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  • Harvest of Despair: Life and Death in Ukraine under Nazi Rule
  • Gijs Kessler
Karel C. Berkhoff, Harvest of Despair: Life and Death in Ukraine under Nazi Rule. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004. 463 pp. $29.95.

Harvest of Despair is a wide-ranging study of life in the occupied territories of the Soviet Union that formed the Reichskommissariat Ukraine, the largest colony of Nazi Germany, from 1941 to 1944. Karel Berkhoff specifically aims to write a territorial history rather than a history of Ukraine under the Nazi occupation. He convincingly argues that this is the best framework for studying Europe during World War II. Nazi policies and occupation regimes, although based on the same principles, differed [End Page 153] markedly from one administrative region to another. Nevertheless, the book is not meant to be a study of Nazi policies vis-à-vis Ukraine. Harvest of Despair is a narrative history from below that recounts the wartime experience of the unfortunate lands that suffered at the hands of both of the great totalitarian dictatorships of twentieth-century Europe.

The book makes for some disturbing reading, bringing the horror of those years to life in a way that has a strong ring of authenticity. In less than three years the population of the Reichskommissariat Ukraine witnessed, consecutively, mass executions of political prisoners and "unreliable elements" by retreating Soviet secret police (NKVD) forces, Nazi maltreatment and executions of Soviet prisoners of war, the extermination of the Jewish and Roma populations, Nazi deportations of able-bodied workers to the Reich at gunpoint, ethnic cleansing of Polish villages by Ukrainian partisans, and massacres and rampages by retreating German troops. In addition, ad-hoc executions and brutal violence by the Nazi occupation forces and their local auxiliaries were the order of the day. Drawing on an impressive source base, Berkhoff minutely reconstructs these events, offering conflicting evidence and interpretations where available. Although the book's narrative approach obviously pays off here, some issues could probably have done with a more systematic treatment—notably, the role of local civil and military auxiliaries in the system of Nazi rule in Ukraine. Just as in other occupied parts of Europe, local involvement in the Nazi administration in Ukraine was substantial, and it would be interesting to know more about those who collaborated and the place they had occupied in Soviet society in the 1930s. Information of this sort might well enhance our understanding of the striking continuity in state-inflicted violence between the Soviet and Nazi regimes in Ukraine.

Harvest of Despair makes a contribution to historiography in two fields. For those who study the comparative history of Nazi occupation regimes in Europe, the importance of this book can hardly be overstated. Because of the inaccessibility of sources and the lack of a non-ideological local historiography, the Nazi occupation regimes in Eastern Europe have long received scant attention from Western historians, even though, as Berkhoff painfully demonstrates, the Nazi administrations in Eastern Europe were fundamentally different from those in France, the Netherlands, and even the Balkans. Reading this book, one is left with an overpowering sense that taking in the wanton brutality of Nazi rule in the East is crucial when attempting to answer questions about the origin, place, and role of Nazism in European history. Berkhoff 's well-written study can be expected to find the broader audience required for this endeavor.

Secondly, the book raises the question of how the gruesome events it describes should be incorporated into our understanding of Soviet history. Berkhoff reaches back to the Stalinist terror of the 1930s to explain certain developments of the wartime years. Central to his argument is the claim that widespread mistrust and self-centeredness inherited from the prewar period were instrumental in creating the social disunity that prevented the population of the Reichskommissariat, whether Ukrainian, Russian or Jewish, from countering Nazi oppression. In this atomized society the Nazis effectively deployed their wide range of repressive techniques, co-opting some [End Page 154] groups and pitting them against the others. At the same time, the book also enhances our understanding of some key events of the 1930s, in particular the famine of 1932– 1933, in...


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