Lesson 18 of 23
One 50-minute class period

Race and Space

From the Unit:

Essential Questions

Unit Essential Question: 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?

Guiding 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?

Learning Objectives

  • 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.


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.


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.


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

Notes to Teacher

  1. Explaining Ideology
    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.

  2. Creating a Mini-Lecture
    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:

  3. Previewing Vocabulary
    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.

  4. The Unit Essay Assessment
    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 four lessons to their evidence logs. For suggested activities and resources, see Adding to Evidence Logs, 2 of 3.



  1. Introduce the Nazi Ideology of “Race and Space”
    • 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?
  2. Provide Historical Context
    • 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, 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 any thoughts or feelings they have about the story in their journals before moving on to the next activity.
  3. Analyze a Firsthand Account
    • 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 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.
    • 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?

  4. Reflect on the Influence of Ideology
    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 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.


  1. Further Investigate the Invasion and Colonization of Poland
    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.

  2. Explore the Nazis’ Secret War against People with Disabilities
    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:



Get Started

Begin here to find useful information and rationale for teaching this unit.

Lesson 1 of 23

Introducing The Unit

Students develop a contract establishing a reflective classroom community in preparation for their exploration of this unit's historical case study.

Lesson 2 of 23

Exploring Identity

Students identify the social and cultural factors that help shape our identities by analyzing firsthand reflections and creating personal identity charts.

Lesson 3 of 23

Stereotypes and “Single Stories”

Students create working definitions of stereotype as they examine the human behavior of applying categories to people and things.

Lesson 4 of 23

Universe of Obligation

Students learn a new concept, universe of obligation, and use it to analyze the ways that their society designates who is deserving of respect and caring.



Step 1:

Introducing the Writing Prompt

Students draft a working thesis statement for an argumentative essay about the impact of choices in history.

Lesson 5 of 23

The Concept of Race

Students analyze the socially constructed meaning of race and examine how it has been used to justify exclusion, inequality, and violence throughout history.

Lesson 6 of 23

The Roots and Impact of Antisemitism

Students explore the long history of discrimination against Jews and come to understand how anti-Judaism was transformed into antisemitism in the nineteenth century.

Lesson 7 of 23

World War I and Its Aftermath in Germany

Students begin the unit's historical case study by exploring the brutal realities of World War I and the impact of the armistice and the Treaty of Versailles.

Lesson 8 of 23

The Weimar Republic

Students reflect on the idea of democracy as they analyze the politics, economics, and culture of Germany during the period of the Weimar Republic.



Step 2:

Introducing Evidence Logs

Students start to gather evidence that supports or challenges their initial thinking about the writing prompt.

Lesson 9 of 23

The Rise of the Nazi Party

Students examine how choices made by individuals and groups contributed to the rise of the Nazi Party in the 1920s and 1930s.

Lesson 10 of 23

European Jewish Life before World War II

Students analyze images and film that convey the richness of Jewish life across Europe at the time of the Nazis’ ascension to power.

Lesson 11 of 23

Dismantling Democracy

Students examine the steps the Nazis took to replace democracy with dictatorship and draw conclusions about the values and institutions that make democracy possible.

Lesson 12 of 23

Do You Take the Oath?

Students consider the choices and reasoning of individual Germans who stayed quiet or spoke up during the first few years of Nazi rule.

Lesson 13 of 23

Laws and the National Community

Students are introduced to the Nazis’ idea of a “national community” and examine how the Nazis used the Nuremberg Laws to define who belonged.



Step 3:

Adding to Evidence Logs, 1 of 3

Students respond to the writing prompt in a journal reflection and begin to evaluate the quality of the evidence they are gathering.

Lesson 14 of 23

The Power of Propaganda

Students analyze several examples of Nazi propaganda and consider how the Nazis used media to influence the thoughts, feelings, and actions of individual Germans.

Lesson 15 of 23

Youth and the National Community

Students learn about the experiences of people in Nazi Germany through a variety of firsthand accounts and identify the range of choices that they faced.

Lesson 16 of 23


Students learn about the violent pogroms of Kristallnacht by watching a short documentary and then reflecting on eyewitness testimonies.

Lesson 17 of 23

Responding to a Refugee Crisis

Students think about the responsibilities of governments as they consider how countries around the world responded to the European Jews trying to escape Nazi Germany.

Lesson 18 of 23

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.



Step 4:

Adding to Evidence Logs, 2 of 3

Students share their ideas about the writing prompt in groups and continue to build their evidence logs.

Lesson 19 of 23

The Holocaust: Bearing Witness

Students are introduced to the enormity of the crimes committed during the Holocaust and look closely at stories of a few individuals who were targeted by Nazi brutality.

Lesson 20 of 23

The Holocaust: The Range of Responses

Students deepen their examination of human behavior during the Holocaust by analyzing and discussing the range of choices available to individuals, groups, and nations.

Lesson 21 of 23

Justice and Judgment after the Holocaust

Students grapple with the meaning of justice and the purpose of trials as they learn how the Allies responded to the atrocities of Nazi Germany.



Step 5:

Adding to Evidence Logs, 3 of 3

Students approach the unit writing prompt in its entirety through journal reflection, evidence, gathering, and discussion.

Lesson 22 of 23

How Should We Remember?

Students both respond to and design Holocaust memorials as they consider the impact that memorials and monuments have on the way we think about history.

Lesson 23 of 23

Choosing to Participate

Students use the “levers of power” framework to identify ways they can bring about positive change in their communities.



Step 6:

Refining the Thesis and Finalizing Evidence Logs

Students complete activities that help them think about the unit as a whole as they prepare a strong thesis statement for their essay.

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