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

Race and Space

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


At a Glance

lesson copy


English — US


  • History
  • Social Studies




One 50-min class period
  • The Holocaust


About This Lesson

In the previous lesson, students analyzed the violent pogroms of Kristallnacht, a major escalation in the Nazis’ campaigns 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 World War II 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.

How can learning about the choices people made during past episodes of injustice, mass violence, or genocide help guide our choices today?

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?

  • Students will be able to explain the relationship between the Nazis’ beliefs about race and their quest for “living space,” and how these ideas played a central role in Germany’s aggression toward other nations, groups, and individuals in the first years of World War II.
  • After analyzing two firsthand accounts, 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, just as it led to dire consequences for those of so-called inferior races who lived in the newly conquered lands.

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

  • 4 activities
  • 2 teaching strategies
  • 2 readings, available in English and Spanish  
  • 1 video, available in English and Spanish subtitles
  • 1 map image
  • 1 handout, available in English and Spanish
  • 1 assessment 
  • 2 extensions 

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 touched off World War II in Europe, the Nazis’ 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 World War I 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, in 1939 the Nazis and many Germans were ready to go to war for additional “living space” 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 World War II. But 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 and 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 the 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. And of course the Nazi “race and space” worldview involved special contempt for Jews, who were killed in increasing numbers as the war wore on.

  • 1Doris L. Bergen, War and Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust, 3rd ed. (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 likely know about. For instance, if students have taken an American history course that covers westward expansion, they may be familiar with the basic tenets of manifest destiny, making it a good example of an ideology to offer in this lesson. 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 students brainstorm, you can help them zero in on a firmer understanding of the concept.

If you did not have a chance to provide more context on Nazi racial ideology in Lesson 10: The Rise of the Nazi Party, this lesson would be a good place to do so. Nazi racial ideology, including the belief explored in this lesson that supposedly superior races needed to conquer and occupy foreign countries, was rooted in pseudoscientific ideas about race and Social Darwinism that emerged in the nineteenth century. If your class has not been introduced to the history of “race science” and Social Darwinism, consider sharing with them the reading Breeding Society’s "Fittest" and leading a class discussion based on the connection questions that follow. For a deeper exploration of the social construction of race, consider showing clips from the documentary Race: the Power of Illusion or teaching the lesson The Concept of Race.

One activity in this lesson includes a mini-lecture, which you may choose to transfer to a PowerPoint presentation or some other format for students. If you would like to add images and other multimedia resources, you might choose to incorporate the following related images:

The following are key vocabulary terms used in this lesson:

  • Ideology
  • Expel
  • Missionary

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

If your students are writing the final essay assessment for this unit, after teaching this lesson, instruct your students to add evidence from the last five lessons to their evidence logs. For suggested activities and resources, see Adding to Evidence Logs, 3 of 4.

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Lesson Plan


  • 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., manifest destiny, nonviolence, white supremacy, environmentalism, capitalism, and other political worldviews).
  • Tell students that historians have referred to the ideology that motivated the Nazis’ actions that started World War II and led to genocide as “race and space.”
  • In the short video Hitler’s Ideology: Race, Land, and Conquest (05:50), historian Doris Bergen introduces this ideology and explains how it is foundational to understanding World War II 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 World War II, 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 Colonizing Poland. You might give students a moment to jot down in their journals any thoughts or feelings they have about the story before moving on to the next activity.
  • After considering basic facts about the German invasion of Poland, students will now analyze a firsthand account describing the experiences and consequences of German colonization.
  • The class will use the Save the Last Word for Me teaching strategy to discuss and analyze the "Cultural Missionaries" reading. 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.
  • Then have students copy each sentence onto the front of one of their notecards, and on the back of each notecard they should write a few sentences explaining why they chose the quotation on the front.
  • 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 colonizing their land? How did the Nazis’ “race and space” ideology connect to how she thought about her work in Poland?

  • 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.


  • Collect the notecards that students completed as part of the Save the Last Word for Me activity to gauge their understanding of the text, the “race and space” ideology, and how it influenced Germans like Melita Maschmann.
  • Students’ responses to the closing journal prompt about ideology in the world today can help you verify their understanding of the concept and see how they are thinking about the influence of powerful systems of belief on human behavior. If you have established that student journals are private in your classroom, assign students to complete the reflection on a separate piece of paper to turn in if you want to use this reflection for assessment.

Extension Activities 

To help students further contextualize 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 Behavior: The War against Poland: Speed and Brutality, Dividing Poland and Its People, and Colonizing 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.” Programs such as the T4 “euthanasia” program 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 orthopedic problems. You can share the following resources with students to introduce them to the Nazis’ medical killing program and the range of responses to it, from complicity to protest, by a variety of Germans:

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