresses pedagogic, didactical and methodological issues in the teaching of geography and organises competitions in geographical knowledge in schools, e.g. in the context of Jugend forscht / Young Scientists, Bundesumweltwettbewerb / Federal En­vironment Competition or Geographie-Wissen / Geographical Knowledge. As well as statements on special occasions, the management committee publishes the series Schriften / Reports and the regional associations publish Mitteilungsblätter / Bulletins.

16All four associations under the umbrella of the DGfG have, together with the Geographical Societies (see below), contributed significantly to a positive change in public perception of the subject. In comparison with the 1970s, for example, the general social importance of geography is now accepted without query, especially its analytical contribution to the critical reflection of spatially relevant thought.

The role of geography in education, on the labour market and in public awareness

Geography in schools and universities


17There are about 20,000 geography teachers in German schools. They teach a subject which imparts local awareness as well as knowledge and understanding of the wider world, and which pays much attention to the pupils’ rapidly changing life realities. School geography aims at the development of a broad spectrum of personal, social and methodological skills. These include not only topographical knowledge, awareness and understanding of spatial structures, of spatially relevant processes, of global, regional and local contexts and interrelations, but also an openness to ethical categories, the ability to accept responsibility for shaping the living conditions of future generations, a willingness to participate in processes of sustainable development, respect for the equal rights of all people and the readiness to uphold human rights and to recognize the equal value of all peoples and cultures. Geography teaching plays a special role in imparting skills to view media and methodology critically. This includes the ability to use verbal, visual, quantitative and symbolic information forms in an informed way, the capacity to deal efficiently with modern information and communciation technology and the acquisition of skills in applying learning strategies, in order to be able to independently acquire new knowledge for the rest of one’s life (Arbeitsgruppe, 2002).

18Unfortunately, the actual standing of the subject does not correspond to its potential (Richter, 1998). Although geography is taught as a separate subject, mainly at lower and middle level (Grades 5 to 10), it is only a so-called “subsidiary” subject, i.e. written class tests are not compulsory. The teaching time also varies : in some grades two hours are allowed for, in others only one and there are even grades where no geography classes are given. At senior school level it is only taught if the pupils choose it as a subject for the Abitur (school leaving examination).

19In the context of discussions tending towards the general reduction of the curriculum, a strong trend can also be observed towards integrating geographical content into other subjects and to link subjects in teaching. Thus, for example, the regional geography of Great Britain, the USA or Australia, or other countries where a modern lingua franca is spoken, is integrated into the respective language classes (English, French, Italian, Spanish, Russian etc.). Elements of physical geography are now frequently taught in the course of physics, chemistry and biology classes, aspects of economic geography find a place in social studies and the newly-established subject of economics. Issues relating to development problems are increasingly integrated into religion classes. Thus, the number of teaching hours with geographical content has risen on the whole in recent years, but this geographical content is often taught by non-geographers, a problem clearly identified and strongly criticised by the VDSG and the DGfG.

Universities and other third-level institutions

20In Germany there are currently about 24,000 students of geography in courses leading to various degrees and qualifications (teacher training, Diplom, Magister Artium or Bachelor’s resp. Master’s degrees). Because of the range of degrees and orientation to different professional areas, there is much variety in the geography courses offered in teacher training colleges, universities and technological universities, some of which result from regional regulations, as education is a responsibility of the Länder (federal states) (Heinritz/Wießner, 1997). The growing specialisation and profile-building of departments has led to differentiation in the students’ emphasis and specialisation ; moreover a geography degree can gain further individual character through the choice of various secondary subjects from technology, the sciences, the arts, social sciences or cultural sciences. As a rule, the study of geography is not very “directed” or structured, a fact often criticised by the students ; in all degree courses it is possible to choose fairly freely specialisations corresponding to individual interests.

21There are a total of more than 60 institutions devoted to teaching and research in geography (see fig. 2). They vary greatly in size, from only three lecturers (e.g. Karlsruhe, Stuttgart) to more than 15 (e.g. Bayreuth, Bonn). Associated with the lecturing posts are usually further posts for assistant lecturers (generally between 2 and 4 per lecturing post). All departments teach human geography, physical geography and methods in geography in the foundation courses for students (usually the first four semesters). In the senior courses, specialisation takes place according to the research fields of the lecturers and the complementary subjects available in the respective universities (e.g. geology, social sciences, regional economics). The degree is usually awarded in geography, sometimes supplemented by the specialisation. The subject is popular, so that most departments have entry limitations. The relatively broad range of choice of specialisation means that comparatively few break off their studies, while also leading to a relatively long duration of studies (as a rule 12 semesters), more than the average of 9 semesters. For all degrees an independent piece of research must be completed (which usually takes about 6 months). Good organisation, the ability to carry out independent research, a good knowledge of empirical methodolgy and presentation techniques are key qualifications acquired by the students, as well as spatial competence and geographical knowledge.

Figure 2. German universities with departments/chairs of geography and geography related research institutes in 1998/99.

Figure 2. German universities with departments/chairs of geography and geography related research institutes in 1998/99.

22The Leibniz-Institut für Länderkunde / Leibniz-Institute of Regional Geography (, re-founded in Leipzig in 1992, plays a special role as the only non-university geography research institute in Germany. It is supported equally by the Federal Government and the Free State of Saxony. The Institute carries out comparative regional geographical studies in Europe, especially in Eastern Europe, as well as research into theory, methodology and the history of geography. The Institute has also made a name for itself in recent years with the transfer of specialised knowledge, for example, with the editorship of the Nationalatlas Bundesrepublik Deutschland (National Atlas of the Federal Republic of Germany). The IfL also plays a role as a mediator between international and German scientists with a scholarship programme for young international geographers, and tries to create a platform for the discussion of current research trends.

Geographers on the labour market

23In the last thirty years, German-speaking geography has changed greatly. Initially it was a subject primarily devoted to training teachers, and university teaching thus remained tied to the needs of school geography which centred around regional geography. Since the 1970s, with the establishment of Diplom courses at a broad level, applied, problem-oriented and theoretically underpinned approaches have come to the foreground. At the same time, student numbers have risen from 10,000 to 24,000. However, in comparison to law with 110,000 students, and economics with 240,000 students, geography can by no means be described as a “mass” subject (Klemme/Monheim/ Stegen, 2000, p. 50). In Diplom courses alone there are 1,400 new students every year ; a considerable rise in unemployment among Diplom graduates to 20 % in the mid-1980s was only temporary ; the current figure of 1,400 Diplom graduates in geography registered as unemployed is a relatively low figure in comparison to 18,000 unemployed economists, 3,000 psychologists, 2,500 political scientists and sociologists, as well as 6,000 unemployed architects and engineers, given the difficult employment situation in general (ibid).

24As a rule, geography Diplom graduates prove to be flexibly and broadly oriented in the search for employment. While in the 1970s and 1980s they generally found work in public services, today many are employed in the private sector, with an emphasis on the property sector, locational consultancy and business promotion, in market research, advertising, communications, publishing, tourism and financial services. Important market segments are also environmental research and consultancy, as well as IT, GIS, remote sensing and environmental analysis. Growing numbers of younger geographers set up their own businesses.

25The relatively good position of geographers can be explained by their broad educational base, which continues to be a factor in spite of many chances for specialisation, their wide range of skills, flexibility, and the ability to learn new skills and adapt to new subjects quickly. Also, students are encouraged to become involved in professional practice during their studies through work experience units ; not infrequently this leads to the development of contacts with potential employers which can be used to find a foothold in the professional world. Furthermore, snowball and network effects develop. When geographers work well, employers become more open to the possibility of employing more geographers ; self-employed geographers themselves often employ other geographers. Thus, there is confirmation that the application-oriented courses lead to a useful qualification, while geographers’ pronounced adaptability to the requirements of the labour market have prevented the development of a firm professional image of geographers and their abilities among the public and such an image is only slowly emerging.

Geography in public awareness

26According to a survey on the status of geographers carried out by H. Köck among persons working in politics, the economy, education and research, the media, the church and parents, as well as relevant associations, geography has quite a positive public image (Köck, 1996). With regards to academic standards, achievements and significance as well as tasks and contents, geography teaching was evaluated almost entirely positively. The students of other subjects also see the subject as more interesting, more modern and more useful than their fellow students of geography suppose (Klee/Piotrowsky-Fichtner, 2003). In comparison to a study carried out in 1969, where 27 % of students in various disciplines wished that geography could be abolished in schools, only 5 % think so today. Only 13 % find today’s geography teaching unproductive ; school experience of geography is often a prime motive for taking the subject in university (Klemme/Monheim/Stegen, 2000, p. 51).

27Nevertheless, the public image of geography in Germany is still somewhat diffused, as manifested by its frequent confusion with geology, cartography, topography, sociology and political science (Monheim/ Schwarte/Winkelkötter, 1999). Although geography is not yet adequately reflected in the media, in comparison to history, for example (however there is an annual average of 1,200 press reports relating to geography in Germany ; see Klemme/Monheim/ Stegen, 2000, p. 50), the work of practising geographers in particular has contributed greatly to raising public awareness of the subject and has helped to question many existing prejudices. This also seems to have led to growing interest in geographical issues in recent years. In 26 locations in Germany this interest is served by Geographical Societies, especially by means of slide shows and lectures. The transfer of geographical knowledge from the universities to the public by these means has contributed considerably to the critical and competent imparting of geographical knowledge to a wider audience and thus plays an important role in the sensitisation of the public in issues of spatial planning, environmental conflicts and the socio-cultural compatability of developments on our earth at a global, regional and local level.

28Although the German Society for Geography (DGfG) sees room for improvement, geography is generally doing well in Germany, not least because energy which used to be dissipated because of the former fragmentation of interests, can now be used for the implementation of common aims and for the formation of a subject that once again more confidently views its own social relevance.

Deutsche Gesellschat für Geographie

Deutsche Gesellschaft für Geographie (DGfG)
Geographisches Institut der Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
Unter den Linden 6 (Sitz : Rudower Chaussee 16), D-10099 Berlin


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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. Institutional structure of German geography.
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Titre Figure 2. German universities with departments/chairs of geography and geography related research institutes in 1998/99.
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Légende Deutsche Gesellschaft für Geographie (DGfG)Geographisches Institut der Humboldt-Universität zu BerlinUnter den Linden 6 (Sitz : Rudower Chaussee 16), D-10099 Berlin
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Légende H.-H. Blotevogel
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Légende G. Heinritz
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Légende M. Meurer
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Légende E. Kulke
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Elmar Kulke

Geographisches Institut der Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Unter den Linden 6, D – 10099 Berlin,

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Sebastian Lentz

Leibniz-Institut für Länderkunde, Schongauerstraße 9, D – 04329 Leipzig,

Ute Wardenga

Leibniz-Institut für Länderkunde, Schongauerstraße 9, D – 04329 Leipzig,

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