Countries are defined by the lines that divide them. But how are those lines decided — and why are some of them so strange? In Borderlines, Frank Jacobs, author of “Strange Maps: An Atlas of Cartographic Curiosities,” explores the stories behind the global map, one line at a time.
Unless you’re North Korean or Lou Dobbs, you probably don’t think about your country’s borders every day. Yet those borders — or at least their scope — can have a profound effect on how you think about your country and its place in the world.
If you live in a large country, this may give you a certain perspective on, say, matters of land management (“Drill it, build it — we’ve got plenty of space!”) or even global self-confidence (“Shush, or we’ll call in an airstrike”). The same applies, conversely, to living in a small country, which perforce limits the size of your national ambitions (have you ever heard of an Irish space program?) and the weight of your punch on the international stage (hence never any Malawian vetoes on the United Nations Security Council).
Geographical size not only influences how countries view themselves; it also determines how they interact. The wrong mix of sizes can be disastrous for international equilibrium. One could argue, for example, that this was a factor in both world wars. Or as Henry Kissinger succinctly put it: “Poor old Germany. Too big for Europe, too small for the world.”
It was precisely this problem of geopolitical girth that exercised the mind of Leopold Kohr, a 20th-century Austrian academic whose work inspired both modern political anarchism and the Green movement.
Kohr was born in Oberndorf bei Salzburg, an Austrian village directly on the border with Germany, in 1909. After brilliant studies in law and political science at universities in Innsbruck, London and Vienna, in 1937 he became a freelance correspondent from the frontlines of the Spanish civil war. There, he befriended George Orwell and shared a writing desk with Ernest Hemingway. He also experienced first-hand the short-lived anarchist experiments in governance, in Catalonia and elsewhere in republican Spain.
These brief flickers of an idealism that ran counter to an otherwise totalitarian age — crushed between the rock of Communism and the hard place of fascism — would continue to inspire Kohr’s writing and thinking. Barely escaping the Nazi takeover of Austria in 1938, Kohr fled to America. After a brief stint working in a Canadian gold mine, he made his way down to the United States and a resumption of his academic career.
The guiding principle of Kohr’s work was, like that of his friend the economist E.F. Schumacher, “Small is beautiful.” In 1941, while working for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, Kohr wrote, “We have ridiculed the many little states, now we are terrorized by their few successors.”