Sunday, August 10, 2008

Sunday Salon-August 10, 2008

Harvest of Despair; Life and Death in Ukraine Under Nazi Rule
Karel Berkhoff
Belknap Press

The history of Ukraine is a tangled web of invasion, exploitation, and, despite it all, hope. As you drive through the Ukrainian countryside, you can see monuments to the “Great Patriotic War” and most major cities have more than one memorial to the Soviet citizens who defended their homeland against the Nazi invaders who planned on re-making Ukraine into a German agricultural colony.

Karel Berkhoff’s Harvest of Despair is an attempt to look at the Nazi plans for the occupied Ukraine and Ukrainian reaction to them. In every sense, the Ukrainian people were caught between a rock and a hard place- the two choices left to them were Hitler’s Nazis or the Stalin’s Soviet Union. Berkhoff’s narrative places the Ukrainian choices into context, explaining why the two choices were variously chosen, and why, in the end, both proved inadequate.

When the Nazi’s first invaded Ukraine in June, 1941, many welcomed the Germans as liberators. Indeed, the treatment that the Ukrainian peasantry received under Stalin’s collectivization plan and engineered famine would make almost any alternative seem attractive. Coupled with the lack of good information about Nazi rule in other parts of Europe and the almost total collapse of Soviet defenses, Germany seemed a ray of hope. That hope was soon dashed as the nature of Nazi rule manifested itself.

The Nazis planned on making Ukraine an agricultural colony to be populated by “Germanic” people. The Slavic Ukrainian people, by definition inferior according to Nazi ideology, were at best an impediment to these plans. The Ukrainians were tolerated insomuch as there were economically useful to the Nazi regime. Peasants, who produced food in abundance, were allowed to survive, albeit with the ever-present danger of forced labor in Germany or summary execution. City dwellers, especially those who were not deemed economically useful were expected to starve, which they did by the thousands.

The brutality of the Nazi regime, whether revealed in the mass execution of the local Jewish populations, the summary executions under the most flimsy of pretexts, or the conditions suffered by those in forced labor in Germany, soon soured the Ukrainians to the prospect of their “liberation.” But the Ukrainians found themselves as powerless in the face of Nazi power as they did under the Soviets. That there was resistance at all, be it evading work to sheltering Jews, is remarkable in a society where resistance to authority was swiftly and severely punished, regardless of the regime.

Berkhoff organized Harvest of Despair thematically, which allows the reader to “spiral” their knowledge into a coherent whole after reading the entire work, while allowing each chapter to stand alone if necessary. One item that would have been useful to the general reader would be an explanation of the German military and civilian terms in greater detail. Comparisons with other Nazi occupied territory would have also been useful as context. Whether the Ukrainian experience was typical or not would help the general reader understand the extent in which Ukraine suffered, before, during, and after the occupation. Harvest of Despair is a well researched and written treatment of this horrible chapter of history.

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