Shelley Baranowski


On her book Nazi Empire: German Colonialism and Imperialism from Bismarck to Hitler

Cover Interview of February 20, 2011

In a nutshell

As German nationalists conceived it, the German “nation” was for most of its history an empire.  It was first embodied in the Holy Roman Empire; later in the “second” empire, Imperial Germany, between 1871 and 1918; and finally in the Third Reich (Reich meaning “empire”) between 1933 and 1945.  Even the post-World War I Weimar Republic retained the name German “Reich.”

Yet because of the extraordinary violence of the Nazi regime, which culminated in the Holocaust, German history has usually been studied apart from the broader history of European empires and imperialism.

In Nazi Empire, I argue that Nazi imperialism was distinctive—and still it was imperialism.

Rather than pursuing an empire that coped with ethnic and religious diversity, which characterized empires historically, the Nazis grounded theirs in the principle of racial homogeneity.  Nevertheless, the Nazi determination to acquire “living space” to enable the biological cleansing and survival of the German Volk arose from the comparisons that Nazi leaders drew between their own aims, those of their contemporary imperial rivals, including the United States, and empires of the past, especially imperial Rome.

In addition, in imperial fashion, Nazi leaders claimed that an expanded German Lebensraum or “living space” in eastern Europe would anchor Germany as a world power.  This would avoid what the Nazis perceived as the fatal weakness of previous German empires, the insufficient commitment to racial purity.