Some scholars have examined Nazi ideology and policies towards Eastern Europe within the context of imperialism and colonialism.
- Imperialism is a state’s extension of power over lands or peoples beyond its borders, including through conquest, acquisition, or the extension of political or economic control.
- Colonialism is a form of imperialism in which a state establishes control over a territory by settling it with people from outside the territory.
In the modern era, many states have pursued policies of imperialism and colonialism that were based in part on racist assumptions about the indigenous people they sought to control. Adolf Hitler maintained that the German Volk (a national or ethnic group defined by its supposed race) was destined to control Eastern Europe. He saw parts of Eastern Europe as the German people’s rightful Lebensraum ("living space").
Hitler’s goal was not only to conquer Eastern Europe. He also sought to replace most of its “inferior” indigenous population with Germans and those considered to have “Germanic blood.” Nazi racist imperialism led Germany to pursue very different occupation policies in Eastern Europe than in Western and Southern Europe.
Nazi Motivations in the East
Several factors influenced Nazi imperialist plans for Eastern Europe.
The first factor rested on the racist, false historical belief that those lands were destined to be German, but currently occupied by racially inferior groups. The ethnic Germans who had lived throughout Eastern Europe from the Middle Ages formed the basis for this myth. To the Nazis, the belief that Germanic people had once dominated the lands justified taking them back.
Hitler’s interpretation for why Germany lost World War I also influenced Nazi plans for the East. He believed that the hardship caused by the Allied-imposed blockade led the Germans vulnerable to the “stab in the back” from domestic enemies, particularly Jews and communists.
The third factor was the Nazi belief in the “Judeo-Bolshevik threat.” According to this myth, communism was a Jewish plot designed at German expense. Nazi ideology held that the communist states of the Soviet Union posed a mortal threat. This belief served to justify the Nazis’ mass murder of Jews, communist officials, and Soviet prisoners of war.
Implementation of Nazi Imperialism
Nazi plans for the East were both imperialist and colonialist. The Nazis directly incorporated some territories, primarily in Poland, into the Reich. They administered and exploited others as colonies. This called for the settlement of “racially acceptable” Germans in conquered territories and the expulsion or murder of “indigenous peoples.”
The Nazi vision of Lebensraum rested on long-held, false historical view of a Germanic East. The Nazis radicalized this view with a racist and imperialist ideology that saw mass murder and ethnic cleansing as legitimate means to an end. While it never achieved its ultimate goal, this ideology inspired policies that caused the death of millions of people from starvation, disease, and outright murder.