The Jewish population in Poland being "resettled" by German soldiers, circa 1940-41.
Chapter

A War for Race and Space

Explore Germany's efforts to impose a new order on Europe based on Nazi racial ideology during the first two years of World War II.

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At a Glance

Chapter

Language

English — US

Subject

  • History

Grade

6–12
  • The Holocaust

Overview

About this Chapter

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.

  • 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?

This chapter is from the A War for Race and Space section of Holocaust and Human Behavior and includes:

  • 20 readings 
  • Connection Questions

Hitler's Ideology: Race, Land, and Conquest

Scholar Doris Bergen discusses the ideologies of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.

Adolf Hitler believed that the driving force of history was a struggle between races, a struggle that would only end when the superior race—the Aryan race, in Hitler’s view—achieved supremacy over all of the other supposed races. Aryans were a mythical race from whom many Germans and other northern Europeans believed they had descended (see reading, Breeding Society’s "Fittest" in Chapter 2). Previous chapters have explored the Nazis’ racial ideology and the ways that many Germans embraced, or at least accepted, that worldview in the 1920s and 1930s. Chapter 7 also documented Germany’s annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland, with the goal of expanding the Reich and uniting 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 fight for additional “living space” for their nation. 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  

Hitler believed that the quest for “living space” for the Aryan race would ultimately lead to war, a consequence he welcomed. He believed that war was inevitable until the racially fittest nation achieved complete supremacy. 2 The European war ignited by Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 soon combined with ongoing wars in Asia to create a truly global conflict, the largest and most destructive in human history. World War II was fought between the Allies—which included the United Kingdom, France, and eventually the Soviet Union and the United States—and the Axis powers, Germany, Italy, and Japan. Historians estimate that 55 million people died as a result of this war, a majority of whom were civilians. One country alone, the Soviet Union, suffered the deaths of more than 8 million soldiers and 14 million civilians. 3 The war ended with Germany’s defeat and surrender in May 1945 and Japan’s surrender, after the United States dropped two atomic bombs, in August of that year.

But in the early years of the war, Germany’s defeat was anything but certain. 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. According to historian Peter Hayes, “Driven by two central principles—racism and economic exploitation—this New Order inflicted enormous violence and suffering on the subject populations, including even some Germans.” 4

The consequences of the New Order the Nazis imposed on Europe included enhanced national and racial pride for many Germans, both civilian and military, and material gains for German citizens in the form of cheap goods, as well as new jobs, homes, and land in conquered countries. For non-Germans, consequences of the Nazi plans for “race and space” were economic loss, horrible suffering, and the death of millions in the newly conquered territories 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. This chapter introduces the extensive network of ghettos and camps in eastern Europe in which the Nazis imprisoned, and eventually murdered, millions of people, including 6 million Jews. The next chapter examines these camps in more detail, as well as the mobile killing units that followed the German army’s eastward advance.

  • 1Doris L. Bergen, War and Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust, 3rd ed. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), 52.
  • 2Gerhard L. Weinberg, Germany, Hitler, and World War II: Essays in Modern German and World History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 36.
  • 3“World War II: In Depth,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, last modified January 29, 2016, accessed April 6, 2016.
  • 4Peter Hayes, “The New Order in Europe: Introduction,” in How Was It Possible? A Holocaust Reader (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015), 257.

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Inside this Chapter

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.

  1. How were Nazi beliefs about “race” and the Nazis’ desire for “living space” connected? How did these beliefs about “race and space” influence Germany’s aggression toward other nations, groups, and individuals in the first years of World War II?
  2. Historian Peter Hayes writes that the “New Order” the Nazis had established in Europe by the end of 1941 was driven by two central principles: racism and economic exploitation. Find examples in this chapter of both of these principles in action. Which examples are most striking to you?
  3. Who benefited from German racism and economic exploitation during World War II? Who suffered? What evidence does this chapter provide to help explain why many Germans continued to support the Nazi regime? Were those who benefited complicit in their country’s violent aggression and mass murder?
  4. How were Jews further targeted and isolated by the Nazis during the first two years of the war? What choices remained available to Jews during this period? What dilemmas were they forced to confront? In what ways were they able to resist?
  5. Who protested actions taken by the Nazi regime during the events described in this chapter? What, specifically, did they protest? What reasons did they offer for their dissent? What were the consequences?

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