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Historical Geography in Germany in the tension between basic research and practical orientation

Winfried Schenk


Until the 1960s the historical-genetic approach formed the core of geographical research in Germany. In the aftermath of a scientistic turning point of Geography in the 1970s some of its research questions were regarded as to less problem-oriented and socially irrelevant. In order to maintain the historical-genetic approach two strategies were pursued in Germany: An interdisciplinary strategy and a strategy oriented towards Geography.
The former implied a certain independence of the historical-geographic working scholars from German Geography concerning their approach, field of work and organisation of research. This is epitomized by the foundation of the Working Group for Historical Cultural Landscape Research (ARKUM e.V.) in 1974 where the term ‘cultural landscape’, which was strongly questioned within Geography, still embraced space-oriented approaches from archaeology, history and historically oriented Geography. Since 1983, the results of this collaboration are published in the journal
Siedlungsforschung – Archäologie – Geschichte – Geographie (‘Settlement Research – Archaeology – History – Geography’).
The latter, towards Geography oriented strategy, aimed and still aims to maintain especially the historical-genetic approach within Geography. Unlike the Anglo-American Geography, German Historical Geography did not invoke Social Geography. It rather upheld an understanding oriented towards the materiality of cultural landscapes which was evolutionarily connected to classic research approaches. This formed also the basis for the constitution of Applied Historical Geography, conducted particularly in conjunction with heritage preservation. In that respect, issues of environmental education play a central role.
Nowadays, this tension between basic research and application-oriented research is prevalent for the work of Historical Geography in Germany.

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Time and space are basic categories of life. Human existence, social and political structures can therefore be determined by chronology and spatial location. Thus geographical research always has a time dimension (Denecke et Fehn, 1989).

I. Current fields of work

1Within the German-speaking human geography three areas of work have been developed, which were explicitly designed to link the temporal and the spatial dimension (for an overview: Schenk, 2005; 2011; Dix et Schenk, 2011; also Fehn, 2007; Nitz, 1992):

2Historical Geography in the stricter sense is understood as a spatial science that deals with space-related processes of human activity and the resulting spatial structures of the past. Its purpose is to observe, describe and explain the quality – especially of expansion, stagnation, regression or innovation (fig. 1) – and the quantity of relevant economic, social, political, demographic and natural processes in the spatiotemporal differentiation. This also includes the reconstruction of past landscapes and aims for the formulation of rules of spatial and temporal differentiations.

3The goal of genetic cultural landscape research is to explain present spatial structures and processes through time. It does so only as far back in history as there are still references to the present. Mankind as a designer of landscapes is the focus of attention, which can be seen most clearly in the settlements and their surroundings. Genetic settlement research has always been an important area of Historical Geography, especially in the context of regional studies (Fehn, 1975; Born, 1989; Nitz, 1974).

4Applied Historical Geography seeks to implement the findings of these two research approaches primarily in spatial planning, regional development and environmental education. Sustaining development of the historical heritage of cultural landscapes is called Kulturlandschaftspflege (‘preservation of cultural landscape’) (Schenk, Fehn et Denecke, 1997).

Document 1. Tension between basic research and pratical orientation.

Document 1. Tension between basic research and pratical orientation.

II. Disciplinary classification of Historical Geograhy

5The name, ‘Historical Geography’ indicates that it is a sub discipline of Geography which deals with similar topics from a historical point of view. In practice, the goal and the research focus of those who described themselves as historical geographers have changed repeatedly. This also influenced their disciplinary classification in the field of geography. The birth of historical geography in Germany can be placed around 1885, when the ‘Central Commission for Scientific Geography of Germany’ was founded at the German Geographic Convention in Halle (Fehn, 2004). Before 1885 Historical Geography mainly represented historical topography, closely linked to history, especially classical philology, and tried to convey the scene of action to the historian. Typical topics were the discovery and reconstruction of historic battlefields. In the Historical Geography of the Old Mediterranean World (Olshausen, 1991; Sonnabend, 1999), this still persists in the meetings and publications of the Ernst Kirsten Society, also adding historic environmental issues. Although the first professor of Historical Geography in Bonn was Ernst Kirsten who was my pre-predecessor, the overlap between the Historical Geography of the ancient world and my understanding of Historical Geography is only marginally nowadays. Since it mainly evaluates written sources of antiquity and since references to the present are mostly not investigated due to the long interval of time to current environmental conditions, the representatives of the Historische Geographie der Alten Welt (Historical Geography of the Ancient World) classify themselves as belonging to the historical sciences, which is institutionalized as a branch discipline both of geography and of history (Sonnabend, 1999, p. 219). For some time there has been another professorship in Berlin which did research in this field (Geus, 2005).

6In the decades before the First World War numerous publications, both by Historical Geographers and Historians were made on Historical Geography, accompanied by a vivid discussion about the positions and functions of Historical Geography (Fehn, 2013). A contribution titled ‘Sources and basic concepts of the historical geography of Germany and its neighboring countries’ written by the doyen of the country’s history, Rudolf Kötzschke, in 1906 lead the way. His earlier efforts to establish a discipline called Historical Geography and a historical geographical institute in Leipzig in the same year resulted in the foundation of a department for regional history and urban studies so that he left the field of Historical Geography. However, he did not abandon its teaching completely.

7Before 1945 leading scholars of geography and history pursued the idea of Historical Geography as an autonomous subject. However, it was turned into an auxiliary science of the present geography and historical studies. On the one hand, it has become an approach in cultural geography and expressed itself in genetic research of the cultural landscape and settlement ; on the other hand, it has been repeatedly equated with historical cartography (Fehn, 2004). In 1954 Hans Overbeck described this dilemma aptly (quoted in ibid, p. 8):

‘The Historical Geography, which was devotedly fostered by distinguished geographers and historians around the turn of the century, had recognized the need for a synthesis between Geography and History. But they had not yet found the way to a self-consistent scope of work and were limited in research opportunities due to the underdevelopment of scientific methods - this applies both to its geographical as well as to its historical approach. That left Historical Geography to be only an auxiliary science of Geography and History.’

In order to ‘avoid being mistaken for members of a branch of history, many geographers – up to the late 1950s – forbade themselves to talk about Historical Geography’ (Jäger, 1997, p. 345).

8Probably for the first time in the series Das Geographische Seminar (‘The Geographical Seminar’), published in 1969 (second edition in 1973), the book Historische Geographie (‘Historical Geography’) by Helmut Jäger is conceived as an integral part of Geography. According to Jäger it is Geography in the broadest sense while it is related to a historical period.

9Characteristic for the differentiated socialization of this older generation of historically working geographers, however, is the fact that Jäger was a professor of cultural geography in Würzburg and mostly used the term Historical Geography when he spoke of historical-genetic settlement - and (cultural) landscape research, especially in the 1970s. Historical Geography was simply another name for Cultural Geography, resembled by the works of Schlüter (1872-1959; for example Schlüter, 1952-1968; and for his reception in Europe see Ehlers, 2011; and Robert Gradmann, 1865-1950; see for details Schenk, 2002), which, in fact, have primarily understood themselves mainly as regional geographers (in German ‘Landeskundler’) (Denecke, 2005, p. 20). In this cultural and geographical context, the reconstruction of settlement areas in historical eras and the development process of cultural landscapes have been pursued mainly in regional case studies. Specific phases, namely the controlled colonization and decline of settlements (abandoned land), were often examined by this research (see Gebhardt, Glaser et Schenk, 2007, especially p. 123-138). This approach was committed to the traditional cultural landscape concept and it has a stronger focus on rural areas and object-describing (morphographic) as well as shape-forming types in order to derive historical-genetic information from the shape of objects (morphogenesis). As a working method and data base, the combined analysis of archival material and landscape features has been developed more recently, integrating the findings of landscape history methods from natural science. Therefore topographic surveys to systematic inventories of natural objects were very important. Typologies for the description and explanation of the causes and development processes of phenomena, such as farmland and settlement patterns, accrue from the combination with the cultural landscape genesis approach. These are often implemented in distribution maps.

10While this type of historical-genetic Cultural Geography was a core area of ​​geography until the late 1960s, after the scientific turn in geography from the 1970s, however, some of its topics were regarded as too little problem-oriented and it was sometimes even regarded as socially irrelevant. In Germany the end of the dominance of the traditional historically oriented cultural geography is associated with the debates on the Geographen-Tag (National Congress for Geography in Germany) in Kiel in 1969. This process was quite existential for the historical approach in Geography because it meant the secession of the general settlement and Cultural Geography from genetic research and explanation approaches. That was also reflected in the reclassification of professorships for cultural geography to research fields which were seen as more sustainable. Furthermore, from the perspective of the historical-genetic research the disciplinary context is changing even further (Denecke, 2001, p. 273):

  • the breakthrough of the modern settlement archeology, primarily referring to medieval studies, which increasingly took on issues of genetic settlement geography, such as the exploration of deserted villages;

  • the turn away of historical research from landscape-related territorial and settlement research, likewise partly from the Middle Ages as well, to socio-historical problems of the modern era, out of which Environmental History has developed in the long run (Winiwarter et Knoll, 2007).

11In order to maintain the historical-genetic approach, two strategies were pursued: an interdisciplinary approach, as well as an internal geographical approach.

12The interdisciplinary strategy denotes a degree of independence of the historical geographers from the German Geography in its approach, working field and research organization. The establishment of the Arbeitskreis für historische Kulturlandschaftsforschung in Mitteleuropa (ARKUM e.V., ‘Working Group for Historical Cultural Landscape Research in central Europe’), formed in 1974, stands for this because this union, led by its chairman Klaus Fehn who was the head of Historical Geography as a separate course in the Faculty of Philosophy of the University of Bonn until 2001, managed to bring together a group of still historic-genetic working cultural geographers with space-oriented settlement archaeologists and historians (Denecke, 2001). The strongly questioned term ‘landscape’ in the 1970s could not be used as a working title. Hence, they decided to choose a title that highlighted the genetic approach with a focus on settlement. Through this combination many innovative interdisciplinary topics were developed, implemented and their results were presented in annual meetings since 1983. The results were published in the journal Siedlungsforschung (‘Settlement Research - Archaeology - History – Geography’; see for details Denecke, 2001; Fehn, 2003; Gringmuth-Dallmer, 2004). Since 2001 the work is continued by the Arbeitskreis für historische Kulturlandschaftsforschung in Mitteleuropa (ARKUM e.V., Working Group for Historical Cultural Landscape Research). Consequently, cultural landscape forms the bridge between the disciplines (Schenk, 2003). Although it was always the goal to have an influence on Geography the attention to these results remained little.

13The internal geographical strategy aimed and still aims to maintain the historical-genetic approach within the subject of Geography. Apart from the Anglo-American Geography in which the historical genetic approach developed towards a Historical Geography influenced by Social Geography and New Cultural Geography, German Historical Geography maintained its focus on the understanding based on material substances of cultural landscapes. Therefore, it is stronger connected to older research approaches (Fehn, 2007, p. 451, Wardenga, 2006). That was the basis for the teaching of applied Historical Geography, in particular in combination with historical preservation. This was largely happening parallel to the development of applied Geography, of which the Applied Historical Geography is a part. This dominates the work of German Historical Geographers today (for example Burggraaff et Kleefeld, 1998; Weizenegger et Schenk, 2006).

14Applied Historical Geography is the specific response of Historical Geography to the paradigm shift towards Geography as a science with practical orientation (Denecke, 1994). It combines methods and findings, especially the historical-genetic approach to the concerns of the practice, particularly in heritage conservation (Gunzelmann et Schenk, 1999) and spatial planning and regional development (Schenk, 2008). To perform such a task one often has to conduct contract research. Related elements (e.g. deadlines, limited budgeting) may result in higher time constraints and objectively less depth of processing as well as fewer specialist forms of representation (e.g. as a report or ‘grey literature’ for politicians or citizens). Above all, public work and other tasks set the framework, secondary treatment of findings from basic research and the attractive presentation of results – often associated with the presentation of different interests – are decisive. The evaluation criteria and standards are customized for each project and subject to changes in law which may be altered at short intervals.

15In a dynamic field of supply and demand there are mainly three fields of applied work which are closely intertwined in practice in which historical geography has been implemented conceptually and in practical work for years:

  • Planning-related inventories and regionalization of historical cultural landscapes

  • Cultural landscape management as a contribution to spatial planning and

  • Regional development and cooperation in environmental education.


16Nowadays, in German speaking countries the use of the term ‘Historical Geography’ has the function of emphasizing especially the relevance of the historical-geographical approach in the field of geography. In this sense, the author sees himself as a historical geographer. He adopts the views of UK’s leading historical geographers Alan Baker (2003, p. 216) and Robin Butlin (1993), who see Historical Geography firmly rooted in Geography because it ‘is essentially a geographical subject. Its excitements and intellectual possibilities and challenges largely derive from that fact, and it follows logically therefore that space, place, time and scale are critical components of the historical geographer’s thinking and practice’ (Ibid, p. 51). In contrast to the Anglo-American Historical Geography, the German Historical Geography is now dominated by questions of application. This derives from the retention of an object-oriented (morphographic) access in close contact with the preservation of monuments and historic buildings.

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Winfried Schenk, « Historical Geography in Germany in the tension between basic research and practical orientation »Revue de géographie historique [En ligne], 2 | 2013, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2013, consulté le 19 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Winfried Schenk

Professeur des Universités en géographie, Université de Bonn, Allemagne.

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