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A Warm Welcome Turns Cold in Nazi-Occupied Ukraine

By Laurence Rees 
Originally published by World War II magazine. Published Online: November 05, 2012 
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The German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 is remembered as Hitler's most catastrophic military mistake. But in 1941 it didn't seem to be a mistake at all. "Everyone thought at the beginning that the war will result in the complete defeat of the Soviet Union," said Aleksey Bris, who was an 18-year-old Ukrainian student in 1941. "When the war broke out between Germany and the Soviet Union, the population thought that things would change for the better. There was a feeling that the Soviet Union might collapse. The collapse that happened in the 1990s could have happened at that time."

Far from being frightened by the arrival of the Nazis, Bris and his friends welcomed them. "Ukrainians could see a different way of life. They saw they could go to dances and have different clothes and that there was free communication between people."

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When I heard Bris say these words, as he sat in his small house near his home village of Horokhiv, they opened up for me a sudden vision of what might have been. Maybe he was right, maybe the whole course of the Nazi occupation of the Soviet Union could have been different.

But then, after a moment's reflection, I realized that this could never have happened. The whole nature of Nazism meant that after the initial euphoria of their "liberation" from Soviet rule wore off, Ukrainians were destined to experience the Nazis as some of the cruelest conquerors in history.

Consider the words of Erich Koch, Reich commissioner of the Ukraine and one of Hitler's closest and oldest comrades: "We are a master race that must remember that the lowliest German worker is racially and biologically a thousand times more valuable than the population here." Bris soon found out just what those words meant. He found a job translating for the Nazis, and even struck up a friendship with a German secretary. But within months he had a conversation with his boss that proved to be a turning point. Bris asked to go to a university and improve his education, but was told, "We don't need you Ukrainians as doctors or engineers. We need you as people to tend cows."

Bris's joy at the arrival of the Nazis was suddenly replaced by bitterness. And over the next few weeks his anger toward the Nazis grew so great that he felt "on the edge of a mental collapse." Finally, one day in fall 1942, came the moment that changed his life. While walking through his village he saw a German policeman hit a Ukrainian villager with a cane. Bris grabbed the policeman's arm and pushed him away. "The emotions come first," he said, "and you don't think about the consequences…?. I just hated that our nation was brought to slavery. When you feel that the whole nation is being humiliated you have to do something whether you like it or not, so I was ready to strike them."

Pursued by the police, Bris fled to the safety of the forest. For the next two years he fought in one of history's most brutal partisan struggles. With the nationalist Ukrainska Povstanska Armiia (Ukrainian Insurgent Army) he fought the Germans as well as Soviet partisans. No prisoners were taken on either side in this shadowy war and atrocities were commonplace. The Soviet partisans, in particular, were infamous for cutting out the tongues of some of the Ukrainian Insurgents they captured. By comparison, Bris remembers, the Germans "just" hanged prisoners, and didn't usually torture them beforehand.

Aleksey Bris was fortunate enough to live to see the dream he once thought the Nazis would fulfill: Ukraine finally became an independent state in 1991.


9 Responses to “A Warm Welcome Turns Cold in Nazi-Occupied Ukraine”


  1. 1
    Larry C says:

    The Ukrainians were no better than the Soviets. After the fall of Poland, a number of Polish soldier were in the process of escaping into Hungary. When the Ukrainians captured any, they typically tortured them to death. When the Nazis arrived, even they were appalled at the scenes. The Ukrainian torturers were hanged for crimes against military personnel. Even though the Nazis had no use for the Poles, they considered the Ukrainians even lower.

    • 1.1
      Nelson K says:

      Generalizing is not a good practice Larry. Every conflict has many complicated dynamics. The "Polish Blue Police" are another example.

    • 1.2
      Nelson K says:

      Broad generalizations such as yours illustrate an ignorance of history or mere foolishness at best. As with any conflict there are complicated dynamics. Their are misguided loyalties and there are exceptions to status
      quos. Poland had both the Home Army and the (Granatowa Policja) Polish
      Blue Police. Norway had Vidkun Quisling as well as an underground. There was American born
      William Joyce (Lord Haw Haw) Oswald Mosley and the British Union Of Fascists.

      France had both the Maquis and Marshall Petain. Germany itself had the obvious vs Martin Neimoller on the religious front (Pearrenot Bund)
      along with Henning von Treskow, Moltke, Beck and countless others in the
      military.
      The vatican is on both sides of this controversial coin with Pope Pius XII vs Monsignor Hugh O Flaherty.
      Even the Jews of WWII Europe ranged from the the Warsaw Ghetto fighters
      to the sometimes questionable Judenrats andJewish Order Police Services.
      The dark side too has different shades of evil. Shiro Ishi & Unit 731
      of the Japanese Imperial Army sometimes made Josef Mengele and Auschwitz-Birkenau pale in comparison.

      And to cap it all off after 1945 some of this was overlooked in programs
      like Operation Paperclip, because the Cold War was on and the
      polarizations and turning a blind-eye for the sake of perceived general goods was
      starting all over again.

  2. 2
    Nelson K says:

    Broad generalizations such as yours Larry illustrate an ignorance of history
    or mere foolishness at best. As with any conflict there are complicated dynamics. There are misguided loyalties and there are exceptions to status quos.
    Poland had both the Home Army and the (Granatowa Policja)
    Polish Blue Police. Norway had Vidkun Quisling as well as an
    extensive underground. There were American born William Joyce (Lord Haw Haw), Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists.

    France had both the Maquis and Marshall Petain. Germany itself had the obvious vs Martin Neimoller on the religious front (Pearrenot Bund) along with Henning von Treskow, Moltke, Beck and countless others in the millitary.

    The Vatican is on both sides of this controversial coin with Pope Pius XII vs Monsignor Hugh O Flaherty.

    Even the Jews of WW II Europe ranged from the Warsaw Ghetto Fighters to the sometimes questionable Judenrats and Jewish Order Police Services. The dark side too has different shades of evil.
    Shiro Ishi & Unit 731 of the Japanese Imperial Army sometimes
    made Josef Mengele and Auschwitz-Birkenau pale in comparison.

    And to cap it all off; after 1945 a great deal of this was overlooked
    in programs like Operation Paperclip, because the Cold War was beginning and the polarizations and turning a blind-eye for the sake
    of perceived general goods were starting all over again.

    • 2.1
      Larry C says:

      This is no generalization. This is a statement about the principals involved the case. It is not about all the people of that ethnic group. It is you who would have only a santized version of history. You have only what is in the "cleaned" print with a political slant. Did you ever get your information other than reading about it? Did you ever talk to anyone who was there.

      I have! On several occasions in the 1960's I had conversations with no less than three German senior officers who were there, saw the results. One of them actually made some decisions in the matter. I also talked to Ukrainian civilians that had witnessed some of the events. I am fluent those languages.

      Just because a person does not subscribe to your sanitized version of history, does not make a person ignorant of history.

  3. 3
    Andriy A says:

    As Ukrainian living in Ukraine right now I’d like to say this.
    If in 1941 any other army would invade Soviet Union, it would be doomed. Only because Germans came here with Nazi ideology, with whole generation of the young soldiers and officers educated in the spirit of the most outrageous intolerance, this scenario didn’t happen.
    In the beginning of the German invasion Wehrmacht was met by the local population as the liberating force. Don’t forget: in every Ukrainian city piles of corpses were founded by Germans. These were traces of the last work of the N.K.V.D. units. They had order to kill everybody in the detention centers without respect to the fact were or not investigation on every case over.
    Soviet Union captured from Poland territory called now Western Ukraine and Western Byelorussia less than two years before German invasion. In this short period about 1 million people were killed, sent to prison camps, just disappeared without trace only in the Western Ukraine.

    • 3.1
      Larry C says:

      Andriy is absolutely correct. After the Red Army returned in 1945, more people disappeared without a trace from these regions. To this day there is no trace of most of those that disappeared in 1941 or 1945. The Ukrainians and the Poles suffered much worse from the Russians than from the Germans.

  4. 4
    Nelson K says:

    Larry I based my reply on the \wording\ in your original posting (which is all one has to go on). The manner in which it was written was the point. The words \ the Ukrainians\ without clarification sounds a hell of lot more general than \some;certain units;or many residents of a particular area, etc\

    This may seem nit-picky , but without it, it appears one is referencing a group's involvement or non-involvement in something \to a man\.
    .

    As for speaking directly with participants of this conflict, you have the
    advantage of age and location. I am 53 and live in Canada.

    I am fluent in Ukrainian and spent many hours talking to my paternal
    grandmother. They came over close to WW I , however she corresponded constantly with relatives still there and I did a lot of reading and writing of letters for her. She recounted many stories
    to me and illustrated there was not much love for Stalin and others to say the least.
    I am well aware of why the Ukrainians would have initially seen the
    Germans as a liberating force and what took place when they were gone.

    I do not understand how you conclude from the examples of the diversity of people's behaviour in this conflict I presented, that my view is sanitized in any way. I chose a brief number to illustrate that no one group has the monopoly on bravery or cowardice, good or evil, etc. Every group has both ends or every scale. There is nothing cleaned up about 1st person accounts from survivors of horror and others involved. These are not spin-doctor press releases.

    There is nothing veiled or light and fluffy about survivor eyewitness accounts
    of camp personnel @ Sobibor snatching screaming infants from the arms of terrified mothers and dashing their brains out against a transport's rail car and throwing the corpses onto a pile. Or carefully
    creating a ditch to carry the flow of freshly rendered human fat from
    a pyre in Treblinka for use as fuel to make it burn faster and also be used by sadistic monsters to throw live babies into for entertainment.

    There is nothing candy-coated about Unit 731 experiments where
    people were infected with pathogens and then dissected alive without anesthesia to more accurately observe results. Or the equally disturbing fact that after the war those Japanese who ordered, planned,
    and supervised these actions were not prosecuted in exchange for
    the resulting data so it could be used in American germ warfare research.
    The list can go on and on. There is a lot of jaded, inaccurate crap about the 2nd world war out there, but here is also a lot of accurate
    well-researched and supported information in the form of books and documentaries.

    The important thing is that people should partake in some of it whether they are deeply interested , or not , because it has done more than any other event to shape todays's world,…and\ he who ignore's history is destined to repeat it.\



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