Book Review: Harvest of Despair: Life and Death in Ukraine Under Nazi Rule by Karel C. Berkhoff


In his book, Karel Berkhoff diligently presents the politics and realities of life in the Reichskommissariat Ukraine, the largest colony of the Third Reich.

I appreciated the author’s careful avoidance of labels like “traitors” or “resistance”. Instead, Berkhoff thoroughly portrays the complexities, contradictions and variations across different regions of Ukraine. He clearly distingiushes between largely nationalistic Western Ukraine and historically pro-Russian industrial regions in Eastern Ukraine, and between the rural and urban communities.

It is a great depiction of how the locals’ attitudes toward the Nazi occupiers evolved from neutral curiosity or enthusiastic welcome to widespread fear and hatred. One of the chapters is devoted to the famine in Kiev engineered by the German authorities because Hitler doomed the city to extinction. The harvest of 1941 was plentiful in many areas, and lots of peasants found their lives much improved once the collective farms imposed by the Soviet rule disintegrated. However, the German policies of robbery and exploitation along with the forced reinstatement of collective farming soon drove the agricultural sector into the ground. Routine brutality and disregard for human rights were nothing new for residents of Ukraine, but the German government took violence and oppression to new heights, making many people view the Stalin rule as benign, even desirable, and fueling the armed partisan resistance.

I found this book very educational regarding the ethnic strife in Ukraine, since the subject is scarcely covered in other sources on the Nazi occupation of Soviet territories. Annihilation of Polish villages by Ukrainians and vice versa, open anti-Semitism of many locals along with some civilians risking their lives to save Jews, alienation of local ethnic German communities against Slavs, and many residents’ indifference to national labels, often not bothering to figure out whether they were Russians or Ukrainians until the Nazis occupied their homeland and Ukrainian nationalist extremists reared their heads – Berkhoff takes care to cover every piece of the ethnic mosaic that made up Ukraine.

Harvest of Despair is the most comprehensive book about the Reichskommissariat Ukraine that I have found so far. Although the writing is dry at times, Berkhoff uses many personal accounts and anecdotes to enliven the historical facts.

The book could benefit from more detailed maps of different areas of Ukraine. Berkhoff notes many cities, towns, villages and districts, which can be confusing for a reader not very familiar with Soviet geography. The map included is too general and does not show most of the localities mentioned.

My ROW80 progress:

  • Finished reading Harvest of Despair;
  • Posted a new book review;
  • Revised my current chapter almost up to the start of the Battle of Berlin.

This week’s ROW80 goals:

  • Start reading The Turbulent World of Franz Göll: An Ordinary Berliner Writes the Twentieth Century by Peter Fritzsche;
  • Revise the part covering the Battle of Berlin and its aftermath;
  • Make a post about an Ukrainian artist’s rendition of his experiences in Nazi-occupied Kiev.

8 comments on “Book Review: Harvest of Despair: Life and Death in Ukraine Under Nazi Rule by Karel C. Berkhoff

  1. Kim Switzer says:

    Great progress! You’re moving right along. I’m looking forward to the post about the Ukrainian artist.

  2. Julie Glover says:

    That sounds like a fascinating book. I have a history degree and find that the complexities of an historical event or era are often not conveyed well. It sounds like this author did a much better job. Great progress on the ROW80! Hope you have a great week!

    • I think WWII was probably the most complex war conflict in the history of humanity because so many nations and ideologies were involved. The Soviet Union was incredibly complicated at the time, as well.

      Have a great week too!

  3. Sony says:

    I’ve never read anything about the Ukraine, but I’m fascinated with Nazi era and themed stories. Thanks for the thorough review.

    • No wonder, because most of the mainstream WWII literature and media in the U.S. tend to focus on the Pacific theater, Western Front or Holocaust, and much less on the Soviet Union and Eastern Front. It was exactly the opposite in the Soviet Union – it was all about the Eastern Front, a little bit about the Western Front, and even less than that on the war in the Pacific. The Holocaust was interpreted as a part of the larger picture of the Nazi crimes in the occupied territories – we don’t even have a Russian word equivalent for “Holocaust”.

      It is really interesting to see the difference in cultural approaches when reading American and Russian literature on WWII. Thank you for stopping by my blog.

  4. Willowfaerie says:

    This sounds like a fascinating book. I must ask, as you do more and more research are your opinions changing about the war?

  5. The research enables me to see more shades of gray, not just black and white. I hope I’ve developed a better discernment of personal biases and political agendas when reading witness accounts and memoirs. WWII is still a politically loaded and sensitive subject in Europe and the former Soviet Union, but much less so in the U.S., which is the advantage of writing my fiction here!

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