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LAURENCE REES: What does Hilter mean by Lebensraum?

NORBERT FREI: It’s a big concept and it’s a concept which some people took very seriously right from the start. There were people who always said, well, you just have to read Mein Kampf, but there were also a lot of other people who sympathized with what was achieved in the so-called peace years before the war. And they simply thought or even talked about how it wouldn’t be that bad to have a little more Lebensraum. And, yes, we have to fight communism and so there were all these middle range arguments not fully taking into account that this ideological perception of Hitler should be taken at face value.

LAURENCE REES: But what in practical terms should one understand by this concept Lebensraum?

NORBERT FREI: The idea of not just a greater Germany but a Germany which is virtually dominating Europe and which is colonising the East, which is getting rid of not only the Jews but also the Slavic people and hierarchising them and making them their forced labourers and making use of this enormous space in the East, and having the idea that this is a virtually empty space which has to be filled by the German colonisers.

LAURENCE REES: But when he was using the word in the Thirties that’s not what people thought he meant, was it?

NORBERT FREI: The concept, despite his writing, was not at all that clearly defined. Even at one point Josef Goebbels says we actually don’t see that clearly what we are going to do. We will see when we are there, and the whole idea of developing into this great and brilliant Nazi future, this was very true for quite some people in the top of the hierarchy. This was also part of Hitler’s way of doing things, that he would talk to some of them about this and to some of them about some other aspects so you don’t get a consistent picture even if you are at the top of the hierarchy.

LAURENCE REES: This is all very unlike how a political party normally works.

NORBERT FREI: Yes. This was true right from the beginning. Take the party programme. They have all these points that actually don’t fit very well to each other, promises to workers, promises to peasants, promises even to capitalists, if you will, and this kind of approach actually wouldn’t make too clear what the Nazis really stand for. This was part of their success in the Weimar Republic.

LAURENCE REES: So the key to it was to be vague?

NORBERT FREI: The key to it was to be vague and the idea is we have to be strong and there has to be the Fuehrer and we have to overcome all these parties of the Weimar Republic and there has to be one strong will and this will be defined by the Fuehrer.

LAURENCE REES: And to what extent was this something that could only have happened in Germany?

NORBERT FREI: Well, this is the one million dollar question and historians have struggled with it for decades now. There are good arguments to look for special cultural deficits or problems within the political culture of Germany, since the Kaiser arrives or even earlier. But, on the other hand it’s a development of a modern, well-advanced society. There are people, even contemporaries of the 1930s who would say, well, if you had asked me 20 years ago where something terrible could happen against the Jews I would have come to think about a couple of European countries, but certainly not about Germany. So things become radicalized and things get into a dynamic situation even after 1933. It’s not clear in 1933 where it would end up.

LAURENCE REES: But we mustn’t see the war as causing a sudden change in the attitude of the Nazis, must we?

NORBERT FREI: Well, I think we have to realize that it is barbarism in a highly civilised, highly culturally developed country which comes up with this idea of getting rid of all the Jews in German public service as early as April 1933, or having this anti-Jewish boycott. Even in the early 1930s, even before the Nazi seizure of power, you could watch certain elements of fascistisation of political culture. So there is this development that actually makes one ask whether one could talk about a sudden fall into barbarism, and I think it’s the other side of modernity that we are watching here, and a potential development within modernity. Nazi Germany was not just an anti-modern state but was in many respects a highly modern state, and even Hitler and his ideas are not totally anti-modern. There were clearly modern aspects in what the Nazis were doing. And so it’s a complicated picture but certainly not one that one could describe as a sudden break-up of modern development. It’s a combination.

LAURENCE REES: It’s ironic, isn’t it, because we use barbarism to mean the barbarians who are, in history, seen as a force to destroy progress.


LAURENCE REES: Whereas what I think is so interesting in your book is that it seems to me that you argue almost that this was a form of modern progress, just a warped, terrible form of modern progress?

NORBERT FREI: Yes. Well, take, for instance, the idea of racial purity, which was carried out with the theories and instruments that were the most modern at that time. It was a development within natural sciences which started at the turn of the Century and was in a crisis in the early 1930s. But then Hitler took it up, gave these researchers and scientists and medical doctors the opportunities, built the political frame in which they could do their work, and all of a sudden we have this terrible way into euthanasia and finally the connection between euthanasia and the extermination of the Jews in technical means and also from the theoretical point of view that we have to get rid of the worthless people and the worthless blood.