By 1939, Nazi Germany was ready for the next phase of Hitler’s racial program, which called for Lebensraum, or “living space,” for the Aryan race. The German invasion of Poland in September 1939 both set this quest for “race and space” in motion and began World War II in Europe. This chapter explores the Nazis’ plans to impose a new order on Europe, based on their racial ideology, in the first two years of World War II.

Essential Questions

  • How did the Nazis’ beliefs about “race and space” influence Germany’s violent aggression toward other nations, groups, and individuals in the first years of World War II? Who benefited from this aggression? Who suffered because of it?
  • What influenced many Germans to continue supporting the Nazi government even as their nation started a new war and began murdering portions of both the German population and the populations of other countries?
  • How did the war change the opportunities for dissent or resistance against the Nazi regime? What were the consequences of protest?



Before you explore our readings on the first two years of World War II, get familiar with the historical context and central themes.

Reading 1 of 20

Isolated and Demonized

Learn about the hundreds of anti-Jewish laws and measures passed in Germany during the first three years of World War II.

Reading 2 of 20

Targeting the Sinti and Roma

Deepen your understanding of the Nazis’ persecution of Sinti and Roma people during World War II.

Reading 3 of 20

"Unworthy to Live"

Learn about the Nazis’ medical killing program that was responsible for the murder of mentally and physically disabled people during World War II.

Reading 4 of 20

Bystanders at Hartheim Castle

Consider why the residents of Hartheim kept silent about the evidence of mass murder they witnessed in their town throughout World War II (Spanish available).

Reading 5 of 20

Protesting Medical Killing

Explore the stories of three German ministers who chose to speak out against the Nazis’ "euthanasia" program.

Reading 6 of 20

The War against Poland: Speed and Brutality

Examine how Nazi Germany's army targeted both the Polish army and the people of Poland as it waged war.

Reading 7 of 20

Dividing Poland and Its People

Learn how the Nazis imposed their racial hierarchy on the people of Poland during the German occupation.

Reading 8 of 20

Colonizing Poland

Learn about the Nazis’ plan to rearrange the population of Poland, which resulted in the displacement of more than a million ethnic Poles and Jews (Spanish available).

Reading 9 of 20

“Cultural Missionaries”

Consider what German citizens thought of Hitler's plan to colonize Poland through these reflections from a member of the League of German Girls and two German soldiers (Spanish available).

Reading 10 of 20

The War on Jews in Poland

Build your understanding of the Nazis’ devastating treatment of the Jews in Poland during the German occupation.

Reading 11 of 20

The Jewish Ghettos: Separated from the World

Read diary entries from a girl who lived in the Łódź ghetto, and learn the history of Jewish ghettos in Poland.

Reading 12 of 20

The Jewish Councils

Read the minutes of a Jewish Councils meeting held in the Vilna ghetto in 1942 and consider the unthinkable choices faced by its members.

Reading 13 of 20

Voices from the Warsaw Ghetto

Learn about the Oyneg Shabes, a group in the Warsaw ghetto that documented Nazi crimes and the daily lives of the ghetto's residents.

Reading 14 of 20

The Battle for Western Europe

Get an overview of the Nazis’ occupation of France and its advances into Western Europe during World War II.

Reading 15 of 20

Waging a Racial War

Consider how Nazi Germany's ideas about race determined how they treated soldiers, prisoners, and civilians during World War II.

Reading 16 of 20

Advice for German-Occupied Nations

This list of tips for “the occupied” distributed by a French citizen during World War II provides a window into what it was like to live in a Nazi-occupied country.

Reading 17 of 20

The Invasion of the Soviet Union

Learn about role the Soviet Union played in the Nazis’ plans for “space and race.”

Reading 18 of 20

Reaping the Benefits of War

Learn how the German government exploited the wealth and resources of occupied countries during World War II.

Reading 19 of 20

The United States Enters World War II

Examine the history of the United States' entrance into World War II following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Reading 20 of 20

Europe in Germany’s Grasp

Evaluate the state of World War II in 1941 using maps and historical context.

Analysis & Reflection

Analysis & Reflection

Enhance your students’ understanding of our readings on the first two years of World War II with these follow-up questions and prompts.

Get Our Companion Unit: Teaching Holocaust and Human Behavior

Lead your middle and high school students through a thorough examination of the history of the Holocaust. Over the course of the unit, students will learn to:

  • Craft an argumentative essay
  • Explore primary sources, videos, and readings that lead them through an in-depth study of the Holocaust
  • Recognize the societal consequences of "we" and "they" thinking
  • Understand the historical context in which the Nazi party rose to power and committed genocide

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