Life and death in Ukraine under Nazi rule

HARVEST OF DESPAIR: Life and Death in Ukraine Under Nazi Rule by Karel C. Berkhoff (2004)

Ukraine was the scene of two of the most murderous episodes of 20th century history.

The first was the Holodomor, which was the systematic starvation of Ukrainian and other peasants by Joseph Stalin in 1929-1933 as part of the drive to collectivize agriculture, combined with the suppression of Ukrainian culture.  Nobody knows for sure how many people died as a result, but the consensus is that they numbered more than 3 million.  Robert Conquest’s Harvest of Sorrow documents this event in its full horror.

The second was the Nazi occupation of Ukraine in 1941-1944.  The Nazis’ immediate objective in Ukraine was to use it as a breadbasket to feed the German army and people.  Its long-range objective was to depopulate Ukraine, by means of starvation and killing, so as to open it up for German pioneer settlers, with only a remnant of the Ukrainian people left to serve as slaves of the occupiers.

That story is told in Karel C. Berkhoff’s Harvest of Despair,  a history of Reichskommissariat Ukraine, the short-lived colony the Nazis set up on Ukrainian soil.

Berkhoff’s best estimate is that one million civilians and prisoners of war were deliberately killed or starved to death by the Nazi occupiers of Ukraine.

The dead mainly included (1) Jews and Roma (gypsies), (2) prisoners of war, (3) urban populations the Nazis deemed useless and (4) people killed during the German retreat in 1944 as part of a scorched earth policy.

Of course these killings are a small part of what would have happened if Nazi rule had become permanent.

I had a notion that this book would provide an explanation of present-day Ukrainians’ admiration for the Nazi-like Stepan Bandera.  My idea was that Ukrainians’ hatred for Russians arose during the Holodomor and was the reason for their admiration for Bandera, a nationalist who thought he could use the Nazis to create an independent Ukrainian state.

Berkhoff’s book provides no support whatsoever for my notion.  He said the basic attitudes of Ukrainians, despite their great suffering, were unchanged during the period he wrote about.

Ukrainians were so demoralized by Soviet rule that most of them were incapable of organized resistance.  Stalin’s rule had created a culture of mistrust and denunciation.  Anybody could denounce anybody else for what they allegedly said or did.   You could not trust anyone outside your immediate family or your closest friends.  This universal suspicion continued under Nazi rule.

Ukrainians during this period did not hate Russians, but regarded them as fellow victims of Soviets and Nazis, Berkhoff wrote.  When they spoke of “our people,” they meant both Ukrainians and Russians.

Ukrainians at first actually welcomed the German invaders as liberators.  Nazi propaganda promised that the collective farms would be dismantled, and Ukrainians would be allowed to have individual plots.  But the reality was otherwise.

The Nazis in fact kept the collective farms as a means of controlling the food supply.  They promised the collective farm workers they could have their individual plots if they worked hard, but they had a secret internal policy that no more than 5 percent on any farm could be freed.

All schools above the level of fourth grade were ordered closed, because additional knowledge was useless to future serfs and slaves.

Any Ukrainian could be beaten by any German at any time for any reason.  Any Ukrainian who failed to show proper deference to a German was beaten or worse.  Discipline in factories and collective farms was enforced by beatings.  German officers typically carried whips, and German officials typically had whips lying on their desks.

But Berkhoff concluded that rural Ukrainians on average were, in fact, less malnourished under Hitler’s rule than under Stalin’s.  This was not because the Nazis were  humane, but because their control was less effective.  There was a flourishing black market, and many young Ukrainian women acquired German boyfriends who helped them out.  No doubt the language barrier also played a part.

Much of the Nazi Holocaust of Jews and gypsies took part on Ukrainian soil.  Members of both groups were marked for death: No exceptions.

The notorious Babi Yar massacre took place in Ukraine.  In just two days, on September 29-30, 1941, some 34,000 Jewish people – men, women and children – were stripped naked, shot and thrown into open graves there.  Over time, the author estimates that more than 100,000 people, not all of them Jews, were killed at that site alone.

Ukrainians typically were anti-Semitic, but generally did not approve of the actual killing of their Jewish neighbors.  Helping Jews was punishable by death.  Only a few took that risk, and many of the helpers were killed..

The method of killing of Soviet prisoners of war illustrated how the Nazis controlled their intended victims by holding out the false hope of survival.

The prisoners were sent on death marches. They were given inadequate rations, and anyone who fell by the wayside was shot and killed.

Survivors were confined to camps with no heat, and a daily distribution of food insufficient to keep all of them alive. The weak died; the strong ate, until the next reduction of rations.  Sympathetic people caught smuggling food to the prisoners were usually executed.

The technique of offering false hope was also used when Hitler ordered the reduction of the populations of Kiev and other large cities by means of starvation.  A food ration was provided to inhabitants of the city, but it was insufficient to sustain life in the long term.  When this didn’t seem to work, the authorities forbid the bringing of food from the countryside into the cities.  Kindergartens and primary schools, which provided lunches to children, were shut down.

A semblance of life went on.  Churches and movie theaters, under strict control, remained open.  Newspapers were published in Ukrainian.  All the while the populations of Kiev and other major cities were reduced by half.

Berkhoff estimated that one million Ukrainians were deported to work as slave laborers in German factories and on farms.  At first a number of Ukrainians left voluntarily, figuring that living standards must be higher in Germany.  But soon local authorities were given quotas of able-bodied adults to send.

Toward the end, the Germans were sending out press gangs to seize any able-bodied Ukrainians they could find.  Most Ukrainians stopped going to the movies because of the danger of being caught in a roundup.

The last mass killings took place when the Germans retreated from Ukraine.  They took as many able-bodied Ukrainian adults with them as they could, and tried to kill the ones left behind.  This was part of a scorched-earth policy of leaving nothing useful to the advancing Red Army.

The first resistance movements appeared after the Battle of Stalingrad, when it became apparent the Nazis were going to lose.  Both originated outside what had been the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

One was organized by the Soviet NKVD, whose agents were parachuted in.  The other was the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), which persists in Ukraine today.  Both were utterly ruthless, demanded absolute loyalty and treated those who tried to be neutral as enemies.  Berkhoff devoted only a few pages to each.

The OUN originated in another Nazi colony, the Government-General, which was carved out of the Polish Republic.  Four of the principal Nazi death camps were located there.

The OUN believed in Ukraine for the Ukrainians alone.  At times it collaborated with the Germans and at other times it fought them.  It was anti-Russian, anti-Semitic and anti-Polish.  It massacred Poles, allegedly in retaliation for atrocities.  Its base of operations was the formerly Polish province of Galicia, which was annexed to Ukraine during the Nazi-Soviet pact and had not experienced the Holodomor.

I now realize that I don’t really understand Stepan Bandera and the fascistic Ukrainian nationalist movement, or how it came to have its present hold on the Ukrainian nation.  I suspect its influence will not end with the present conflict and will not be limited to Ukraine.  I need to do more research, for my own satisfaction if nothing else.

Another thing I got from reading this book was a reminder of what Hitler was all about.  Nowadays it is common to call any petty tyrant a Hitler, and any petty act of tyranny Nazism.  But Hitler was in a category, if not all by himself, shared by very few.  He was an enemy not just of Jewish people, but of humankind.

[Afterthoughts 04/27/2022].

My brief paragraphs did not do justice to the thoroughness of Karel C. Berkhoff’s history.  A Dutchman, he came as close as humanly possible to writing an impartial account of the complex cross-currents in Ukraine during Nazi rule.  I suspect his estimates of the death tolls were on the low and conservative sides.

I put down the book with an appreciation of my unearned good luck in living in a nation that has been safe from foreign invasion for two centuries, and has no obstacles except self-created ones to living up to its ideals of liberal democracy.

It is hard for me to imagine what it would have been like living in Ukraine in 1941-1944.  I have never been called upon to make the kind of choices that people living in Ukraine had to make back then.

I am reminded of the remark that history is a tragedy, not a melodrama of good and evil.  And of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s remark that the line between good and evil does not run between nations, but through the heart of every living human being.

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4 Responses to “Life and death in Ukraine under Nazi rule”

  1. RedSquareMaidan Says:

    “I now realize that I don’t really understand Stepan Bandera”

    You’re right, you don’t. You should understand that he fought all occupiers and fought for the freedom of his country. You call that “fascist” but that’s because, by your own words, you don’t really understand him. Try harder.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. williambearcat Says:


    Liked by 1 person

  3. jbello Says:

    I think the Ukrainian support for Stepan Bandera is related in some sense to Israeli Zionism which insists on treating Palestinians in much the same way Jews were treated by the Nazis in Europe. A violated people can be seduced into believing that their only security is to become their abuser.


  4. Nicolas Cinquini Says:

    and now, Nazis from all over the world are dying in Ukraine.
    About French specimen
    * in English
    * in French (another article)
    Nazism in Ukraine is not a set of circumstances


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