Lebensraum -- Policy or Propaganda?

By Housden, Martyn | History Review, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Lebensraum -- Policy or Propaganda?


Housden, Martyn, History Review


What did Hitler mean by Lebensraum? Did he attempt to translate theory into reality? Martyn Housden `unpacks' the term and puts it into historical context.

The Idea

When the Germans talked of Lebensraum, that is to say `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. Adolf Hitler and those around him did not just start talking about the need to conquer Lebensraum in 1941, when they were preparing to invade Russia. Although the term was used with increasing frequency in the months leading up to the assault on Poland, 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 was published in December 1926 and contained a chapter entitled `Eastern Orientation and Eastern Policy'. Here Hitler outlined his thinking about Russia. He described it as `the most decisive concern of all German foreign affairs'. His mind burned with dissatisfactions. Believing that only `an adequately large space on this earth assures a nation of freedom of existence', he said it was quite impossible for a country like Germany, which was `limited to the absurd area of five hundred thousand square kilometres', ever to attain the status of a world power. Only large states could demand international respect. 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 clear 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? The answer was unequivocal: `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. But this sort of thinking was not the only determinant of his desire to overpower the Soviet Union. Hitler believed that Jews had used the revolution of 1917 to seize control of the Russian empire in a particularly bloody fashion. They 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, destroying the empire's state in the process, would not only enlarge Germany's space, it would also remove a threat which this committed anti-Semite understood to be especially urgent. More pragmatically, Hitler also said that there was no use even 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.

The leader of the National Socialist party returned to the theme of living space in his Second Book, which was written while he stayed at his mountain retreat on Obersalzberg during the Summer of 1928. …

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