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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.

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