Lebensraum: Policy or Rhetoric?

Martyn Housden tries to unravel what Hitler really meant when he talked about living space for the German people.

When the Germans talked of Lebensraum, or ‘living space’, they used the term to denote a perceived need to have enough physical room to provide for themselves comfortably. In particular, it identified the possession of enough land to feed a population large enough to ensure Germany a place on the world stage. Hitler did not just start talking about the need to conquer Lebensraum in 1941; its origins lay much further back than even 1939. Anti-Nazi newspaper columnists (for example in Der Deutsche in Polen) observed during the late 1930s that Hitler’s foreign policy involved something more than just planless initiatives, improvisation and contradictory imperatives. They said that its main direction had been well-established during the mid-1920s.

The second volume of Mein Kampf, published in December 1926, contained a chapter entitled ‘Eastern Orientation and Eastern Policy’. Here Hitler outlined his thinking about Russia – ‘the most decisive concern of all German foreign affairs’. Believing that only ‘an adequately large space on this earth assures a nation freedom of existence’, he said it was impossible for a country like Germany, ‘limited to the absurd area of five hundred thousand square kilometres’, ever to attain the status of a world power. Likewise he said there had to be ‘a healthy, viable natural relationship between the nation’s population and growth’ on the one hand, and ‘the quantity and quality of its soil’ on the other. He believed that Germany’s population was far too large for the area which it inhabited, and so the ‘highest aim of foreign policy’ was ‘to bring the soil into harmony with the population’. With the statement that national boundaries are only ‘made by man and changed by man’ he indicated the intention of extending Germany’s frontiers until the nation had a much greater area of land for each of its inhabitants.

Where could Hitler’s country expand? ‘If we speak of soil in Europe today, we can primarily have in mind only Russia and her vassal border states.’ He knew well that Russia’s marches were much more thinly populated than the lands elsewhere in Europe. In addition, of course, Hitler believed that Jews had used the revolution of 1917 to seize control of the Russian empire, and were seeking a base from which to realise ambitions for world domination. Germany, said Hitler, ‘is today the next great war aim’ of the Jewish Bolsheviks. To seize Russia’s lands, therefore, would not only enlarge Germany’s space, it would also remove a threat which he understood to be especially urgent. More pragmatically, Hitler also said that there was no use thinking of entering into a lasting alliance with Russia. Not only were her leaders ‘common blood-stained criminals’, but the presence of Poland (with an invariably hostile government) between the two states meant that, in the event of war, that country would have to be subdued before Russia could come to Germany’s aid. No matter which way Hitler looked at the issue, it made sense for Germany to seize the lands which lay to her East.

Hitler developed the idea in his Second Book, written while he stayed at his mountain retreat on Obersalzberg during the summer of 1928. This started life as an attempt to sharpen further his foreign policy principles, and to explain how the movement should react to Mussolini’s determination to italianise the South Tyrol, where a number of ethnic Germans lived. In the event, the book remained secret until it was discovered by an historian after the Second World War.

Second Book contains a much more pithy and well-rounded statement of Hitler’s views than Mein Kampf. The starting point of his argument was the assumption that people are driven by laws of nature to reproduce and to acquire food. Since the world only has a limited amount of space, and since the number of people inhabiting it is constantly increasing, sooner or later competition between nations for land is inevitable. In this light, history, he argued, is the ‘struggle for daily bread’ between different peoples. Hitler believed Germany’s space was just too small to be viable. For instance, it did not provide protection for the nation, since Polish or Czech bombers could reach Berlin in about an hour’s flying time. French planes could be over the Rhineland’s industry in under half the time.

What was to be done? Hitler identified four options. Germany could do nothing, in which case the initiative would be passed elsewhere with disastrous results. The country could strengthen itself through trade, but in so doing sooner or later would come into conflict with the British empire. It could re-establish its borders of 1914, but Hitler dismissed this possibility as ‘insufficient from a national standpoint, unsatisfactory from a military point of view, [and] impossible from a folkish standpoint’. The final option, and the favoured one, was for Germany to go to war with a ‘clear, far-seeing territorial policy’ which would involve the seizure of land in the East. Specifically, Second Book recommended the acquisition of 500,000 square kilometres of land from Russia’s borders. To put the demand into context, Germany had only lost 70,000 square kilometres by the Treaty of Versailles. If so much land came into German possession, Hitler believed his nation’s people would no longer be forced to work in poorly paid factory jobs. They could emigrate East, colonise the land and live as farmers who would be ready to take up weapons to protect their land from any threat that might appear in the future. War veterans, who fought for this Lebensraum, would receive generous parcels of land once victory was assured.

According to Hermann Rauschning, Hitler returned to this theme in 1932-34. Rauschning was a senior figure in the Nazi movement in Danzig who became disillusioned with the party and left it. What he wrote afterwards has been the subject of much debate. In his recent biography, Ian Kershaw rejects the memoirs Hitler Speaks as thoroughly disreputable. Five years previously, he had, however, accepted that the same book was in line with what we already knew about Hitler. Even if we treat what Rauschning wrote with care, there is no doubting that one passage needs to be recorded here. During a meeting, Rauschning relates that Hitler expressed views vigorously on the radical alteration of the population structures of central and eastern Europe. He called for the creation of a core of 80-100 million Germans who would colonise at least Bohemia, Moravia, western Poland and the Baltic States. He planned to deport the Czechs to Siberia and germanise the Baltic peoples. Any easterners left in the conquered territories would exist as slaves tilling the soil of German overlords. Here was a further vision for the creation of German Lebensraum.

Unlike the contemporary anti-Nazi columnists, after the war Martin Broszat argued that Hitler’s writings and statements did not constitute a programme which directly determined his actions. Rather they provided a series of appealing propaganda images which helped give shape to the Nazi movement and which rallied the support of the nation. Party members could put their differences to one side and dedicate themselves to complete support for an organisation oriented towards a far-sighted vision of territorial conquest; other Germans could feel enthusiasm for the prospect of winning an extensive empire. But was Broszat right?

As sketched out in Mein Kampf, Second Book and Hitler Speaks, the central ideas in Hitler’s thinking form a roughly consistent whole. There is no reason to doubt that Hitler believed the basic model of man which he used to underpin his ideology: i.e. human beings are divided by nationality, require food to live and tend to increase in numbers. The framework he built on this base accords well with what the Führer stood for generally. He certainly was driven by anti-Semitism and anti-Communism. The way he wove additional threads into his doctrine looks basically plausible too. The notion that there could be no lasting alliance with Russia was a logical consequence; and the idea that Germany’s borders could not provide adequately for her defence was understandable given the development of new military technologies and Germany’s restrictions under the Treaty of Versailles.

There is indeed such a crudity about Hitler’s ideas that many readers may remain sceptical about their precise status. But space and the interplay of nationalities had always been a theme integral to Hitler’s life. Born in the multi-racial Habsburg Empire, he started out in an area of Austria which saw numerous Czech migrants. He may himself have had a name (Hitler) with Czech connections (in its similarity to the Czech names Hidlar and Hidlarcek). Hitler had left school early, picked up his education at the ‘school of life’ found in the ethnically diverse city of Vienna and by reading whatever (often racialist pamphlets) took his fancy. Even as an adult he revered novels by Karl May – Westerns in which white settlers fought off attacks by Indians as they colonised the ‘Wild West’. How Hitler developed his concerns was conditioned by the turns his life took. He became an active politician who devoted considerable energy to public speaking, and had only a limited amount of time to devote to developing his detailed political philosophy. Although  Lebensraum was never a sophisticated policy, it was Hitler’s response to life experiences and influences expressed the best way he knew how.

Hitler’s ideas had a wider political and intellectual context. In the Kaiserreich, colonisation had long been a hot topic. The Eastern Marches Association was founded in 1894 and for two decades worked vigorously inside Prussia to germanise areas where farms and villages were dominated by Poles. Others were more outward-looking. The Pan-German League, led by Heinrich Claß, had its own expansionist doctrine. This preoccupation partly reflected the geographical distribution of Germans. They were never limited to the space within the German and Austrian lands. Following past migrations, German communities could also be found in Russia, the Baltic provinces of the Russian empire, the Ukraine, Hungary, Romania and the Balkans. Theodor Schiemann was drawn from a Baltic German family and became influential at the Kaiser’s court. He believed Germans were ‘forced by our geographical situation, by poor soil … by an amazing increase in our population … to spread and to gain for us and for our sons’. In due course, two other Baltic Germans (Alfred Rosenberg and Max-Erwin Scheubner-Richter) became associates of Hitler. Doubtless they made him doubly aware of the existence of far-flung German settlements and the history of the nation’s ties with the East.

The experiences of the First World War emphasised the prizes that Germany might gain there. Her troops occupied vast tracts from the Baltic to the Black Sea. At the time, a number of people advocated colonisation. In 1915, General Erich von Ludendorff (who later participated with Hitler in the Beer Hall Putsch) commented of Poland that, ‘Here we shall win breeding ground for the men needed for further battles in the East.’ He wanted to annex a strip of land in the west of Polish territory, expel its population and settle it with Germans. In 1917 he recommended the annexation of Lithuania and Latvia, ‘as we need more land for the people’s nourishment’. Ludendorff also wanted to settle ethnic Germans in territories on the Crimean peninsula in the Ukraine. Late in the war some efforts were made to get this project off the ground.

Mainstream scholarly thought included preoccupations with space. ‘Geopolitics’ tried to amalgamate the study of territory and power. In Germany, its origins lay in the work of Friedrich Ratzel, but its most famous exponent was a professor of geography at Munich University, Karl Haushofer. Rudolf Hess was his student, and the Führer and the professor became acquainted during the early 1920s. Haushofer believed that whoever controlled the Eurasian heartland could control the world. In due course he drew maps showing Leningrad, Moscow, the Volga valley and the Ukraine as all belonging to ‘German’ territory.

Yet, once Hitler’s idea of Lebensraum was extended beyond its essentials, and as it began to be turned into reality, limits to its application and ambiguities did begin to emerge. Some of the limitations are only just being understood by historians. Some of the ambiguities even confused Hitler’s subordinates.

Henry Ashby Turner, at Yale University, sees Hitler’s ideas as anti-modern rejections of industrial society, arguing that Lebensraum was nothing more than an attempt by the Nazis to restore age-old beliefs in a life governed by the principles of ‘Blut und Boden’. Obviously blood and soil were important to Hitler’s thinking, but they were only part of his mental world. He intended the full scope of his empire to be more than just rural settlement and room for population growth.

Hitler certainly wanted vast areas for colonisation by farmers, but he never saw Germany becoming just a massive agricultural idyll. In October 1928, he commented that an economy could only be healthy when there was a balance between agricultural and industrial productivity. The capture of massive agricultural lands in eastern Europe was not supposed to result in all Germany’s factories disappearing, but it was a means to restoring a lost equilibrium to a society which had become disproportionately industrialised. Hitler was well aware that the East could supply him not only with grain, but also with iron ore, coal, nickel, manganese, molybdenum and oil. Indeed, once land in the East began to be captured, plans developed to industrialise regions even there. By the summer of 1942 Hans Frank, the leader of the Government General in southern Poland, was talking about his territory starting a long-term process of industrialisation for the benefit of the Reich.

If Germany was to retain its factories, it was to keep its cities too. There were even plans to extend them. As a child, Hitler had planned to rebuild Linz; as a young adult he had done to same for Vienna. Comparable ambitions never left him. Once chancellor of Germany, he authorised the redevelopment of first twenty-five, and by 1941 fully fifty, urban centres. These included a number of Führer-cities which were to be particularly large and impressive. Hamburg was to enjoy one of the biggest bridges and some of the tallest skyscrapers in the world. Linz was to become a world centre for the arts. But at the heart of the plans lay Berlin. It was to be expanded into a ‘millennial city’ millions strong and focused on a central avenue three miles in length, a domed party building able to hold 150,000 people, and a triumphal arch made of granite,  carved with the names of Germany’s 1.8 million causalities of the First World War. Germany’s future did not lie with the rural life alone; it lay in a new balance between village and city.

It is understandable that historians misinterpreted the limits to the idea of Lebensraum; Nazis had problems with the concept too. Hitler was always vague about how exactly the territories in the East should be ruled. The orthodox National Socialist interpretation was of the area being subject to direct control and slowly colonised. But not everyone made this assumption. Alfred Rosenberg, who had been born in Reval (now Tallinn in Estonia) and eventually became Reich Minister for the Eastern Territories, had his own views. As early as 1927 he argued that National Socialism should take account of the existence of strong nationalist movements in areas such as the Baltic States, the Ukraine and the Caucasus. He wanted Germany to invade these areas and establish puppet states which would act as a cordon sanitaire between the Reich and Russia. In the early stages of the Second World War, Hitler himself briefly considered establishing a semi-independent Ukraine.

The Lebensraum project changed with implementation. Between 1939 and 1940 Hitler believed in the principle of Grossraumwirtschaft – literally ‘the economy of a big space’. This meant that different parts of conquered Europe would be allotted different economic functions. At this point, the Government General was to become a massive labour camp containing 13 million Poles who would live on small farms. They would constitute an itinerant force of seasonal workers for the German Reich. This agenda changed in March 1941. Now Hitler said that, over the next 15-20 years, all foreigners would be removed from the Government General, which would become home to between 4 and 5 million Germans. After the launching of Operation Barbarossa on June 22nd, 1941, designs for the East became even more extensive. By the end of the year, the Reich Security Head Office had drawn up a plan for the germanisation of the whole of the East, including the Baltic States, Poland, Czechoslovakia, the Ukraine and White Ruthenia. Its long-term vision (extending centuries into the future) was to turn the whole area into home for 600 million Germans. More immediately, over twenty years, between 40 and 45 million Slavic people would be removed from Europe to make way for German settlers. The idea was so ambitious it could only have been developed with the Führer’s patronage.

The mistakes made, both at the time and since, about what Hitler meant by Lebensraum must give rise to more questions about the precise status of the concept. Should something like this really be regarded as a serious policy intention? Or did it grow up just as a kind of slogan, the inadequacy of which became particularly apparent when a person tried either to understand all its implications or to turn it into reality? One thing stands out – the sincerity of Hitler’s belief in the value of imperial conquest. Despite all the inconsistencies in trying to give concrete form to the vision, never once did those around Hitler become disillusioned and suggest he was being cynical or dishonest. Hitler’s idea of living space was not just a propaganda image. It was the germ of a serious policy proposal, but one left in such a state of underdevelopment by its creator that limitations and ambiguities duly emerged. No one ever said the subject matter of history has to be completely logical.

  • Martyn Housden is Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Bradford.

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