Volk ohne Raum

Frequently used by Ross, this catchphrase of German geopolitics and, later, Nazi expansionism roughly translates as “people without space”.

Coined in 1926 by Hans Grimm as the title of his novel about German settlers in Africa, Volk ohne Raum quickly became a popular slogan for debates about population policy, resettlement or expansion in Weimar, and later Nazi, Germany. In its key meaning, though, the term denoted a lack of space for the German nation due to its healthy growth rates and the cession of its territories after defeat in World War I.1

Colin Ross used this term, and its inverse Raum ohne Volk, creatively to connect his faraway journeys to contemporary German political debates. He proceeded to map these terms on areas ranging from China and Australia to Canada. When used in conjunction they imply an almost physical regularity for populations to fill up all available space. (See: Geopolitics abhors a vacuum) Thus, it could not only refer to Germany’s need for more space, but also to fears from outside peoples usurping underpopulated and undercultivated space.

Joachim Schätz

1 See: Hans-Ulrich Wagner. Volk ohne Raum. Zur Geschichte eines Schlagwortes. Mit zwei Abbildungen. In: Rolf Bergmann, Hans-Werner Eroms, Theo Vennemann, eds. Sprachwissenschaft. 1992; 17; p. 83–6.

In the late nineteenth century, famed German geographer Friedrich Ratzel developed the theory of states as organic bodies, which, like plants or animals, undergo a natural life cycle: healthy states grow larger, expanding in size by extending their borders into neighboring space; states in decline grow smaller, their borders receding to make space for others to literally take their place.1 Of course, what was actually growing or shrinking was a given population, and the main variable was the birth rate as compared to that of neighboring states.

With this model Ratzel provided a geographical variant to the collection of social Darwinist theories in ascension during this period. The concept entered mainstream discourse largely in its negative form, as the threat of a “people without space” losing in the struggle for the survival of the fittest. Germany’s population, according to this logic, had expanded into its given borders and was now bursting at the seams—a notion with added currency after World War I, when Germany lost both continental and overseas territories.

Ross expanded the given framework of a “Volk ohne Raum” to encompass the entire European continent: Europeans were a people without space, and without direct access to the natural resources and raw materials that they needed to survive in the long term. Meanwhile, other peoples, too, lacked space, the Indians, and the Japanese, for example, such that Asia threatened Europe with competition for the Earth’s remaining living space. Unless they expanded their borders into neighboring continents, Europeans would lose in the overall struggle for survival.

Kristin Kopp

1 Friedrich Ratzel. Gesetz des räumlichen Wachstums der Staaten. In: Petermanns Mitteilungen: 1896; 42; 97-107.

Colin Ross was not the first, but probably the most influential German writer to transpose the catchphrase of Volk ohne Raum (people without space) from Germany to the Pacific.1 The contrast between Australia’s Raum ohne Volk and China’s Volk ohne Raum is crucial to the travel media reporting on Ross’ Oceania-Asia trip; in fact it structured his film Achtung Australien! Achtung Asien! (1930). The Ross family’s actual itinerary is rearranged there so as to more clearly stress contrasts in populousness. At midpoint, the film jumps from Australia’s lush, lightly settled north coast right to bustling Guangzhou (Canton) harbor. (See Running out of ground)

On the one hand, the juxtaposition of Volk ohne Raum and Raum ohne Volk reinforces fears of Asia’s populations threatening to spill into territories that have so far been under white domination. Closer to home, Ross had previously argued that Europe would have to defend its African colonies against rising Asian powers. On the other hand, the wide open spaces Ross depicts and describes in Australia afford his audience back home fantasies of unhindered movement (see Navigating Australia’s empty spaces) and settlement, embodied by German settler communities and the itinerant Ross family themselves.

Joachim Schätz

1 Andy Hahnemann. [Excerpt from] Volk ohne Raum - Raum ohne Volk. In: Texturen des Globalen. Geopolitik und populäre Literatur in der Zwischenkriegszeit 1918-1939, Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter; 2010; 265–76.

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