Some of the dismay and anger concerning Nazi War Diggers has been directed at the local advisers and supervisors, Legenda. Latvia’s human rights exhumers are volunteers doing difficult work in difficult circumstances. As I said before, at least sometimes, their work is informed, organised and well-equipped; it is done by people who can identify bones; and it involves the recording of the site and their finds. They want to do good work all of the time, and have appealed for advice and help.
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.
Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD)
Moreover, the excavation of battlefield and other conflict archaeology is not just emotionally risky, but physically dangerous. The Latvian Army conducts its own digs, which are as good as possible in the circumstances.
And its Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit still destroys thousands of grenades and bombs every year.
Help and advice
The exhumers in those circumstances are aware of the problems. For instance, I commented to Legenda:
I hope you understand that critics of the programme are not critics of Legenda. We do know that you are well-meaning volunteers; that you are trying to give a proper burial to fallen soldiers and to give comfort to their families; and that you do not have the time, training or resources of professional organisations. We really do appreciate it.
(And we do: retired soldier and military historian Mike Edwards said, ‘[Legenda s]hould be funded and trained, but from [the] little I’ve read on them, [they’re] doing [the] best they can, better than [Nazi War Diggers]‘.)
Legenda replied with a pained appeal: ‘We will keep doing what we do in Kurland to the best of our abilities but have learnt lessons ourselves from all this…. [and] would appreciate any help or advise you could give us to prevent this debacle happening again.’ If anyone has suggestions – practical tips, guidelines, etc. – do let them know.
The golden rule
Since Legenda member Viktors Duks commented on my blog, I will make one painful point and one simple suggestion.
I do not believe that any Legenda member would want to see their own father’s or grandfather’s head handled in the way that they handled one helmeted skull, where the helmet was pulled out and the skull fell apart and spilled into the soil, so they should not allow it to happen to other people’s loved ones. I really cannot explain how it happened. And it is because I know that Legenda are committed to showing respect to the dead and giving comfort to their relatives that I cannot explain it.
Exploration and exhumation
I do not know how the circumstances differ, but many archaeologists have noted that Russia‘s volunteer human rights exhumers, such as Exploration, have ‘a strict set of guidelines about how the remains should be excavated, labelled and stored. Each soldier is photographed and their location is recorded and entered into a digital database.’ Perhaps they could advise Legenda?
Hopefully, people will be able to recommend better (practicable) ways to exhume the soldiers’ remains, so that Legenda can consistently show them the respect that they feel for them.