Nazi War Diggers’ Battlefield Recovery: playing soldiers and exhuming them

While it might be fun, it might not be fair to take the piss out of the Nazi War Diggers for finding it emotionally difficult to exhume some human remains. Handling dead bodies is a sombre and sombring act. It is certainly healthy for them to acknowledge the difficulty and manage their emotions, rather than try to be “manly” and “battle” through it. And it can be duly difficult to express such feelings as, when they found a child’s clothes, one retreated from the trench because his daughter ‘wears clothes‘ too.

Fit to work?

At school, I did a stint as an assistant at a vet’s surgery. When I had to hold a pet so that the vet could put it down, I was crying so uncontrollably that its owner had to hold it instead. I was not fit to do that job. While I would not wish to suggest that people who are emotionally weak or vulnerable should not do this kind of work, I would absolutely argue that one of the many benefits – one of the necessities – of proper training (rather than experience of hunting relics and trying to act out boys’ own adventures) is emotional as well as technical preparation.

When I checked a mass grave from a genocide, which had been destroyed as part of a programme of genocide denial, I was prepared. I was prepared, first, through an understanding of archaeology, so I approached all human remains with a sense of responsibility; and so I could remain professional, despite the grotesque violence that the bones evidenced.

I was prepared, second, through an understanding of history, so I knew what to expect. It was the first time that I had witnessed the remains of civilians who had been murdered and dumped, civilians whose remains even had been disturbed and destroyed, but I knew that that had happened. It weighed on me, particularly as the cover-up was recent and I was in contact with denialists; but that kind of experience should weigh on you; and it didn’t upset me.

The Battlefield Recovery crew appeared so shocked because they were ignorant of the war and unprepared for the exhumation. As Paul Barford and Andy Brockman have explained, it was reckless of them to indulge in this activity, when they clearly did not know what they were doing; but it was also reckless of their employers, to let them loose in a fragile historic environment and an incredibly sensitive social context, when they clearly did not know what they were doing.

How could these people, who were not prepared to find dead women and children, be fit to conduct this work and be expert enough to educate the public?

Playing soldiers and exhuming them

In cooperation with the German War Graves Commission (Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge (VDK)), the Polish organisation Pomost exhumes and returns dead soldiers and civilians in order to foster Polish-German reconciliation. They led the controlled exhumations that were shown in the third episode of Battlefield Recovery.

In 2014, Pomost commented to Heritage Daily and the Pipeline’s Andy Brockman, ‘I think finding two young ladies (in military uniforms) was a shock for them [the Nazi War Diggers]. I think that was first time they saw a complete, carefully uncovered skeleton in a grave. A carefully uncovered skeleton, not some bones.’

However, it must be noted that the Nazi War Diggers were not only excited, overexcited, about finding “relics” and playing soldiers on the battlefields where their intended subjects had been killed; not only ‘far too excited about what they [we]re talking about’ (the instruments and remains of industrialised slaughter). They were ‘excited about finding dead soldiers’, ‘excited about the prospect of finding a cellar full of dead soldiers’.

Perhaps the only reason that they had not seen a carefully uncovered skeleton in a grave, before then, was because they had not carefully uncovered the skeletons that they had found. And they had not carefully uncovered those remains because they were presumed German soldiers from the Second World War and thus presumed Nazis, even though, as Iain Boatman rightly noted, ‘not all Germans, even those who fought, were members of the NSDAP’.

Because the person whom they imagined was a Nazi, they were not upset by finding that person’s remains and they did not display any concern with treating that person’s remains with respect. Perhaps the Nazi War Diggers, ClearStory and Channel 5 should reflect, considering how upsetting it was for them to find material evidence of a dead child (whose bones had dissolved), how upsetting it was for others – especially survivors and descendants – to watch them disinter other dead people.

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