The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism

Living Edition
| Editors: Immanuel Ness, Zak Cope

German Colonialism and Nazism as Anti-imperialism

  • Hans GoldenbaumEmail author
Living reference work entry


Approaching Nazism as anti-imperialism places the focus on Nazi sources, their self-conception and self-projection, their ideology and propaganda. The perception of being the victim of long-lasting domination by foreign powers in a struggle for sovereignty is not to be underestimated as a main reason for the radicalism and totality of Nazi German foreign, settlement, war, and extermination policies.

A Change of Perspective

To approach Nazism as anti-imperialism might at first glance lead to some consternation. Extensive research has addressed the imperial or colonial nature of Nazi Germany. The German concept of Lebensraum or living space in the East, the war of extermination, and Auschwitz indicate the atrociousness of Nazism as an aggressively imperialist and colonising power. On the other hand, it may be argued that the anti-Semitic drive for total extermination defies the categories of colonialism or imperialism. Approaching Nazism as anti-imperialism, however, places the focus on Nazi sources, their self-conception and self-projection, their ideology and propaganda. The perception of being the victim of long-lasting domination by foreign powers in a struggle for sovereignty is not to be underestimated as a main reason for the radicalism and totality of Nazi German foreign, settlement, war, and extermination policies. Nationalism and anti-imperialism, drawing on modern concepts of sovereignty and national self-determination, were intertwined with racist and imperialist notions of German superiority, and most importantly with the anti-Semitic idea of powerful and threatening Jewish aggression from both outside and within.

This essay sets out to situate Nazi antiimperialism within the history of German imperialism and colonialism with and without colonies. After discussing imperialism and colonialism as phenomena of capitalist modernity, it will briefly sketch out the genesis of racism, anti-Semitism, and Darwinism. The question of whether and to what extent European colonialism, and especially German genocidal policies in Africa, contributed to creating the conditions in which Auschwitz somehow became ‘thinkable and executable’ (Zimmerer 2005, p. 211) will then be addressed. The First World War and the Weimar Republic will be dealt with as a caesura of utmost importance, as the Versailles experience melded perceptions of racist and imperialist superiority with ones of ‘colonised’ and powerless inferiority. The impact and importance of anti-imperialist elements in Nazi thought will be thematised by drawing upon Carl Schmitt, Goebbels, and others who construed and depicted as reactive and defensive the pursuit of an imperial sphere of influence. The idea of a ‘natural’ order along the lines of race or Volkstum contrasted with the purportedly aggressive and imperialist universalism of democracy. By addressing Germany’s main enemies – Britain and later on the US – as ‘plutocracies’, Nazi thought and propaganda used a specific term encompassing all of the ideological ingredients of Nazi antiimperialism. Furthermore, Nazi propaganda outside of Europe, which at its core presented the Reich as an anti-imperialist and anticolonialist power, has long been understudied. Thus, in the final portion of this essay, the main topics and themes of Nazi foreign propaganda will be outlined, taking the massive propaganda effort aimed at the Middle East and North Africa as an example.

Capitalist Modernity

German colonialism falls into the period of high imperialism between 1880 and the First World War. That said, the entangled history of imperialism and colonialism makes it necessary to delineate these concepts first. Imperialism could be defined as the (direct or indirect) policy of (economic and/or military) force to externally safeguard a nation state’s interests, presupposing the modern nation state and the logic of capital accumulation, and incorporating, although not necessarily, colonialism. Reinhard (2008, p. 1) characterises colonialism as the territorial acquisition and domination of people based on the ‘economical, political and ideological exploitation of the developmental differential’ between two groups. Osterhammel (1997, pp. 16–17) supplements this account by suggesting that colonialism is a system of domination resulting from the process of territorial acquisition and is a hegemonic ‘relationship between an indigenous (or forcibly imported) majority and a minority of foreign invaders’. According to him, the ‘fundamental decisions affecting the lives of the colonized people are made and implemented by the colonial rulers in pursuit of interests that are often defined in a distant metropolis [on “imperial infrastructure” see van Laak 2004]. Rejecting cultural compromises with the colonized population, the colonizers are convinced of their own superiority and their ordained mandate to rule’ (Osterhammel 1997, pp. 16–17). Osterhammel refers to a pursuit of capitalist interests. The acquisition by force of luxury goods and raw materials for the developing industry and market expansion were cause and effect of unfolding capitalism. Bourgeois society and Enlightenment thought were materially based on slave labour and colonial trade and commerce (Cheney 2010); it can be argued that ‘the economic practice of slavery – the systematic, highly sophisticated capitalist enslavement of non-Europeans as a labour force in the colonies – was increasing quantitatively and intensifying qualitatively to the point that by the mid-eighteenth century it came to underwrite the entire economic system of the West’ (Buck-Morss 2009, p. 31).

Through slave labour and the overhaul and restructuring of local economies towards metropolitan needs during early globalisation of markets and production, indigenous and transferred populations were integrated into the evolving system of a global division of labour, under conditions of coercion and violence (Braudel 1981–84; Wallerstein 1989, 2011). This is also emphasised in Sebald’s study on Togo under German rule: by preventing indigenous populations from accessing education, confining them to the lowest echelons of colonial administration, enforcing the cultivation of cotton for export, determining low purchase prices and employing forced or low-wage labour, the colonialists actually ‘broadened the socio-economic development differential between colony and metropole’ (Sebald 1988, p. xxi).

This process was paralleled by ideological knowledge production: the mapping, classification, and hierarchisation of a world that was penetrated by European traders, missionaries, soldiers, and scientists. The fundamental difference between those who possessed at least the abstract commodity of their own manpower and those whose body was somebody else’s property (and who were thus not producers of exchange value) was at the core of the modern racialisation of ‘blacks’ as opposed to ‘whites’ (Schmitt-Egner 1975). Racism was the ‘ideological justification for the enduring hierarchization of the workforce and its highly unequal distributions of reward’ (Wallerstein 1983, p. 78), as social inequality had to be reconciled with universalistic principles such as freedom and equality, even more so following abolition of slavery.

The central ideological process of modernity, it could be argued, can be identified as the colourisation, ethnicisation, or biologisation of the social. By the end of the nineteenth century, the discourse on the Other had become fully biologised, reinforced by scientific discourses and Darwinist notions of evolution and selection that were transferred to the human sciences (Foucault 2003; Miles and Brown 2003). In the Indian or Arab colonies, the European colonists deemed the respective populations ‘unfit’ to rule due to the ‘Orientals” lower level of development. The colonists not only artificially preserved ‘traditional’ structures and elements of society, but also overhauled local economic structures, thus preventing local accumulation and creating arbitrary boundaries between or through territories and ethnicised groups (Al-Khafaji 2004; Beinin 2001, pp. 1–20; Gran 2009; Maddison 1971, pp. 35–70). In Europe, processes of state building paralleled by the advent of nationalism led to the formation of ‘imagined communities’ whose members conceived of themselves as the same, and different from the Other, on the basis of an ethnicised national identity ‘regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each’ (Anderson 1991, p. 7; Hobsbawm 1991). Colonial projects or imperialist discourses stabilized and shaped these ‘imagined communities’ through the externalization of social tensions and nationalist homogenization (Wehler 1969). The idea of an ethnic nation (Volk in the German context) rooted in the soil gained ground, and nation and race became reality as ‘discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions – in short, the said as much as the unsaid’ (Foucault 1980/1977, p. 194). The Other outside (e.g. the indigenous colonial subject) was complemented by the Other within; modern anti-Semitism associated Jews, who had been ‘imprisoned’ in the Holy Roman Empire’s sphere of economic circulation for hundreds of years, with the abstract, the incomprehensibility of modern capitalism and its circulation sphere (Adorno and Horkheimer 2002; Postone 1986). Inherent in this fatal association was the claim to explain ‘a world which had rapidly become too complex and threatening for many people’ (Postone 1986, p. 305). Modern and traditional, abstract and concrete, maritime and continental, ‘a conspiracy bent on world domination on the one hand, and a principle of upright openness on the other’ – in its various expressions this ‘dichotomy’s initial pole is one of the opaque forms of society’s principles of exchange: Tauschen that Carl Schmitt linked, in an etymologically suggestive manner, with a principle of Täuschen – of deception’ (Diner 2000, p. 34).

German Colonialism

In 1940 George Orwell wrote that Nazi Germany was turning ‘the subject peoples into a reserve of slave labour. It is quite practicable, so long as the myth of “inferior races” is believed in. [...] Hitler is only the ghost of our own past rising against us. He stands for the extension and perpetuation of our own methods’ (Orwell 2001, p. 170). At the same time, Orwell criticised pacifists and others who opposed the war, stating that he ‘would sooner side with the older imperialisms – decadent, as Hitler quite rightly calls them – than with the new ones which are completely sure of themselves and therefore completely merciless’ (172). So what is imperialist and what is German in German imperialism?

As Conrad sums up in his concise colonial history:

German colonialism was […] linked to global economic competition and the hunt for raw materials and new markets for the industrializing countries, to global political conflicts between the European powers, and to the ideologies of evolutionism and Social Darwinism, which were increasingly linked to discourses of racial differences. (2012, p. 17)

The colonial project was preceded by discursive as well as political shifts in the wake of the founders’ crash and crisis that led to more interventionist and protectionist policies of the Bismarckian state; for example, the 1879 introduction of protective tariffs. Moreover, colonialism was promoted by the trade and industrial associations, with their growing concentration of economic power and their protective and expansionist aims. In this shift, liberal economics were abandoned in favour of a straightforward nationalist perspective in discourses of Weltpolitik (world politics) and Lebensraum (living space) (Smith 1986, pp. 52–111). While Weltpolitik focused on overseas colonies and maritime armament against the background of the competition between global powers, the theoreticians of Lebensraum focused on ‘traditional’ agriculture and, geographically, on Central and Eastern Europe. The latter’s romantic and anti-modern discourse at times clashed, at times merged, with Weltpolitik. The Reich was seen as strong enough to steer the economy towards expansion and as entitled to do so (Schinzinger 1984, p. 163). Colonial fantasies were fuelled by:

liberal models of a benign, protective father state that would naturally release its children from tutelage once they had grown up; by growing nationalist resistance against French military and cultural imperialism, accompanied by a drive for national unification; and, eventually, by the militantly competitive assertion of difference and strength vis-à-vis all of Germany’s European neighbors. (Zantop 1997, p. 202)

German colonialism was started by private enterprises, as Bismarck focused on Europe and relations with Britain. Merchants bought land in what later became German South-West and East Africa. Later, Togoland was claimed by an ‘Imperial Commissioner’ to secure areas of interest for German trade companies and missionaries. All of the colonies were then enforced by the German military (i.e. the Navy), which established its own colony in Kiautschou, vis-à-vis local and European powers. The latter colony is also symbolic of the great powers’ ‘informal imperialism’ in China, which at times relied upon brute force (Kuß and Martin 2002; Leutner and Mühlhahn 2007). Trade in and administration of these ‘protected areas’, or Schutzgebiete, was to be organised by private actors to reduce the Reich’s burden, yet after a few years all colonies were placed under direct imperial administration. The history of German colonialism has been researched more thoroughly in recent years, whether concerning German South-West Africa (Kaulich 2003; Zimmerer 2001, 2003), German East Africa (Baer and Schröter 2001; Becker and Beez 2005), Togo (Knoll 1978; Sebald 1988, 2013) or Cameroon (Schaper 2012; Schulte-Varendorff 2011), to name the best-known examples. The German colonial enterprise had direct and indirect economic and fiscal effects (Schinzinger 1984). While the share of colonial goods in German trade was marginal, the construction of railways reduced the costs of the transport of raw materials and goods and led to an increase in stock turnover in German colonial ports, to the benefit of shipping and trading companies. Moreover, railway projects and the massive expansion of the fleet as the main guarantor of the colonial enterprise brought an economic upswing for German industry, especially the iron, steel and mechanical engineering industries and shipyards. However, state expenditures significantly exceeded the revenues (Schinzinger 1984, p. 156, 160).

That said, it is not the economic history, but rather the history of colonial ideas and of colonial genocide that remains the focus of researchers. The German extermination campaign in South-West Africa killed at least 70,000 people and is generally seen as the first genocide of the twentieth century and the first German genocide (Schaller 2011; Zimmerer 2001, 2003, 2011). With a focus on ‘law and administration of the racial state’ and ‘unfree labour, expulsion, and genocide as elements of population economics’ (Zimmerer 2011, pp. 40–138), the controversial question of the connection between the philosophies of colonial rule and administration on one hand and the Nazis’ later genocidal quest for Lebensraum in Eastern Europe on the other is raised (Baranowski 2010). Some scholars underline ‘the decidedly colonial nature of the Nazi geopolitical project and the largely colonial dimensions of Nazi genocide’ (Kakel 2013, p. 3), and explain ‘the Nazi Holocaust as part of the emerging global histories of imperialism, colonialism and genocide (rather than a “unique” historical event)’. In this narrative, Auschwitz is described as ‘colonial genocide’ or ‘exterminatory colonialism’ (Kakel 2013, p. 4). This question of continuities or causalities is not new, as Orwell, cited above, was only one of the first to discuss it. Later, Hannah Arendt argued that the period of German imperialism was a ‘preparatory stage for coming catastrophe’, setting the stage ‘for all possible horrors’ (Arendt 1958, p. 123, 221). Arendt stressed the destructive and self-radicalising principles of expansion as ‘a permanent and supreme aim of politics’ and of power as an end in itself, hinting on parallels in the economic sphere. In so doing, she was building on Luxemburg’s argument for a fundamental conflict between production capabilities, and consumption driving capital to market expansion. Capitalism is understood here as a mode of economy ‘which tends to engulf the entire globe and to stamp out all other economies, tolerating no rival at its side’, at the same time being in need of ‘other economic systems as a medium and soil’ (Luxemburg 1951, p. 467). Arendt pointed to the connection between exploitation and racism, as well as the ‘totalitarian’ consequences of the idea of ‘natural laws’ and man as the incarnation of the forces of history, not acting as an individual or on behalf of a group of individuals, but as the agent of a collective greater than the sum of its parts or of its will. This calls to mind Elie Kedourie’s critical history of nationalism and the ideas of sovereignty and general will since the French Revolution: ‘Consciousness of right bred a righteousness which excesses could never destroy, but only confirm’ (Kedourie 1961, p. 18).

There is no question that there are many important connections between German colonialism and Nazi imperialism. The colonial project was driven by and reinforced scientific and popular discourse about the Other (Grosse 2000). Bolstered by Darwinist and other scientific theories in the second half of the nineteenth century, modern ethnologists and anthropologists were important actors in racist knowledge production. Laboratories, as well as the popular Völkerschauen (‘human zoos’), were supplied with material appropriated by a host of German actors in the colonies (Baer and Schröter 2001). Völkerkunde, anthropology, eugenics, and connected scientific discourses influenced modern science and (bio-)politics in Europe and North America at least until 1945, delegitimised only by the sheer atrociousness of the German ‘racial war’. The basic ‘truth’ shared by most scientists, journalists, and politicians of the time was that of a world divided into races, each race having biological features that determined its intellect and behaviour as different from others. Society was understood and described in biological terms. Ethnic nations (Völker) were engaged in a ‘fight for survival’, a ‘natural struggle for existence’, necessarily expanding as a ‘healthy’ nation or declining to be exterminated (Schmitt-Egner 1975, p. 82).

In the colonies, natural or primitive peoples (Naturvolk) were differentiated from cultural nations (Kulturvolk), unproductive from productive labour. The indigenous populations were forced into wage labour; resistance was interpreted as stubbornness and laziness (Schmitt-Egner 1975, pp. 96–97). In concepts of the ‘education of the negro’, superior or differentialist racism and Christian missionary universalism at times formed forceful symbioses (for the German context, see Bade 1982). Legislation constructed and enforced colourised (i.e. ‘visible’) borders between self and Other, especially in the matter of mixed marriages, or Mischehen. Debates on public health and morals attacked the mixing of races as a threat to Volk and nation.

Finally, the colonial wars, especially the 1904–07 war against Herero and Nama, constituted a turning point regarding the administrative organisation and bureaucratisation of genocide. In a centrally planned and controlled ‘war of pacification’, physical extermination:

was no unintended by-product of brutal warfare [...] but the aim almost from the beginning. Moreover, the war combined the genocidal massacre with ethnic cleansing and extermination through neglect in internment camps. This also reveals the extent of ideological firmness and political centralization that seems to be absent in other colonial contexts. (Zimmerer 2011, p. 22)

Colonialism Without Colonies

In the words of Enzo Traverso:

the guillotine, the abattoir, the Fordist factory, and rational administration, along with racism, eugenics, the massacres of the colonial wars and those of World War I had already fashioned the social universe and the mental landscape in which the Final Solution would be conceived and set in motion. All those elements combined to create the technological, ideological, and cultural premises for that Final Solution, by constructing an anthropological context in which Auschwitz became a possibility. (2003, p. 151)

It is obvious that there is a ‘road from Windhuk to Auschwitz’ (Zimmerer 2011), but only in the sense of necessary conditions. While Nazi policies imply racial discourse, colonial (even genocidal) practice and experience (collectively ‘remembered’ and institutionally retained), scientific and popular knowledge of the Other, and a modern bureaucratic state, they are not an inevitable result of the latter (see Traverso 2003, p. 152). In the words of Arendt, the latter are the origins, not the causes of the former (for the ongoing debate on the origins and causes of the Shoah, see Bauer 2001, pp. 1–118).

Moreover, for Nazi radicalisation and extermination policies to become reality, these origins had to coincide with modern anti-Semitism and a specific anti-imperialist self-perception and worldview under specific social and political conditions. The early enthusiasm for and subsequent brutality of the First World War remained a formative element for generations. At the same time, the deep penetration of enemy lands in the early days of the war had aroused colonial desires at unprecedented levels. Between 1914 and 1939, after the Great War had forced the end of the German colonial project, dozens of popular and research works on colonialism, different colonies, missionary enterprises, and the ‘colonial question’ in general were published. Against the backdrop of this ‘colonialism without colonies’ a German history of colonisation and conquest since the Early Middle Ages was imagined and constructed. It was based on an extensive corpus of colonial ‘fantasies’ that had accompanied and supported German colonial policies since the very beginning and were associated with ‘positive identificatory figures such as Columbus, Humboldt, and “German” conquistadors’ of the past (Zantop 1997, p. 202). It was stated that:

We Germans are the best colonizers, but not the best colonial politicians. The former is based on the strength and talent of our nation [Volk], the latter has its basis in the agelong fragmentation of the state and powerlessness [Ohnmacht] of the German nation. However, the latter is a result of the former, and thereupon our right to colonial possessions is based. It is impossible to exclude the best nation of colonizers from colonial policy forever after it is finally molded into a cohesive state unit. (Jacob 1939, pp. 8–9)

At the centre of the post-1918 discourses on Weltpolitik and Lebensraum stood the ‘colonial guilt’ of Germany’s enemies, who had ‘brought war to Africa’, ‘robbed the German colonies’ and ‘tarnished the reputation of the white race’ (13). While attacking the ‘lie of German colonial guilt’ (e.g. allegations of bad treatment of the indigenous populations) in books, magazines, and Völkerschauen, Germans indulged in memories of a glorious colonial past, complaining about injustice and foreign arbitrariness. The loss of the colonies was integrated into the greater revisionist discourse on the Treaty of Versailles, which, according to the Social-Democrat Scheidemann, was intended ‘to extort the declaration of its own unworthiness’ and the ‘consent to merciless fragmentation’ from ‘a great nation’ and could be summarised with the words: ‘Germany waives, waives, waives!’ (Philipp Scheidemann’s speech of 12 May 1919 to the National Assembly, cited in Heidegger 1956, p. 334; on German social democracy and colonialism, see 175–183) A German colonial project beyond the equator was on the German and especially the Nazi schedule at least until 1941 (Linne 2008; Ustorf 1995). While Lebensraum in the eastern provinces had already been a relevant topic for discussion and state policy since the nineteenth century, it became the focus of public attention with the formation of a Polish state and the loss of those provinces, which, in the words of the first foreign minister of the Weimar Republic, were the cause of ‘severe damage’ for ‘the nutrition of our nation [Volksernährung]’. Internally, the government discussed Versailles, the ‘diktat of shame’, and its results for the ‘German East’, referring to the ethnic or racial composition of the provinces and the völkisch will of its population (e.g. Reichsminister 1919). At the time, the differentiation between ethnic nationalities (völkische or Volksgruppen), associated with the right of nations to self-determination in the ambivalent tradition of the French Revolution, was common among all members of the League of Nations. Prior to the First World War, as nationalist discourse took up Darwinist and biologised concepts of nation and state, many had already been looking to (‘dreamland’) East or South-Eastern Europe for ‘space’ to be settled and ‘cultivated’ (Jureit 2012; Thum 2006). Romantic criticism of modernity propagated agriculture and the need for ‘living space’, associating modernity with the overwhelming process of industrialisation, with unemployment, rural exodus, and urbanisation, with isolation and alienation. Simultaneously, the modern nationalist conception of the natural and necessary identity of state, nation, and Volk made the question of national or völkisch space and its borders an urgent matter. In the nineteenth century, Friedrich Ratzel had already presented a theory of ethno-spatial evolution in which he described spatial expansion as the final stage of a Volk’s process of taking root in the soil. It was in this tradition that geographers would state in the 1920s that ‘German national soil’ (Volksboden) is where the German nation settles (Jureit 2012, pp. 241–244). This sounds similar to what Hitler wrote in the same year: land and soil exist ‘for the Volk that has the strength to take it and the diligence to cultivate it’ (Hitler 1943, p. 147). The ideological processing of a claustrophobic panic prompted by perceived existential loss of space after Versailles (Jureit 2012, pp. 219–220; Smith 1986, pp. 196–230) is notably captured in Hans Grimm’s successful and influential 1926 novel Volk ohne Raum (Nation without Space). The story of a farmer’s son confronted with ‘crowdedness’ and ‘density’, coupled with the alienation of industrialisation and urbanisation that threaten his natural sphere of life, struck a chord with feelings of constriction and impotence experienced by a major section of German society in the Weimar years; a society in permanent crisis and contingency in the social, political, or familial spheres in times of general insecurity (Jureit 2012, p. 266; Peukert 1987). Grimm’s ‘nation without space’ is situated in the area of tension between the German colonial project in Africa, the post-1919 colonialism without colonies which laments the victors’ ‘robbery of German lands’ in Africa and ‘Germany proper’, and the discourse on ‘living space’ and the ‘German East’. The novel connects with the nationalist, Darwinist, and anti-Semitic interpretive paradigms and thought patterns of the time and builds upon the dominant understanding of Versailles as a violation of the German nation and its natural rights: ‘We demand the justice of space for all nations according to number and performance [Leistung]’ (Grimm 1926, p. 1243). As a result of the distorted perception of the reparation regime after Versailles, nationalist and racist chauvinism fused with self-perception as the victim of aggression, colonisation and foreign domination; merging the struggle against Napoleon during the constitutive phase of German nationalism with the political critique of England and France in Versailles and the anti-Semitic conception of Jewish domination of the nation, foreign and domestic at the same time (Koller 2005).

Corresponding but not identical with völkisch nationalism was the ‘conservatist’ current (‘Konservative Revolution’) around Oswald Spengler, Carl Schmitt, Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, and others (see Weiß 2012); to take a comparative look at other European countries might be especially worthwhile in this context. In Italy, to give just one example, concurring proto-fascist and fascist intellectual currents like Enrico Corradini’s nationalism and Paolo Orano’s or Robert Michels’s ‘revolutionary syndicalism’ theorised the ‘proletarian nature’ of the ‘corporate’ Italian nation since the beginning of the twentieth century, defending colonialism and war as preconditions for national redemption (Sternhell et al. 1994). As ‘socialism empowered workers against the bourgeoisie’, it was argued, nationalism or a ‘national socialism’ would ‘empower Italians to transcend their decadent state and revive the nation, both morally and materially’ (Marsella 2004, p. 208).

Nazi Anti-imperialism

Nazi anti-imperialism is not the analysis and critique of imperialism as defined above. An ideological form of thought, it purports to explain complex economical and political conditions and relations through personalisation. It merges anti-Semitism and reactionary chauvinism with ethno-nationalist or völkisch geopolitics, political geography, and law. Taking up the formula of ‘nation without space’, its theoreticians wanted geopolitics to ‘expand and recover’ the ‘constricted and mutilated Middle European living space’ to solve the question of ‘overpopulation’ (Haushofer 1928, p. 49). Coining terms like Volksdruck (population pressure) and Raumkörper (space body), one of these theoreticians defined Germany as a major nation [Großvolk], the only one of seven ‘world powers’ that is ‘oppressed, enchained and not free to arm and defend itself [wehrfrei] ’. Apart from the assumption that one-third of its ‘national comrades’ or Volksgenossen were separated from its Raumkörper, ‘the distress caused by a density that is the result of an unbearable overpopulation of living space’ was perceived as forcing the state to push the frontier of this very Raumkörper (Haushofer 1934, p. 84). Resulting from this density and pressure, the natural right to expand arises for nations like Germany, Italy and Japan, ‘an enormous ethical difference’ in contrast to the plain material motivation or attraction to power behind the French and British colonial projects according to Haushofer (ibid.). Thus, Haushofer sets the just, natural, and defensive expansion of a Volk against an unjust, unnatural, and aggressive expansion, associated with imperialism, capitalism, and Britain, the ‘nation of merchants’. German geopolitics could therefore be defined as ‘an ideology legitimising international domination through putatively natural, hence timeless or unchanging principles’ (Diner 2000, p. 27). While industrialisation, machinisation and urbanisation are associated with ‘the Jewish’, the category of Raum (space) signifies ‘a positive existential form that, while connected to reigning circumstances, stands opposed to them’. As anti-Semitism thus is the internal or domestic manifestation of ‘Haushofer’s simultaneously rationalized and mystagogic rejection of and struggle against abstraction, seen as the product of Western capitalist social formation [...] Haushofer’s anti-British stance, apparent in his attack on the “plutocrats”, represents its external dimension’ (Diner 2000, p. 31). The same applies for Carl Schmitt, whose theory of a new ethno-national or völkisch ‘order of greater spaces’ in International Law – introduced shortly after the German occupation of Czechoslovakia – relates to Haushofer’s works. Schmitt picks up the core principles of the US Monroe Doctrine, applying it to the European or ‘Greater German’ context, emphasising the ‘prohibition on intervention by external powers’, or rather powers ‘alien to the space [raumfremd]’. Based on the idea of völkisch racial substance or belonging as the prior, natural category of order, Schmitt devises an ‘order of greater spaces’ that revolves around the principle of ‘protection of the ethno-national character of every ethno-national group [Volksgruppe]’ and the idea of dominant ‘greater powers’ to forcefully organise and structure the greater space following this criterion. According to Schmitt, who takes up earlier concepts of Lebensraum, ‘greater’ encompasses not only the merely quantitative, but also the qualitative meaning, implying a completely new conception of space (Schmitt 1941, pp. 75–76). The Reich, a ‘concrete order’, should replace the abstract state, led by the dominant Volk carrying the political idea of this new order. Thus, German hegemony would be natural and just – as opposed to the arbitrary and ‘only political’ concept of the US doctrine. Already, in 1932, Schmitt had criticised US ‘economic imperialism’ and the Monroe Doctrine, questioning its theoretical legal basis and its practical arbitrariness, but ignoring the economic context of European imperialism (Schmitt 1940a/1932). In this way, he wanted to highlight the dangers of imperialism ‘for a nation on the defensive’. According to him, the Allies were still waging war against Germany – after Versailles by other, ‘legal’ means (Schmitt 1940b/1938, p. 247). Final defeat would only follow the acceptance of the alien vocabulary and concept of law, chiefly international law (Schmitt 1940a/1932). It is on the basis of this understanding that Schmitt elaborates his concept of an ethnopolitical new order of greater spaces, paying heed to the assessment that imperialist hegemony is founded in international acceptance and thus legalisation of a major power’s exclusive right to define, interpret, and apply a doctrine regarding its foreign affairs.

Moreover, Schmitt theorises the National Socialist attack on equality (Gleichheit) as abstract and artificial sameness opposed to racial homogeneity (Gleichartigkeit), associating the radical universalistic idea of equality with imperialist aggression against the concrete particular, and the universalistic world principle of the abstract state with the violation of concrete territory as a völkisch space (Diner 2000, pp. 60–63). With a complex ethnic mosaic in the East and South-East, where ethno-national or linguistic demarcations were impossible, the German Reich was the only entity capable of taking the lead. Schmitt thus legitimises German imperialist expansion based on and propagating an antiimperialist anti-universalism or particularism implying hierarchisation. From this point of view it is exactly the radical racism of National Socialist law that renders it ‘non-imperialistic and non-aggressive’; to protect blood as the ‘fact’ that organises mankind is totally defensive. The universalistic totality of states as tools of an indirect power or an ‘international class’ – associated in Nazi thought with ‘plutocrats’, ‘democrats’, ‘capitalists’, ‘freemasons’ or ‘Jews’ – would yield an ‘international civil war’; only the idea of ‘völkisch totality’ or the primacy of the Volk in the state would enable a stable international order (Schmitt 1940c/1938, p. 256; 1940d/1939, p. 286).

Goebbels and the Nazi propagandists used the term ‘plutocracy’, rule of the rich, to defame Great Britain and later also the US as aggressively capitalist states steered by rich and powerful elites, Jews, and freemasons (Goebbels 1997–2006). Through a homogenised concept of Volksgemeinschaft and the dichotomous distinction between ‘creating’ and ‘money-grabbing’ capital, the contradictions of modern capitalist conditions were projected outside (Britain and the US) and onto the Other. German industry was considered productive as opposed to the unproductive sphere of circulation that was associated with the Jews and ‘plutocrats’, whose aim was understood to be the colonisation and exploitation of Europe by any means. In this view, the First World War and Versailles represented two sides of the same coin.

Nazi Anti-imperialism Abroad: The Case of the Middle East

Nazi propagandists went to great lengths to fight international ‘plutocracy’, even using a host of underground radio stations appealing to English workers and pacifists. Moreover, a massive propaganda effort focused on Middle Eastern and North African countries that had been a target for German economic penetration since the end of the nineteenth century and for military and propaganda activities during the German comradeship-in-arms with the Ottoman Empire in the First World War (Lüdke 2005; Schwanitz 2004).

Propaganda leaflets and broadcasts easily blended the Nazi’s völkisch and anti-Semitic anti-imperialism with anti-colonialist attacks on the British (and French to a certain extent) and the Zionist project in Mandatory Palestine (Goldenbaum 2014; Herf 2009), reaching out to or communicating with the political public spheres of local elites and urban effendiyya who were struggling for their share in state power under secular or Islamised discourses on national sovereignty (Schulze 2002). The single most important vehicle for German foreign propaganda was short-wave radio, which was broadcast across Middle East and North Africa in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish. The broadcasts had been established to ‘spread out the Empire’s embarrassing issues’ after the BBC had started German-language broadcasts in the wake of the occupation of Czechoslovakia. Recent research has found that the programmes consisted mainly of international and local news combined with daily political and weekly religious talks (Goldenbaum 2014). From the outset, the chief idea was to counter any critique of German imperialist aggression by attacking British imperialism and policies in the colonies, especially in Mandatory Palestine. In line with the Schmittian differentiation between German defensive Raumpolitik and English colonial despotism, the broadcasts presented world affairs as an historical struggle between ‘young nations’ longing for sovereignty and independence from the British, French, and later also US yoke on one side, and their democratic (meaning plutocratic) oppressors fighting to preserve foreign domination on the other. In Germany, and since 1941 at the latest also in the foreign-language broadcasts, Russian ‘Bolshevism’ threatening Europe and the rest of the world joined the ‘plutocrats’ as an eternal enemy. As the latter were associated with an aggressive universalism of democracy, so the Soviet Union was associated with an aggressive universalism of communism, both being connected through the alleged Jewish conspiracy targeting nations and cultures. News on the nationalisation of Romanian oil companies hinted at foreigners and ‘rich Jews’ being forced out of the country, while news on the collapse of the French front contained reports of Jews fleeing the country carrying gold bars (ibid.).

The message was clear: in Europe and the region, the nations were engaged in a threefold struggle against colonisation; the direct colonisation of their countries by the imperialist democracies and the indirect economic colonisation of their countries by the Jewish plutocrats as well as the Zionist colonisation in Mandatory Palestine aiming ‘to deport the Arabs from Palestine, Syria and Transjordan’. The radically anti-Semitic appeal – including the one to Islam and tradition – is to be situated between the diverse regional and transregional discourses of nationalism and self-determination on the receivers’ side. The local conflict in Palestine that was taken up by nationalist elites in the region as a central rallying point, playing an important part in secular and Islamised debates in the Arab political public sphere, was skilfully associated in the German broadcasts with the anti-Semitic themes and imagery used to legitimise and describe racist and anti-Semitic aggression in the European theatre (ibid.).

It was stressed again and again that Germany as a young sovereign nation, led by its Führer, having just emerged from the Versaillian yoke of foreign domination, was attempting to establish a ‘new order’. An emphasis on German military might and the homogeneity of the nation appealed to powerless nationalist activists. Local social and political conflicts in the colonies were used to defame the colonialists’ malicious chauvinism and the dysfunction of democracy. Nationalist collaborators would appear in the broadcasts to declare that ‘the English turned out to be the bitterest enemies and the cruellest oppressors of the Arab countries’. They complained that Britain had ‘sacrificed the blood of foreign nations and fobbed them off with phrases instead of truly granting them freedom, justice and sovereignty’ (Das Archiv 1942, p. 102). While the German propaganda effort could build on the fact that the colonial situation and thus the ‘economical, political and ideological exploitation of the developmental differential’ (Reinhard 2008, p. 1) was a reality, and German radio was widely listened to, it is wrong to assume that the audiences in the region would automatically have adopted the contents of the propaganda or generally identified with National Socialist Germany. Speculations along these lines have been criticised with good reason in recent publications (see Nicosia 2015, pp. 1–17). Listeners followed different and competing broadcasts. A pro-German or pro-Allied stance during the Second World War cannot necessarily be derived from positive or negative attitudes towards the colonial powers or towards the political situation in general (see Gershoni 2014).

Starting from this observation, and regarding assumptions of ‘ideology transfer’ as too simplistic, a shift of focus might prove insightful: in comparing the historical context of modern anti-Semitism’s genesis in Europe with the context of its reception as Nazi anti-imperialism in the Middle East during the 1930s and 1940s, the connection between the two becomes obvious. During the ‘crisis of classical modernity’ (Peukert), a form of thought gained ground:

in which the rapid development of industrial capitalism with all of its social ramifications is personified and identified as the Jew. It is not that the Jews merely were considered to be the owners of money [...], but that they were held responsible for economic crises and identified with the range of social restructuring and dislocation […]: explosive urbanization, the decline of traditional social classes and strata [...] etc. In other words, the abstract domination of capital, which […] caught people up in a web of dynamic forces they could not understand, became perceived as the domination of International Jewry. (Postone 1986, p. 306; cf. Claussen 2005, pp. 29–36)

The urban spaces in the Middle East and North Africa targeted by German propaganda were at the time in a similar situation of societal transformation. The main recipients of the broadcasts were urbanised elites and the precarious effendiyya, disconnected from their traditional and the urban colonialised context at the same time. Secular and Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, which at the time corresponded with and was the focus of German propaganda, participated in the secular nationalist discourse and struggle even though the form of the Islamist discourse was Islamic (Schulze 2002, pp. 9–11, 73). If Nazi anti-imperialism had a lasting impact on the region or rather on actual processes of the formation of ideologies, it was through the provision of anti-Semitic semantics to explain the dynamic forces that people could not understand; not just the economic forces in the process of integrating the region as a periphery into the evolving system of a global division of labour, but also the world historical and political forces that led to the creation of Israel and the ‘Palestinian nakba’. It is anti-Zionism, often anti-Semitic, that at times was, and is, used by post-colonial regimes to mobilise and distract their populations. It is anti-Semitism that became one of the most influential forms of thought in the region in the second half of the twentieth century.

Nazi anti-Semitic anti-imperialism – as well as racial discourse and colonial (genocidal) practice and experience – was not only a necessary condition for the radicalisation of German policies in Eastern Europe that culminated in the war of extermination and the death camps, it also globalised its own anti-Semitic semantics that pretended to explain the upheavals of modernity. Furthermore, German propaganda played a role in the internationalisation and politicisation of the ‘Israeli-Palestinian conflict’ at a time when Jews were fleeing the Reich or were being exterminated in the East, and before Israel was even founded in the shadow of this ‘caesura in civilization’, Auschwitz.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Max Planck Institute for Social AnthropologyHalleGermany