Reichskommissariat Ukraine

Reichskommissariat Ukraine (RKU). An administrative unit that included most of the Ukrainian territory under civilian rule during the German occupation of 1941–4. It was one of the four commissariats that Alfred Rosenberg, head of the Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories, planned to establish. On 20 April 1941 Adolf Hitler instructed him to prepare a plan for the political restructuring of the European portion of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics following its occupation. According to the plan the RKU was to constitute a territory independent of Russia with a temporary Ukrainian government under German political, economic, and military control. Hitler appointed Rosenberg minister for the occupied territories on 17 July 1941 but did not sanction the formation of a Ukrainian government. In order to weaken Ukrainian aspirations to independence he excluded several territories from the proposed Reichskommissariat. Galicia was annexed to the Generalgouvernement, and northern Bukovyna and Transnistria were given to Romania. The town of Rivne in Volhynia, not Kyiv, was made the capital of the RKU.

The RKU, officially established on 1 September 1941, was made up of Volhynia, Polisia, Right-Bank Ukraine, and part of the Poltava region. Following the advance of German forces the remainder of the Poltava region and Dnipropetrovsk oblast, Zaporizhia oblast, and Kherson oblast were annexed to the RKU on 2 September 1942, and the rest of Left-Bank Ukraine remained under military rule. The territory of the RKU comprised 339,275 sq km, with a population of approximately 17 million.

In practice the administration of the RKU was directed not by Alfred Rosenberg but by Erich Koch, whom Adolf Hitler appointed Reichskommissar of Ukraine without consulting Rosenberg. Koch, who described himself as ‘a brutal dog,’ represented Nazi policy at its most ruthless. No Nazi official did more than Koch to antagonize Ukrainians. Owing to his good connections with Hitler’s secretary, M. Bormann, Koch was able to neutralize most of Rosenberg’s instructions. Among the RKU’s most prominent officials were Koch's deputy and follower, P. Dargel, and their opponent A. Frauenfeld, Generalkommissar of Tavriia.

A number of important departments operating in the RKU were subordinate to the central authorities in Berlin. Among them were the police, under Heinrich Himmler; Hermann Göring’s Four-Year Plan and Economic Executive Staff East, which managed heavy industry and resource extraction; the mobilization of labor for work in Germany, under the direction of F. Sauckel; propaganda, under J. Goebbels; and transport and communications, directed by ministries in Berlin.

In administrative terms the RKU was divided into Generalbezirke headed by Generalkommissäre appointed by Adolf Hitler; the latter were subdivided into Kreise, each made up of four raions, headed by Gebietskommissäre appointed by Alfred Rosenberg. Larger towns were administered by Stadtkommissäre, and raion centers had German police stations and Landwirtschaftsführer, who were in charge of agriculture. Local administration consisted of raion officials and village elders, all subordinate to Gebietskommissäre. The mayors of larger towns were under the authority of Stadtkommissäre. The Ukrainian Auxiliary Police, recruited by raion heads and mayors of larger towns, was subordinate to the German police and civil administration of the RKU.

Soviet criminal law was abolished in the RKU and replaced by German law. In civil cases German legal norms (rather than laws) were to be applied, but customary law and the instructions of German administrators were also used. Both German and local (vlasnokraiovi) courts existed in the RKU. In centers administered by Generalkommissäre there were German courts of first instance for civil and criminal cases involving German citizens and Volksdeutsche. The German Supreme Court (Deutsches Obergericht) had its seat in Rivne. Attached to every German court was a so-called special court consisting of a judge and two jurors (who did not necessarily have legal training), which adjudicated cases that threatened the interests of the Reich, such as attacks on German administrators and murders of Reichsdeutsche. Such crimes bore statutory death penalties. Sentences imposed by the German Supreme Court and special courts could not be appealed. When an immediate threat to security and public order was involved, cases could be tried by summary courts (Standesgerichte) convened by the Generalkommissar or his representatives. Once confirmed by the Generalkommissar, their verdicts were not subject to appeal.

Owing to Erich Koch’s delaying tactics, it was not until the spring of 1942 that local courts (kraiove sudivnytstvo) were established to deal with civil and minor criminal cases (major cases were tried by German courts). Many cases were adjudicated by Gebietskommissäre, who handed down administrative decisions. The insignificant number of tribunals accessible to the non-German inhabitants of the RKU did not provide sufficient legal protection, especially to the rural population. More important, the destructive policies of Koch and Heinrich Himmler were not subject to the RKU’s official norms (see Nazi war crimes in Ukraine).

Property rights were not formally established. Following the abolition of Soviet law the German administration stood for private property in principle and criticized the collective-farm system. Nevertheless the system remained basically unaltered in the RKU. Erich Koch and the officials of the German food and agriculture ministry believed that collective farms facilitated the exploitation of Ukrainian peasants for Germany’s benefit. Not until the German defeat at Stalingrad did Alfred Rosenberg propose the reprivatization of collective-farm property by means of a statute dated 3 June 1943, but it was largely boycotted by Koch and limited by partisan activity, as well as by the German retreat. Barely 10 percent of the land intended for distribution was actually allotted to the peasants.

Industry and commerce were mobilized to serve Hermann Göring's Four-Year Plan. A law regulating commercial and industrial property ownership was to be enacted after the war; for the duration, property was considered basically nationalized. Industrial concerns were administered by German firms and entrepreneurs (an arrangement known as Treuhandverwaltung), and German commercial monopolies were established to produce for Germany’s needs and distribute consumer goods to the working population of the RKU. The only exception was the All-Ukrainian Association of Consumer Co-operative Organizations, which was left in Ukrainian hands out of practical considerations, although its organizational structure above the raion level was turned into a German commercial institution at the end of 1942. All taxes levied under Soviet rule remained in force, and a Central Bank of Issue for Ukraine was established in March 1942.

Adolf Hitler never clarified the administrative norms that were to prevail in the RKU or the legal status of its population. The national feelings of Ukrainians in the RKU were to be encouraged insofar as they divided Ukrainians and Russians and eliminated the danger of a combined anti-German front. Such motives lay behind measures such as the introduction of the Ukrainian language along with German in the RKU to the exclusion of Russian and the minting of the karbovanets instead of the ruble. A particular measure taken for the purpose of fanning anti-Soviet sentiment was the investigation of the Vinnytsia massacre. In other respects the Nazis weakened and retarded elements of national consciousness that might have led Ukrainians to demand independence. General education was limited to four grades of elementary schools, and higher education was restricted to narrowly specialized vocational courses. Cultural institutions, such as the Prosvita societies, libraries, museums, theaters, scholarly bodies, and publishing houses, were closed; the press was placed under German control and held to a lower standard. The population’s capacity for physical survival was undermined in various ways: food supplies were cut; medical services were reduced (to check the ‘biological power of the Ukrainians,’ in Erich Koch’s words); Ukrainian Ostarbeiter and prisoners of war were physically abused; and various strata of the population were decimated for actual or supposed support of the partisan movement. It was in Koch’s immediate area, Volhynia, that his brutal methods prompted the formation of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army in 1942; he was also opposed by Soviet partisans (see Soviet partisans in Ukraine, 1941–5).

A German colony, the RKU constituted an important part of Adolf Hitler's Lebensraum and was completely deprived of autonomy or international status. Nazi plans called for the postwar unification of the RKU with the territory of the German Reich; most Ukrainians (considered unfit for Germanization) were to be resettled beyond the Urals to make room for German colonists. In fact Hitler was unable to inspire many Germans to colonize Ukraine. Despite ambitious plans only a few villages were cleared of their Ukrainian inhabitants and populated with Germans (both groups were resettled under duress). Those experiments were profoundly resented by the local population, which saw them as portents of German postwar intentions. Resettlement was also prevented by the German retreat and then by the formal liquidation of the RKU on 10 November 1944.

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Ihor Kamenetsky, Myroslav Yurkevich

[This article originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, vol. 4 (1993).]

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