Lebensraum in WW2: Definition, Meaning & Theory

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  • 0:05 Origin of Lebensraum
  • 1:20 WWI Mitteleuropa
  • 2:22 Hitler and Nazi Ideology
  • 3:39 Lebensraum's Use in WWII
  • 5:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erin Carroll

Erin has taught English and History. She has a bachelor's degree in History, and a master's degree in International Relations

This lesson will discuss the term 'Lebensraum' and its evolution in meaning and use from the 19th century to World War II. You will first learn its origins from the 19th century, its application during World War I, and finally the disastrous use of Lebensraum in WWII by the Nazis.

Origin of Lebensraum

Lebensraum, or living space, was a policy of the Nazis during WWII to conquer territory in Europe for German use. However, the first mention of Lebensraum actually dates back to 1901. A geographer named Friedrich Ratzel began looking at the ways that plants, animals, and man adapted to and competed for living space. In 1901, Ratzel first used the term 'Lebensraum' and defined it as the exact geographical area need to support a living species at its current population size and mode of existence. However, Ratzel began applying this term to the fate of cultures. He described History as the permanent battle for Lebensraum.

Germany had only just become a united country in 1871. Germans like Ratzel complained that their country did not have enough territory and colonies to house its population or build a powerful economy like that of Britain and France. German nationalists believed that a great people like the Germans deserved more space to become a great power.

WWI Mitteleuropa

By 1914, many German politicians and military strategists were making plans to find Lebensraum for Germany. One of Germany's main aims of WWI was the plan for Mitteleuropa. This was a plan to create a German-dominated Europe. In the 1960s, the German historian Fritz Fischer found documents proving that the German government planned to use the outbreak of WWI as an opportunity to grab territory in Eastern Europe for German settlement.

At the end of WWI, Germany held lands in Ukraine and Russia but had lost the war. The Allies punished Germany, placing harsh sanctions on the country with the Treaty of Versailles. This treaty stripped Germany of its colonies and the lands it had captured during WWI. It also required Germany to repay all of the damages from the war, putting the nation into a massive debt. Germans cried out against the Treaty of Versailles, calling it an obvious attempt by the Allies to deny Germany its rightful Lebensraum and its status as a great power.

Hitler and Nazi Ideology

In the 1920s, Adolf Hitler began writing about Lebensraum, but he changed the meaning of the term. In his book Mein Kampf, Hitler wrote that Lebensraum was not simply about getting land but also about exterminating inferior races and guaranteeing the rise of the German master race. In 1926, a popular novel by Hans Grimm called Volk ohne Raum, or People Without Space, lamented that German situation. The Nazi party used this as part of their propaganda.

By the 1930's, the collapse of world markets combined with the harsh sanctions from WWI left Germans struggling. They looked to the Nazis to bring them out of the economic depression and make the country great again. The Nazis claimed that Lebensraum would help the country. However, getting it would require military conquest. Lebensraum became the major motivation for WWII.

Hitler believed that Lebensraum would also include the Soviet Union. This was not only because the USSR had vast territories for German settlement, but also because Hitler believed that the USSR was controlled by Jewish Bolsheviks. For Hitler, the conquest of the USSR was justified because Jews, Slavs, and other 'unfit' races living there needed to be exterminated.

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