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Revisiting ‘Nazi War Diggers’: Editorial in the Journal of Conflict Archaeology

30 Sep

In the latest edition of the Journal of Conflict Archaeology there is an editorial that briefly discusses the professional response of archaeologists (via social media) to the proposed (and now cancelled) National Geographic Channel show Nazi War Diggers (Pollard & Banks 2014).  As readers of this blog, and other archaeological blogs, may be aware that a whole can of worms was opened when the National Geographic Channel started to advertise their Nazi War Diggers program online.  The clips that the station put up online showed almost zero respect to the uncovering and exhuming of the dead of WWII on the Eastern Front (the clips shown seemed to focus primarily on a battleground site in Latvia), and little (if any) attention paid to the archaeological context of the remains themselves.

Field archaeology is a largely destructive method of uncovering and documenting a unique and non-replenishing resource, hence why great care is taken in the contextual recording and analysis of archaeological sites in various mediums (in the use and application of excavation methodology, on-site recording, recording of site formation, specialist reports, conservation of artefacts, film photography, digital media, etc.).  So it was no surprise that, when the footage of Nazi War Diggers was promoted, archaeologists and other heritage specialists were horrified at the unprofessional and unethical treatment of both the human material recovered and of the associated artefacts, such as the Nazi memorabilia uncovered.  Perhaps what was/is even more worrying is the long-term deposition and custody (i.e whereabouts) of the remains and artefacts that were excavated, alongside the actual legality surrounding the actions of venture itself.  As osteoarchaeologist Alison Atkin succinctly highlighted at the time – ‘it  is every kind of wrong’.

As Pollard & Banks (2014: 51) remark it was not just social media that picked up on the outrage of the show but also mainstream media, such as newspapers, that highlighted the professional and personal distaste with the Nazi War Diggers program.  A very important point here is highlighted in the editorial, which bloggers such as Sam Hardy at Conflict Antiquities also noticed, was how the National Geographic Channel replied.  The company removed the questioned video from their site, edited the text and removed damaging quotes from the lead presenter (‘by selling things that are Nazi related and for lots of money, I’m preserving a part of history that museums don’t want to bother with‘, as quoted in Pollard & Banks 2014: 51).  As readers will no doubt be aware individuals who fell in the Second World War can still be identified, can still be returned to their families for burial, can still have living relatives who may have known them.  With these points in mind, even barring the unethical exhumation and nonsense comments, it becomes clear that the treatment of the remains on Nazi War Diggers was, at the least, potentially offensive.

Still the debacle helped to unite a range of heritage professionals in condemnation and, to their good and commendable credit, the National Geographic Channel have pulled the show and have started an inquiry.  This very fact highlights that the company have at least heard the views of the many professional individuals and members of the public that have contacted them (tough though that may have been).  As Sam Hardy further highlights the narrative isn’t that clear-cut either as there were a number of different organisations involved during the making and producing of Nazi War Diggers, including Legenda, the company used in the Latvian sequence of the show.  It is pertinent here to include a quote from hardy’s blog entry regarding the Legenda organisation, and those like it, who work in tough environments:

Since there are still war survivors and missing persons as well as mass graves and battlefields in Latvia, Latvians are still living in the aftermath of the conflict. Dealing with survivors’ and relatives’ loved ones as past, as archaeology, is a delicate, painful process.

Being respectfully scientific with fallen soldiers can be experienced by soldiers’ relatives as being disrespectfully clinical. And that pressure is felt by the volunteers who do the work as well as by the archaeologists who cannot secure professional standards of work.” (Hardy 2014, but see here also).

Yet there are still serious questions that remain in the commission of Nazi War Diggers and of the relationship between the television and archaeology in general.  Battles, and battlefields, have long been a staple for re-enactments on historical documentaries on television, yet not many have actively highlighted the excavation of human remains with such abandon as Nazi War Diggers.  Furthermore, there is the very real danger that this show has undermined the credibility of conflict archaeology as an emerging, but important, field in itself.  With the centenary of the First World War upon us, and important archaeological investigations into the sites where the horrors of the holocaust were carried out in the World War Two (see Sturdy Colls 2012 for non-invasive techniques used at the Treblinka camp), this can be seen as particularly insensitive and crass.  Archaeology is not the handmaiden of history, but walks alongside it hand in hand, helping to provide vital physical evidence to the documentary evidence.  A particular problem is further highlighted by Pollard & Banks, which is this:

How did we get to a situation where something like Nazi War Diggers is regarded as a desirable product by a major broadcaster such as National Geographic Television? This is not the place to attempt an answer to this question but we have clearly reached a point where some self-reflection is called for, especially by those of us who have benefitted from our involvement in television.

We can only hope that National Geographic Television’s decision to pull the series means that a change of commissioning policy will be considered, with a return to more responsible programming, which does both television and the practice of archaeology credit.” (Pollard & Banks 2014: 52).

The editorial is an interesting piece and I’d recommend taking the time to read it.  In the meantime myself and other archaeology bloggers will be keen to see what the National Geographic Channel get up to with the footage already shot for the Nazi War Diggers program and whether it comes back, or not, in any shape or form.  The response of many of the bloggers to the show (including myself) has been a reactive reaction to it, decrying it for the lack of care and thought put into the show’s presentation and approach.  However it has undoubtedly raised knowledge of what is a very tangible and emotional remainder of the actual human cost of conflict and war – the survival, exhumation and recovery of the remains of individuals killed in action, whether participating as active soldiers or as civilians.

As Pollard & Banks (2014: 52) highlight we, as active bloggers and specialists in this area, must also engage, educate and help inform both the general public and organisations (including National Geographic Channel) as to what is the appropriate approach when it comes to excavating, analysing, and presenting the remains of humans excavated from both archaeological and historic contexts.  If we don’t more programs, such as Nazi War Diggers, will be produced, which will lead to the decay of contextual information and, ultimately, the loss of knowledge.

Learn More:

Bibliography

Hardy, S. 2014. A Note on the Volunteer Human Rights Exhumers Legenda. Conflict Antiquities. Accessed 30th September 2014.

Pollard, T. & Banks, I. 2014. Editorial. Journal of Conflict Archaeology9 (2): 49-52. (Open Access).

Sturdy Colls, C. 2012. Holocaust Archaeology: Archaeological Approaches to Landscapes of Nazi Genocide and Persecution. Journal of Conflict Archaeology.  7 (2): 70-104.

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Excavating the War Dead of WW2: The Eastern Front

31 Mar

It is a grim tally.  By the end of the Second World War in 1945, an estimated total of around 70 million people had been killed world-wide as a result of the conflict.  On the Eastern Front alone an estimated 26 million individuals perished, and a further 4 million individuals were listed as missing in action after the devastation and ferocity of the battles between the Nazi and Soviet armies and assorted armed factions (Applebaum 2013, Merridale 2013).

Unlike the war in Western Europe, the war in the East was total.  A large percentage of the Eastern Front dead were the civilians of various countries caught, as they so often were, between the invasions or incursions of Nazi or Soviet forces.  Whole landscapes were decimated of any economic functionality (as a part of the scorched earth policy), populations were wiped out or moved en-mass, and the savagery of the conduct of the armies poised against each other was truly horrifying.  Further to this the bulk of the Nazi extermination camps used in the Holocaust were located in Eastern Europe, and the majority of the camps were often used after the destruction of the Nazi regime by the Soviets for imprisoning political and war prisoners for many years (Applebaum 2013).  It was not simply a war of clashing ideologies but a conflict that was deeply fractured along racial, ethnic, national and international tensions.

For anyone seeking an overview and understanding of the final years of the conflict in Eastern Europe, and the subsequent communist takeover, I highly recommend historian Anne Applebaum’s (2013) Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe book.  It is a highly researched and detailed account of the differing methods used by the Soviet Union throughout the 1940s, in Eastern Europe, to subjugate populations and countries to the communist political and moral system.

The excavation and retrieval of the many fallen civilians and soldiers that still lie in the soil of various Eastern European countries is a subject that one should treat with caution and the utmost respect, as one should with excavating any victims of human rights violations or any archaeological skeletal remains.  The Second World War is also still within living memory, as many individuals who fought and lived throughout the war are still alive themselves.

Therefore it is with some consternation, sadness and anger that I learnt about National Geographic Channel’s latest archaeology based program Nazi War Diggers, a particularly damaging show that promotes dubious ethical standards in the digging up and removal of human remains and WW2 era artefacts.  Many archaeology, metal detectorists and bioarchaeology bloggers have already helped highlight the fury that many feel on reading the preview information for the show, for the supposed ‘experts’ used in the show and for the footage that highlights the disrespectful removal and handling of human remains from a WW2 context.  A number of researchers have also highlighted the possible infringement of European legal standards and the likely illegal exportation and selling of WW2 artefacts by one of the show’s main presenters.  Further to this a number of institutions that should have been contacted and informed of the work beforehand (National Museums in Latvia and Poland, for example) have not been contacted or have been ignored when they tried to intervene.

Further to the above, as Dr Sam Hardy of Conflict Archaeology is currently documenting, in detail, an enlightening and frankly horrifying series of posts of the whole sorry charade.  National Geographic themselves have backtracked, removed public comments from their social media websites and have removed suspect and dubious video footage of the show from their online website (including the use of Neo-Nazi language during the unearthing of human remains).  This is frankly very disappointing behaviour.  National Geographic is a large organisation, one where the magazine, TV show, research foundation and online forms are all independent from each other but retain the National Geographic brand.  The Nazi War Diggers program is deeply disappointing and infuriating, as are the National Geographic responses to queries by specialists and non-specialists alike.

The companies involved in the making of this program include the following: the National Geographic television channel, Legenda (the specialist company used in the Latvia based digging), production company ClearStory and the Fox Entertainment Group.

The three presenters involved are not trained archaeological excavators or trained field anthropologists in the recording and removal of human remains, yet video footage explicitly shows the removal of human skeletal material from a war grave with the use of inappropriate and damaging tools, no recording of the context of the remains nor any respect or care taken in identifying the bone elements post immediate removal.  The principal three presenters of the show (Kris Rodgers, Stephen Taylor and Craig Gottlieb, alongside Adrian Kostromski) are curious choices to front such a show.  In particular Craig Gottlieb has a record for selling WW2 artefacts for profit and has stated in online websites that he has no problems getting artefacts past customs or finding artefacts to sell.  This raises all sorts of ethical problems and probable clashes of interest during his involvement with Nazi War Diggers.

Indeed Gottlieb had been quoted as saying: “(I) feel that by selling things that are Nazi related and for lots of money, I’m preserving a part of history that museums don’t want to bother with”.  A quote which was quickly retracted by the National Geographic Channel on their website.

The company behind the so-called excavation of human remains in WW2 contexts in Latvia, Legenda, have numerous Youtube videos up of their work – please be aware this is strictly not how trained archaeologists or anthropologists excavate and record human remains, especially those that likely still have living relatives.  As can be evidence in the videos no care or attention is paid to the remains uncovered, no ethics are abided by and no respect is paid to the fallen that have been uncovered.  It is some of the most upsetting scenes of desecration  of war graves that I have seen.  There must have been an awful lot of contextual information lost purely because of the approach used by Legenda.  Bear in mind that individuals from WW2 graves can often still be identified and returned to places of rest.  This will not be the case when desecration and destruction of evidence happens on a scale that is the outcome of the approach Legenda use (1).

For National Geographic to actively work with such companies and individuals is a shock, it disastrously promotes the profane practice of war grave robbing.  It is extremely disappointing and disturbing.  There are no other words to describe it.  Personally I having trouble articulating my thoughts on this subject because I am so surprised and disheartened that such a program could be made for entertainment purposes.  Furthermore it gives archaeology, bioarchaeology and human osteology a bad name when in fact these fields of study and inquiry are vital to understanding the people, the cultures and the landscapes of the past.  Quite proactively it seems that this is not the case with the Nazi War Diggers show.  I am also worried that this show will produce a monochrome view of the Eastern Front.  I am deeply worried that the individuals exhumed during the production of the show may be misidentified or cast aside.  I, for one, await evidence from National Geographic on the osteological reports and deposition of the skeletal remains excavated (excavation generally implies recording of the archaeological context, something that this show lacks) during the course of the show.

The website for the program (linked above) states that ‘misinformation’ has already been spread about the show, and that the show will explicitly state the difference in the work that it supposedly conducts and the work of ‘black digging’, i.e. grave robbing for the selling of artefacts.  Yet the damage has surely already been done by the way in which National Geographic has conducted the work already.  By associating with known sellers of WW2 relics, for profit, and by using companies that have a documented and explicit history of desecrating war graves, the National Geographic Channel has itself already condemned its own show from the start.  For me there is no argument – Nazi War Diggers is an abhorrent show, both morally and ethically.

A part of me cannot help but wonder what news the National Geographic Channel is holding back before the airing of Nazi War Diggers – will the show include the respectful identifying or re-burial of the individuals who have been dug up on the show, are the artefacts associated with WW2 contexts preserved, documented and stored in museums?  So far the news from the channel, the production company and the companies associated with the show do not provide hope in the methods that they been shown to have used.

I want to highlight something else though, something positive from an article that appeared in the BBC online magazine a few months ago, something that provides a different perspective on excavating and exhuming the individuals who died on the Eastern Front in WW2.

In a recent article Ash (2014) highlighted the work of the volunteers throughout the Russian Federation that have dedicated their time and efforts to locating and excavating the missing soldiers of the Red Army on the Eastern Front.  Documenting one such group, Exploration, which is one of a suspected 600 groups or so, the article details the work that they do in excavating, identifying and re-burying the Soviet war dead of WW2.  In contrast to the above show by the National Geographic Channel, the Exploration group have had some success in carefully excavating, recording and identifying the individuals that they have uncovered where they fell, during the German offensive code named Operation Barbarossa, in the forests around St Petersburg (formerly known as Leningrad).

Intriguingly there is evidence of the cover up of the graves in this area during the 1950s and 1960s by the communist regime, by planting trees to help cover the physical remains of battle and thus prohibit any chance discovery.  The priority was instead to re-build a shattered country.  The largely independent volunteer groups described in the BBC article receive no initial help in recovering the bodies of the fallen, but do seem to be able to help fund an honourable reburial once documenting, recording and removal of the bodies have taken place, although it is unclear to me if the Russian Federation provides funding or materials for this.  Importantly it is by giving back the unknown soldiers their identifies (if they can be identified by their ID tags or personal belongings) that the volunteer groups are able to bring closure to some families today by helping to return and re-unite long lost loved individuals.

In a quick last mention, I recently received a copy of Clea Koff’s book The Bone Woman in the post, a book detailing the forensic anthropologist’s work with the United Nations in helping to exhume and identify modern victims of genocide.  The book has a particular focus on her work in Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo and Croatia, detailing the information that her team helped to collect and recover and how it was used in trials against the people who helped order or carry out the killings in these countries in the 1990s.  It was on reading Osteoadventures post on the National Geographic debacle that I came across Koff’s book, and I highly recommend giving it a read.  There are many many people, both individuals and organisations worldwide, that conduct thorough investigations into human rights violations (such as recovering evidence and human remains from genocide contexts or discovering and investigating clandestine graves) that deserve our support and acknowledgement.  The National Geographic Channel’s Nazi War Diggers program is not among these.  The damage that the show has already caused, in part evidenced above, should be protested against.  Human remains deserve better treatment.

Update 01/04/14

According to the New York Times (via Dr Sam Hardy) the National Geographic Channel has pulled the Nazi War Diggers program indefinitely.

Notes

(1). Once again Dr Sam Hardy has updated his excellent blog with some salient remarks regarding Legenda and their techniques.  In particular he highlights the fact that the people behind the company want to help and that, at times, they cannot do as much of a professional job as one would hope.  This does not excuse all of their actions in the videos linked to above, but it does explain some to a degree.  I heartily recommend readers to check Dr Hardy’s blog for regular updates on the situation and for further information.

Further Reading

  • Dr Sam Hardy regularly investigates and updates his blog, Conflict Antiquities, on this matter and many others.
  • Sign a Change.org petition here to stop the airing of the show.
  • Bodies and Academia has highlighted a range of responses from the archaeology blogging world.

Bibliography

Applebaum, A. 2013. Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe. London: Penguin Books.

Ash, L. 2014. Digging For Their Lives: Russia’s Volunteer Body Hunters. BBC Online Magazine.

Merridale, C. 2013. Red Fortress: The Secret Heart of Russia’s History. London: Allen Lane.