Nazi war crimes in Ukraine

Image - Nazi executions of Jews in Vinnytsia (1941).

Nazi war crimes in Ukraine. The International Military Tribunal that tried 22 Nazi defendants in Nuremberg in 1945–6 defined war crimes in traditional fashion as ‘violations of the laws or customs of war,’ including murder, the ill-treatment or deportation of civilians to slave labor, the murder or ill-treatment of prisoners of war, the killing of hostages, and the plunder or destruction of property. It also introduced the unprecedented charge of ‘crimes against humanity,’ encompassing ‘inhumane acts committed against any civilian population, before or during the war; or persecutions on political, racial, or religious grounds.’

On all those counts Nazi war crimes took a staggering toll during the occupation of Ukraine in 1941–4. Adolf Hitler, who regarded Jews and Slavs as subhuman, considered Ukraine and its people as resources to be exploited ruthlessly in the interests of German eastward expansion and world domination. His views were enthusiastically supported by top Nazi officials, notably Erich Koch, head of the Reichskommissariat Ukraine. Those officials overrode the objections of others, such as Alfred Rosenberg, head of the Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories, who favored the establishment of German dominance by means of concessions to the non-Russian Slavs. Nazi racial theory, the ideological basis for the criminal mistreatment of the Eastern European peoples, was openly expressed in such publications as the SS pamphlet Der Untermensch (1942).

Following the invasion of the USSR in June 1941, the Germans took approximately 5.8 million prisoners of war, whom they held in open-air camps. Some 3.3 million perished as a result of deliberate starvation, neglect, physical abuse, and lack of international protection. More than 1.3 million prisoners of war died in approximately 160 concentration camps throughout Ukraine. Some escaped death by recruitment as concentration camp guards and, after the defeat at Stalingrad, in military and other formations.

In occupying Ukraine the Germans were particularly concerned to exploit the country's agriculture and raw materials for the war effort, to recruit slave labor, and to crush popular support for Soviet or Ukrainian nationalist partisans (see Soviet partisans in Ukraine, 1941–5, and Ukrainian Insurgent Army). Numerous war crimes were committed in the effort to achieve those goals. By the autumn of 1941, serious food shortages were being reported in Kyiv and Lviv, but nothing was done to alleviate them: the provision of food to the army and the German population was seen as the overriding priority. General Walther von Reichenau wrote in November 1941 that feeding locals and prisoners of war was an ‘unnecessary humanitarian gesture,’ and a report of the German Economic Armament Staff dated 2 December 1941 advocated the ‘elimination of superfluous eaters (Jews and inhabitants of large Ukrainian cities such as Kyiv, which get no food rations at all).’ Urban dwellers were forbidden to change their places of residence or buy food in villages on pain of arrest and fine. Kyiv lost about 60 percent of its population, and Kharkiv lost about 80,000 persons to starvation. High-calorie foods were reserved for Germans. Ultimately more than 80 percent of the food that Germany took from the eastern territories came from Ukraine.

The Soviet system of collective farms was left virtually unchanged under Nazi rule, with work norms and delivery quotas rigorously enforced. Draconian penalties, including execution, were inflicted on those who failed to deliver food to the occupation authorities. Village officials were held responsible for prompt fulfillment. According to a decree issued in Lubny on 8 April 1943, the penalty for delivering watered milk was confiscation of all the offending peasant's property. When Adolf Hitler demanded 3 million tonnes of Ukrainian grain in 1943, Erich Koch ordered that the task be carried out ‘without regard for losses,’ since the feeding of the Ukrainian civilian population was ‘of absolutely no concern.’

In late 1941, when it became clear that the conflict would be protracted, the Germans began to recruit workers (initially volunteers) from the local population for work in Germany. According to Alfred Rosenberg's decree of 17 July 1941 all inhabitants of the eastern territories aged 18 to 45 were obliged to work according to their abilities. By 20 October 1941 the Chernihiv city government was forcing men aged 16 to 60 and women aged 16 to 50 to register with the labor board on pain of being dealt with as saboteurs. By early 1942, concentration camps had been established for those avoiding labor, and the death penalty had been proclaimed for those refusing to work. As the war intensified, local officials were told to deliver specified numbers of workers, and the army was ordered to assist in roundups. In order to meet quotas policemen took to rounding up people at random on the streets as well as in workplaces and institutions. The standard punishment for those refusing to work was arrest and confiscation of property; by 1943, men and women aged 16 to 55 were being ordered to report to labor boards on pain of execution. Those transported to Germany were herded onto cattle cars with insufficient food and drink. Once there, they were underfed and exploited so mercilessly that, as a Krupp official noted in 1942, they lacked the strength to do their jobs. Of the total 2.8 million Ostarbeiter from the eastern territories, more than 2 million came from Ukraine.

For those who assisted partisans (officially called ‘bands’ after August 1942 and so deprived of combatant status) the death penalty was proclaimed on 14 August 1941. In a circular of 16 September 1941 the commander in chief of the armed forces, Gen Wilhelm Keitel, ordered the ‘immediate use of the most severe measures’ to establish the authority of the occupation forces and prevent the spread of resistance. It became common practice for the Germans to take scores of civilian hostages, changed at intervals, in order to ensure the safety of their troops and prevent sabotage. Civilians were also shot in reprisal. In Dnipropetrovsk in December 1941, for example, 100 were killed for the attempted assassination of a German officer, and in the same month the Zhytomyr Generalkommissar ordered the shooting of 100 men and women for every killing of a Volksdeutsche. During the winter of 1941–2 in Kharkiv, 40 to 70 citizens were hanged every few days because of sightings of Soviet partisans; the corpses hung from balconies for days at a time. When dealing with villages suspected of harboring or assisting partisans, whether voluntarily or not, the Germans showed no mercy. Eyewitness testimony on the fate of Ukrainian villages during the occupation relates hundreds of instances of depredations carried out by punishment details. Typically the Germans would surround a village, shoot the inhabitants indiscriminately, drive some of them into buildings to be burned alive, subject others to public torture, and then loot and burn the village.

As part of their systematic effort to exterminate the Jews of Europe (see Holocaust) the Nazis rounded up and killed Jews living in Ukraine. Since no extermination camps were built on Ukrainian territory (although 50 ghettos were established), the killings typically took place in the open. Among the sites in Ukraine where Jews were killed the most infamous was Babyn Yar in Kyiv. The city's Jewish population of almost 70,000 was machine-gunned there in the autumn of 1941, and the ravine was then used as a mass grave for two more years. In Lviv about 200,000 Jews perished in the Yaniv concentration camp during the occupation. The Germans' Romanian allies, who occupied Transnistria, also committed war crimes: some 200,000 residents of Odesa and the surrounding region were murdered in December 1941.

In addition to human losses there was great destruction of Ukraine's cultural monuments and institutions during the German occupation. The losses suffered by the Academy of Sciences of the Ukrainian SSR alone are estimated at 126 million rubles. The Germans destroyed 116 institutions of higher learning along with 8,104 schools (another 10,052 schools were partially destroyed). Many architectural monuments were leveled, as were 151 museums—museum exhibits commonly being either plundered or damaged beyond repair. More than 50 million books were burned or stolen; 634 print shops (77 percent of the Ukrainian SSR total) were ruined; and more than 200 theaters were destroyed. During their retreat from Ukraine the Germans followed a ‘scorched earth’ policy and destroyed everything useful to their enemies.

According to recent Soviet figures a total of more than 5,265,000 civilians and prisoners of war were killed during the occupation of Ukraine. The figure presumably includes the 900,000 Ukrainian Jews whom Western scholars estimate to have been murdered. The Germans destroyed 714 towns and urban areas and 28,000 villages and farmsteads, and left approximately 10,000,000 people homeless. Total material losses have been estimated at a value of some 1.2 trillion prewar rubles.

International Military Tribunal. Trial of the Major War Criminals (Nuremberg 1947–9)
Kamenetsky, I. Hitler's Occupation of Ukraine, 1941–1944: A Study of Totalitarian Imperialism (Milwaukee 1956)
Hilberg, R. The Destruction of the European Jews (Chicago 1961)
Kamenetsky, I. Secret Nazi Plans for Eastern Europe: A Study of Lebensraum Policies (New York 1961)
Nimets’ko-fashysts’kyi okupatsiinyi rezhym na Ukraïni: Zbirnyk dokumentiv i materialiv (Kyiv 1963)
Wytwycky, B. The Other Holocaust: Many Circles of Hell (Washington 1980)
Ueberschär, G.R.; Wette, W. (eds). ‘Unternehmen Barbarossa’: Der deutsche Überfall auf die Sowjetunion, 1941 (Paderborn 1984)
Fedorov, O. et al. (eds). Vinok bezsmertia: Knyha-memorial (Kyiv 1988)

Myroslav Yurkevich

[This article originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, vol. 3 (1993).]

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