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The Holocaust was fundamentally a geographical event founded on landscapes, times, and physical spaces. It was marked by a spatiality of the process, including concentration, dispersal, deportation, and dislocation. A few of the evident geographical facets involved in the execution of genocidal policies are the confiscation and reallocation of assets, the destruction of national infrastructures, along the forced relocation of millions of individuals. Several theorists have linked the geographical components of the Holocaust to the idea of Lebensraum (the need for living space), which was a central part of Nazi’s military conquests and racial policy. The term was first coined by prominent geographer and ethnographer Friedrich Ratzel in 1901. They asserted that a country must be self-sufficient in terms of territory and resources to fend off external threats. Darwin’s theory of natural selection profoundly influenced Ratzel and other geographers and misguidedly applied the notion to nation-states. He contended that nations, like the species Darwin investigated, required resources to survive, and only the fittest nation would win. Ratzel argued that all societies expanded their borders into other regions after successfully adapting to one geographical region. Using the French and British empires and America’s westward expansion, he contended that Germany needed to extend its colonies to relieve over-population (Housden).
Because of overpopulation’s economic and social burdens, many Germans had started colonizing the Germanic peoples of Eastern Europe even before the Nazi period. The German state had been prosperous in reaching this goal during World War I after extending its dominion to Eastern Europe, which many Germans viewed as the natural font. The idea of Lebensraum and the erroneous historical view that the regions in the East belonged to Germany facilitated expansionists ambitions. Most scholars in Germany and the public alike began to see the East as a territory whose immense natural resources belonged to the country. However, they were being wasted on racially inferior people such as the Jews and Slavs.
Before World War I, the German state has succeeded in setting up a military dictatorship as far east as Minsk intent on exploiting and modifying the landscape (Kamenetsky). However, the eventual defeat of the Germans in World War I resulted in the country losing its colonies in Eastern Europe. Adolf Hitler, who fought in the war, had observed how the loss of the territories in the east weakened morale and brought humiliation to the country. He even complained that the passing of the Versailles Treaty, which saw Germany lose all its colonies, had deprived his country of the regions is required to sustain its growing population.
In order to alleviate the loss and humiliation of losing its territories, many conservative Germans in the highest military echelon started the “stab-in-the-back” myth to direct the defeat not on the military but on Jews, who were assumed to have profited the most from the defeat. The heightened tensions after the country’s defeat accompanied by the seep seated cultural bias towards the Jews created a suitable setting for Hitler to cultivate his anti-Semitic ideas and integrate them effectively into his politics (Holocaust Matters, Why Did Hitler Not Like the Jews?). He blamed them for the failings of Germany and the world, thereby flaring up anti-Jew rhetoric that would move to mass murder during his time as the Nazi leader.
When Hitler and the Nazi Party ascended into power, they made the myth a central part of its official history. They made it their ambition to actualize the Lebensraum prospect. Lebensraum was no longer just a romantic yearning for the incalculable resources in Eastern Europe but also a critical tactical component of the Nazi state’s racist and imperial aspirations. Hitler compared Germany’s need for expansion to America’s Manifest Destiny. After the country lost its colonies in World War I, he made it his country’s duty to “Germanize” Central and Eastern Europe and remove the inferior races that occupied the region, both Jews and Slavs (Giaccaria and Minca). The drive to repossess the lost territories in the two regions and do away with the peoples who stood in the way of German colonization led to intensive planning for what would later become the Holocaust.
A set of economic and demographic strategies were placed to ensure Lebensraum and the removal of Jews and Bolshevists, who were blamed for their backwardness and their characteristic disloyalty and resistance to the German state. Hitler believed in a hierarchy of human species, with Aryans (ethnic Germans) being the fittest human species (master race) and Jews and Slavs occupying the lowest rung. The idea of Lebensraum was paired with the belief in the supremacy of the Germanic race over other human races. The concept of securing Lebensraum was about territorial expansion to the East to create more living space for the genetically superior Aryan race and the removal of racially inferior peoples. Hitler’s ultimate goal was to create a New European Order controlled by the Germanic people in the regions that had been colonized and Germanized (Balogun).
The National Socialists, Hitler’s party, also founded their racial doctrines on Darwin’s theory of evolution. They argued that racial groups were also embroiled in an existential struggle and that only the fittest race would finally survive and triumph. Hitler also borrowed the idea of Aryan superiority and right to Lebensraum from Ernst Haeckel’s theory of Social Darwinism. The Nazi’s race ideology involved military prowess to ensure “racial hygiene” and the triumph of the Aryan race over weaker races and persons. Jews and Bolsheviks, along with the Communist Soviet Union itself, were regarded as the weaker individuals (Housden). Propaganda was an instrumental part of military campaigns, and painting the three groups as reviled and fundamentally feeble was critical to Germany’s right to Lebensraum.
Even before becoming a chancellor, Hitler was obsessed with the superiority of the Germanic race and the need to maintain the purity of the master race as it sought to take over the world. Hitler argued that maintaining the purity of the Aryan race was of utmost importance, and therefore all populations occupying territories that were deemed to be Germany’s right should be eliminated. Because the Germanic race was superior in both power and intelligence, it was deserving of occupying these territories and displacing the inferior inhabitants. When Hitler came to power, these beliefs would dominate his philosophy of Lebensraum and be spread publicly through posters, movies, and the radio. Lebensraum was Hitler’s solution to the growing Aryan race and involved clearing out Central and Eastern Europe to make room for the master race (Herwig). Because of the prevailing political and social conditions, this aspiration was deemed by most scholars and the public alike to be German’s form of Manifest Destiny.
Even though the concept Lebensraum did not directly contribute to the Holocaust, it resulted in numerous nationalist, imperialist, and racist views that would lead to the murder of millions of Jews in Europe. Hitler blamed the weakness of his country on the influence of the country’s Jewish and communist groups, whom he accused of trying to take control of the country. The Nazis abhorred the Jews for several reasons, including their domination of finance capitalism, their leadership of the German Communist Party, and their influence on modernist cultural movements such as psychoanalysis and swing music (The National WWII Museum). Consequently, they made it a foreign policy to remove Jews from Europe and other “inferior” people such as Gypsies, homosexuals, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Their mission was to wage an insistent war on the Slavic peoples of Central and Eastern Europe and populate their territories with pure-blooded Aryans. The German master race would create farms and communities in these acquired regions connected to the motherland by new highways. Even though Hitler never made a secret of his loathing of the Jews and vehemently asserted that there impeded to return Germany to its former glory, he did not have any intentions to murder them in the manner of the Holocaust (Smilde). He started by making life in the country increasingly difficult for the Jews.Although the Nazis would regularly kill Jews in the years leading to the Second World War II, they had not yet conceived the idea of murdering them on a mass scale. At the time, the Nazis wanted to force the Jews out of Germany and even encouraged them to emigrate by taking away their livelihoods. The Nuremberg Racial Laws were enacted in 1935 to this effect, and they prohibited Jews from working in specific professions or even entering into some pubs or public parks (The Holocaust Explained). These laws also banned Jews from marrying non-Jews and even denied them German citizenship, thereby turning them into second-class citizens.
The Nazis would instigate violent riots to force Jews out of the country, including the famous Night of Broken Glass. The pogrom against Jews saw the ransacking and destruction of Jewish-owned stores, synagogues, and buildings. Thousands of Jewish people were taken to concentration camps, and their property and businesses were seized and appropriated by Nazi officials. The annexation of Austria in 1938 signified Hitler’s start of Lebensraum for the Aryan race and the re-union of all Germans residing outside the Reich. Austria was Hitler’s birth country, and he endeavored to bring it under his control by any means possible. German troops marched into Austria, seized its German-speaking state and peoples by force, and integrated their territory with Nazi Germany. Hitler brazenly went ahead and aggressively forced Czechoslovakia to surrender its territory. However, the subsequent invasion of Poland in 1939 marked World War II and the events that would lead to the Holocaust.
The incursion signaled the start of a more radical scheme to eliminate Jews who numbered about 1.7 million in the occupied territory. Most Jews had fled to Poland before the invasion, and war made it impossible for them to emigrate elsewhere. As a result, the Nazis built Jewish housing estates where several families were forced to share one house and often went hungry and without any medical care. The Jews in these camps were provided with little sanitation and facilities. The Jews were forbidden from leaving the ghettos and were forced to do hard labor. Most prisoners died from starvation and exhaustion from the long hours of grueling labor. It is estimated that throughout the Holocaust, one million Jews lost their lives in concentration camps. Thousands of Jews were executed during the early months of German’s occupation of Poland. However, the Nazi regime was planning to deport them to reservations in Austria or the Soviet Union after conquering. These plans rarely accounted for housing or food provisions, and the Nazis intended that the Jews die in the squalid conditions.
The Holocaust is, therefore, best viewed as the culmination of a series of decisions involving the removal of Jews. Some scholars have theorized that the idea of mass murder of Jews came from the less influential Nazis, who were already considering extreme solutions to removing the millions of Jews. Other researchers have posited that rivalry between different Nazi departments may have resulted in progressively radical measures against the Jews. However, the final decision to use mass murders to eliminate Jews was eventually ratified by Hitler. If the invasion of Poland marked the start of a more radical scheme to eliminate Jews, the successful invasion of the Soviet Union has been widely considered to be the precursor of the Holocaust.
It was only after the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union that they conceived the notion of murdering European Jews in masses. The communist regime was Germany’s ideological enemy, and Hitler announced war of destruction on the country. He even declared that any war crimes committed by the army command, including killing and starving the Soviet population, would go unpunished. It was Hitler’s great desire to create Lebensraum in the Eastern territories that saw the inception of the final solution. The final solution was a euphemism employed by Nazi Germans to refer to the mass murder of Europe’s Jews. It also marked an end to all policies that encouraged or forced the emigration of Jews from the German Reich and other European regions. The Nazis intended the euphemistic language to disguise the true nature of their plan to eliminate Jews.
The first phase of the final solution started with the Nazi invasion of Russia, where Hitler justified the mass killings of Russian Jews by asserting that Bolshevism was one of the nefarious expressions of the enduring Jewish threat. This justification was based upon which systematic genocide of the Jews was founded and what is referred to as the Holocaust. Hitler instituted the SS squad or the Einsatzgruppen, a particular unit of the German army that was charged with killing Jews, partisans, and communist leaders. These murders were officially meant to check resistance, but in 1941, they went beyond mere retaliation and included the killing of women and children, which was frowned upon and considered a taboo. The Jews in Nazi-occupied regions were executed ruthlessly and with no consideration of sex or age. It is estimated that the Nazis had murdered over 439,800 Jews by the end of 1941, and some regions across Eastern Europe were already declared “free of Jews” (Holocaust Matters). One of the momentous meetings in the Holocaust events was the Wannsee Conference in 1942, where Nazi Party leaders convened to create and discuss the final solution to the Jew problem.
Although Hitler had, in the previous year, authorized a European-wide genocide against the Jewish population, and mass murders were already carried out in German-occupied Eastern regions, the Wannsee Conference was arranged to affirm the killings by the SS Death squad publicly and integrate mass murders with the Lebensraum cause. Phase two of the final solution involved mass murders on a larger scale and included the construction of extermination centers. The desire to speed up the elimination of Jews saw the use of industrial killings using gas vans. These extermination camps were purposefully built near railway lines to facilitate transportation. Some prisoners in the extermination camps were assigned tasks such as heavy manual work and administrative work but would die a few weeks after they arrived from exhaustion, disease, or fatigue (The Holocaust Explained, Types of Camps). Those that survived were often murdered after a brief period of service and supplanted by new arrivals. Throughout the Holocaust, it is estimated that more than three million Jews were killed in the extermination camps.
It has been debated if Germany and the rest of the world were aware of the Nazi’s final solution policy and the mass murders carried out throughout Europe. In the case of the former, there are arguments that the average German was relatively oblivious of the mass extermination of six million Jews by Hitler’s SS squad. The Nazi Party maintained a firm grip on the press and only allowed the circulation of news that painted it in a favorable light. Moreover, the final solution was shrouded in secrecy, and only selected members of the ruling party were privy to the murderous scheme. Most Germans were indoctrinated with demonic portrayals of the Jewish race, and a majority of the population was desensitized to the increasing violence against the lesser races (Braman). On the other hand, British intelligence agents are believed to have already gathered evidence of systematic mass murders in Eastern Europe as early as the summer of 1941. Other countries such as America and Canada would later confirm that the final solution was applied in German-occupied territories (Facing History). These revelations would spur the governments of the United States, the Soviet Union, and Britain to issue a joint declaration against the Nazi Germans and form the Allied forces that would later defeat Hitler and put an end to the Holocaust.
The Holocaust brought sweeping reforms in politics, most notably the collapse of fascist regimes in Spain, Portugal, Greece, and Latin America. It resulted in the decolonization of the world, such as the abolition of apartheid in South Africa and the democratization of nearly every society globally. The murder of millions of Jews and Gypsies, Poles, and Slavs saw the condemnation of totalitarianism all over the globe, a renewed emphasis on honoring human rights, and the institution of international and inter-state sovereignty laws (Weiss). Although several decades have passed since the Holocaust, the events of the Holocaust are essential to teach and learn because they illustrate the fragility of all societies responsible for protecting human rights, the power of radical ideologies, the perils of discrimination, and the devastation that can be wrought by the abuse of power and propaganda (UNESCO). Most importantly, the Holocaust shows how greed and resentment can result in global devastation. Hitler was driven by the desire for Lebensraum and his eternal hatred for the Jews, whom he blamed for complex problems. Had it not been for his desire for more living space and his intolerance of other races, it could be argued that there would never have been a Holocaust.
Balogun, Bolaji. “Polish Lebensraum : the colonial ambition to expand on racial terms.” Ethnic and Racial Studies, vol. 41, no. 3, 2017, pp. 1-19.
Braman, Melissa A. “How Much Did the Germans Know about the Final Solution?: An Examination of Propaganda in the Third Reich.” 2010. The World War II Propaganda Collection. https://www.library.wmich.edu/digidb/mowen/paper.php. Accessed 10 May 2021.
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Weiss, Shewash. “The Impact of the Holocaust on Politics.” MFA, 1 February 2000, https://mfa.gov.il/MFA/MFA-Archive/2001/Pages/The%20Impact%20of%20the%20Holocaust%20on%20Politics-%20by%20Profes.aspx. Accessed 10 May 2021.
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