In 1886, before Germany actively engaged in colonial projects, the highly influential philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in his book Jenseits von Gut und Böse that “the noble way [is] value- defining, […] it is value-creating”. In other words, those who are noble naturally define the values for the rest that is not noble. Nietzsche coined terms like Herrenrasse (master race) and Herrenmoral (master morality), which refer to the superiority of the European (and especially German) Übermensch (ubermensch). He demanded societal values that orient themselves towards the human will for power, which is essentially a form of social Darwinism. Such a discourse can be seen as the foundation and moral justification for the colonial enterprises to come, because without legitimate cause and reason, it would have been difficult to classify other people as inferior to the “noble” European from the beginning.
Further, this philosophy not only justified European take-over, but also justified the rule of the “noble” Tutsi within the African context because they were seen as the the master race and rightful dominator over the “Negros”. Benedikt Stuchtey, in a reflection on Hannah Ahrendt’s critique of imperialism, points out the peculiarity of the German colonial ideology:
“Even if imperialism around 1900 was unprecedented and unique in form and extent, it still profited from a tradition of political thinking which Arendt, in the English and French case identified as racist intuitions, and in the German case with additional völkisch conceptions”.
The term völkisch is essentially associated with national socialist ideology of the 1930s and 1940s but, as Hannah Arendt demonstrated, it can also be applied to the colonial ideology (as precursor to the Nazi concept) because it expresses the idea of peoples being races. The völkisch element underscores the German self-conception of being the Herrenrasse and therefore explains the invention of racial hierarchies trenchantly. Even before Nietzsche shaped the German consciousness of German racial supremacy, the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel declared in a lecture in 1837 that
“[Africa] is not a historical section of the world, it features no movements and developments, and what happened in it, meaning in its north, must be assigned to the Asian and European world. Egypt […] is not associated with the African spirit. What we intrinsically conceive as Africa is the ahistorical and the unreceptive, which is still entirely captured in the natural spirit” (Hegel: 1837, 234).
From such a quote it can already be foreseen that German models explaining progress in Africa will in the future aim at allocating “movements” and “developments” within African societies to inputs from outside. According to this logic, Hamites from Egypt, as whom the Rwandan elite were identified by Germans, are not only racially closer to the European type, but they are also informed by a Middle Eastern or even European intellectual world.
Nazi colonial expansion and settlement were premised upon the desire to obtain ‘living space’, or Lebensraum. Vague notions of a need for space, inspired by idealized constructions of medieval German migrations, gained popularity in late nineteenth century Germany. In 1897, geographer Friedrich Ratzel coined the term Lebensraum. Then, in 1901, he elaborated the word into a formal theory upon which he expanded until his death in 1904. However, the Nazis were not the first Bodern Germans to put the idea into practice. In adopting Lebensraumpolitik as a guiding principle, the Hitler regime borrowed an idea that Ratzel had conceived. With German South-West Africa in mind and that modern Germans first put into Practice there. Ratzel’s theory had three components.
First, it described the geographic space necessary to sustain a Volk, or people. Second, it argued that a Volkmust expand its territory – by some combination of migration, colonization, and conquest – as its population increased, or else perish from a lack of resources. Third, the theory suggested that only a Volkwith a strong agricultural base could flourish. Ratzel’s formulation of Lebensraum theory was closely connected to colonialism and German South West Africa.
In ‘Der Lebensraum’, Ratzel argued that
‘the difference between . . . those populations that fail and those that advance lies in spreading themselves . . . the areas of the failed groups lie torn apart, lawless, and poor. Advanced populations, in contrast, find the best places . . . and . . . grow’ in ‘instance[s] of colonization’.
When Ratzel advocated German colonies he often mentioned Africa. According to Harriet Wanklyn,
‘Ratzel wrote with great attention to Africa [and] the fate of Africa as a great colonial territory’.
‘Der Lebensraum’ does not explicitly refer to German South West Africa, but two facts suggest that the essay was developed with the colony in mind.
First, in 1892, Ratzel wrote an article designating the colony as a great candidate for German settlement Second, as a geographer, Ratzel would have conceived of his 1901 theory knowing that Namibia was Germany’s most populous settler colony. Thus, when Hitler wrote about Lebensraum, in the 1920s, he was likely to have been appropriating an idea developed with colonial Namibia in mind.
Ratzel built Lebensraum theory under the assumption that ‘superior cultures’ destroy ‘inferior cultures’ in battles for living space. In his 1891 Anthropo-geographie he claimed that,
‘The theory that dying out is predestined by the inner weakness of the individual race is faulty . . . the decline of peoples of inferior cultures [results from] contact with culture.’ Europeans, a people of ‘culture’,
would destroy ‘inferior’ peoples to acquire Lebensraum. To support his point he cited population decreases among indigenous Australians, northern Asians, Polynesians, North Americans, South Americans and Southern Africans.
This connection between acquiring Lebensraum and physically destroying the indigenous inhabitants of colonized lands would later undergird Hitler’s own linkage between colonization and genocide in Eastern Europe. Ratzel exerted considerable influence in Germany and on Hitler. In 1891, he became a founding member of the pro-empire Pan-German League. In 1900, he published an influential book advocating German naval expansion and he continuously published both academic and popular articles. Ratzel was thus able tow widely disseminate both his Lebensraum theory and his idea that Africans were doomed to vanish in the face of European settlement. Ratzel directly influencedd Rudolf Hess, and through Hess, Adolf Hitler.
According to Professor Karl Haushofer, who repeatedly visited Hitler in Landsberg Prison, Hess read Ratzel’s 1897 Political Geography and discussed it with Hitler as the two were writing Mein Kampf. When Hitler adapted Lebensraumto his own plans he built on foundations laid in German South West Africa. Even before Ratzel had articulated Lebensraum theory, settlers and their advocates were expressing and putting into practice nearly identical ideas. German Chancellor von Caprivi endorsed the annexation of Namibia by proclaiming to the Reichstag, in 1893:
‘it is now German territory and must be maintained as German territory.’
In 1889, German colonial military commander Curt von François portentously suggested,
‘That the natives [have] a right to the land and [can] do with it what they like . . . cannot be contested by talk, but only with the barrel of a gun.’
With more diplomacy, Governor Theodore Leutwein later wrote that,
‘the whole future of the colony lies in the gradual transfer of the land from the hands of the work-shy natives into white hands’.
Commissioner for Settlement Paul Rohrbach reiterated this sentiment:
‘The decision to colonize in South West Africa means nothing else than that the native tribes must withdraw from the lands on which they have pastured their cattle and so let the white man pasture his cattle on these self-same lands’.
Finally, a 1901 Deutsch Südwestafri kanische Zeitung article agreed:
‘the land, of course must be transferred from the hands of the natives to those of the whites, [this] is the object of colonization in the territory. The land shall be settled by whites. So the natives must give way and either become servants of the whites or withdraw’.
Without ever having read Ratzel’s works, Germans put Lebensraum discourse into practice in German South West Africa, thus testing an idea that Nazis later pursued by seizing and settling Eastern Europe. Settlers and their advocates rationalized taking African land and wealth by claiming inherent German superiority and martial necessity. Then, they supported these theories with force. It was the same simple, brutal logic Hitler employed in Eastern Europe when he wrote of ‘the right to possess soil’, German racial superiority, and acquiring Lebensraum ‘by the sword’.
Nazis sometimes even directly linked Lebensraum theory to the lost Wilhelmine colonies. For example, according to the 1940 official biography of Bavarian governor Ritter von Epp,
‘The fight for the re-winning of overseas German Lebensraum[began] when Hitler and his movement came to power’.
Some Nazis overtly mentioned German South West Africa when promoting Lebensraum theory. Pro-Nazi author Hans Grimm celebrated the space he had found during 14 years in South Africa and German South West Africa in his 1926 People without Space. The novel was a key element of Nazi Lebensraum propaganda, selling 315,000 copies by 1935, and ultimately some 700,000 copies in Germany. Writing as Nazi Party Colonial Policy Office chief, in 1934, von Epp described German South West Africa simply as ‘Lebensraum’. Six years later, when asking,
‘Why did we go to South West Africa at all?’,
‘because . . . a growing people needed both room to expand and growing economic resources’.
Adopted from Ratzel and the Second Reich, Lebensraum theory undergirded Hitler’s grand vision and subsequent Nazi expansion.
In Mein Kampf, Hitler argued that,
‘why acquisition of new soil for the settlement of the excess [German] population possesses an infinite number of advantages’. Hitler then went on to reiterate repeatedly Ratzel’s claim that, ‘Only an adequate large space on this earth assures a nation freedom of existence’.
He also emphasized that the NaziParty,
‘must . . . lead this people from its present restricted living space to new land and soil, and . . . must strive to eliminate the disproportion between our population and our area’.
For Hitler, as for Ratzel, it was crucial ‘to secure for the German people the land and the soil to which they are entitled on this earth’. On 23 May 1939, Hitler further restated Ratzel’s thesis by claiming that obtaining Lebensraum ‘is impossible without invading other countries or attacking other people’s possessions’. Yet, Hitler did not receive the Lebensraum idea from Ratzel alone. Germans had already invaded others’ land in Namibia, thus making the practice of Lebensraum theory part of a lived collective German experience. Throughout the Second World War, Nazi leaders proclaimed Lebensraum a prime objective.
In an April 1940 press conference Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels described his view of ‘the New Europe’ in a single word: ‘Lebensraum’. On 20 January 1942, at the Wannsee Conference, SS Intelligence chief Reinhard Heydrich summarized the progress of the ‘Final Solution’ by linking extermination with the acquisition of living space:
‘We have forced them [the Jews] out of the Lebensraum of the people.’ Commanding German troops in occupied Poland, General Bock justified ‘otherwise uncommonly harsh measures towards the Polish population of the occupied areas’
by emphasizing to subordinates the need to
‘secure German Lebensraum and the solutions to ethnic political problems ordered by the Führer’.
Once land was taken, Nazis followed the German South West African economic model by brutally subordinating indigenous resources to German purposes in order to create the agricultural utopia described by Lebensraum theory. Heinrich Himmler’s Generalplanost, or General Plan East, aimed to exploit Eastern Europe for raw materials, energy, food, and labor even if the process meant destroying local economies, uprooting communities, instituting slavery, and murdering millions.
Although in Mein Kampf Hitler wrote that Germany’s ‘territorial policy cannot be fulfilled in the Cameroons [a Wilhelmine colony in Africa], but today almost exclusively in Europe,’ he later adopted the Lebensraum idea for Africa, demanding ‘the return of all . . . former colonial territories’. Hitler wanted both to recreate Germany’s 1914 imperium and develop a vast Eastern European ‘living space’. Hitler thus borrowed Wilhelmine Lebensraum policy and expanded it to include Eastern Europe.