The Holocaust and the Germanization of Ukraine

The Holocaust and the Germanization of Ukraine
Eric C. Steinhart
Cambridge University Press   263pp   £65

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 fewer than 300 pages. However, technically, this book is not about Ukraine in its entirety, but a micro-study of German policy in the district of Transnistria, a small territory (about the size of the Netherlands) in the south-west of the country that fell under Romanian control following the Nazi invasion in 1941. Caveat emptor.

That aside, this is an excellent and rigorous study. Using a wealth of archival sources, many of which have only recently been released, the author recreates Nazi racial policy in a district where a large ethnic German minority promised a plethora of sympathetic collaborators with whom to push forward the planned Germanisation programme.

That collaboration, spurred by the arrival of a team of experts and facilitators from Berlin, known as Sonderkommando R, was not slow to emerge and soon extended to the mass execution of the Nazis' perceived enemies. In four months, local ethnic German militias murdered 50,000 Jews.

Of course, it was not all plain sailing from the Nazi perspective. For one thing, the ‘Black Sea Germans', though the largest ethnic German community in the Soviet Union, were considered racially rather dubious, not least as 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 says, normal Nazi criteria had to be jettisoned, leaving Berlin's administrators effectively to make up racial policy as they went along.

Crucially, Steinhart also focuses his attention on the factors that made those ethnic Germans into such willing and murderous tools of Nazi policy. Surprisingly, perhaps, he concludes that antisemitism was rather low on their list of motivators, behind anticipatory obedience, venality and, most importantly, anti-Soviet sentiment. As in the example of the Baltic States, recent persecution at Soviet hands meant that the Nazis' local collaborators were often anti-Soviet first and antisemitic second. Indeed, Steinhart suggests that many of the perpetrators in Transnistria only became antisemites after participating in the Holocaust.

This is an important conclusion, which draws on and amplifies the better-known work of Christopher Browning, Wendy Lower and Jan Gross, while also concurring with those such as Bogdan Musial (who is not cited) who posit anti-Soviet sentiment as a central motivator for the Nazis' local collaborators.

Though academic in its approach, the book is pleasingly readable and wears its considerable scholarly credentials lightly enough to appeal to the general reader. Steinhart has mastered the available material on the German occupation of Trans-nistria and has much of interest to say on the nature of Nazi rule there and the motivations of those that collaborated with them. The book is not about ‘Ukraine' as most people would understand it, but nonetheless it is an illuminating and valuable contribution to Holocaust studies.

Roger Moorhouse is author of The Devils' Alliance: Hitler's Pact with Stalin, 1939-1941 (Bodley Head, 2014).


Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week