Legacies of Lebensraum: German Identity and Multi-Ethnicity

  • Shelley Baranowski


Since the mid-1990s, historians of Germany have rediscovered ‘empire’ as a category of analysis that permits a deeper exploration of the multiple meanings of ‘Germany’ and its territorial fluctuations over time. They have looked especially closely at the maritime empire of the Second German Empire from 1884 to 1918, its impact on German identity, its earlier roots, and its relevance to subsequent periods in German history. Although research and debate on the imperialism of the Kaiserreich continues to thrive, German aspirations to a continental European empire inspired in part by the German migrations eastward from the Holy Roman Empire during the Middle Ages have received increased attention. As David Blackbourn argued recently, Mitteleuropa, or alternatively Osteuropa, was as important to Germans as India was to Great Britain and Algeria to France. Compared to the desire to colonize the ‘East’, Imperial Germany’s short-lived ‘blue water’ empire paled in significance.1 Not surprisingly, the need to assess the Nazi regime’s murderous Drang nach Osten, its continuities and ruptures with earlier imperial imaginings, contribute to this trend. Yet if the defeat of Nazism ended German expansionism, the ‘East’ left its traces in the forced migrations of ethnic Germans to what remained of the Reich. The destruction of the Nazi empire and the rediscovery of past precedents to cope with defeat shaped the most critical issue that the postwar Germanys had to confront as postcolonial societies: who indeed was ‘German’?


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© Shelley Baranowski 2016

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  • Shelley Baranowski

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