Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Prelude to Brazil: Leo Waibel's American Career as a Displaced Scholar

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Prelude to Brazil: Leo Waibel's American Career as a Displaced Scholar

Article excerpt

If you, Herr Dean [of the Philosophical Faculty of the University of Bonn], have posted a copy of your communication to me on the bulletin board of your university, it would gratify me to have this reply of mine receive the same honour. Perhaps some member of the university, some student or professor, may be visited by a sudden fear ... on reading a document which gives him in his disgracefully enforced isolation a brief glimpse of the free world of the intellect that still exists outside.

--Thomas Mann, 1937 (1)

In her reflections on the experience of editing the Geographical Review for thirty years, a period that took this journal from its infancy to becoming "an internationally respected medium of scholarly expression" (Fairchild 1976, 331), Gladys Wrigley clarified to the readership that her editorial policy had made a point of seeking out provocative material, claiming that this journal dealt largely with enigmas. (2) She turned then within her examples from 1951 to the German geographer Leo Waibel (1888-1951) and his assertion of the need to develop a specific discipline within geography dealing with the special nature of the tropics: "What is true of the temperate zones is not necessarily true of the tropics" (Waibel 1948, 554). Following his rich field experiences in Brazil in the years 1946-1950, the future of the tropics as a home to an increasing share of humankind was something very much on Waibel's mind in the final year of his life. He expressed specifically his feeling of compulsion to write more than to teach. But with what Wrigley termed his "untimely death" in September 1951, the world was robbed of "an ardent investigator of geographical enigmas" (Wrigley 1952, 522).

Waibel is a rare figure in the history of twentieth century geography in that he held important positions of different kinds in three different countries. His first career, until pensioned off from the University of Bonn by the government of Nazi Germany in 1937, followed the conventional lines of continental European geography of his era. It was tightly linked at first with the colonial impulses of imperial Germany, involving extensive fieldwork in Africa. There followed a second phase of exile in the United States, which was divided between university teaching and government research work. Waibel was the last academic on the payroll of President Franklin Roosevelt's "M" Project (1941-1945), which undertook research in secret, evaluating settlement possibilities at the world level for people displaced by war (Field 1962; Martin 1980, 135-137; Smith 2003; Price 2008, 122-136; Martin 2015, 956-967). Waibel's late involvement may be linked at least in part with the fact that he had no clear way forward in the United States with the return of peace. At age fifty-eight, he accepted an invitation to undertake contract research for Brazil's Conselho Nacional de Geografia (CNG), a federal government agency established in 1937 in an effort to coordinate regional planning, most particularly in connection with efforts to boost the development of the country's still thinly settled interior. The context and impact of Waibel's research in Brazil, Africa, and Germany have become a recent focus of renewed research within German geography (Schenk 2013). The present paper treats the still under-researched part of his career within the United States, where the current state of knowledge can only be described as weak. For example, a recent inference that Waibel "emigrated" directly from Germany to the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1941 misses the fact that he was resident in the United States from 1939 onwards (Williams 2014, 70). Another authority mistakenly claims that Carl Sauer employed Waibel within the University of California, Berkeley, during World War II (Caviedes 2005, 46, 48, 54). While Sauer and Waibel each admired the intellect of the other, their personalities were very far from in harmony. These slips are indicative of the need to clarify further the nature of the life and work of a distinguished European intellectual in exile and that is the main objective of the present paper, one made by using a broad Atlanticist approach (Figure 1). …

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