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The term Lebensraum, meaning "living space," originated with the German geographer and ethnographer Friedrich Ratzel (1844–1904). He wrote on Darwinism and did research in the Americas before lecturing at Munich University, then at the University of Leipzig, and writing on the physical and cultural relations between populations and their environments. The Swedish political scientist Rudolf Kjellén (1864–1922), who coined the term "geopolitics," adopted Ratzel's concept, arguing in his major work that states are organisms that grow and decay. These ideas were avidly adopted by Nazi Germany, giving Lebensraum the sinister overtones it often carries today.

Nevertheless, all living things do need space, at some bare minimum, for their physical structure and the necessities of life: water, food, waste disposal, and so on. This requirement is manifested in the territorial behavior of the lower animals, including the forceful rejection of intruders when instinctive mechanisms (e.g., threat displays) fail to repel them. In human populations analogous behaviors may therefore be inherent, predating agriculture and even language. Wherever possible, most human population groups, however, seek to claim appreciably more living space than this bare minimum.

The Book of Genesis (12:1–9) describes a Lebensraum deficit facing Abraham and his kin, leading to conflict among their herdsmen. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato, in The Republic, depicts the expanding territorial needs of neighboring populations as resulting in war. In the chapter on American Indian population controls in his Essay on the Principle of Population, the English economist T. R. Malthus (1766–1834) wrote: "American nations are well acquainted with the rights of each community to its own dominions … they guard this national property with a jealous attention … [and] live in a perpetual state of hostility" (Malthus, p. 33).

Most societies have clear demarcations of their territory and resources. Contentious historical, political, and ethical questions often arise about definitions of and entitlements to living space. These can concern sovereignty, legitimacy, territorial boundaries, identity, belongingness, citizenship, nationality, race, ethnicity, language, religion, culture, and the need to control migration, settlement, and resource exploitation. Rival claims on the same Lebensraum are an intractable source of conflict, as in the cases of Palestine/Israel and Kosovo.

The amounts and kinds of Lebensraum needed for an acceptable quality of life vary with economic, cultural, and individual characteristics. Hunter-gatherers need a lot of space, 1 to 3 square kilometers (0.4 to 1.2 square miles) each, as do nomadic groups, which serially exhaust grazing or other resources along their traditional routes. The American folk hero, Davy Crockett, is said to have moved on when he could see smoke from a neighbor's chimney. Most contemporary humans seem reasonably content to live in dense urban areas (though they value privacy and are inclined to maximize their personal space by renting or buying as much of it as funds allow). But people are also appreciative of urban "lungs," open spaces, parks, greenbelts, and conservation and wilderness areas. At the level of the nation-state, a national security rationale is sometimes invoked to support territorial claims, seeking advantage in nondependence on other countries for essential resources such as food and raw materials. In an open-trading world, however, territorial possession as demarcated by national boundaries is at best weakly correlated with living standards.

The demand for Lebensraum may be fostered by purposeful population competition, often involving competitive breeding. The Malthus quotation, above, continued: "The very act of increasing in one tribe must be an act of aggression on its neighbours; as a larger … territory will be needed." Alleging overcrowding and lack of natural resources, Nazi Germany demanded the right to take extra Lebensraum by force, while simultaneously pursuing strongly pronatalist and eugenic policies domestically. Population competition is a sensitive topic of political discourse and is rarely examined even in the academic world. A few substantial treatments, however, have appeared, including works by Milica Z. Bookman, Jack Parsons, and Michael S. Teitelbaum and Jay Winter.

The spread of environmental ethics has led to pressure to protect the Lebensraum of both domestic and wild animals–and even plants–from undue human competition. A significant majority finds "battery" farming of livestock (the mass-rearing of pigs and chickens, for example, in large numbers under cover, in artificial light, and in small pens that prevent virtually all natural movement) to be deeply repugnant. Some people in affluent countries feel guilty about consuming too big a share of the world's space and resources and wish to share these with large numbers of immigrants. Countries feeling well-endowed with Lebensraum often adopt policies to occupy it more fully, either in the name of progress or for reasons of national security.

Ratzel's interests have become subsumed under a variety of disciplines: geography, geopolitics, international relations, ecology, ethology, and demography. Concepts related to Lebensraum, but lacking its historical associations, include overpopulation, physical and cultural carrying capacity, population pressure, ecological footprint, and demographic entrapment.

See also: Carrying Capacity; Geopolitics; Land Use; National Security and Population.


Allan, William. 1965. The African Husbandman. London: Oliver and Boyd.

Bookman, Milica Z. 1997. The Demographic Struggle for Power: The Political Economy of Demographic Engineering in the Modern World. London and Portland, OR: Frank Cass.

Hitler, Adolf. 1939. Mein Kampf (1925), trans. James Murphy. London: Hurst and Blackett.

Kjellén, Johan Rudolf. 1916. Staten som lifsform. 3 vols. Stockholm: Hugo Gaber.

Malthus, T. R. [1798] 1958. Essay on the Principle of Population London: Dent.

Parsons, Jack. 1971. Population versus Liberty. London: Pemberton.

——. 2002. Population Competition for Security or Attack: A Study of the Perilous Pursuit of Power through Weight of Numbers [CD-ROM]. Llantrisant, Wales: Population Policy Press.

Ratzel, Friedrich. 1882. Anthropogeographie. 2 vols. Stuttgart: J. Engelhorn.

——. 1885–1888. Völkerkunde. 3 vols. Leipzig: Bibliographisches Institut.

Sack, Robert David. 1986. Human Territoriality: Its Theory and History. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press.

Teitelbaum, Michael S., and Jay Winter. 1998. A Question of Numbers: High Migration, Low Fertility, and the Politics of National Identity. New York: Hill and Wang.

Wackernagel, Mathis, and William E. Rees. 1996. Our Ecological Footprint. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers.

Jack Parsons


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Lebensraum literally, space for living; the term used for territory which many German nationalists in the mid 20th century claimed was needed for the survival and healthy development of the nation.

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