The French Mental Mapping of East Central Europe and the Pursuit of France’s Milieu Goals (1871-1925)

  • Abstract:
    After the defeat of Sedan in 1871 and the crumbling of its Second Empire, France entered a stage of European diplomatic isolation. If the political leadership of the newly established Third Republic seemed more keen in steering France towards colonial expansion a handful of French scholars were starting to look East Central Europe both in a scientifically and geopolitical manner.
    The search for allies in counterbalancing the German continental hegemony awoke these scholars’ interest in the nations of East Central Europe, many of them still under foreign rule. It will be the merit of an entire generation of scholars to reinitiate a complex and decades-long process of mental mapping this region in hope of reviving the traditional alliance de revers. They will be among the first not only claiming, but also articulating the fact that the milieu goals of French foreign policy are linked to this region. In their interest towards East Central Europe, they will be joined by leading geographers like Vidal de la Blache, the founder of the French geopolitical school, latter knows as possibilism.
    However, only during the First World War, in the aftermath of Czarist Russia’s collapse, French politicians, diplomats and military leaders started to perceive these nations as potential allies. During the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, the junction between the scholarly expertise and the new diplomatic ambitions of France will establish East Central Europe not only as a mental map for French foreign policy milieu goals but also as epistemological embodiment of possibilism.
    The purpose of this contribution is to explain the origins, the main actors and the distinct features of the mental mapping process the led to the reviving of French interest in this region, first through the lenses of dedicated scholars and eventually through the strategies of foreign policy makers.