German Policy in Ukraine: Kharkov During Occupation

Translated by Ollie Richardson & Angelina Siard


Alexander Werth is a war correspondent from the “Sunday Times” newspaper and radio company BBC who spent time in the USSR the period of July, 1941, to 1946 inclusively. The emergence of this book in 1964 and 1965 in the US, England, France, and Germany caused such reviews: “… Werth tried to show how war came to Russia, and thanks to what factors eventually not the Wehrmacht appeared in the Kremlin, but the Red Army in Berlin”. The “Zeit” newspaper was forced to recognize that this book “… destroys some lovingly cherished legends and carefully supported taboos, according to which the Wehrmacht allegedly wasn’t involved in the crimes and atrocities of the Germans in Russia at all”.

I am publishing a except from the chapter Germans in Ukraine. Kharkov during occupation about the policy of the Germans in Ukraine.

“Now that the Red Army had begun to drive the Germans out of the Soviet Union and, in particular, out of the Ukraine, we must look at German policy in the occupied areas—if it can be called a policy. For, in reality, this policy was a story of almost unrelieved bestiality, occasionally mixed up with the more farcical aspects of Nazi ideology.

Thus, as early as 16 July, 1941, Hitler had already decided that the Crimea was to become a purely German colony, from which all ‘foreigners’ were to be deported or evacuated. It was to become the ‘German Gibraltar’ in the Black Sea. To Robert Ley, Chief of the German Labour Front and the Strength Through Joy movement, it was to become a gigantic spa, a favourite playground for German youth. Later, Hitler also played with the idea of settling the South-Tyrolean problem with Mussolini by resettling in the Crimea the German-speaking inhabitants of the Italian part of the Tyrol.

After the fall of Sebastopol in July 1942, Manstein, ‘the Hero of the Crimea’, was to be presented with one of the former Imperial palaces on the Crimean ‘Riviera’. One of Rosenberg’s more lunatic discoveries was that the Crimea was, ‘geo-politically’, part of the Germanic heritage, since it was in the Crimea that the last Goths had survived as late as the 16th century. In December 1941 he had proposed to Hitler that the Crimea be renamed ‘Gotenland’:

I told him that I had also worried about the renaming of the cities. I thought of renaming Simferopol Gotenberg, and Sebastopol Theodorichhafen…

In reality, whatever Hitler’s post-war plans were, it was awkward, while the war was still on, to proceed with a total evacuation of all ‘foreigners’ (i.e. non-Germans) from the Crimea, especially as the Crimean Tartars were not only gladly collaborating with the Germans, but were actually supplying the Wehrmacht with a certain number of soldiers.

But the Crimea was still a minor sideshow, compared with the Ukraine. This was an immense territory with nearly forty million inhabitants before the war, a proverbial ‘bread-basket’, and a source of coal, iron ore and steel.

It would be idle to deal here in detail with all the conflicting policies that existed amongst the Nazi hierarchy in respect of the Ukraine. Rosenberg clearly tried to distinguish at first between the ‘evil’ Great-Russians and the Ukrainians who could be used as a bulwark against the Russians. Early in 1941 Rosenberg argued, in his usual insane way, that Kiev had been the centre of the Varangian State, which accounted for the strongly Nordic and superior racial features of the Ukrainian people.

Then, in May, he drafted instructions for the future German rule in the Ukraine. Retreating slightly from his goal of immediate statehood, he now envisaged two stages: during the war, the Ukraine was to provide the Reich with goods and raw materials; after that ‘a free Ukrainian state in closest alliance with the German Reich’ would assure German influence in the east:

To attain these goals, one problem … must be attacked as rapidly as possible: Ukrainian writers, scholars and politicians must be put to work to revive an Ukrainian historical consciousness, so as to overcome what Bolshevik-Jewish pressure has destroyed in Ukrainian Volkstum in these years.

A new ‘great University’ in Kiev, technical academies, extensive German lecture tours, the elimination of the Russian language and the intensive propagation of German language and culture were integral parts of this programme.
He spoke in terms of extending the future ‘Ukrainian State’ all the way from Lwow to Saratov on the Volga

This seemingly ‘liberal’ Rosenberg Plan, as well as all its subsequent variants, met with no favour from Hitler, Goering, Himmler or, for that matter, Erich Koch, Reichskommissar for the Ukraine, who pointedly set up his headquarters in the provincial town of Rovno, and not in Kiev, which was not to be given even the semblance of a ‘capital’. The various émigrés, who had been hanging round Rosenberg for years, such as the senile Skoropadsky, who had been the German-appointed Hetman of the Ukraine back in 1918, were not taken seriously by any of the top Nazis—except by Rosenberg himself. Even Bandera, the ferociously anti-Polish and anti-Jewish Ukrainian ‘nationalist’ leader in the Western Ukraine, was arrested by the Germans at the beginning of the war, and sent to Berlin, where he was interned till 1944 when the hard-pressed Germans decided that he might still have his uses. Meantime Galicia (i.e. the Western Ukraine) was simply incorporated in the German-ruled Government-General of Poland. Melnik, another Ukrainian nationalist leader, was no luckier than Bandera.

To Hitler, to Goering, to Himmler and to Erich Koch the Ukrainians were Untermenschen, just like the Russians. Goering is quoted as having said: ‘The best thing would be to kill all men in the Ukraine … and then to send in the SS stallions‘.

He also cheerfully envisaged the possibility in 1941 of twenty or thirty million people dying of hunger in Russia during the following year. Koch, a representative of the most extreme Untermensch school of thought, was appointed overlord of the Ukraine at Goering’s insistence.

For a short time after the German occupation of the Ukraine a small number of Ukrainian ‘nationalists’ still tried to make their voice heard, especially in parts of the Ukraine, such as Kharkov, still nominally under the jurisdiction of the Army and not of Koch. But they received no serious encouragement from anybody.

The Ukraine was, to the Germans, first and foremost a source of food; secondly, of coal, iron and other minerals; and thirdly, of slave labour.
Yet, the agricultural deliveries from the Ukraine turned out much smaller than the Germans had budgeted for, while the German attempts to revive the Donbas, Krivoi Rog and other industrial areas, was to prove a complete failure; the Germans actually had to send coal to the Ukraine from Germany! Both in agriculture and industry they met with great passive resistance; moreover, agriculture was short of machinery, and the Germans had to export certain quantities of such machinery to the Ukraine; the industrial plants had largely been evacuated to the east, and in those coal and iron ore mines which had not been put out of action by the retreating Russians, there was both a shortage of skilled labour (many of the miners having been evacuated) and various kinds of passive resistance from the miners who were still there.

According to German statistics, non-agricultural deliveries from the east (i.e. from all the occupied Soviet territories, and not just the Ukraine) totalled 725 m. marks’ worth; these were offset by an export of 535 m. marks’ worth of equipment and coal to the east, thus leaving a net profit of 190 m. marks! To this should be added various local deliveries to the German Army, estimated at 500 m. marks; but even so, the total balance remains unimpressive. According to Dallin’s calculations, based on the available German statistics, and even including the east’s agricultural deliveries, ‘the contributions of the occupied east to the Reich … amounted to only one-seventh of what the Reich obtained during the war from France!’

Even if the greater part of what the Germans got out of the occupied Soviet territories came from the Ukraine, that enormous and wealthy country cannot have supplied to the Reich more than one-tenth of what the Germans had pumped out of France. The desire for even plain economic collaboration was lacking ².

For two things characterised the German occupation of the Ukraine: the massacre of the Jews, and the deportation of millions of young Ukrainians to Germany as slave labour.

Even assuming that industrial production in the Donbas, Krivoi Rog and Zaporozhie could be made to work (and the ‘proletariat’, or what was left of it was even more anti-German than the rest of the Ukrainian population) any such possibility was made even more remote by Sauckel’s policy of draining all industry in the east of its manpower and deporting it to Germany.

The deportation of slave labour from the Ukraine began in a big way as early as February 1942.

We shall have to return to the topic of German occupation policy and methods in Soviet territories, and in the Ukraine in particular. But here is a sample of what they looked like in purely human terms. It is an account of my visit to the great city of Kharkov after its first—and only brief—liberation by the Russians in February 1943, at the height of the post-Stalingrad offensive.

Before the war, it had been a great industrial city, but practically all its heavy industry had been evacuated in the autumn of 1941; ethnically, it was predominantly Ukrainian, but nearly a third of the population were Russians.

When I went there in February 1943 the Russian liberation of Kharkov was still highly precarious; the Red Army’s communication lines were long and very bad, and the danger of a German counter-offensive could not be ruled out. The high spirits among the Russian soldiers noticeably declined even during the three days I was there.

The German occupation of Kharkov (which was in the Military Zone, and not under the authority of Erich Koch) was marked by the following features:

Acute hunger among civilians, especially during the first winter of the occupation;

Terror, especially against suspected Soviet sympathisers;

Extermination of the Jews;

The toleration of a Black Market, in which the German soldiers played a very active part;

No encouragement given by the German authorities to any Ukrainian nationalist movements, but, at the same time, a readiness to sow discord between Ukrainians and Russians;

The stamping out of Russian and Ukrainian cultural life, and the abolition of all education, except some elementary schools;

A certain encouragement to the artisans and to shopkeepers, but only the most half-hearted attempt, by German Big Business, to revive Kharkov as a great industrial centre;

A readiness on the part of some of the Ukrainian petite bourgeoisie (artisan and shopkeeper types) to adapt themselves as best they could to a difficult situation, and, above all, to survive;

Acute resentment against the Germans because of the deportation of so many of the younger people as slave labour to Germany;

The existence of a Soviet underground, and a widespread anti-German feeling in the city, above all among children and adolescents deprived of their education;

What ‘local government’ there was—the Ukrainian Burgomaster and his town council—was completely under the thumb of the German military authorities.

There had been 900,000 people in Kharkov before the war, but when the war spread to the Ukraine, and the refugees started pouring in from the west, this figure swelled to 1,200,000 or 1,300,000. Later, in October 1941, with the Germans approaching, the evacuation of Kharkov began in real earnest.

Most of the larger plants were more or less successfully evacuated, among them the great Tractor Plant, with nearly all its workers. By the time the Germans came, some 700,000 people were left in the city. Now there were only 350,000. What had happened to the rest?

According to the Russian authorities, the disappearance of half the population of October 1941 is accounted for as follows: it has been established that 120,000 people, mostly young people, had been deported as slaves to Germany; some 70,000 or 80,000 had died of hunger, cold and privation, especially during the terrible winter of 1941–2; some 30,000 had been killed by the Germans, among them some 16,000 Jews (men, women and children) who had remained behind in Kharkov; the rest had fled to the villages. Various checks I made in the next few days suggested that the figure for deaths from hunger, et cetera, was slightly, but not greatly, exaggerated; so too was that for non-Jews shot, but the figure for the Jews was correct. On the other hand, the figure for slave-labour deportations was, if anything, an under-estimate.

These people in the streets of Kharkov were enormously talkative; one felt that all of them wanted to tell some story. I remember, for instance, a misshapen, very sick-looking little man. He said he was arrested soon after the Germans came; they kept him locked up at the International Hotel (now burned out) in this very square, and they kept him there, almost without food, for a fortnight. Then he was released. But it had been a harrowing experience; because every night he could hear people being taken away to be shot; many of them were communists who had been denounced to the Germans. He had been an optician before the war; in the end, he got a job from the Germans in the big Kharkov electrical plant, which a big German concern had taken over; but since the Russians had evacuated all the machinery, the Germans had had to bring their own, and never employed more than 2,500 workers there, as against 25,000 before the war. Once a day there was a hot meal, and the bread ration was 11 ounces. ‘The pay,’ he said, ‘was supposed to be one rouble seventy kopeks an hour, but at the end of a fortnight I went to collect my wages, and the German clerk handed me seventy-five roubles. When I objected, the German said: ‘There were taxes to deduct, and you can take it or leave it; and another word from you, and you’ll get your face knocked in.’ Finally I couldn’t stand it any longer, and the Germans let me go, because I was a sick man.’ Later he made a meagre living by selling spectacles in the market.

It was clear that thousands of people had managed to keep body and soul together by selling and buying in the black market; people with jobs, people without jobs—all had to do it. ‘If you had money,’ one woman said, ‘you could buy anything you wanted from the German soldiers. They had wrist-watches by the dozen. They’d take them off people in the street, and then sell them in the market.’ ‘And not only wrist-watches,’ another woman joined in, ‘In broad daylight my daughter was stopped by a German soldier; he had taken a fancy to her shoes, and ordered her to take them off. He sold them in the market, or sent them home.’ ‘Your daughter was lucky,’ said the little man, ‘or else she must be very ugly. They would often compel girls to follow them.’ Many of those standing around shouted that that was true, and, worse still, many girls were forced into army brothels; they’d just go and pick up the good-looking ones in a queue at the Arbeitsamt. And, of course, there was now a lot of v.d. in the city …

Then people talked about the hangings. Public hangings. It was that which seemed to have left the deepest impression of all. At the corner of Sumskaya and Dzerzhinsky Square there was a large burned-out building which had been the Gestapo headquarters. Now several women told excitedly how in November 1941 the population was summoned to the square to hear a German announcement; and when a crowd had gathered, several people inside the Gestapo building were thrown over the balconies, with ropes tied round their necks, and the other end tied to the balcony rail. That day many people were hanged in many parts of Kharkov. There were quite a lot of traitors, who had denounced these Reds to the Germans …

Two or three other women talked about how the children had become undisciplined and demoralised. The schools had been closed, and little boys had to beg in the street, or else they’d have little handcarts and carry the German soldiers’ kit, and luggage, and black-market packages, and earn a few roubles that way. ‘Half the people,’ one pale-faced woman said, ‘expected their small children to work for themselves… Small children, hungry, having to fend for themselves; have you heard anything like it? Under Stalin children get the best of everything, but not under these German swine. And now a lot of them will be good-for-nothings, thieves and little hooligans. But then how could you help it, with bread costing 150 roubles a kilo in the black market?’

He then told me how the Germans discriminated between the Russians and the Ukrainians; many Ukrainians served in the local police—many of them were more or less forced into it. Somehow, the Germans preferred Ukrainians to Russians, though, in reality, most of the Ukrainians hated them as much as the Russians did; even the Ukrainian nationalists, who thought they’d have a wonderful time under the Germans, were soon going to be disappointed.

I happened to talk to one of them in the street that day. He was an elderly man with a small red nose, and round face, and wore a shabby coat and frayed grey flannel trousers, and shoes that were split on the sides. He said he had taken a job on the town council, but had found it didn’t pay. The Germans paid him only 400 roubles a month, and he had a wife and child to keep, and he couldn’t live on that. So he took to black-marketing, too. He would travel beyond Poltava, and bring bags of flour to Kharkov. As we passed a new picture of Stalin and another of Voroshilov stuck up on a bombed wall, he gave a faint shrug. ‘The Germans certainly made a mess of things,’ he said. ‘They promised us a New Europe, but then everything went wrong.’ Maybe, he said, the Germans would come back, but that would no longer do any good to anybody. They’d missed their chance. Even this little collaborator had received mighty little satisfaction from the Germans… He had wanted one of his brothers in France and another in Yugoslavia to ‘come home’ to Kharkov, but now it was useless.

Of course, there were people, especially of the artisan and shopkeeper class who, without being ‘unpatriotic’, had tried to adapt themselves as best they could to the German occupation.

One such citizen was the lady barber who used to come in the mornings to shave us and the Red Army officers living in the same house. With her came her ‘assistant’, a pretty boy of fifteen with blue eyes and long eyelashes. He was much more anti-German than she was. He told the familiar story of how the Germans used to hang people from balconies; and one day he saw—this was early in the Occupation—how they marched fifteen Red Navy sailors through the streets. Hitler had said, the boy declared, that Bolshevik sailors were not to be shot, but drowned. They were manacled, and as they were being led along, there were crowds of people on either side of the street, weeping. The sailors sang the song of the Black Sea Fleet, Raskinulos’ more shiroko. And still weeping, people joined in the song. ‘The Germans,’ the boy said, ‘took them handcuffed to the river, and there they drowned them. I didn’t see it myself, but others told me…’

He also told me how they took 16,000 Jews, kids and grandmothers and all, to the brick-works outside the town and there after a fortnight in a camp, they killed the lot; they also sent thousands and thousands of people to Germany—pushed them into railway carriages like a lot of cattle.

The buxom young lady barber, with rouge, lipstick, manicure and perm, and now wearing a red beret and a white overall, admitted that she had lived better than most people under the Occupation. She had worked in a barber’s shop near the main railway station, paying fifty per cent of the takings to her Ukrainian boss. It was a small place, but very busy. The boss was a good man; she didn’t know what he was doing now. The barber’s shop had been destroyed the week before, along with the railway station and all the surrounding buildings. She was as talkative as barbers are. ‘Germans or no Germans,’ she said, ‘one’s got to live. With a ration of 11 ounces of bread, you just couldn’t do it. I’ve got a child of four, and my husband has been away for over three years. And the prices in the market were just awful—130 or 150 roubles a kilo of bread. You should have seen how happy people were last May, when they thought the Red Army was returning. Of course, awful things used to happen. All those hangings; made one ill for days… And it was awful about the Jews, too. They’d drive them in an endless procession through the streets, many of them pushing wheelbarrows or prams with babies inside, and they’d all weep and wail. I could understand their wanting to send the Jews away somewhere—but to kill them all in this awful way, that was going a bit far, don’t you think?’ Then she said: ‘Yes, the Germans can be very cruel people. But some were nice. And some of the officers were quite crazy about our women; positively sentimental… But then our women are so much more attractive than German women. And these German women were certainly bitches. They behaved as if the place belonged to them. There were hundreds of them here. The best flats were commandeered for German families, and they and some Ukrainians would open shops and restaurants… If any Russian had a decent flat, he was sure to be thrown out …’

I also heard something of the tragi-comedy of the Ukrainian nationalists. When the Germans first came to Kharkov, a bunch of Ukrainian nationalists started a newspaper called Nova Ukraina. On the face of it, there wasn’t a single known person among the contributors; they wrote under pseudonyms. The principal writer signed ‘Petro Sagaidashny’—the name of an old Ukrainian hero. He was head of a self-appointed Ukrainian Propaganda Department, and, for a short time, the Germans patronised these people. But two months later, several of the ringleaders were shot by the Germans themselves. To the survivors the Germans made it quite clear that they were the bosses. This was rubbed in in a thousand different ways: for example, all sign-posts and street-names were written in German first and only then (and not always) in Ukrainian. Although an Ukrainian operetta was performed at the theatre the programmes were printed in German only.

A professor of the Kharkov Technical Institute, Kramarenko, who became burgomaster of one of the Kharkov districts, at first conducted a strong pro-German campaign; he made speeches in favour of developing a ‘Ukrainian national consciousness’. Then, when he and his friends realised that the Germans were not interested in Ukrainian independence or autonomy, they rebelled; Kramarenko was dismissed from his post and shot soon afterwards.

Lubchenko and other Ukrainian intellectuals who ran the Nova Ukraina paper also soon realised that they were kidding themselves; it was the last straw when, in March 1942, the Germans ordered them to remove from the front page of the paper the Hetman’s Trident, a token of Ukrainian autonomy or independence. Since the beginning of 1942, when the Ukraine began to be treated first and foremost as a reservoir of slave labour, there could no longer be any doubt about dominant German attitude to the Ukraine.

The fact that, in some of the surviving elementary schools pictures were displayed not only of Hitler but also of ‘Hetman’ Petlura, who had been assassinated by a Jew in Paris in 1928, could be considered no more than a piece of primitive anti-semitic propaganda. It did not imply any promise of Ukrainian autonomy or independence.

To the German Army, the Ukraine was colonial territory in which the position of Ukrainian adolescents, who eked out a meagre living by carrying the Germans’ luggage, was rather like that of young Arabs in Algiers in the heyday of French colonialism. The very young, who had benefited most from the Soviet régime, were among the most fanatical anti-Germans, and there was also no getting away from the fact that millions of Ukrainians were on the ‘other’ side—fighting in the Red Army, or working in the Soviet war industries.

But to the German soldiery Kharkov was something of a metropolis, and here many of them were having a good time. The theatres were patronised chiefly by Germans and the programmes were arranged accordingly. They had Viennese operettas, grand opera (Aïda and Don Quixote) and, frequently, a Grosses Wagner Konzert. Most of the performers were German or Austrian. There were many restaurants, cafés and brothels; and whole German families had come here to open businesses. Some local inhabitants also managed to get licences for small shops and booths, and a number of Armenians had opened restaurants and night-clubs in various parts of the city. The occupation, clearly, had its profiteers—and they were not all Germans.

It was part of the German policy in the Ukraine to wipe out the intellectuals. The Ukrainian nationalists were treated badly enough; but even worse was the fate of those whom the Germans thought pro-Soviet. I saw several professors and teachers of Kharkov University and of some of the thirty-five technical and other colleges that had existed here under the Soviets. These men had survived the occupation; but many of their colleagues had died. Some had been shot, either because they were Jews or were Party members, or suspected of being Party members; some had committed suicide. Others had died of starvation, especially in the winter of 1941–2. Several university buildings were destroyed by the Germans before they left; but even while they were here, they had looted the libraries and the laboratories. The teachers who had survived had lived from hand to mouth, making home-made matches or soap, and selling them in the black market. Except for a few small laboratories, all higher education had been closed down; so had all the 137 secondary schools of Kharkov; only twenty-three elementary schools had been allowed to open under the Germans. Hospitals had either been taken over by the German army, or had come almost completely to a standstill owing to lack of food and medical supplies.

There was no constructive planning to speak of. Everything in the Ukraine was being more or less destroyed and dissolved, with nothing to take its place. Local administration was run by Germans, or Ukrainian adventurers, or a few White émigrés, usually with no understanding or experience. The Ukraine was nothing but a source of food, raw materials and slave labour, and the raw materials and food were not produced in the quantities the Germans had hoped for. The Soviet scorched earth policy in the industrial areas had created immense difficulties for the Germans from the outset; labour willing to work for them was short, and, in the Donbas in 1943 they were reduced to turning tens of thousands of Soviet war prisoners into improvised miners.”


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¹ Alexander Dallin, German Rule in Russia (London, 1957), p. 300

² The figures given by the author on the basis of the book of Dallin do not reflect the actual scale of the economic plunder by the Ukrainian fascist invaders.

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