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"A Sea of Blood and Tears": Ethnic Diversity and Mass Violence in Nazi-Occupied Volhynia, Ukraine, 1941-1944

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This dissertation examines what one Volhynian writer called a "sea of blood and tears" - the three-year Nazi occupation of the Eastern European borderland region, Volhynia, in western Ukraine. Over the course of the occupation, this multi-ethnic society endured the loss of over a quarter million people, the majority of whom were civilians. Nazi occupiers brutalized the local population through a series of policies: anti-partisan reprisals that destroyed over one hundred villages and their inhabitants, mass deportations for slave labor, the starvation of countless prisoners of war, and the genocide of the Jews. Volhynia not only bore the brunt of Nazi occupation, but was also the site of civil war conditions in which Ukrainian nationalist organizations, the Soviet partisan movement, and other armed groups engaged in internecine violence. Tens of thousands of Volhynians participated and were murdered in these campaigns.

In contrast to work that treats wartime violence as solely a result of the Nazi regime, this study argues that local cleavages and political currents in Volhynia were also critical to its production. Additionally, many Nazi policies would not have been possible nor as successful without the coordination provided by and participation of local Volhynians. Drawing on a wealth of testimonial and archival sources, including newly declassified KGB records in Ukraine, this project provides a microhistorical view of the violence and analyzes the occupation through the lens of the local population. Three realms of participation in violence are explored: collaboration with Nazi occupiers, notably the role of local auxiliary police forces and governments in the Holocaust; participation in the Ukrainian nationalist movement, which carried out an ethnic cleansing of Poles; and participation in the Soviet partisan movement, which attacked nationalists, collaborators, and the general populace.

By probing the lives and tracing the biographies of Volhynians, that is, Ukrainians, Poles, Jews, Russians, Germans, and Czechs, it is possible to show how and why they participated in these movements and were also victimized by them. In the end, various factors influenced Volhynians' decisions to participate in violence or not: ideology (nationalism or communism), social-psychological factors (peer pressure, group dynamics, local networks), and self-preservation.

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This item is under embargo until December 1, 2025.