My dissertation, “A Sea of Blood and Tears”: Ethnic Diversity and Mass Violence in Nazi-Occupied Volhynia, Ukraine 1941-1944, examines the region of Volhynia in western Ukraine under Nazi occupation. Volhynia was one of the most violent regions during World War II in all of Eastern Europe, as it was home to Soviet partisan warfare, a Ukrainian nationalist uprising, brutal Nazi occupation policies, the genocide of Jews, and widespread inter-ethnic violence. What once was a mosaic of ethno-religious communities living in relative stability until the 20th century had dissolved into civil war by 1941. By 1944, roughly one quarter of its population was dead and many others displaced.
My project explains how individuals who once peacefully co-existed as neighbors became involved in political violence during the Nazi occupation. In short, it asks how an average Volhynian who has never harmed anyone in his or her life prior to the war becomes an ethnic cleanser or genocidaire. Drawing on ten years of research in five countries, the study employs a “bottom-up” view of this time period by using newly available archival sources, including previously classified KGB documents, to recreate the biographies of various Volhynian participants and dissect the membership of local political groups involved in violence.
In researching Ukrainian or Polish nationalist formations, Soviet partisan groups, collaborators in the Nazi auxiliary police, or peasants involved in ethnic cleansing, I consider participants’ social and political background as well as their actions during the occupation, in order to uncover their motivations for participation in violence. Additionally, the project questions the role of ideologies, whether ethno-nationalism or Soviet communism, in influencing the actions of average Volhynians.
The findings of this research challenge static conceptualizations of political and social groups during times of war and unrest, as well as the analytical triad of perpetrators, victims, and bystanders found in research on ethnic violence. Historically, these studies have tended to essentialize identities and conceive of group formation as pre-determined. In contrast, I show that although ideologies such as nationalism and communism influenced the decision-making processes of some Volhynians, many more became involved in violence as a result of social upheaval, material needs, forms of coercion, and pre-war social networks. Moreover, as a result of my biographical tracing, I demonstrate how Volhynians often shifted their identities and group associations, as well as their stances toward violence, throughout the occupation. These findings move the onus from purely cultural (tribal or ethnic hatreds) or ideological (people are programmed to kill) motivations for violence to a more nuanced understanding that takes social interaction into account and understands subjects as dynamic individuals. As such, A Sea of Blood and Tears can inform future studies of ethnic and political violence in borderland regions beyond Ukraine as well as contribute to discussions in genocide studies and social scientific research on political violence.