Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Origination and Persisting Relevance of 'Living Space'

The term, living space, was introduced into ethnography and geography by Friedrich Ratzel, a 19th century German naturalist. It was absorbed by geopolitical thinkers like Karl Haushofer and popularly diffused in literature by writers such as Hans Grimm. US and British historians claim that the concept is discredited, but it remains as relevant to people of European descent today as it was to Hitler's ultimate aims.

Friedrich Ratzel (1844-1904); naturalist,
geographer, and ethnographer.

The term living space, or Der Lebensraum in German, is one of the more well-known, and also distorted and less understood, concepts in German thought. It originates in the halls of the history of biology and geography at their intersection, first used in an academic context by Friedrich Ratzel (see the image, above), a German naturalist who taught and researched at Leipzig University. He uses the term in his publication, "Der Lebensruam."[1] Ratzel's use was scientific and not political.

By 'living space,' Ratzel meant the geographical expanse in which the populations of a given species or subspecies are able to support themselves, their size and mode of existence. [2] It will first be useful to remind the reader of the meaning of 'species,' 'subspecies,' as well as some related biological terms and ideas.

Biologists do not have universal agreement on what 'species' refers to, and defining species as populations whose members can interbreed ignores most of life, which is asexual, and omits the first two thirds of the history of life on Earth. Many hold species are populations of organisms, at a minimum, and disagree on what properties are important. A race is what is called a 'subspecies.' Races are integral to evolution: every species starts as a subspecies of a prior species.


However, Ratzel does not emphasize subspecies, or race, and though he stresses the folk [Das Volk] he spuriously and questionably emphasizes the cultural properties of a people or folk. He views culture as man's primary means of adaptation.[3] Ratzel argues that peoples are shaped by their relationship to their living space. States, for example, are the outcome of particular relations that given peoples have with their own environments and their unique assemblages of flora and fauna.

There are two important dimensions regarding living space, for Ratzel, that are crucial to understanding it: 1) migration and 2) colonization. The relationship of a population to its living space is directly connected to both. An expanding living space is the consequence of a population migrating to new territory, or increasing the proximal space of prior territory and therefore pushing elements of the population into it, and also a continual, successful colonization of such territory.

Vitally, successful migration and colonization means that living space, for human beings at least, is space within which farming, cultivating, and growing crops can take place. Genuine living space is irrigable and farmable soil and land.

The notion of living space was developed in the context of important advances in biological thought, including Darwin's hypothesis of natural selection. Crucially, it was also extended and embedded within German politics. Karl Haushofer (1869-1946), a German geopolitician, diffused his ideas, deeply influenced by Ratzel, to leading figures of the National-Socialist movement in Germany. Rudolf Hess was a student of Haushofer; both expanded the political relevance of Ratzel's ideas.

Popular writers, such as Hans Grimm, diffused the political relevance of living space into a popular context. His book, Volk ohne Raum, or People Without Space, was published in 1927. It is a novel that highlights the geographic limitations constraining the German people and dramatizing their very real need for greater living space. Published at a time when the Empires of Europe, including France and Britain, still had great colonial holdings, it makes a case for such, for Germany.[4]

Throughout the later Middle Ages, German settlements were in constant flux in their relation with peoples in Eastern territories. The tendency to push Eastward arose as a consequence both of planned marches as well as a natural, demographic tendency. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the convergence of this historical tendency with the concept of living space led to formal advocacy of a modern Drang nach Osten: a "drive to the East" or "yearning for the East."

The incorporation of the term 'living space' into National-Socialism was accompanied by its correlation with Germany's geopolitical predicament on the European Continent. Germany, at the time Hitler was writing Mein Kampf in the early 1920s, had been stripped of overseas colonies and was sandwiched between hostile Empires in the West and a growing Soviet threat in the East. Western European nations had vast Empires for surplus populations, and the US enjoyed limitless land.

Chapter 14 of Mein Kampf, "Eastern Orientation or Eastern Policy," accompanies his views on the unenviable geopolitical situation of Germany in Europe with the observation of its parallel need for natural resources. The solution to this dilemma, Hitler writes, is to secure peace with the Empires of Western Europe and a neutral Britain, France, and US, and to extend the living space of the German people eastward. The Soviet Union would have to give way to this new policy.

Hitler's conception of living space emphasizes the necessity of unbroken soil. A people benefits from this continuity: Racially, ethnically, and geographically. It was for this reason that he rejected overseas colonies, though doing so also reminded his desired ally in Britain that Germany had little or no interest in readjustments to the status quo elsewhere in the world. A growing German population, enriched by unbroken soil laced with autobahns, was preferable to faraway lands.

Since World War II, it has been claimed that the defeat of Germany in World War II implies that National-Socialist racial ideas and conception of living space was false. The implication, among other things, is that National-Socialist ideas are scientifically discredited and relying on them entails lending credence to pseudoscience. In other words, if Hitler's ideas about living space were credible and reflected nature, then Germany should not have lost the war with Russia, or World War II.

In his article, "Friedrich Ratzel and the Origins of Lebensraum," Woodruff writes: "The disastrous consequences [of adopting the concept of living space and embedding it in Eastern foreign policy] stemmed from the lack of correspondence between the concept and the social reality that it was supposed to explain." [5]

First of all, the concept of living space, as Hitler employed it, is a descriptive concept, not an explanatory one. It is the combination of Hitler's views of race, his changing assumptions of the German people and inhabitants of Eastern lands, and living space, taken together, that form an explanatory amalgam whose collective claim is relevant to the outcome of World War II. Hitler's views changed as a result of the war, and so did relevant variables, such as an unwelcome war in the West.

If there had not been a war in the West, then this same amalgam of assumptions, ideas and claims would have been correlated with a very different outcome. To assume that it was the scientific validity of beliefs held by Hitler that was principally relevant to consequences of politically applying them is overly simplistic.

The validity of scientific terms, descriptive and explanatory, is unaffected by consequences that are moral or aesthetic in nature. This is as true of Hitler's racial ideas as it is of his use of the concept of living space. The postwar decision to reject race as a scientific concept as well as a basis of identity in politics was completely unrelated to their persisting scientific validity and political utility. The reality of race and relevance of living space are unaffected by the fact of the war.

Human beings clearly understand and apply the principles underlying this conclusion in yet other spheres of their lives. The fact that organized religion has caused and continues to cause grief, strife and death appears irrelevant to the insistence of many humans on their belief and practice of religion. In one way, this is not a good analogy, because religious faith is not comparable to scientific terms, but the point is human willingness to overlook past implications of beliefs, in this case religious.

Biology, anthropology, and science in general have greatly suffered as a consequence of the insistence on deemphasizing race, ethnicity, and other concepts. Similarly, despite the fact that ethnic nationalism and racial identity remains strong among Asian, Arab, Latino and African peoples, European peoples have allowed their revulsion over their view of the past to undermine their own ethnic and racial identity, and the relevance of concepts that remain as important as ever.


The notion of living space retains its political relevance, not only for the German people but also for people of European descent in general. The notion has not evaporated just because there is a temporary consensus in science and politics to reject ideas that were important to Hitler. The fact that their ethnic and racial decline is becoming obvious to European peoples today echoes this reality.

Biological entities persist in having spatial relationships with each other, no matter what we decide to do with the concept of living space. For this reason, we had better retain the idea and, for people of European descent most of all, wrestle with its meaning and subsume the question of our relationship to the space we occupy. The idea of living space entails the relation a population has with its environment, including soil and land and the buildings and objects that decorate it.

The notion of living space, therefore, has both a descriptive and explanatory relevance and also an ethical, moral, and aesthetic relevance. It relates not only to the reality of human populations in concrete biological terms but also to the political and social dimensions of our relationship with the space we occupy and the objects within that space. Consider this with respect to our current decline.


The space of men and women of European descent is daily shrinking, both in the sense of a reduction of unmolested and unsullied domains of public and family life but also the practical sense of space within which daily life is safely lived. When a young German woman cannot traverse a street, when a white family cannot eat at a restaurant, or when a Frenchman is unable to enjoy a stroll in a park, in every case because of deliberate hostility toward them, it is a diminution of space.

Because there has been a very restricted historical interpretation of the concept of living space, limiting our understanding of it solely to German expansion, we have ignored the fact that the concept actually has much greater relevance.

Living space is not only relevant to an expanding or growing nation or people. It is equally relevant to a nation or people in decline, because that decline is directly correlated with the shriveling or circumvention of life activity within otherwise normal living space. Ethnically or racially aware people of European descent need to incorporate a renewed conception of their total environment. Racial, ethnic, and national decline is intimately connected with the living space of peoples.

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[1] Friedrich Ratzel, "Der Lebensraum: Eine biogeographische Studie," in K. Büchner, K.V. Fricker, et al., Festgaben für Albert Schäffle zur siebensigen Wiederkehr seines Geburtstages am 24, Februar 1901, Tübingen, 1901, pp. 101-89.
[2] Friedrich Ratzel, Die Erde und Das Leben: Eine vergleichend Erdkunde, 1901, Leipzig and Vienna, Vol 1 (in two volumes), pp. 101-189.
[3] Friedrich Ratzel, "Geschichte, Volkerkunde und historische Perspektive," Historische Zeitschrift, 1904, 93, pp. 1-46.
[4] Woodruff Smith, "The Colonial Novel as Political Propaganda," German Studies Review, 1983, 6 (2), pp. 215-235.
[5] Woodruff D. Smith, "Friedrich Ratzel and the Origins of Lebensraum," German Studies Review, 1980, 3 (1), pp. 51-68.