Population often comes under the tangible factor of power and, thus, it may determine the course of foreign policy. Excess population in a country may lead to the policy of expansion, imperialism and war of conquest; because the state concerned may feel that the territorial extension might largely solve its inhabitation problem. In this way, the idea of Lebensraum took its birth in the Nazi Germany and influenced its foreign policy which hastened the crisis of 1939.
The term ‘Lebensraum’ was originally coined by Friedrich Ratzel, a German geographer and ethnographer. Lebensraum means the ‘breathing space’ or ‘living space’. Ratzel was of the belief that the survival and development of human beings was dependent on their adaptation to different geographical regions. According to him, human beings must expand its territorial occupation in a continuous and gradual process for their betterment and such expansion is only fruitful if the occupied region was colonized as an integral part of the occupying nation. The theory and practice of Lebensraum was adopted by the Germans long before Hitler came into power. It was a popular theory during the unification of Germany. During that period, Lebensraum was only a concept of colonial expansion in order to find out more and more living space for the growing German race. They believed that such colonial expansion, if possible, would enrich the German economy to a large extent. They were truly inspired by such expansion policies of Great Britain, France and many other powers at that time.
But, as a matter of fact, in 1933, when Hitler came to power, his government modified this theory and sought to materialize the Nazi doctrine of Lebensraum through an expansionist foreign policy. Instead of merely adding some new colonies to the existing German territory, the Nazi government modified the theory of Lebensraum with a view to expanding Germany within Europe. Hitler and his Party i.e., National Socialist Party (Nazi) believed that due to an increase in population, Germany needed a territorial expansion so that, a portion of the German people could be rehabilitated in the occupied areas. In other words, the German people required a breathing space for their survival through the extension of the area of national territory. Hitler believed that this expansion of German territory should be somewhere in the East and Russia was one of the prime destination for the implementation of this ideology. The Nazi’s policy was either to kill, deport or enslave the Jews, Polish, Russians, Gypsies and all other non-Germanic population from Germany. Along with territorial expansion, it was a strategy of replacing all the population whom they consider to belong to inferior classes with the German upper class people. Thus Lebensraum and resettlement were two complimentary policies of the Nazi government. The Jews were the major casualties of this strategy. All the other races, specially the Jews, were either deported to several parts of French, America etc. or put to death. As a curse of history, while the policy of Lebensraum continued, the government soon implemented this strategy of ethnic and racial cleansing along with the territorial expansion in all the occupied regions. Of course, the primary intention of Hitler was to re-occupy the areas which Germany had lost as a result of its dismal defeat in the First World War. But, surely, he had a wider target. As all other big Powers of that time had occupied various areas of Asia, Africa, Middle East and other part of the world, Inspired by such expansionary policies of the West, Hitler too, dreamt of a larger Germany by creating the ‘New Order’ through the super military skill.
However, it is highly doubtful whether he actually looked for the world conquest. Though such an allegation has been raised against him, A. J. P. Taylor, the celebrated British historian, has opined in an attractive essay that Hitler never planned or even thought of such an aggression – perhaps, he would have been satiated with some geographical additions to the original German territory (ed. by Snell). Hitler had no enmity with America and he never moved towards Asia. Moreover, he made a frantic bid to keep a good relation with Britain and he repeatedly proposed its government to keep away from the War. The Dunkirk-event proves that he sought to open the door for the British friendship. Thus, it may be asserted that, he too had a limited objective. Yet, there can be no doubt that his aggressive policy was, to some extent, influenced by the Lebensraum theory.
WAS LEBENSRAUM TOTALLY RESPONSIBLE FOR THE WAR?
It is a cardinal fact that Lebensraum was one of the factors which gradually introduced a sign of bellicosity in the foreign policy of Nazi Germany. He enunciated it in order to find out an excuse to extend the German territory. But, there were other crucial factors which, besides the idea of Lebensraum, cumulatively determined the course of history. From that point of view, it may be claimed that Lebensraum issue was not so much an important issue regarding the cause of the Second World War in 1939 – there were more contributing issues which may be regarded as the root cause of the Global War. Hence, the policy of Lebensraum should not only be blamed for the crisis.
Injustice of the Treaty of Versailles:
The Versailles Treaty which was signed after the end of the First World War may be regarded as the root cause of the Second War. In fact, it contained the seeds of the Second World War and the issues it had raised were far more explosive than the doctrine of Lebensraum.
It is true that Germany had much responsibility for the First World War. But, after its defeat, the Victors laid upon it the total guilt of the War as if they had no any guilt in it whatsoever. As Riker observes, “The treaty represented two main ideas: a stern and relentless justice on the assumption of German guilt and a need of protecting Europe against a revival of German ambition”. So, with an attitude of severe vengeance, the victors imposed upon it some cruel terms which the defeated-Germany had to accept with utter helplessness, tears and despair. This drooping sprit actually found a fillip when, in 1933, Hitler came to power and announced that the Treaty of Versailles would soon be torn into peaces.
For this reason, Lipson has observed, “It is possible that if the victorious powers had shown less severity in their treatment of Germany, she might have reconciled herself more readily to her altered status”. In fact, Germany faced a tremendous territorial loss. Alsace-Lorraine was taken away by France, the productive areas of Saar and Ruhr were gone, Northern Schelezvig was given to Denmark and Silesia was marched with Czech-Slovakia. Moreover, Moresnet, Eupen and Malmedi were granted to Belgium and a portion of Posen was merged with Poland. Memel, the famous port in Germany, was handed over to the victors. Most strangely, Dunzik was made a free port, though its population was largely German. However, the highest profit was made by France through this Treaty. As Mowat has observed, “The territory thus restored to France was to be handed over by Germany free from all public debts”.
It was also militarily weakened. While all the victors continued their arms-preparations, Germany was compelled to reduce its army only to one-tenth of a million (100000). The size of the German Navy was also reduced and even the air force was banned. All important forts were dismantled and, to add to the humiliation, Rhineland was demilitarized.
But, Germany was also economically ruined. While the productive areas were taken away, a huge amount of war-indemnity was imposed upon it in an ugly urge for revenge. The amount was so huge that soon the Dawes Plan and Young Plan became necessary in order to reassess the economic crisis. As Langsam has observed, “The Treaty might never have been signed had Germany possessed a second Bismarck or Charles de Talleyrand to look after her interest”. Perhaps the victors only intended to make the best use of the German defeat – they had no idea about the economic condition, mechanism and ultimate repercussion. But the most glaring aspect of the treaty lay in its inhuman attitude. The German representatives were brought to the table with handcuffs and they were freed only to sign on the Treaty. This is why Carr has condemned it as a ‘dictated peace’. The nation deeply mourned and Hitler only voiced their pent up agony and grudge when he came to power with the slogan of Lebensraum. In fact, the Germans used this term tactically – the actual intention was to expand their territory and to take the revenge of the humiliation it suffered after the First World War.
Disunity among the Big Powers:
The German Militarism was encouraged so much by Lebensraum as by the disunity among the Big Powers. Hitler realized that none of them was singularly a match for Germany, nor was there any possibility of their united action. America, one of the victors of the First World War, now withdrew into isolation. Its Senate reminded it that its traditional policy was isolation as enunciated by the Monroe Doctrine. As Wells observes, “It thus injured the international order and, in the long run, itself”. Britain was not much interested in preventing the Nazi menace, because it had no direct enmity or geographical clash with Germany. The probable victim was France which, in its frantic search for friends, found out Soviet Russia which was ideologically, in the other front.
Of course, for the time being, Soviet Russia sought to come to terms with the West to prevent the common enemy i.e. Germany. It even entered the League of Nations in the quest for survival and when Nazi Germany started its aggressive marches towards Austria, Soviet Russia called upon the Western Powers to resist it by a united stand. Litvinov, the Soviet representative, repeatedly reminded that, ‘peace was indivisible and, hence, they must preserve it unitedly’. But while the Western Powers seemed to respond to his call, they only fumbled. Naturally, Russia felt that their real intention was to make a compromise with Germany and to instigate the later to fall upon Soviet Russia. So, it suddenly signed a Non-Aggression Pact with Germany which gave Hitler an opportunity to proceed further and offered Russia some time to be prepared for self-defense. As Wells observed, “Germans and Russians made act Brest-Litovsk and divided Poland between them”. Italy, a partner of the Axis Power, became aggressive. But, in 10 February 1938, Britain signed a treaty with it for which Antony Eden, the foreign Minister of England, resigned.
Thus, it may be asserted that the conflicts among the Great Powers encouraged Hitler to adopt a military policy and that the doctrine of Lebensraum was not so much an important factor in this matter.
Role of the League:
The weakness of the League of Nations was also a potent cause of the Nazi expansionism. It was created in order to prevent any sort of war in the international field. But its success depended upon the sincerity and the unity of the member nations. However, the important powers had conflicting interests and these differences were reflected in the League. As Morgenthau has observed, what brought the international order to its downfall was the policies pursued by the Great Powers inside and outside the League. The League condemned the Japanese intervention in China in 1931 and, as a result, Japan withdrew from it. In 1935, Italy invaded Abyssinia, but the League could not prevent it. It then could nod not even resist the re-occupation of Rhineland by Germany or the Polish seizure of Vilna or the Russian invasion of Finland. So Hartman has rightly opined that the League only manifested its impotent displeasure in all these affairs. Hitler was surely encouraged by this unbroken crescendo of successful lawlessness. Thus the crisis deepened which escalated into a Global War. Thus, Hitler’s aggressiveness was not the root cause of Lebensraum; it was rather encouraged by the international situation and weakness of the League and other Big Powers of that time. Had the League played a major role to restrict Hitler during his initial aggression, the future crisis could have been averted or at least minimized.
When Hitler came to power, he was determined to recover the positions and prestige that Germany once had before the First World War. He envisages the formation of a ‘Third Reich’ or an empire which would include all Germans in a new or greater German state. This involved the ultimate absorption of German-populated regions of Austria, Czech-Slovakia and Poland.
His first significant step in this direction was the withdrawal from the Disarmament Conference and the announcement of a program of conscription. Then, he left the League of Nations and openly challenged it by occupying the demilitarized Rhineland. Both of Britain and France hardly raised any voice regarding this issue and hence, Hitler was indirectly encouraged to take larger risks.
Spain offered him a field to test his policy and to take the measure of the great powers. In Spain, a republican government had been set up in 1931. But, the Republic was progressively drifting towards communism and hence, General Franco headed a nationalist revolt in 1937 to deliver the country from the toils of Moscow. Thus, a terrible civil war broke out in Spain between the communistically inclined Republican Government and Franco’s Government which was inclined towards Fascism. Socialist and Communists from all over the world gave support to the Republicans, while Hitler and Mussolini joined the side of Franco. The struggle was more than a conflict between the ideologies of Democracy and Dictatorship. The struggle ended in victory for Franco. Britain and France, being divided in opinions, maintained precarious neutrality and resigned themselves to watching the courses of events. In the mean time, the German air forces, accompanied by the Italian power, wreaked massive destruction in different parts of Spain. Thus the Spanish civil war was in effect ‘a dress rehearsal’ for a greater drama soon to be played on an ampler stage.
In 1936, Hitler concluded a pact with Japan known as Anti-Comintern Pact which was directed against Russian communism. In the year 1937, Italy joined this pact and thus, the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis came into being. It was a balance of power in which the three dissentient Powers from the League of Nations was set against the Great Britain, French and Russia. Hitler found that the German intervention hardly got any resistance from other Powers and so he was emboldened to embark upon a policy of naked aggression. In 1938, he attacked Austria and incorporated it within the Nazi empire. The ease with which Hitler had annexed Austria whetted his territorial appetite and encouraged him to adopt further acts of aggression.
When Hitler attacked Czech-Slovakia, Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister, tried to persuade Hitler to resist himself. Soon the Munich Pact was signed by the Big Powers and they intended to satisfy Hitler by giving him some part of Czech-Slovakia. As Fleming observes, “Nations have often being conquered by enemies, but never before a proud and worthy people been bludgeoned into submission by its own allies”. Thus, Hitler was encouraged to proceed towards Poland and soon the crisis further aggravated. When he attacked Poland, the Second World War broke out, because Britain and France now realized that the policy of appeasement ended in a fiasco.
In fact, the doctrine of Lebensraum ignited fire in the foreign policy of the Germans for three major reasons. First of all, a large portion of the German territory was taken away by Versailles Treaty and, hence, they really felt a problem of maintaining settlements for the increasing population. Secondly, while the victors were allowed to possess the occupied colonial territories, German’s possessions were brought under the League-mandate. Thirdly, on the basis of the ‘right of self-determination’ as popularized by American President, Woodrow Wilson, the big empires were broken up and, some dozens of new states like Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia etc., were created on nationalistic ideology. But, peculiarly, this theory was forgotten in the case of Germany. Thus, though a large number of Germans resided in Poland, Austria and Czechoslovakia and they claimed the right of self-determination, these areas were not merged with Germany. All these reasons soon enraged the German people in general and the Nazi activists in particular, who gradually shaped an explosive foreign policy with a cry for Lebensraum. Thus, it was not Lebensraum, but the cumulative effect of all these factors which hastened the end of peace in 1939.
Thus, though the doctrine of Lebensraum had a bearing upon the Nazi foreign policy which ultimately led to a crisis, it has lost its significance after the German defeat in the Second World War. In the modern era, no state resorts to such a doctrine in order to make a territorial extension or to join a local war. For example, China annexed Tibet in the year 1950 with a plea that Tibet was an integral part of its original territory. America was entangled in the Vietnam was for many years and Soviet Russia intervened in the Afghanistan affair on some or other ideological grounds. But none of them argued that such aggrandizement was necessitated for the settlement of its excess population.
Still now, conflicts and local wars evoke some problems in the international arena. But they are always justified by some ideological arguments or on the question of territorial integrity and sovereignty. In this way, the theory of Lebensraum has been given a good-bye after the end of the last Global War. Hence, it is no longer a problematic issue to us – not to Germany, the NATO, the West or to anybody whatsoever.
It may, thus, be asserted that though the doctrine of Lebensraum was a factor which played its part in the making of Germany’s aggressive policy before the beginning of the Second World War, there were several other reasons which, in unison, triggered off the real crisis. During the late 1930s, the relation between the powers came to conflicting terms and the situation was such that any single-chance spark could have lead to the conflagration at any point of time. Naturally, a global war was inevitable. Thus, Lebensraum was only an excuse provided by the Nazi government, but, in fact, national and international issues assumed for more importance in the contemporary Germany policy. Naturally, after the War, this doctrine was totally abandoned in Germany. It is beyond any iota of doubt that such a theory can not have a place of honor in the international affair.
20th Century History, Lebensraum,
Carr, E. H. International Relations Pact Between Two World Wars, 5
Carr, E. H. ibid, 6-7
Hartman, F. H. International Relations, 177
Jeremy, N. Hitler and ‘Lebensraum’ in the East, Idea of Lebensraum, 11 May, 2004,
Langsam, W. C. The World since 1919, 5-6
Law and Politics in the World Community, 143 (ed. by Lipskey, G. A.)
Lebensraum: Living Space for the Germans, Holocaust Teacher Resource Center
Lipson, L. Europe in the 19th and 20th Centuries, 455
Mowat, R. B. European Diplomacy, 162
Riker, A Short History of Modern Europe, 396
Snell, J. The Second World War, (edited), 265
Strausz-Hupe-Stefan, International Relations, 345
Steve, H. and Wilson, M. Lebensraum,
Pritt, D. N. Light from Moscow
Wells, H. G. A Short History of the World, 312
Wells, H. G. ibid, 312
 Idea of Lebensraum, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwtwo/hitler_lebensraum_01.shtml
 Ibid, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwtwo/hitler_lebensraum_01.shtml
 Lebensraum, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lebensraum
 Lebensraum, http://cghs.dadeschools.net/ib_holocaust2001/Ideology_Death/lebensraum.htm
 20th Century History, Lebensraum, http://history1900s.about.com/library/holocaust/aa110899.htm
 Idea of Lebensraum, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwtwo/hitler_lebensraum_01.shtml
 Lebensraum: Living Space for the Germans, http://www.holocaust-trc.org/wmp15.htm
 Snell, J. The Second World War (edited), 265
 Riker, A Short History of Modern Europe, 396
 Lipson, L. Europe in the 19th and 20th Centuries, 455
 Mowat, R. B. European Diplomacy, 162
 Langsam, W. C. The World since 1919, 5-6
 Strausz-Hupe-Stefan, International Relations, 345
 Carr, E. H. International Relations Pact Between Two World Wars, 6
 Wells, H. G. A Short History of the World, 312
 Pritt, D. N. Light from Moscow
 Wells, H. G. ibid, 330
 Law and Politics in the World Community, 143 (ed. by Lipskey, G. A.)
 Hartman, F. H. International Relations, 177
 Carr, E. H. International Relations Pact Between Two World Wars, 5