German Colonialization as a Precursor to Nazi Ideology

422 words | 2 page(s)

In his article “From Africa to Auschwitz: How German South West Africa Incubated Ideas and Methods Adopted and Developed by the Nazis in Eastern Europe”, Benjamin Madley makes the compelling argument that Nazi political ideas carried out in the 1930s and during World War Two were foreshadowed by German colonial policy in South West Africa during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In particular, two concepts seem to stand out from Madley’s article: the ideas of Lebensraum or living space and a conception of particular other peoples as inferior. To the extent these ideas were present in German colonial policy as well as in South West Africa, Madley’s argument appears legitimate: the Nazi ideas were nothing radically new, but a continuation of the past.

Madley cites the influential German geopolitical thinker Friedrich Ratzel. Writing in the late nineteenth century, Ratzel advocated the idea of “Lebensraumpolitik.” This theory is primarily based on the notion that a given people must aggressively seize geographical territory, conquering the indigenous people of these territories so as to secure its own future. Madley mentions Ratzel’s specific reference to German colonial activities in South West Africa as an example of how this idea was used. (433) The fact that Hitler then actively promoted a lebensraum policy in Eastern Europe can be seen as a direct continuation of Ratzel’s ideas. Namely, such a political policy was already a part of German political thinking.

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The second key part of the argument for continuity is racial policy. Hitler’s Nazis classified those peoples inhabiting the Eastern European territories where lebensraum would be carried out as racially inferior to the Germans. As Madley convincingly shows, German thinkers actively involved in colonialism supported the same thesis, citing figures such as Leutwein, Vedder and Bayer. (436) From this perspective, Nazi racial policy becomes a continuation of German colonial policy, as opposed to a new phenomenon in German intellectual and political history.

Madley therefore shows that ideas of racism and Lebensraum were key parts of German intellectual discourse before the Nazis. This suggests that the Nazi ideology was not a wholly new ideology, but something that did already exist in various forms in German thought. Madley’s text therefore demonstrates how ideas can evolve and take new forms over time, while also providing an example of how genocide and aggression become political justified.

  • Madley, Benjamin. “From Africa to Auschwitz: How German South West Africa Incubated Ideas and Methods Adopted and Developed by the Nazis in Eastern Europe”,

    European History Quarterly, 2005 35:429. pp. 429-464.

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