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 (German for "habitat" or literally "living space") served as a major motivation for Nazi Germany's territorial aggression, was a reinterpretation of the by then century-old concept of Drang nach Osten. In his book Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler detailed his belief that the German people needed Lebensraum – for a Großdeutschland, land, and raw materials – and that it should be taken in the East. It was the stated policy of the Nazis to kill, deport, Germanise or enslave the Polish, and later also Russian and other Slavic populations, and to repopulate the land with reinrassig (racially pure) 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. Through the middle ages, German population pressures led to settlement in Eastern Europe, a practice termed Ostsiedlung. The term Lebensraum in this sense was coined by Friedrich Ratzel in 1901, 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. These thoughts can be seen in his studies of zoology and the study of adaptation. This expansion to fill available space, he claimed, was a natural and necessary feature of any healthy species.

Ratzel himself emphasized the need for overseas colonies, to which Germans ought to migrate, not for expansion inside Europe. Wanklyn, (1961) argues that Ratzel's theory was designed to advance science, and that politicians distorted it for political goals. Thus Lebensraum was picked up and expanded by publicists of the day, including Karl Haushofer and General 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."

In 1914, the concept of Lebensraum was endorsed secretly by the Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg and the rest of the German government as a war aim in World War I. Documents discovered by the German historian Fritz Fischer have established that in the event of a German victory, the policy of the German government was to annex Congress Polandmarker, expel the entire Polish population, both Catholic and Jewish, and in their place settle millions of Germans as a part of a scheme for the German colonization of Eastern Europe. The significance of Fischer's discovery, as the Australian historian John Moses has noted, is that the goal of winning lebensraum was already German policy long before 1933 and thus cannot be seen, as some German historians have argued, as solely Adolf Hitler's personal brain-child .

As the British historian A. J. P. Taylor noted in his 1963 foreword "Second Thoughts" to his 1961 book The Origins of the Second World War:

The German Empire planned to annex territory in both Lithuania and Poland for direct colonization by German colonists after forcible removal of Polish and Lithuanian population. As early as April 1915, the Polish Border Strip plan against Poland, which was first suggested by General Erich Ludendorff in 1914, was approved as a German war aim by the Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg. The German historian Andreas Hillgruber argued that the foreign policy of General Ludendorff, with its demand for lebensraum to be seized for Germany in Eastern Europe during World War I, was the prototype for German policy in World War II. Lebensraum almost became a reality in 1918 during World War I. The new Communist regime of Russiamarker 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, Belarusmarker, Ukrainemarker, and the Caucasus. However, 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 agreed to sacrifice the land to Lithuaniamarker, Polandmarker, and new nations such as Estoniamarker or Latviamarker, and a series of short-lived independent states in Ukrainemarker.

The German historian Andreas Hillgruber argued the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was the prototype for Hitler's vision of a great empire for Germany in Eastern Europe. Hillgruber wrote that:

The desire for lebensraum was a key tenet of several nationalist and extremist groups in post-World War I Germany, notably the Nazi Party under Adolf Hitler. As the American historian Gerhard Weinberg noted, German demands for territorial revision went beyond merely regaining land lost under the Treaty of Versailles, and instead embraced calls for the German conquest and colonization of all Eastern Europe, regardless of whether the land in question had belonged to Germany before 1918 or not Likewise, the British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper argued that the goal of overthrowing Versailles was only a prelude to seizing Lebensraum in Eastern Europe for Germany with no regard as to where Germany's 1914 frontiers had been. In Mein Kampf, Hitler was to write:

The official German history of World War II was to conclude that the conquest of Lebensraum was for Hitler and the rest of the National Socialists the most important German foreign policy goal. At his first meeting with all of the leading generals and admirals of the Reich on February 3, 1933, Hitler spoke of "conquest of Lebensraum in the East and its ruthless Germanization" as his ultimate foreign policy objectives. For Hitler, the land which would provide sufficient Lebensraum for Germany was the Soviet Union, which for Hitler was both conveniently a nation that possessed vast and rich agricultural land and was inhabited by what Hitler saw as Slavic untermenschen (sub-humans) ruled over by what he regarded as a gang of blood-thirsty, but grossly incompetent Jewish revolutionaries. In Hitler's view, the idea of restoring the 1914 borders of the Reich was absurd as those borders did not provide sufficient Lebensraum; only a foreign policy that aimed at the conquest of the proper quantity of Lebensraum would justify the necessary sacrifices that war entailed In Hitler’s view, history was dominated by a merciless struggle between different “races” for survival, and “races” that possessed large amounts of territory were innately stronger then those that did not. Eberhard Jäckel has expressed a Primat der Außenpolitik (“primacy of foreign policy”) interpration of German foreign policy as opposed to the Primat der Innenpolitik ("primacy of domestic politics") thesis favored by some left-wing historians such as Timothy Mason. Jäckel wrote that since Hitler regarded the conquest of Lebensraum as his most important project, and since that could only be accomplished through war, domestic policy comprised simply preparing the nation for the inevitable struggle for Lebensraum

There are, however, many historians such as Martin Broszat and Hans Mommsen who dismiss this "intentionalist" approach, and argue that the concept was actually an "ideological metaphor" in the early days of Nazism.


The practical implementation of the Lebensraum concept began in 1939 with Germany's occupation of Poland. Later, the ideology was also a major factor in Hitler's launching of Operation Barbarossa in June 1941. The Nazis hoped to turn large areas of Sovietmarker territory into German settlement areas as part of Generalplan Ost. 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:

Name Area
Ostland Baltic States, Belarusmarker and eastern Poland
Ukraine Ukrainemarker and adjacent territories
Kaukasus Caucasus
Moskau the Moscowmarker metropolitan area and adjacent European Russia

The Reichskommissariat territories would extend up to the European frontier at the Uralsmarker. 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 Stalingradmarker in 1942, followed by defeat in the Battle of Kurskmarker in July 1943 and the Allied landings in Sicily put an end to the plans' implementation.

Historical perspective

In his book Mein Kampf, Hitler notes that history is an open-ended struggle, and links the concept of Lebensraum with his own brand of racism and social Darwinism. Nevertheless, 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 sufficed 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. 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 Unionmarker. 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.

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:

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. Karl Haushofer was an acquaintance of Rudolf Hess, Hitler's deputy. Haushofer had limited influence on Hitler's ideals. "Haushofer primarily provided the academic and scientific support for the expansion of the Third Reich Rosenberg, Matt. "Geopolitics." 2008. 1 Nov 2008 />.." Haushofer ideas can be described by the expansion of heavily populated countries having the right to expand and gain land from less populated countries. This was his adaptation of Ratzel's Lebensraum Rosenberg, Matt. "Geopolitics." 2008. 1 Nov 2008 />..

See also

Empire of Japan:


  1. Woodruff D. Smith, "Friedrich Ratzel and the Origins of Lebensraum," German Studies Review, Vol. 3, No. 1 (Feb., 1980), pp. 51-68 in JSTOR
  2. Wanklyn, Harriet. Friedrich Ratzel: A Biographical Memoir and Bibliography. London: Cambridge University Press, 1961.
  3. For an overview of Ratzel's views, see Harriet Wanklyn, Friedrich Ratzel: A Biographical Memoir and Bibliography. Cambridge University Press: 1961. ASIN B000KT4J8K. Their impact on Nazi ideology, and their intersection with colonialism and economic imperialism in the Imperial German era is described by Smith, Woodruff, D., The Ideological Origins of Nazi Imperialism, Oxford University Press, 1986. ISBN 0195047419.
  4. Wanklyn, (1961) pp 36-40
  5. See Evans, Richard J., The Coming of the Third Reich, Penguin Press, 2004, p. 35. ISBN 1594200041.
  6. Epstein, Klaus Review: German War Aims in the First World War pages 163-185 from World Politics, Volume 15, Issue # 1, October 1962 page 170
  7. Carsten, F.L Review of Griff nach der Weltmacht pages 751-753 from English Historical Review, Volume 78, Issue #309, October 1963 of pages 752-753
  8. Moses, John "The Fischer Controversy" pages 328-329 from Modern Germany An Encyclopedia of History, People and Culture, 1871-1990, Volume 1, edited by Dieter Buse and Juergen Doerr, Garland Publishing: New York, 1998 page 328
  9. Hillgruber, Andreas Germany and the Two World Wars, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981 pages 41-47
  10. Spartacus Educational: Treaty of Brest Litovsk.
  11. Weinberg, Gerhard The Foreign Policy of Hitler's Germany Diplomatic Revolution in Europe 1933–1936, Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 1970 pages 166–168
  12. Trevor-Roper, Hugh "Hitler's War Aims" pages 235-250 from Aspects of the Third Reich edited by H.W. Koch, Macmillan Press: London, United Kingdom, 1985 pages 242-245
  13. Messerschmidt, Manfred “Foreign Policy and Preparation for War” from Germany and the Second World War, Volume I, Clarednon Press: Oxford, United Kingdom, 1990 pages 551-554
  14. Weinberg, Gerhard The Foreign Policy of Hitler's Germany Diplomatic Revolution in Europe, Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 1970 pages 26-27
  15. Weinberg, Gerhard The Foreign Policy of Hitler's Germany Diplomatic Revolution in Europe, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970 pages 12-13
  16. Weinberg, Gerhard The Foreign Policy of Hitler's Germany Diplomatic Revolution in Europe Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970 pages 6-7
  17. Jäckel, Eberhard Hitler's World View A Blueprint for Power Harvard University Press: Cambridge, United States of America, 1981 pages 34-35
  18. Jäckel, Eberhard Hitler's World View, Harvard University Press: Cambridge, United States of America, 1981 pages 94-95
  19. See, for instance, Kershaw, Ian, The Nazi Dictatorship: Problems & Perspectives of Interpretation, Fourth Edition, Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 76–79. ISBN 0340760281.
  20. Madajczyk, Czesław. "Die Besatzungssysteme der Achsenmächte. Versuch einer komparatistischen Analyse." Studia Historiae Oeconomicae vol. 14 (1980): pp. 105-122, quoted in Uerbesch, Gerd R. and Rolf-Dieter Müller, Hitler's War in the East, 1941-1945: A Critical Assessment Berghahn Books, 2008 (review ed.). ISBN 1845455010.
  21. Kershaw, pp. 134–137.
  22. Kershaw, pp. 154–155.
  23. Kershaw, pp. 244–245.

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