Hitler’s idea of Lebensraum–or, literally, creating more “living space” for Germany and the Germanic people by expanding to other areas of Europe and the Soviet Union through ethnic cleansing, deportation and genocide—was not original. This essentially colonialist concept had been around since the Middle Ages, while the term itself was coined in the early 1900’s by the German ethnographer Friedrich Ratzel. However, in his implementation of Lebensraum, Hitler transformed colonialism into a process of pillaging and mass murder of unprecedented proportions, with tragic consequences for humanity. Claiming that the Germanic people didn’t have enough room and natural resources to sustain their growing population, Hitler wanted to build an Aryan empire by conquering large parts of Europe and the Soviet Union, including Poland, the Ukraine and Russia. In order to achieve this goal, Hitler intended to kill hundreds of millions of their inhabitants and enslave the rest, annihilating and subjugating entire populations whom he considered “subhuman” or, at any rate, far inferior to the Aryan master race.
To prove the so-called inferiority of the conquered nations, Hitler inverted, in a characteristic move, cause and effect. He began a ruthless policy of terror, starving the captured people, humiliating them, killing them, and imprisoning them in labor and concentration camps. This mistreatment dehumanized the victims, often reducing them to animal-like behavior in their hopeless struggle to survive. Hitler then launched a propaganda campaign that “demonstrated” the behavior of the conquered people was abject and animalistic, to prove that they were inferior to the “civilized” German race.
The WWII historian Antony Beevor documents in his magnificent book, The Second World War (New York, Little, Brown & Company, 2012) that, following Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, “By February 1942, 60 percent of the 3.5 million Red Army prisoners had died of starvation, exposure or disease” (418). A quarter of the population of Belarus perished due to the Germans’ savage oppression. In addition, millions of Jews were rounded up in conquered cities and villages and shot by the Einsatzgruppen, or incarcerated in ghettos, concentration and death camps. Hitler aimed to achieve his top two, interrelated, goals simultaneously: to create more living space for the Germans by clearing vast areas of their native, “undesirable” people.
Although they agreed on the basic principle of Lebensraum, top Nazi officials disagreed about how to best achieve it. Vying for influence, they offered competing proposals. According to Beevor, Alfred Rosenberg, the minister of the Eastern territories, wanted to secure the cooperation of former Soviet nationalities, such as the Ukraine, in a joint struggle against the Soviet Union. Initially, many Ukrainians welcomed the German invasion and collaborated with the Nazis. The tide began to turn, however, when they realized that they were mistreated by the Germans as much, if not more so, than they had been by the Soviets. In Germany, the most “radical” views about how to achieve Lebensraum prevailed.
Herman Göring, appointed President of the Reichstag (1932-1945) as well as Minister (Reichminister) of Economics and of Aviation, preferred the method of starving out the native populations and bringing in German and Germanic people on those lands. Heinrich Himmler, the Reichführer or Chief of German Police and Commissioner for Strengthening the German Nationhood, opted for the most brutal method: ethnic cleansing through mass murder, either by shooting or gassing. In the end, Germany adopted all three strategies, focusing in particular upon the ruthless solutions proposed by Göring and Himmler, which were most closely aligned with Hitler’s racist ideology and sociopathic tendencies.
Both Hitler and Himmler envisaged an idyllic German empire stretching to the Urals, built upon the blood and sacrifice of those they considered to be “subhuman races” (Untermenschen): including the Jews, Slavs and Gypsies. The notion—and practice—of creating more Lebensraum for the German people inseparably combined utopia and dystopia by turning a mad fantasy into an all-too-real nightmare. As Beevor elaborates, “Nazi ideas for the future constituted little more than a grotesque fantasy… Himmler dreamed of gemütlich German colonies, with gardens and orchards built across the former killing grounds of his SS Einsatzgruppen. And to provide a holiday center the Crimea, renamed Gotenhau, would become the German Riviera” (418). The result of this so-called utopic vision of an Aryan master race dominating most of Europe and the Soviet Union was the horrific abuse and death of tens of millions of innocent people, the devastation of entire cities and villages, and the destruction of natural resources that would take years to replenish.