Germany recognises Stalin-era Ukraine famine as genocide

The heated discussion over the resolution has revived debate over Berlin’s assistance to Ukraine

Germany’s Bundestag has passed a resolution condemning as genocide the man-made famine that, nine decades ago, killed nearly four million Ukrainians.

A resolution on the “Holodomor”, derived from the Ukrainian “to kill by starvation”, was passed by votes from the ruling coalition – Social Democratic Party (SPD), Greens and liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) – as well as the centre-right opposition Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian CSU sister party.

“The mass of starvation was not a consequence of missed harvests but was the responsibility of the political leadership of the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin,” the motion reads, framing the famine as the product of Stalinist collectivisation that used hunger to “suppress [Ukrainian] national political consciousness”.

The Stalinist policies of 1932/1933, which saw nearly eight million people in total die across the Soviet Union, are widely viewed as mass murder. The Bundestag went one step further on Wednesday, saying it “stands to reason” that the Holodomor was genocide: the deliberate killing of people from a particular nation or ethnic group with the aim of destroying them.


“This classification is an important signal with which we push back against historical revisionism and honour the victims of this crime,” said Dietmar Nietan, an SPD parliamentarian behind the Bundestag resolution.

By following the lead of Ukrainian MPs in 2006, and 17 other countries since, German parliamentarians say they are working to rescue from obscurity an episode of history that the Soviet Union worked to bury.

“The hunger disaster was not the result of failed harvests, as has been claimed by Russian historians for years and decades,” said president Frank Walter Steinmeier to the Deutsche Welle television network.

Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany, Oleksij Makejew, welcomed the non-partisan resolution as an “important signal ... that all democratic parties in the German Bundestag are behind Ukraine”.

The Bundestag vote comes nearly 90 years after Welsh journalist Gareth Jones, a fluent Russian speaker, told the world of the famine at a press conference in Berlin.

Jones was one of the few outsiders who made it into the Soviet Union from 1931 on to report on the spreading disaster.

“I walked along through villages and 12 collective farms. Everywhere was the cry ‘There is no bread. We are dying’,” he told his Berlin audience in March 1933. “The future is blacker than the present. There is no seed.”

Some nine decades on it remains contested among historians whether, in Ukraine, genocide was planned from the outset or, rather, pursued as such as a consequence of Stalinist policies of collectivisation, grain exports and travel bans.

Some nine months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Bundestag motion has proven controversial for its motivation as well as its choice of language.

“MPs are yielding to Ukrainian pressure,” argued the Berliner Zeitung daily. “Bending historical facts to meet political needs is a characteristic of dictatorships.”

The heated discussion over the resolution has revived debate – in German newspapers and television talk shows – over Berlin’s military and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine.

Polls indicate a majority back the decision of Chancellor Olaf Scholz last February to shatter a decades-old German taboo – arming war parties – to deliver munitions and other supports to Ukraine.

But many leading public figures remain convinced Germany should be more active in negotiating a truce.

“Weapons prolong the war ... Germany would be wise to contribute to a climate where the war does not escalate further,” said Alice Schwarzer, Germany’s best-known feminist journalist, on a Tuesday evening talk show. “Of course the war in Ukraine is a proxy war between America and Russia.”

Complicating matters is the contrast between Germany’s own bloody wartime history in Ukraine – where eight million died – and the absence of Ukraine from Germany’s collective historical memory.

Asked in a recent survey which countries, besides Germany, they associate with the second World War, just one per cent of German respondents mentioned Ukraine while 36 per cent mentioned Russia.

“In order not to talk about their own role in National Socialism, assisted by the political mood of the Cold War, Germans constructed a continuous and firm alienation towards eastern Europe,” argues Berlin historian Johannes Spohr. “Their descendants have cemented this narrative in part by refraining from critical questions.”

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin