Riccardo Bavaj

The Spatiality of Ideas: Ernst Fraenkel, Richard Löwenthal, and the ‘Westernization’ of Political Thought


‘Space is now the final frontier for intellectual history’, writes David Armitage in a recently published volume on Rethinking Modern European Intellectual History. While intellectual historians for the past two centuries have been preoccupied by ‘historicizing conceptions of time’, they are now confronted, according to Armitage, with the challenge of ‘historicizing conceptions of space’. To be sure, the field of intellectual history has never been devoid of spatial matters, but neither has it provided fertile ground for research on spatio-political ideas or for an understanding of ideas as spatially bounded and constituted. Of course, the days when historians treated ideas as free-floating and disembodied entities have long been over, but the mantra to tackle ideas in their historical contexts has, until recently, rarely translated into a greater attention to the spatiality of ideas. It is only now, with a growing discussion across disciplines on a ‘reassertion of space’ (Edward Soja), that historians start thinking about ways of how to ‘spatialize intellectual history’ (John Randolph). My paper uses a case study to suggest ways of how to analyse the spatiality of ideas. It draws on two of my main research areas, the history of academics in the twentieth century and the history of ‘the West’ as a socio-political concept. Specifically, it examines two rémigré scholars, Ernst Fraenkel (1898-1975) and Richard Löwenthal (1908-1991), both of whom through exile and remigration transformed into ardent supporters of ‘Western democracy’ and embarked on a mission to ‘Westernize’ the Federal Republic’s political culture. My paper addresses three guiding questions: First, in what ways did the political thought of these two scholars spatialize, i.e. either appropriate or modify spatio-political frameworks? Second, which spatial contexts and scales of reference were key to this transformation? Third, what were the conduits through which both scholars channeled their ideas, or, put differently, what were the spaces of communication in which their ideas were supposed to reverberate? While the first question relates to the now booming field of mental mapping, the latter two questions are geared towards the mapping of routes and places of intellectual transfer and the ‘uneven movement of ideas over space’ (Charles W.J. Withers).