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Harvest of Despair: Life and Death in Ukraine under Nazi Rule

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"If I find a Ukrainian who is worthy of sitting at the same table with me, I must have him shot," declared Nazi commissar Erich Koch. To the Nazi leaders, the Ukrainians were Untermenschen—subhumans. But the rich land was deemed prime territory for Lebensraum expansion. Once the Germans rid the country of Jews, Roma, and Bolsheviks, the Ukrainians would be used to harvest the land for the master race. Karel Berkhoff provides a searing portrait of life in the Third Reich's largest colony. Under the Nazis, a blend of German nationalism, anti-Semitism, and racist notions about the Slavs produced a reign of terror and genocide. But it is impossible to understand fully Ukraine's response to this assault without addressing the impact of decades of repressive Soviet rule. Berkhoff shows how a pervasive Soviet mentality worked against solidarity, which helps explain why the vast majority of the population did not resist the Germans. He also challenges standard views of wartime eastern Europe by treating in a more nuanced way issues of collaboration and local anti-Semitism. Berkhoff offers a multifaceted discussion that includes the brutal nature of the Nazi administration; the genocide of the Jews and Roma; the deliberate starving of Kiev; mass deportations within and beyond Ukraine; the role of ethnic Germans; religion and national culture; partisans and the German response; and the desperate struggle to stay alive. Harvest of Despair is a gripping depiction of ordinary people trying to survive extraordinary events.

480 pages, Hardcover

First published April 15, 2004

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Karel C. Berkhoff

3 books2 followers

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Displaying 1 - 5 of 5 reviews
Profile Image for Katherine Addison.
Author 17 books2,918 followers
December 27, 2015
This is a very difficult and painful book to read because, to put it vulgarly, the people of Ukraine could not catch a fucking break. They go from Stalin and the Terror-Famine to the Nazis, who quite deliberately starved the urban population and generally behaved like, well, Nazis, and at the end of the war, of course, they are doomed to go right back to Stalin; in post-WWII Soviet Ukraine, people were persecuted for having survived the occupation:

Red Army veterans, former partisans, and Soviet ideologists lost no time in developing their mythical interpretation of Ukraine under the "German fascist occupants." Like many historians of western European countries, they claimed that resistance had been massive. Official interpreters also, as during the war but in contrast to their Western peers, declared passivity under the Germans a virtual criminal offense. The myth reflected an apparent view that the people in Nazi-ruled Ukraine had been traitors, as a former Soviet partisan recalls being told in Moscow as early as 1942. In 1946, when Petro Vershyhora, a former partisan under Sydir Kovpak, defended those who had lived their lives under the Nazis against people who attacked them merely for that reason, official critics denounced him and censors modified subsequent editions of his book. The survivors of the Nazi regime received little understanding. Well into the 1980s, they had to mention on job applications and other forms whether they had "been in occupied territory" and a positive response resulted in discrimination. Only the collapse of the Soviet Union gave the survivors of the Holocaust and of forced labor the chance to accept a decades-old German offer of compensation; yet post-Soviet bureaucrats illegally appropriated part of the funds and kept applicants waiting for years. (306)

Solzhenitsyn also has things to say about the treatment of survivors in the post-WWII USSR, none of them good.

And what makes the whole mess even worse, the part of the book where I kept wanting to shake something to make reality realign, is that the Ukrainian partisans were just as bad as the Nazis and the Stalinists. They started their own genocide against the Poles, and they followed exactly the same pattern of mass murder against civilians for helping "the enemy" (whoever "the enemy" was defined as by the murderers) or for being suspected of helping "the enemy" or because someone else helped "the enemy" or for not helping the murderers or not helping them enough or any other reason that came to them. Ukrainian partisans murdered people they suspected of supporting Soviet partisans and vice versa. It's like everyone in this patch of Europe suffered homicidal psychosis at the same time, and it is ghastly.

Berkoff's English is sometimes awkward; he is a native of the Netherlands, and by my best reckoning must read Russian, German, Ukrainian, and possibly Polish as well, so this is not in any way a denigration, just a fact about reading the book. One of the things I think is particularly useful about it is that Berkoff has chosen to present the experiences of the people who lived in Ukraine, rather than the Jews or the ethnic Germans or the Poles or the Russians or the Ukrainians (it's also very clear from what he writes that "Ukrainian" was a slippery term and not necessarily a useful one in talking about the people who lived in Ukraine). He's looking at what happened to people who lived in this particular place at this particular time and the suffering they went through for other people's ideologies.
Profile Image for Svetlana Karlin.
16 reviews1 follower
January 16, 2012
A very comprehensive book on the history of the Reichskommissariat Ukraine. The author diligently portrays the complexities, contradictions and variations across different regions and takes into account the local cultural and national factors, including the violent strife between Polish and Ukrainian nationalists.

This book helped me put into perspective the tidbits of information (or lack of them) I heard from my family. Some of my relatives lived in Poltava area during the Nazi occupation.

The book should have more detailed maps, since the map included does not show most of the localities mentioned in the book. It was not a problem for me since I grew up in the Soviet Union, but could frustrate readers not very familiar with Soviet geography.

A more detailed review is on my blog: http://svetlanakarlin.wordpress.com/2...
Profile Image for Rhuff.
315 reviews16 followers
September 16, 2019
Karel C. Berkhoff has written an outstanding contribution to the 20th century/WW II history of the borderland battleground of the Ukraine. Ordinary life is dissected under an expert historian's scalpel, straightforwardly presenting the gruesome facts of Nazi rule for ordinary people without the need for Robert Conquest's statistical chicanery, or Timothy Snyder's heavy-handed polemics.

I will take issue, though, when Berkhoff quotes German military administrators writing of the locals wishing "for a German victory in their hearts." This is rather the wishful self-delusion common to all conquering armies, soon turning into violent disillusion. The "Uncle Tom" cheering and smiling were the tools of everyday survival for peasant populations, in avoiding trouble with whomever installed himself as master of their house: "the slave sees the master but the master never truly sees the slave." Some of these welcoming Ukrainian masses were, in a few years, to be vengefully raping and looting on the streets of Berlin to express the true contents of their hearts. At the same time, I recognize the inherent ambiguity in such endurance: my wife's mother, growing up in southwest Russia on the Ukrainian border, recalls armed German soldiers bursting into their farmhouse with drawn weapons; yet by the end of the occupation they "got along" with their occupiers and she still practices German.

Berkhoff details the "little" genocides along with the major holocaust: the liquidation of the Roma, the deliberate starvation of the POW camps and cities, and the elimination of ethnic Poles in the western provinces - this by Ukrainian "patriots," who conducted their own race war between the lines to ensure Poland could have no further postwar claim to this region. Here we see Timothy Snyder's convenient lines between victims and victimizers realistically smudged, as the OUN-UPA ruled with a reign of terror that would have done Hitler or Stalin proud. I disagree when Berkhoff states that all these people were liquidated for what they were doing: in fact, they didn't have to do anything. Simply being of the "wrong blood" was a death sentence in itself. The accusations were mere rationalization.

Also interesting was his brief description on the psychology of looting (p. 34). This would explain its prevalence through the history of war, from Atlanta to Baghdad. In fact, the overall German experience in Ukraine has more than a faint echo of the US occupation of Iraq, without the most egregious atrocity. Also bringing an ironic smile were Berkhoff's reproduction of German propaganda posters, on page 121 and especially 214: the liberated people look through the broken wall to glimpse the European plentitude beckoning beyond. So suspiciously parallel is this to cold war propaganda that I suspect a similar authorship. Only when the invaders' rule was a reality could they then judge its merits. (One might wonder if the Ukrainian people also feel duped on this go-around of Western liberation.)

Overall a good focus on hell as lived at a certain time in a not-so-small place.
Profile Image for Kate.
155 reviews4 followers
September 28, 2019

Historian Peter Novick said that writing objective history is like trying to "nail jelly to a wall." Karel Berkhoff has taken up the challenge nonetheless.

Rare for an academic history, Berkhoff has arranged the book in a thematic and narrative style, which makes the book eminently readable (subject matter aside). The multi-ethnic diversity of the Ukraine made their relationship with the Nazis especially complicated--and fascinating. Moreover, Berkhoff's sampling of sources covers at least five different languages, including his own native Dutch. Although he tries too hard to avoid words like "resistance" and "collaboration" in an effort to prioritize history over morality, he has my forgiveness and thanks. This is an outstanding book.
35 reviews
November 14, 2022
Amazing read

The Author wrote an incredible account of life in the Ukraine during Germany occupation. Well researched and Well written. Certainly provides an important history of a troubled region of the world.

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