- The Holocaust and the Germanization of Ukraine by Eric C. Steinhart
This excellent micro-history is based on the author’s Ph.D. thesis, which received the 2011 Fritz Stern Prize from the Friends of the German Historical Institute for best doctoral dissertation written in North America on German history.
Steinhart reconstructs events that unfolded during the wartime Romanian occupation of Transnistria, a large slice of southern Ukraine between the lower reaches of the Dniester and the Bug, bounded on the southeast where these rivers flowed into the Black Sea. Romania was promised sovereignty over Transnistria as an incentive to join Hitler’s war against the Soviet Union, but the German government coveted the region and hoped to gain control of it later—not least because Transnistria was home to 130,000 ethnic Germans, the largest such population to come under German influence or control during the war. Transnistria thus became the most thoroughly developed “pilot program” for realizing the Nazi vision of having annexed territory in the East populated with ethnic Germans (p. 231). Tasked with Germanizing Transnistria, and thereby paving the way for later German control of the region, was Sonderkommando R, a unit of the Volksdeutsche Mittelstelle, the branch of the SS that had been charged since 1939 with population transfers and other policies intended to promote ethnic German dominance of occupied territories in the East. Steinhart’s study analyzes the actions taken by Sonderkommando R and the response of ethnic Germans in Transnistria to German government policy.
Steinhart has two principal foci. First, he studies Sonderkommando R’s less-than-successful efforts to create a homogeneous and Nazified ethnic German community in Transnistria. This story in turn informs Steinhart’s answers to a second set of questions: How did Sonderkommando R, tasked with social engineering, swiftly and easily evolve “into a frontline killing formation in the Holocaust”? (p. 113); and, why did ethnic German and Ukrainian militiamen commit mass murder at the behest of Sonderkommando R’s officers?
Steinhart’s principal sources are many hundreds of statements taken from perpetrators and eyewitnesses in four separate judicial investigations: those conducted by the Soviet authorities in the 1940s and in the 1960s, plus a West German investigation in the 1960s and a second German inquiry in the 1990s (pp. 11–15). Steinhart supplements these sources with analyses of correspondence of Sonderkommando R preserved in the archive of the Odessa oblast, and of the hundreds of radio communications to and from this German unit that were intercepted by British intelligence (p. 11). He also presents the results of an impressively laborintensive review of biographical profiles compiled by the SS Central Immigration Office (Einwandererzentrale), the office that interviewed ethnic Germans from Transnistria who were resettled in Poland (pp. 210–12, 239–45). In this, his first [End Page 538] book, Steinhart demonstrates a mature mastery of the historian’s craft, deftly navigating the methodological pitfalls inherent in the use of postwar testimony given by interested parties; he scrupulously acknowledges the limitations of his evidence and painstakingly seeks independent corroboration of important claims.
Given that many local ethnic Germans intermarried with Ukrainians or Jews, and had long lacked a connection to Germany, the roughly three hundred fifty men and women of Sonderkommando R found it extremely difficult to determine who qualified as German. Faced with limited manpower and unworkable racial categories in their effort to “Germanize” Transnistria, Sonderkommando R members relied on local informants to tell them who was German and who was not (pp. 99–100). Seeing an opportunity, these informants hijacked the Germanization project for their own ends—among them “settling scores” for earlier persecution under Soviet rule. Informants protected some Jews while denouncing others, and shared with Ukrainian relatives the rich material benefits that came from being classed as German (pp. 76–77, 88–90, 93–96).
In part to better prepare itself for its ongoing and sometimes violent encounters with Romanian forces (pp. 80...