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?
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.