Race and Space (UK) | Facing History & Ourselves
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Hitler Youth and League of German Girls in Tianjin, China

Race and Space (UK)

Students examine the Nazi ideology of “race and space” and the role it played in Germany’s aggression toward other nations, groups, and individuals.


One 50-min class period


English — UK


This resource is intended for educators in the United Kingdom.


About This Lesson

In the previous lesson, students analysed the violent pogroms of Kristallnacht, a major escalation in the Nazis’ campaign against Jews. In this lesson, students will continue this unit’s historical case study by examining the Nazi ideology of ‘race and space’, a belief system that provided a rationale for their instigation of the Second World War and their perpetration of genocide. Students will then connect this ideology to Germany’s expansion throughout Europe, including the annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland, the invasion of Poland, and eventually the conquest of most of mainland Europe. Finally, students will examine the effects of the Nazis’ beliefs about ‘race and space’ on individuals through a close reading of eyewitness accounts by two individuals affected in different ways by the Germans’ 1939 invasion of Poland.

What does learning about the choices people made during the Weimar Republic, the rise of the Nazi Party, and the Holocaust teach us about the power and impact of our choices today?

How did the Nazis’ beliefs about ‘race and space’ influence Germany’s violent aggression towards other nations, groups, and individuals in the first years of the Second World War?

  • Students will understand how the Nazis’ beliefs about race and their quest for ‘living space’ influenced Germany’s aggression towards other nations, groups, and individuals in the first years of the Second World War.
  • Students will be able to explain how the ‘race and space’ ideology provided justification and motivation for many Germans to participate in the Nazi plans for expansion and conquest.

This lesson is designed to fit into one 50-minute class period and includes:

  • 3 activities
  • 2 readings
  • 1 video
  • 1 map
  • 1 PowerPoint
  • 1 handout
  • 1 suggested homework  
  • 2 extension activities

Hitler and the Nazis believed that the driving force of history was a struggle between races, a struggle that would only end when the superior race – in Hitler’s view, the Aryans – achieved supremacy over all the other races. By 1939, when Germany invaded Poland and ignited the Second World War in Europe, the Nazi vision of dominance increasingly necessitated the conquest and occupation of other countries. Historian Doris Bergen writes, ‘For Hitler, these two notions of race and space were intertwined. Any race that was not expanding, he believed, was doomed to disappear. Without living space—land to produce food and raise new generations of soldiers and mothers—a race could not grow.’ 1

Germany’s annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland in 1938 was a significant first step in the Nazis’ efforts to expand the Reich. The acquisitions represented a symbolic as well as territorial victory. By regaining most of Germany’s First World War losses, Hitler sought to unite ethnic Germans – people of German descent, sharing supposed German blood – into one nation. Emboldened by success in Austria and the Sudetenland, the Nazis and many Germans were ready to go to war in 1939 for additional living space (Lebensraum) for their nation. The invasion of Poland that year instigated war in Europe and a succession of German military victories throughout the continent. By December 1941, Germany had conquered most of mainland Europe, from France in the west to the outskirts of Moscow in the Soviet Union in the east. This conquest brought about what Hitler saw as a ‘New Order’ in Europe.

This lesson provides insight into how the Nazis’ racial ideology shaped their military and expansion strategies, ultimately sparking the outbreak of the Second World War. However, it also highlights the cultural aspects of conquest, demonstrating how ordinary Germans’ belief in their ethnic superiority and the righteousness of their work as ‘cultural missionaries’ in foreign countries justified increasingly egregious acts of violence and mass murder. Indeed, the New Order the Nazis imposed on Europe carried significant benefits for many Germans. These included enhanced national and racial pride, material gains for German citizens in the form of cheap goods, as well as new jobs, homes, and land in conquered countries.

By reading eyewitness accounts, students will also gain an understanding of how Jews and other people deemed inferior by the Nazis experienced German occupation. For non-Germans, consequences of Nazi plans for race and space were economic loss, horrible suffering, and the death of millions who the Nazis believed could not be productive members of the Reich. These groups included mentally and physically disabled people, whose murder the Nazis justified as a necessity of war. They also included members of what the Nazis considered to be inferior races – such as Poles, Slavs, Roma, and Sinti – who were taken from their homes and often confined to camps and murdered, as well. The Nazi race and space world view of course involved special contempt for Jews, who were killed in increasing numbers as the war wore on.

  • 1D. L. Bergen, War and Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust, 3rd edn (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), 52.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before you teach this lesson, please review the following guidance to tailor this lesson to your students’ contexts and needs.

This lesson focuses on the meaning and consequences of the Nazi ideology that historians refer to as ‘race and space’. Ideology can be a complicated concept to explain. In this lesson, it is defined as ‘a framework of beliefs and ideals about the way the world works’. The first activity in this lesson provides some suggestions for how to explain what an ideology is. Examples of ideologies can be helpful in explaining the concept to students, but it is important for you to choose a few examples that your students would likely recognise. If students are struggling to grasp the meaning of ideology, you might ask them to use the definition and the examples you provide to brainstorm together some additional examples of ideologies that influence people’s choices in the world today. Through the ensuing discussion, evaluating the examples that students brainstorm, you can help them come to a firmer understanding of the concept.

One activity in this lesson includes a mini-lecture, incorporated into the lesson PowerPoint, with the following related images: 

  1. League of German Girls in the Warthegau
  2. Jews in German-Polish Border Town
  3. Exhibit on Germany’s Colonization of Poland

The following are key vocabulary terms used in this lesson:

  1. Ideology
  2. Expel
  3. Missionary

Add these words to your Word Wall, if you are using one for this unit, and provide the necessary support to help students learn these words as you teach the lesson.

Each lesson in this unit includes a PowerPoint of student-facing slides.

The PowerPoints are intended to be used alongside, and not instead of, the lesson plans because the latter include important rationales, context, and detailed activity instructions that teachers should familiarise themselves with before teaching each lesson.

The PowerPoints include basic content and student-facing prompts from the lesson plans but are minimally designed because we expect teachers to adapt them to fit the needs of their students and class.

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Lesson Plan


  • Ask students to respond to the following prompts in their journals
    • What do you know about Nazi ideas concerning race?
    • How would you describe them to someone who did not know anything about the subject? 
  • Then have them share their ideas with a partner, before debriefing as a class. 
  • Next, explain to students that Hitler and the Nazis were motivated by a specific ideology, or a framework of beliefs and ideals about the way the world works. If necessary, take a moment to explain the meaning of ideology, using examples of ideologies students might have heard about (i.e. non-violence, white supremacy, environmentalism, capitalism, and other political world views).
  • Tell students that historians have referred to the ideology that motivated the Nazis’ actions that started the Second World War and led to genocide as ‘race and space’. 
  • In the short video Hitler’s Ideology: Race, Land, and Conquest (5:50), historian Doris Bergen introduces this ideology and explains how it is foundational to understanding the Second World War and the Holocaust. 
  • Watch the video with students, and then use the S-I-T teaching strategy to engage students in a discussion.
  • As the discussion continues, you might pose the following questions to check for understanding:
    • Why does Bergen use the terms race and space to describe Hitler’s ideology? What does she mean by each term?
    • How was Hitler’s belief in a superior Aryan race related to his desire for the conquest of new land? How did this ideology make war necessary, in Hitler’s view?
  • Before students look closely at some effects that the Nazi ‘race and space’ ideology had on the lives of individuals at the beginning of the Second World War, it is important to provide some basic historical context.
  • Pass out the map The Growth of Nazi Germany and the handout Notes on the Growth of Nazi Germany, 1933–1939 to students. As you give a mini-lecture covering the numbered notes on the latter handout, have students write the number of each note in the appropriate location on the map.
  • Finish the mini-lecture by reading aloud to students the testimony of the Polish woman Mrs J. K. in the reading Colonising Poland. You might give students a moment to jot down any thoughts or feelings they have about the story in their journals before moving on to the next activity.
  • After considering basic facts about the German invasion of Poland, students will now analyse a first-hand account describing the experiences and consequences of German colonisation.
  • The class will use the Save the Last Word for Me teaching strategy to discuss and analyse the reading “Cultural Missionaries”. Provide each student with three notecards and a copy of the reading.
  • As the class reads Melita Maschmann’s account together, each student should highlight three sentences that they find especially surprising, interesting, troubling, or otherwise noteworthy.
  • Divide the class into groups of three, where they will take turns sharing one of their quotations. After reading the quotation to the group, the other two group members will discuss its significance for a minute before the student who shared the quotation explains his or her reasons for choosing it. Each student should have the opportunity to share one quotation before the activity ends.
  • Debrief the activity with a whole-group discussion of the following question:

    What motivated Melita Maschmann to participate in Germany’s policies of expelling Poles and colonising their land? How did the Nazis’ ‘race and space’ ideology connect to how she thought about her work in Poland?

Suggested Homework 

Finish the lesson by asking students to write a response in their journals to the following prompt:

What are some examples of ideologies that are influential in the world today? Choose one that you have encountered in your own life or have read about in the news and write about how it influences, positively or negatively, people’s choices and experiences.

Extension Activities 

To help students further contextualise the political, cultural, and social effects of the German occupation of Poland, you might share the following readings from Chapter 8 of Holocaust and Human BehaviourThe War against Poland: Speed and BrutalityDividing Poland and Its People, and Colonising Poland. Each reading is followed by connection questions that you can use to help guide students’ analysis and discussion.

The Nazis’ race and space ideology also led them to target people with disabilities, who Hitler believed were ‘marginal human beings’. Programmes such as the T4 ‘euthanasia’ programme involved the medical killing of about 70,000 people with epilepsy, alcoholism, birth defects, hearing loss, mental illnesses, and personality disorders, as well as those who had vision loss or developmental delays or who even suffered from certain orthopaedic problems.

You can share the following resources with students to introduce them to the Nazis’ medical killing programme and the range of responses to it, from complicity to protest, by a variety of Germans (please note, some of the resources might be difficult to process for students and may not be appropriate to use in your classroom setting – please consider the needs of your students when deciding what you use in this extension):

Materials and Downloads

Quick Downloads

This is the handout that students use throughout the Race and Space (UK) lesson plan.

Download the Files

Notes on the Growth of Nazi Germany, 1933–1939 - PDF
Help students follow along a mini-lecture about Nazi Germany's expansion in the 1930s.

Get Files Via Google

Notes on the Growth of Nazi Germany, 1933–1939 – Doc
+ Share to Google Classroom Help students follow along a mini-lecture about Nazi Germany's expansion in the 1930s.

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