Many Germans (even non-Nazis) accepted the idea of gaining Lebensraum as a historical inevitability. As early as the late 19th century, German writers such as Ernst Haeckel combined Darwinian notions of the survival of the fittest with romantic nationalism to create a deterministic ideology which argued that in order for the German people to thrive, they had to acquire more resources in a Darwinian struggle against other peoples.
The concept of Lebensraum was originally defined by Friedrich Ratzel who conceptualized it as a biological concept defined as the geographical area required to support a species according to its metabolism, and that human societies had to expand their Lebensraum through agrarian colonization or perish. These beliefs would be implemented by the Nazi government, who argued that war and conquest were necessary to gain new resources to sustain their race in a Darwinian understanding of international politics. German expansion was thus seen as inevitable by the Nazis because they perceived of history and politics as a deterministic struggle for resources between races.
The German experience in the occupied Russian Empire during WWI saw the establishment of a sort of colonial state called ‘Ober Ost’ which was informed in part by theories such as Ratzel’s. Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius’ book War Land on the Eastern Front argues that Germans involved in the occupation saw the east as barbaric and primordial, and they began to formulate notions that the native population should be removed. In 1917 the German High Command and Foreign Office even approved of a plan to establish colonies of German settler-soldiers in the occupied East.
Liulevicius states that this experience had an important role in shaping the Nazi perception of the east: “Ober Ost’s categories and practices were taken up again and radicalized [by the Nazis]: the gaze toward the East, cleansing violence, planning, subdivision and ‘intensification of control,’ forced labor. Chief among them was the lesson of Raum.” The Nazi dictatorship, inspired by Ober Ost, began to prepare its youth for a push towards the East: in schools, history and geography courses taught pupils that the historic German “Drive Towards the East” was a biological phenomenon and to look at land through the mystical doctrine of “Blut und Boden”, and Hitler Youth members were taught military skills and songs with lyrics such as “we will give [the East] a German face with sword and plow! To the East blows the wind!” The Nazi idea of widespread colonization of Eastern Europe was consequently inherited from theories and practices begun in Wilhelmine Germany.
Nazi Germany’s goal of exterminating Eastern Europe’s population and replacing it with German colonists had real economic goals. Although it might sound absurd to modern readers, early 20th century Germany faced serious land shortage. Germany was more densely populated and had a higher proportion of rural inhabitants than either France or the United Kingdom and lacked extraterritorial colonies where its excess population might emigrate to. Although it was a large country, the actual amount of arable land available for cultivation per farmer was comparable with countries such as Ireland, Romania or Poland, which was compounded by the fact that most of it was held by large estates; in 1933, 75% of Germany’s farms cultivated only 19% of its arable land. The majority of German farmers (88% of them, some 12 million people who made up 18% of Germany’s total population) consequently lived in poverty on economically unsustainable farms.
According to Adolf Hitler, the establishment of an international colonial empire was an unattractive solution because it meant spreading precious German blood over too great of an area; what Germany needed was a contiguous colonial empire carved out of Eastern and Central Europe. Arable land would have to be taken by conquest and its inhabitants driven out. Plans from the Reich-Fuhrer SS dictated that 85% of Poles, 75% of Byelorussians, 65% of Ukranians and 50% of Czechs would have to be deported from German-occupied territory to Western Siberia at the end of the war to make room for German colonists, with the remaining population being forcibly ‘Germanized’. These deportations may well have been a euphemism for a planned genocide, where the displaced Slavs might have been worked to death in Siberia.
Hitler viewed German expansion eastwards and the displacement of that region’s Slavs as a similar process to the expansion of European colonial states in the Americas, as evidenced by his statement made to Reich Minister Todt and Gauleiter Saukel on the 17th of October, 1941: “There’s only one duty: to Germanise this country [the occupied Soviet Union]… and to look upon the natives as Red-skins…I don’t see why a German who eats a piece of bread should torment himself with the idea that the soil that produces this bread has been won by the sword. When we eat wheat from Canada, we don’t think about the despoiled Indians.” The conquest of the Soviet Union and its colonization by Germans was seen by Hitler as Germany’s version of Manifest Destiny, where the Volga, as he declared, would become Germany’s Mississippi. Slavic place names would be replaced with Germanic ones, especially in places like the Crimea. During the war, the Crimean towns of Simferopol and Sevastopol were renamed Gotenburg and Theodorichhafen respectively. The Germans planned to construct an autobahn directly to Crimea (and likely others elsewhere in Russia), because the Black Sea was to become a German Mediterranean.
The Nazi’s plans for the establishment of Eastern Lebensraum were concretely planned out as early as November 1940 when they proposed the establishment of 50 to 100 acre farms meant to support large families of ten or more, nucleated around massive farms of 300 acres. The east was supposed to be entirely rural; average German settlements were intended to be villages of some 300 to 400 inhabitants. The largest settlements in the east were planned to be large villages known as a ‘Hauptdorf’ (head village) which would contain economic and civic establishments intended to service the smaller settler communities surrounding it as well as rural power stations to remove their dependence on urban cities. Besides these communities of soldier-farmers, there would have been SS estates run by veterans of the war, and massive estates given to high ranking Nazis; the dictatorship even promised its generals huge tracts of land to make them more committed to winning the war in the east. There were two main competing theories for the pattern of settlement: waves of dispersed settlements spreading out gradually eastwards, or a “pearl string” pattern where settlements would be set up along roads and railways and spread into the hinterland over time. IIRC the pearl-string plan became the official pattern for colonization.
According to Hitler, urban areas and industry would not be tolerated in the east; in a private table talk in October 1941, he declared that “we shan’t settle in Russian towns, and we’ll let them fall to pieces without intervening.” Not only would Soviet towns be allowed to crumble, but its main urban centers of Kiev, Moscow and Leningrad would be destroyed. Furthermore, Hitler stated that those Slavs that remained in German colonial territory as slave laborers would only be given only the most rudimentary education; they would learn basic arithmetic and how to read signs but nothing else. The German East was meant to be entirely rural and agricultural, and would produce enough food and resources to make the Reich an autarkic economy, comparable to the internal markets of the United States of America. This establishment of a German autarkic economy would make it a world power capable of competing with the USA for global influence. The Nazis didn’t want to conquer the world; they wanted to compete for international influence without overseas colonies like the USA.
Cameron, Norman & R.H. Stephens, trans., Hitler’s Table Talks. New York: Enigma Books, 2000
Kamenetsky, Ihor. “Lebensraum in Hitler’s War Plan: The Theory and the Eastern European Reality” in The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Vol. 20 No. 3 (April 1961)
Kershaw, Ian. The Nazi Dictatorship, Problems & Perspectives of Interpretation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Liulevicius, Vejas Gabriel. War Land on the Eastern Front, Culture, National Identity and German Occupation in World War I. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Smith, Woodruff D. “Friedrich Ratzel and the Origins of Lebensraum” in German Studies Review, Vol. 3, No. 1 (February 1980)
Stein, George J. “Biological Science and the Roots of Nazism” in American Scientist, Vol. 76 No. 1 (January-February 1988). (Tooze, 2008)
Tooze, Adam. The Wages of Destruction. New York: Penguin Books, 2008.