- Nazi Empire-Building and the Holocaust in Ukraine
Wendy Lower’s study of Nazi colonial policies in Ukraine is a compelling, wonderfully written, if largely depressing contribution to Holocaust studies in Eastern Eu-rope. Although her focus is on the brutal mass murder of Jews in the Ukrainian (and partly Belarusian) provinces joined as Zhytomyr by the German occupation administration, she also has uncovered rich material about the ethnic Ukrainians and local Germans (in Nazi parlance, Volksdeutsche). Lower has done prodigious archival research in Ukraine. Her book joins a burgeoning group of revisionist and local (Zhytomyr and Kyiv) archive-based studies, including those of Dieter Pohl, Karel Berkhoff, Kate Brown, and Amir Weiner. Her research took her not only to Ukraine but to Moscow, Berlin, Freiburg, the U.S. National Archives, and the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, which now has one of the world’s most extensive collections of documents from the East European countries.
This multicountry, multiarchive scope allows Lower to move back and forth between the Nazi command center and the regime’s local agents in Ukraine. As she frequently reminds us, the Zhytomyr/Vinnytsia region was no ordinary “periphery.” Except for neighboring Poland, no population suffered as much under Nazi rule as did the inhabitants of Ukraine, which was a central site for the murderous policies of the Holocaust. Moreover, Adolf Hitler, Hermann Göring, and Heinrich Himmler all had large bunker headquarters built for their surprisingly frequent visits to the region. Not only did Hitler partly conduct German military operations from his bunker compound, but Himmler launched utopian plans for creating a German “Garden of Eden” out of Hegewald, a settlement of Volksdeutsche that was to be a model of the new order in the east. Of course, the plans, when implemented, fell far short of Himmler’s grandiose visions. Instead of voluntary resettlement, the Volksdeutsche were forcibly relocated, suffered continual shortages and deprivations of basic goods (though they were treated far better than the local Ukrainians, not to mention the Jews), and ended up victims of Soviet postwar retaliation. Their fate also illustrates well how Nazi agencies often worked at cross-purposes with one another. Those in charge of recruiting labor for the Reich rounded up ethnic Germans with relative impunity despite the protests of the colonization agencies, which wanted to cultivate the Volksdeutsche and establish them as pioneers in the new Nazi East.
Hegewald was an example of what Lower convincingly argues was the Nazis’ colonial aspirations for the whole of Eastern Europe—aspirations that had their roots in prewar völkisch ideas and were a response to Germany’s failure to establish an overseas colonial empire in the nineteenth century. She cites popular literature and Nazi leaders’ exhortations for Germans to take on the civilizing roles of the British in India and Africa, but also argues that these styles of thinking were part of a greater, “transatlantic [End Page 177] dialogue that included [Frederick] Turner’s frontier thesis about America’s westward expansion” (p. 20). The local populations were accordingly viewed as backward, unenlightened, even subhuman peoples. This imperialist thinking was dominated by racialist “science,” especially regarding the Jews, who had absolutely no place in the new Nazi world, but it also doomed the Ukrainians, who were targeted to be exploited, deported to the western portions of the Reich, or confined to collective farms, which the Germans, despite initial hopes on the part of the Ukrainians, refused to disband. The Ukrainians were to be denied anything beyond minimal education, health care, and food rations, in the expectation that they, too, would die out with time. This widespread colonial and racialist consensus among the Germans in Ukraine meant that they needed little more than vaguely written directives from Berlin to adapt them to local conditions with near impunity. In this way, the “periphery” faithfully reflected the center in implementing the latter’s murderous policies.
Lower’s study of German occupation policy has an important predecessor in Alexander Dallin’s German Rule in Russia, 1941–1945: A...