While reading a book over the past couple of days , I came across the phrase “Volk ohne raum” in two different parts, each of them in a slightly different context that I found very intriguing and worthy of reflection. The phrase is, of course, German, and means “People without space.” The book itself comments on two contexts of this phrase in the German history of the first half of the 20th century, and also has a bit of personal relevance to me. In light of the ridicule that German ideas of expanding their influence and space have fallen in light of the horrors of World War II, it is worthwhile to examine that the Bible views expansionistic tendencies in at least two locations as being highly praiseworthy in very noteworthy contexts. It is worthwhile to examine these contexts as well.
In the early 1900’s, the demographic expansion within Germany that resulted from Germany’s unification and rising economic wealth as a result of that unity had caused Germany’s cities to be overwhelmingly crowded with the sons and daughters of peasant families who were no longer able to find room in the country. As a result, many poor Germans streamed to areas as diverse as the Midwestern United States and Chile, where they quickly assimilated into the local populations and became loyal citizens of the areas where they went rather than staying loyal to the Reich. This, as might be imagined, alarmed German military leaders who wanted to keep their poor and ambitious masses as productive labor and military resource for their own nation rather than a potential gain to other nations. This sort of situation was one factor that led many Germans to desire imperial expansion as a way of keeping these populations loyal to the homeland and useful in spreading German power and influence around the world. Instead, the German “people without room” lived in small hovels or flats or fled overcrowded Germany for other realms with more empty space for them to settle.
The second, and related, context of the German phrase “Volk ohne Raum” came about because of a popular German novel (much like Voltaire’s Candide) which showed one of those famous “people without room” who lives a vagabondish life including troubled experiences in the colonies of other empires, finally realizing that in order to find opportunity and freedom that he would need to be a part of a larger German empire. It is perhaps ominous that even before World War II began this vision was immensely popular in Germany. As someone who has lived a vagabondish life myself, I can understand the appeal that freedom of opportunity has, and the frustration that results from a closing of opportunities. One of the more obvious ways that nations have of resolving pressures inside a country is by externalizing their efforts to reduce internal pressure at the cost of unleashing those frustrations on “others.” Obviously, this accounts for much of the nasty edge of imperial conflicts, and the desperation that fills such efforts at expansion throughout the course of human history.
The first notable biblical context where the expansiveness of what we would consider imperialism is found in the blessing that Jacob gave to Joseph in Genesis 49:22-26: “Joseph is a fruitful bough, a fruitful bough by a well; his branches run over the wall. The archers have bitterly grieved him, shot at him and hated him. But his bow remained in strength, and the arms of his hands were made strong by the hands of the Mighty God of Jacob (from there is the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel), by the God of your father who will help you, and by the Almighty who will bless you with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that lies beneath, blessings of the breasts and of the womb. The blessings of your father have excelled the blessings of my ancestors, up to the utmost bound of the everlasting hills. They shall be on the crown of the head of Joseph, and on the crown of him who was separate from his brothers.” Here we see the blessings promised to Joseph in the sense of an expansiveness that expands beyond its normal borders in a way that attracts a great deal of hatred but that is blessed by God. Although empires do behave badly very often, there is nothing inherently wrong about imperial growth that is blessed by God for His purposes.
One might be tempted to think that this celebration of expansiveness was merely a matter of “Old Testament” thinking but that is not the case. Luke 5:36-39 says: “Then He spoke a parable to them: “No one puts a piece form a new garment on an old one; otherwise the new makes a tear, and also the piece that was taken out of the new does not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; or else the new wine will burst the wineskins and be spilled, and the wineskins will be ruined. But new wine must be put into new wineskins, and both are preserved. And no one having drunk old wine, immediately desires new; for he says, ‘The old is better.'” While this particular parable has many meanings and applications, one of them happens to be the fact that old wineskins cannot hold the expansiveness of new wine. Clearly, those people who are expansive and youthful and exuberant are clearly an example of “new wine” that if it lacks the maturity of old wine, it has a certain worth and quality all of its own. Here again there are applications to the expansiveness of the Christian ideal, spreading like leaven throughout the world, its influence expanding from individuals and families to communities and institutions all over the world.
We might not identify as strongly with the volk ohne raum, seeing ourselves as having plenty of space and plenty of resources. However, in a world full of stress and pressure, it is likely that many of us are people without space, without buffers, without a great deal of surplus resources or even enough space to call their own. Given the results of that stress and pressure on our life, it is entirely unsurprising that we should seek external space for our internal struggles. Whatever we use as a way of dealing with the pressures of our lives, it is a dangerous matter for ourselves and our world for there to be a great many people who are without room to breathe and to call their own, or opportunities to rise above their history. How to provide that space in such a way that allows for growth and maturity and also expansion is a difficult task within our world and the institutions within it.