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  • Harvest of Despair: Life and Death in Ukraine under Nazi Rule
  • Matthew R. Schwonek
Harvest of Despair: Life and Death in Ukraine under Nazi Rule. By Karel C. Berkhoff. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004. ISBN 0-674-01313-1. Photographs. Appendixes. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xiii, 463. $29.95.

Assessments of the Second World War in Ukraine are mostly fragmentary and dominated by accounts of attempted cooperation with the Nazi regime or collaboration in the murder of the Jews. Few writers have questioned the official Soviet stance, which regarded those left behind to the mercies of the occupiers as traitors. Rarely has this view been more effectively challenged than in Karel C. Berkhoff's history of daily life in the Reichskommisariat Ukraine. An associate professor at the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies of the University of Amsterdam, Berkhoff departs from the usual examination of politics and collaboration. By writing a territorial history, he uncovers a pitiless and brutal colonial policy that did not permit ordinary persons "to live their own lives with as little interference from grand sociopolitical events as possible" (p. 5). There is more to this than the Holocaust of the Jews and Roma and the mass murder of prisoners of war. In the countryside, after a short period of improved living standards, conditions steadily declined as the Nazis introduced violence and abuse to perfect the collective farming system. Nazi policy aimed to demolish industry and depopulate urban centers, and Kiev in particular was subject to a deliberate policy of starvation, resulting in a deadly, but wholly artificial, famine. Berkhoff argues that conditions in Ukraine were even worse than in the General Gouvernement of occupied Poland. Such claims are not backed up by comparative analysis, but there can be no doubt that conditions in the Reichskommissariat were horrific by any objective standard.

Harvest of Despair is primarily a history written "from the bottom up," and Berkhoff's most important findings concern popular culture, religion, ethnic identity, and political loyalties. He addresses social cohesion among ordinary people, finding social disunity and passivity. Civil society, here defined as "solidarity with strangers" (p. 310), did not exist. This is attributed to the years of Communist rule, which had atomized the population, rendering citizens "self-centered, distrustful, and apathetic" (p. 311). Additionally, [End Page 266] the author investigates identities and mental outlooks. At the start of the war ethnic identity among Ukrainians was only vaguely defined. Thus nationalism and statehood elicited little interest. Also, expressions of anti-Russian sentiment and resentment for the prewar terror, which one might expect, are difficult to find. Deportations to forced labor, which plucked one million workers from the Reichskommissariat before its liberation, played an important role in the emergence of large numbers of partisans toward the end of Nazi rule. Nevertheless, the course of the Ukrainian partisan movement is torturous. In August 1943, for example, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army began a bloody campaign to cleanse Volhynia of its Polish population. Berkhoff's conclusions are bound to arouse controversy. However, none can fault his research. This study is the product of patient work in archives in Ukraine, Russia, Canada, and the United States. This Dutch author's command of Ukrainian, Polish, German, and English secondary materials is also impressive. The book is to be commended not least for its ability to shed light on the burgeoning historiographical debate about European societies under Nazi and Soviet rule. Military historians as well as East Central European and Russian specialists will find this work of immense value in assessing the wartime experience in Ukraine and its historical legacy.

Matthew R. Schwonek
Air Command and Staff College
Maxwell AFB, Alabama


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pp. 266-267
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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Archived 2010
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