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Racial Purification, Lebensraum and the Shoah

Updated on May 16, 2018
A burning synagogue during the Kristallnacht pogrom.
A burning synagogue during the Kristallnacht pogrom. | Source
A Jewish shop destroyed during the Kristallnacht pogrom.
A Jewish shop destroyed during the Kristallnacht pogrom. | Source
Einsatzgruppen victims at Babi Yar in Kiev, Soviet Union.
Einsatzgruppen victims at Babi Yar in Kiev, Soviet Union. | Source
Prisoners arrive at the Belzec extermination camp near Belzec, Poland circa 1942.
Prisoners arrive at the Belzec extermination camp near Belzec, Poland circa 1942. | Source
Prisoners arrive at the Sachenhausen concentration camp Sachenhausen, Germany 1943.
Prisoners arrive at the Sachenhausen concentration camp Sachenhausen, Germany 1943. | Source
Roll call at the Buchenwald concentration camp.
Roll call at the Buchenwald concentration camp. | Source
Prisoners at Dachau concentration camp.
Prisoners at Dachau concentration camp. | Source

Racial Purification, Lebensraum, and the Shoah

In a January 1939 speech in the German Reichstag, Adolf Hitler pronounced “if international finance Jewry should succeed once more in plunging the nations into a world war, the result would not be the Bolshevization of the earth and thus the victory of Jewry, but the destruction of the Jewish race in Europe”, (Hochstadt, p.129). In making this particular remark, Hitler revealed publicly his intention for the Jewish population of Europe, a plan he initially laid out in Mein Kampf several years prior. Hitler’s plans for his “Third Reich” were based on the dual notions of race and space, purification of the German, or Aryan, race and lebensraum, or living space, for the colonization of Eastern Europe. This was always Hitler’s plan, the purification of the German race, colonization of Eastern Europe, and the destruction of the Jewish race, culminating in the Holocaust or Shoah the Nazi effort to rid the world of Jews.

Anti-Semitism was not a new phenomenon in Europe, examples of anti-Semitic sentiments can be found from as far back as the Crusades, the Black Death, and from the much revered founder of Protestantism, Martin Luther. During the First Crusades in 1096, groups of Crusaders destined for Jerusalem slaughtered the Jewish inhabitants of the cities of Worms, Mainz, and Cologne in what is modern day Germany. This led to the massacre of Jews in Spain and France, and of Jews of the Rhineland again during the Second Crusades of 1146. There were also many who believed that Jews were responsible for the Black Death of 1348, sparking pogroms against Jews perpetrated by Christians in retaliation for perceived slights that caused the plague. The most surprising of these examples for many may be the writings of Martin Luther, the founder of the Lutheran protestant religion, who clearly had many anti-Semitic ideals of his own. In a treatise from 1543 titled On the Jews and Their Lies, Luther felt compelled to put his feelings regarding Jews on paper. In this writing Luther calls Jews “fat” and “lazy” and said that “next to the devil, you have no more bitter, venomous, and vehement foe than a real Jew” (Hochstadt, p. 13). Based on these examples, and many others, it is obvious that there has always been an anti-Semitic vein throughout Europe, making it easy for someone of Hitler’s communication abilities to manipulate these sentiments into the horror of the Shoah. While Jews were the primary target of Hitler’s racial purification policies, they also included Slavic people, homosexuals, Roma and Sinti people (gypsies), Jehovah’s Witnesses, communists, and the mentally handicapped were also targeted by a euthanasia program to rid Germany of people deemed undesirable.

While many believe that the Holocaust began as a result of total war in Europe, atrocities against Jews under the Nazi regime actually began much sooner. Hitler attained the chancellorship of Germany in January 1933 and began to implement his racial policies in short order. Where Hitler’s extremist anti-Semitic views came from is still the subject of some debate, with some professing that it stemmed from fairly recent events such as the “stab in the back” that was inflicted upon the German people resulting in Germany’s surrender during World War One that Hitler believed was leveled against Germany by Jews. One historian, in a psychohistory, claims that it stemmed from Hitler’s Oedipus complex and seeing his father, whom he thought may have been a Jew, assault his mother during his youth. Regardless of their origin, it was this neurosis that drove the mechanism behind the murder of millions.

Nazi persecution of “undesirables” began with the Reichstag fire of 1933, when a suspicious fire broke out and destroyed the building, the fire was promptly pinned on a communist agitator. This incident was used by Hitler and the Nazis to solidify their power and a government sponsored boycott of Jewish businesses throughout Germany in 1933 which was followed by a ban on Jews in the German civil service. Nazi persecution of Jews became codified in the fall of 1935 when they passed the Nuremberg Race Laws, which consisted of the Law for Protection of German Blood and Honor and Reich Citizenship Law. The Protection Law forbade marriage and sexual relationships between “real” Germans and Jews while the Citizenship law legally defined who was and was not a Jew. These laws opened the door to open persecution of Jews throughout Germany making it legal to do so.

The tipping point for Jews in Germany came in 1938 with the Kristallnacht, or “the night of broken glass”. After hearing of the murder of a German at the hands of a Jew at the German embassy in Paris, Hitler, Goebbels, Goering, and Himmler ordered a pogrom in retaliation. Nazi leaders ordered all Jewish businesses to be demolished as well as all communal institutions, including synagogues, and all Jewish men between the ages of 16 and 60 were to be arrested and sent to concentration camps. As a result, nearly all of Germany’s and Austria’s synagogues were destroyed and thousands of Jews were arrested, truly astonishing was that the insurance companies estimated the damage costs to be 25 million marks that Hermann Goering ordered paid to the government treasury and not their Jewish clients because “the Reich had suffered the real damage” (Botwinick, p. 114). The Kristallnacht marked the end of subversive discrimination of Jews in Germany and opened a whole new chapter in the brutality of the Nazi regime toward their Jewish population.

The second focus of Hitler’s foreign policy, and a key element of the Holocaust, was lebensraum, or living space for his expanding Reich. It was Hitler’s intention to conquer nations to the east and destroy their Jewish and Slavic populations to make room for his Reich to expand and dominate Europe. In Hitler’s opinion, the land space that Germany encompassed was entirely too small and his growing Reich would need more living space if Germany was to be the world power that he envisioned, at the expense of the less desirable populations to his east. It was this need for space that would require the mass murder of millions of people of Jewish or Slavic background and be the second driving force behind the Holocaust.

In January of 1942, a now infamous meeting took place at a lakeside villa outside of Berlin; the Wannsee Conference would become to be considered the meeting that marked the end of European Jews. The official order from Goering to Reinhard Heydrich was “to devise a comprehensive plan to solve the Jewish problem”, (Botwinick, p. 169). By all accounts, the annihilation of the Jews was already well underway, what this conference actually did “establish an official policy statement to legitimize their conduct”, (Botwinick, p. 170). It appears that this meeting was called with the intention of creating an escape clause for the guilty parties involved, if the action was government sanctioned it might create cover for them after the war and they may be brought to account for their actions. The conference also did one other thing, it indicated the global scope of the annihilation that the Nazis had in mind and indicated that the SS would be the organization in charge of the process.

As mentioned previously, Hitler and made his decision to annihilate European Jews many years prior to the outset of World War Two, but began in full force after the invasion of Poland in 1939. Immediately after the Wehrmacht went into Poland, they were followed by specialized killing units referred to as Einsatzgruppen, specialized units of the SS who’s specific purpose it was to murder Jews in the occupied territories of Eastern Europe. The Einsatzgruppen conducted their business throughout Poland and into the Soviet Union after Barbarossa and used many methods to achieve their goals, before Zyklon B and the gas chambers they were forced to improvise. In spite of these “limitations”, the Einsatzgruppen murdered between 1.5 and 2 million Jews in the occupied territories. As the system became more organized, due to their German heritage, the killings became easier and more efficient. The Nazis began herding Jews like cattle into ghettoes during the spring of 1940; from there they would begin to transport them by train to the killing centers at places such as Auschwitz and Treblinka. These facilities became the focus of the systematic murder of the Holocaust in 1941 and were in continual use until the winter of 1944 when the Soviets were closing in on them, which resulted in the forced march of the victims back to the camps in Germany.

The war was central to achieving Hitler’s desired goals of race and space, to acquire the space necessary for their master race would require war on a massive scale. The war also provided the Nazis with the opportunity to cover their activities from the outside world. In the directive to the SS outlining the goals of the Einsatzgruppen, the Jews and others were to be executed as “partisans” and Slavs and Russians were left to die in P.O.W. camps throughout Eastern Europe. According to Nazi war policies, the murder of the Jews was as integral to their war goals as were military offensives against the Soviet Union, and using the German train system to transport Jews to killing centers was as vital as using them to move military equipment. This shows that the war was vital to achieving the twin goals of race and space and the fact that the Germans looked at the aims of Holocaust as equal to the aims of the war shows that all were of the same opinion on the process of murder.

Doris Bergen, a noted Holocaust scholar states that “Hitler was an essential factor in Nazism and the genocide it produced. He did not have complete power-even dictators depend on popular support-and a program as massive as the crimes of Nazism required many accomplices. Nonetheless, Hitler’s leadership was essential in setting the agenda. Hitler was no mere opportunist; he operated from a consistent view of the world. He could be flexible, pragmatic, and responsive to the situation on the ground, but he took the initiative and provided much of the drive and the will that proved crucial in setting Germany on the path to war and genocide. Without Hitler, Nazism, World War II, and the Holocaust would not have taken place” (Bergen, p. 30). It is obvious that Hitler provided the drive and determination for the Holocaust to occur, but a substantial portion of the population of Germany and elsewhere in Europe had to be willing to find it acceptable for a group of people to be isolated and murdered, the underlying anti-Semitism throughout Europe provided that.

In Mein Kampf, Hitler laid out his plans for race and space in Europe; in 1939 he laid before the German Reichstag his intentions for Jews in Europe. In a later communication to Himmler, he ordered Jews in Eastern Europe to be executed as “partisans”, regardless of whether they were or not. Whether Hitler’s hatred of Jews came from ill-will held over from World War One or from some traumatic episode from his childhood, Hitler’s intention from the outset of war was always the annihilation of the Jews. Hitler put his plans to paper in Mein Kampf, and that may have been the genesis of his plans for annihilation, but from that point it was always his intention to annihilate the Jewish population of Europe. Every step he took from that point, whether it was ascending to power in Germany or signing a non-aggression pact to temporarily sideline the Soviet Union, his plans for murdering Europe’s Jews was never far from the surface. The Nazi functionaries that served Hitler are by no means blameless for their behavior, no one person could have carried out these atrocious acts, but as Bergen stated Hitler provided the drive and the will that proved to be the match that set Europe ablaze.

Copyright© 2012 RLB


Bently, J.H., Ziegler, H.F., Streets, H.E. (2008). Traditions & encounters: A brief global history. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.

Bergen, D.L. (2009). War & genocide: A concise history of the holocaust. Toronto, ON: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Botwinick, R.S. (2004). A history of the holocaust: From ideology to annihilation. Boston, MA: Prentice Hall.

Hochstadt, S. (2004). Sources of the holocaust. Houndsmill, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kershaw, I. (2008). Hitler: A biography. London, UK: W.W. Norton & Company.

Rhodes, R. (2002). Masters of death: The ss-einsatzgruppen and the invention of the holocaust. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Waite, R.G.L. (1977). The psychopathic god Adolf Hitler. New York, NY: Basic Books.

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    • rlbert00 profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from USA

      Thank you for the kind words. I think it's important that the twin components of racial purification and "living space" are put in their proper perspective in relation to the events of the Holocaust. Unfortunately it wasn't Hitler alone that had these ideas prior to 1933, they were very prominent among allegedly educated members of German society.

    • Natashalh profile image


      8 years ago from Hawaii

      Thanks for a well-research and clearly presented piece.

    • shea duane profile image

      shea duane 

      8 years ago from new jersey

      Tragic! Interesting hub because it offered so much information, all of which is frightening and makes me wonder what humans are capable of. Very interesting.

    • LadyLyell profile image


      8 years ago from George, South Africa

      One has to be astonished at what took place in the above account.

      I once read a detailed account of what Jehaovah's Witnesses suffered under Hitler and what a gruesome read. All because they held fast to their faith being on neutral ground from a political point of view.

      Thank you for the outstanding article!

    • rlbert00 profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from USA

      Thank you for taking the time to peruse my hub and thank you for the compliment. I think that's its vital to give credit were credit is due and acknowledge the work of those that contributed to my understanding of this horrible event.

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 

      8 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Great Hub. Packed with information, yet easy to read. Thank you for including the books you used for source material at the bottom. That is the scholarly thing to do.

      Please see my comments on your most recent post on the Holocaust prior to this one. Good work.


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