Ordering Space

The Concepts of Territory and "Lebensraum" in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

(August 2012)

The concept of "Lebensraum" is very closely linked to National Socialist policies of expansion and extermination during World War II. But its significance has proven to be much more complex. Against the backdrop of contemporary historical scholarship informed by spatial theory, the practical relevance of space is no longer seen as one-dimensional. This research project therefore systematically historicized spatial concepts of order in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. To this end, it was necessary to first investigate specific manifestations of political territoriality, examine how the formulation of academic theories and actual political practice interacted, and probe the central semantics, concepts, and practices of spatial ordering. While research to date has focused on notions of territorial order, especially in the context of state-building processes, this study conceptualizes different forms of administrative, economic, institutional, and infrastructural space appropriation as territorialization practices. In this way, the spatial order could not only be analyzed as such; modes of ordering space, in particular, can be analyzed as complex processes of internal or external land seizure.

Based on this approach, National Socialist expansion and extermination policies prove to be more than merely the practical implementation of the conquest of Lebensraum propagated by Hitler and other Nazi functionaries. The often widely diverging concepts of space which shaped planning and operative policies during the twelve years of National Socialist rule were constantly being adapted and reworked. The rapid rise of spatial planning in the 1930s, in particular, shows how the ordering of space as a domination strategy was professionalized and underpinned with academic work at the same time. In these contexts, the concept of Lebensraum increasingly transcended its geographic-geopolitical and agricultural frameworks, and transformed the tension between racial biology and theories of spatial ordering into a planning concept that focused primarily on the annexation, settlement, and domination of large areas. National Socialist territorial policy was based essentially on the idea of racially homogenizing existing and annexed space. The resettlement, expulsion, and murder of racially and politically undesirable population groups were not a consequence of territorialization policies in the conquered east, but rather their very purpose and objective. This remained characteristic of National Socialist spatial policy, despite adjustments made, especially after June 1941, to accommodate the expanded sphere of control, and in spite of less strict selection and Germanization practices for non-Jews due to wartime constraints.

This marks a significant difference in comparison with colonial land seizure. Nevertheless, the transferal of intellectual theories of space into strategies of political territorialization, conquest, and domination can be retraced in this context just as clearly as for the National Socialist period. As the subject of geography was being constituted in the early days of the discipline, Friedrich Ratzel, in particular, developed a concept of space shaped by Darwinism, which incorporated aspects of theories of evolution and migration. He used this not only to launch the conquest of Lebensraum as a discursive weapon in the political debate, but also to transfer the notion of the dynamics of consolidation, an idea of considerable significance in the nineteenth century, to the arena of state processes of territorialization and conquest. Although Ratzel openly justified the imperial conquests of colonial powers thought to be strongholds of culture, his ideas neither reflect a specifically German version of imperial ideology, nor do they suggest a predetermined trajectory that would sooner or later lead to a racist Lebensraum or extermination policy.

All the concepts for ordering space studied in this project were based on notions of space shaped not only by political ideals and concepts but also by specific methods, courses of action, and practices of spatial ordering. Moreover, they were linked to significant notions of belonging, participation, and exclusion. The obvious practical relevance of ‘space’ as a category supports the conclusion that the notion that territoriality was one of the significant principles of order in modern societies gradually gained ascendency after a long phase, beginning as early as the sixteenth century, in which the idea of territoriality took shape. In this sense, territorialization processes can be understood as symbolic and political acts of appropriation, which in Europe have undoubtedly proven to be closely correlated with forms of domination found in both nation-states and empires. However, for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, territoriality cannot be convincingly described as a concept of space that is constant and predominantly tied to the nation-state. Indeed, it is the changes in territorial notions of order, and the constant revisions in the spatial framework, that highlight the specific dynamics of territorial domination strategies.