06 October 2015

The Holocaust in Ukraine: a new history

My maternal family came from Ukraine, one half from Berdyansk, Mariupol and Grafskoy, and the other half from Odessa and Simferopol. My parents in law and their siblings came from towns (Chust, Nizhniy Verecki, Mukachevo) that were Czech before WW2 but Ukrainian after the war.

So I was very keen to read The Holocaust and the Germanisation of Ukraine, written by the British historian Eric Steinhart and published by Cambridge University Press in 2015. Until the book arrives in Australia, my own comments and questions will have to come after Roger Moorhouse’s review that first appeared in in History Today, July 2015.

Ukraine stood at the very heart of Hitler's perverted vision for Eastern Europe; the centrepiece of the Nazi Lebensraum project and an economic powerhouse, it was also home to nearly three million Jews. Such a subject would be difficult to cover in a smallish book. But since this book is not about Ukraine in its entirety, it is actually a micro-study of German policy in the district of Trans-nistria, a small territory in SW Ukraine (between the River Dniester and the eastern Moldovan border). Trans-nistria is a region that fell under Romanian control following the Nazi invasion in 1941.

This excellent and rigorous study used a wealth of archival sources, many of which have only recently been released. The author showed how Nazi racial policy was recreated in a district that had a significant ethnic German minority. This is important! The existing German minority had promis­ed heaps of sympathetic collaborators to push forward the planned Germanisation programme.

The collaboration called Sonderkommando R was spurred by the arrival of a team of experts and facilitators from Berlin. The programme was not slow to emerge, and soon extended to the mass execution of the Nazis' perceived enemies. In one four-month period, local ethnic German militias murdered 50,000 Jews, just in this small part of Ukraine.

Of course it was not all plain sailing from the Nazi perspective. The Black Sea Germans, though the largest ethnic German community in the Soviet Union, were considered racially rather dubious. Apparently they had long been isolated from mainstream German influence and evidently had intermarried with their Jewish neighbours.

Moreover, while welcoming their new rulers when it suited them, local ethnic Germans were also not above hiding Jews or being creative with their own genealogy. As a result, Steinhart said, normal Nazi criteria had to be jettisoned, leaving Berlin's administrators with the task of making up racial policy as they went along.

Steinhart's 2015 book

Steinhart examined the factors that made those ethnic Germans into such willing and murderous tools of Nazi policy. He concluded that anti-Semitism was rather low on their list of motivators, behind ant­icipatory obedience, venality and especially anti-Soviet sent­iment. As in the example of the Baltic States, recent persecution at Soviet hands meant that the Nazis' local collaborators were often primarily anti-Soviet and only secondarily anti-Semitic. Indeed Steinhart suggested that many of the perpetrators in Trans-nistria only became anti-Semites after participating in the Holocaust.

The book cited other researchers who also found that anti-Soviet sentiment as a central motivator for the Nazis' local collaborators.


3,000,000 Ukrainian citizens were killed as part of Nazi exterm­in­at­ion policies, 900,000 being Jewish Ukrainians and 2.1 million of them being Christian Ukrainians. Most of these three million were exterminated by German soldiers. In explaining this catastrophe, I am grateful for three factors specified in the book that I would not have thought of myself:

Firstly the author examined Nazi racial policy in a specific prov­ince with a “large ethnic German minority”. 

Secondly that the in­vading German soldiers would not have had enough manpower to ach­ieve their programme alone, and thus needed the warm support of Nazi sympath­isers within the Transnistrian community. 

Thirdly that anti-Soviet sentiment was the central motivator for the Nazis' local collaborators, not anti-Semitism.

map of Transnitstria and its ethnic German settlements, 1942
credit: Steinhart's book

But was this a province with a “large ethnic German minority”? The 1936 census for Transnistria gives the German ethnic minority as 2% while the Russians accounted for 10% and the Jews accounted for 8%. (The vast majority were either Ukrainians or Moldovans). Unless the population changed between the census of 1936 and the Nazi invasion of 1941, the ethnic German population of Transnistria did not seem to be a large minority at all.

I agree that the Germans could not have succeeded with their prog­ramme without the helpful collaboration of local Ukrainians. It has been documented that 100,000 locals voluntarily joined police units that provided key assistance to the Nazis. Even more explic­itly, a company of Tatar volunteers was established in Simferopol under the command of Einsatzgruppe 11. This company participated in anti-Jewish manhunts and murder actions in the rural reg­ions. Many other Ukrainians staffed the local bureaucracies or participated in the mass shootings of Jews.

Was it possible that 900,000 of the executions (30% of all the Trans­nistrian deaths at Nazi hands) were randomly Jewish when Jews accounted for only 8% of Transnistria’s total population? I don’t think so.

Could the modern and independent nation of Ukraine have tried to acknowledge their role during the Holocaust, in some way cleansing an awful part of history? According to the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in January 2011 (page 36) "Ukraine has, to the best of our knowledge, never conducted a single investigation of a local Nazi war criminal, let alone prosecuted a Holocaust perpetrator.”

My guess is that anti-Soviet sentiment, so powerful during the Holocaust, was always deeply steeped in anti-Semitism. Right wingers believed in the Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy back then and seem to be­lieve in it today. Thus modern governmental acknow­ledge­ment of the massacres that took place during the dark days of Holocaust are not likely to be forthcoming.


Dina said...

As soon as the Germans invaded Russia and the Ukraine, the Russians tried to save their Jews by moving them to the East. My parents went from Kiev to Kazakhstan and survived.

Hels said...


RN described it as The Tashkent Ark. In the months that followed the German catastrophe, Soviet authorities offered civilians a way of leaving the western war fronts into the safety of their eastern lands. The Urals, Siberia, the Middle Volga, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan together received 16 million evacuees, especially Tashkent. It remains the largest organised protection of a civilian population in history.

My aunt went from Ukraine to Tashkent in 1941 and also survived. By the way, she came to love Tashkent and didn't return to Ukraine, even after the war.

Andrew said...

Holocaust numbers don't usually shock me anymore, but 3,000,000 Ukrainians alone killed does.

Hels said...


Ukraine lost many more citizens than that. In a tragic 6 years, 3,000,000 Ukrainian citizens were killed as part of Nazi exterm­in­at­ion policies, and millions of others died of hunger or disease. Finally there were millions who had been evacuated to safety in the Stans, many who did not return after WW2 ended.

In 1939, the population of the Ukrainian SSR was 31.8 million. By 1946 the population (accounting for border changes) was probably 20 million.

Mandy Southgate said...

I would tend to agree with you Hels. And I see similarities between the Ukrainians and French - when locals felt threatened, they found it surprisingly easy tfor unearth anti-Semitic tendencies and scapegoat the Jewish population to save themselves.

Hels said...


*nod* it is very difficult to find journal articles that carefully analyse pre-existing anti-Semitism.. and its re-emergence when local communities feel threatened. Although I feel I know far more about Poland (eg read Carla Tonini) than say France.

So where can we get information from? From listening to the stories of out parents and their friends, yes, but that evidence seems very anecdotal and not analytically researched.

History Today said...

In Black Earth, Timothy Snyder showed that where state institutions remained intact (even under Nazi occupation), Jews were better insulated from the extermination programmes. In Balgium and Denmark (occupied by Germany but with its institutions of state left relatively unmauled), virtually all the Jews alive at the time of the German invasion in 1940 survived. In Estonia, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia (where pre-war state institutions were completely destroyed) the figures were all over 90% exterminated.

To a degree, the genocide in Ukraine was different. It could be regarded as a Joint Creation of the German invaders and the Ukrainian invaded.

Black Earth
History Today
October 2015

Hels said...

Many thanks. This was a book I had not seen or read. But I did see the review by David Engel in Haaretz (30th Sept 2015).

When Germany invaded the old Russian lands in 1941, it offered former Soviet accomplices a chance to rehabilitate themselves by helping to kill Jews. In regions such as Ukraine and the Baltic, where many collaborators were also local nationalists, the new occupiers were able to outsource much of the killing to locals, who thought that by murdering Jews they would gain German support for their own political goals. Where local nationalism was weaker, as in north-eastern Poland, the Nazis needed to do more of the work on their own. Thus Engel concluded, it was not the strength or weakness of states that determined those Jews’ fate, but the attitude of particular governments toward the Jews under their control.