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Lebensraum (German for "habitat" or literally "living space") served as a major motivation for Nazi Germany's territorial aggression. In his book, Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler detailed his belief that the German people needed Lebensraum (for a Grossdeutschland, "Greater Germany," or land and raw materials), and that it should be taken in the East. It was the stated policy of the Nazis to kill, deport, or enslave the Polish, Russian, and other Slavic populations, whom they regarded as Untermenschen ("inferior peoples"), and to repopulate the land with reinrassig ("pure breed") Germanic peoples. The entire urban population was to be exterminated by starvation, thus creating an agricultural surplus to feed Germany and allowing their replacement by a German upper class.


The idea of a Germanic people without sufficient space dates back to long before Adolf Hitler brought it to prominence. The term Lebensraum, in this sense, was coined by Friedrich Ratzel in 1897, and was used as a slogan in Germany referring to the unification of the country and the acquisition of colonies, based on the English and French models. Ratzel believed that the development of a people was primarily influenced by their geographical situation and that a people that successfully adapted to one location would proceed naturally to another. This expansion to fill available space, he claimed, was a natural and "necessary" feature of any healthy species.[1]

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"Lebensraum" (German for "living space") was a major motivation for Nazi Germany's territorial aggression

These beliefs were furthered by scholars of the day, including Karl Haushofer and Friedrich von Bernhardi. In von Bernhardi's 1912 book, Germany and the Next War, he expanded upon Ratzel's hypotheses and, for the first time, explicitly identified Eastern Europe as a source of new space. According to him, war, with the express purpose of achieving Lebensraum, was a distinct "biological necessity." As he explained with regard to the Latin and Slavic races, "Without war, inferior or decaying races would easily choke the growth of healthy budding elements." The quest for Lebensraum was more than just an attempt to resolve potential demographic problems: It was a "necessary means of defending the German race against stagnation and degeneration."[2]

Lebensraum almost became a reality in 1918, during World War I. The new communist regime of the Soviet Union concluded the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany, ending Russian participation in the war in exchange for the surrender of huge swathes of land, including the Baltic territories, Belarus, Ukraine, and the Caucasus.[3] Only unrest at home and defeat on the Western Front forced Germany to abandon these favorable terms in favor of the Treaty of Versailles, by which the newly acquired eastern territories were sacrificed to new nations such as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and a series of short-lived independent states in Ukraine. The desire for revenge over the loss of territory in the Treaty of Versailles was a key tenet of several nationalist and extremist groups in post-World War I Germany, notably the Nazi Party under Adolf Hitler. There are, however, many historians who dismiss this "intentionalist" approach, and argue that the concept was actually an "ideological metaphor" in the early days of Nazism.[4]

Without consideration of traditions and prejudices, Germany must find the courage to gather our people and their strength for an advance along the road that will lead this people from its present restricted living space to new land and soil, and hence also free it from the danger of vanishing from the earth or of serving others as a slave nation.

The National Socialist Movement must strive to eliminate the disproportion between our population and our area—viewing this latter as a source of food as well as a basis for power politics—between our historical past and the hopelessness of our present impotence.[5]


The Lebensraum ideology was a major factor in Hitler's launching of Operation Barbarossa in June 1941. The Nazis hoped to turn large areas of Soviet territory into German settlement areas as part of Generalplan Ost.[6] Developing these ideas, Nazi theorist Alfred Rosenberg proposed that the Nazi administrative organization in lands to be conquered from the Soviets be based upon the following Reichskommissariats:

  • Ostland (Baltic States, Belarus and eastern Poland),
  • Ukraine (Ukraine and adjacent territories),
  • Kaukasus (Caucasus area),
  • Moskau (the Moscow metropolitan area and adjacent European Russia)

The Reichskommissariat territories would extend up to the European frontier at the Urals. They were to have been early stages in the displacement and dispossession of Russian and other Slav people and their replacement with German settlers, following the Nazi Lebensraum im Osten plans. When German forces entered Soviet territory, they promptly organized occupation regimes in the first two territories—the Reichskomissariats of Ostland and Ukraine. The defeat of the Sixth Army at the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942, followed by defeat in the Battle of Kursk in July 1943, and the Allied landings in Sicily put an end to the plans' implementation.

Historical perspective

Historians debate whether Hitler's position on Lebensraum was part of a larger program of world domination (the so-called "globalist" position) or a more modest "continentalist" approach, by which Hitler would have been satisfied with the conquest of Eastern Europe. Nor are the two positions necessarily contradictory, given the idea of a broader Stufenplan, or "plan in stages," which many such as Klaus Hildebrand and the late Andreas Hillgruber argue lay behind the regime's actions.[7] Historian Ian Kershaw suggests just such a compromise, claiming that while the concept was originally abstract and undeveloped, it took on new meaning with the invasion of the Soviet Union.[8] He goes on to note that even within the Nazi regime, there were differences of opinion about the meaning of Lebensraum, citing Rainer Zitelmann, who distinguishes between the near-mystical fascination with a return to an idyllic agrarian society (for which land was a necessity) as advocated by Darré and Himmler, and an industrial state, envisioned by Hitler, which would be reliant on raw materials and forced labor.[9]

What seems certain is that echoes of lost territorial opportunities in Europe, such as the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, played an important role in the Hitlerian vision for the distant future:

The acquisition of new soil for the settlement of the excess population possesses an infinite number of advantages, particularly if we turn from the present to the future … It must be said that such a territorial policy cannot be fulfilled in the Cameroons, but today almost exclusively in Europe.[10]

In his memoir, Mein Kampf, Hitler expressed his view that history was an open-ended struggle to the death between races. His plan to conquer Lebensraum is closely connected with his racism and social Darwinism. Racism is not a necessary aspect of expansionist politics in general, nor was the original use of the term Lebensraum. However, under Hitler, the term came to signify a specific, racist kind of expansionism.

In an era when the earth is gradually being divided up among states, some of which embrace almost entire continents, we cannot speak of a world power in connection with a formation whose political mother country is limited to the absurd area of five hundred thousand square kilometers (Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf).

Without consideration of traditions and prejudices, Germany must find the courage to gather our people and their strength for an advance along the road that will lead this people from its present restricted living space to new land and soil, and hence also free it from the danger of vanishing from the earth or of serving others as a slave nation (Hitler, Mein Kampf).

For it is not in colonial acquisitions that we must see the solution of this problem, but exclusively in the acquisition of a territory for settlement, which will enhance the area of the mother country, and hence not only keep the new settlers in the most intimate community with the land of their origin, but secure for the entire area those advantages which lie in its unified magnitude (Hitler, Mein Kampf).


  1. Harriet Wanklyn, Friedrich Ratzel: A Biographical Memoir and Bibliography (Cambridge University Press: 1961).
  2. Richard J. Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich (Penguin Press, 2004, ISBN 1594200041), 35.
  3. Treaties of Brest Litovsk History.com. Retrieved September 21, 2016.
  4. Ian Kershaw, The Nazi Dictatorship: Problems & Perspectives of Interpretation, (Oxford University Press, 2000, ISBN 0340760281).
  5. Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf (Houghton Mifflin, 1971, ISBN 0385078016).
  6. Czeslaw Madajczyk, "Die Besatzungssysteme der Achsenmächte. Versuch einer komparatistischen Analyse," Studia Historiae Oeconomicae vol. 14, in Gerd R. Uerbesch and Rolf-Dieter Müller, Hitler's War in the East, 1941-1945: A Critical Assessment (Berghahn Books, 2008, ISBN 1845455010).
  7. Kershaw, 134–137.
  8. Kershaw, 154–155.
  9. Kershaw, 244–245.
  10. Hitler, 138.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Evans, Richard J. The Coming of the Third Reich. Penguin Press, 2004. ISBN 1594200041.
  • Hitler, Adolf. Mein Kampf. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1971. ISBN 0385078016.
  • Kershaw, Ian. The Nazi Dictatorship: Problems & Perspectives of Interpretation, 4th edition. Oxford University Press, 2000. ISBN 0340760281.
  • Smith, Woodruff, D. The Ideological Origins of Nazi Imperialism. Oxford University Press, 1986. ISBN 0195047419.
  • Uerbesch, Gerd R., and Rolf-Dieter Müller. Hitler's War in the East 1941-1945: A Critical Assessment. Berghahn Books, 2008. ISBN 1845455010.
  • Wanklyn, Harriet. Friedrich Ratzel: A Biographical Memoir and Bibliography. Cambridge University Press, 1961. ASIN B0000CL4G8

External links

All links retrieved October 25, 2022.


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