Sunday, 24 January 2016

Trampling on Memories: The British Television Company and the "Forgotten" of Sarbka

WWII history series following
four-man team as they explore the war  
zones of
the Eastern Front in an effort to excavate 
and preserve the forgotten battle relics, at the same time
discovering the stories of fallen soldiers from their remains

Jennifer: "You Done Well Boyz"
It is difficult to know where to begin in summarising my feelings over what we saw three British detectorists and their Nazi relic dealer mate doing in Poland in the  third episode of the series made as "Nazi War Diggers" (I think it important to keep that in mind here) and re-marketed  as "Battlefield Recovery" after adding a few symbolic apopotraic subtitles. I am just so angry at this. I'm afraid this will be a long post.

The whole thing was a total mess from the beginning. I really do not want to go into the first part of the episode set in Poznan, it was the same puerile-half-brains-running-around-being-a-prat type stuff which has characterised the previous two episodes. But one element of this segment needs commenting from the local angle. As Andy Brockman points out, the fact that part of this segment is filmed among the artefacts preserved in a Polish museum suggests that the programme's stated aim of this team of "experts" being needed to "excavate and preserve the forgotten battle relics" is in the case of Poland more than a little wide of the mark. In truth, Polish museums (military, historical and commemorative) and Polish collections in general have more than enough material of this kind well-and-truly preserved. The trauma of the Second World War is an obvious part of the history of the nation and one which is by no means neglected in historiography or collecting activities. That remains of WW2 military hardware lie scattered across the landscape of Poland and concentrated in some regions is not at all due to it - or the human drama and conflict it represents - being "forgotten" in Poland. The wounds are still very, very deep. Nobody has "forgotten" what happened here, and nobody here needs Craig, Kris, Adrian and Steve to come here and help us "remember" it. The very arrogance of the idea of these four coming here thinking they can show us how to "preserve" our past is staggering. What were they thinking? Especially as this band of (apparently pretty uninformed) foreign amateurs has at their disposal only the most primitive of tools  and methodology for "discovering the stories of fallen soldiers from their remains”. As we saw in the previous episode (femur versus humerus), they cannot even recognize these remains, let alone interpret their state with any subtlety. In fact the activities they were filmed engaging in in the Latvian escapade was such that it could only obliterate parts of those "stories". That is the first of a number of things which makes this exploitive jaunt so annoying. What kind of ethics would allow anyone to get involved in a task so complicated without being adequately prepared or qualified? This is not just a game, these were real human lives, the lives of people related (I am talking about central Europe) to those around us still alive today. People who do remember. What on earth are these artefact hunters thinking?  Who entitled them to come here and behave as they did? 

After running around a Prussian fort like a group of kids on a school excursion, the four then pretend they are going to follow the 1945 route of the evacuating Germans, leaving Posen towards the Noteć. Here they display their total lack of historical preparation. By the time the city was abandoned, the route to the northwest was cut off by the rapid advance of Bogdanov's Second Guards Tank Army who were encircling army units withdrawn from Warsaw - and who are much more likely candidates for the identity of the remains found in a grave in the little village of Sarbka (in the administrative district of Gmina Czarnków, within Czarnków-Trzcianka County in west-central Poland) which is where our relic hunters end up digging for their relics of the Nazi War.

This was just a silly narrative excuse for the fact that the whole rationale for the programme is that the production company had negotiated a deal with the Polish "Pomost" foundation of the type explained by Andy Brockman (Revealed: Battlefield Recovery Accused of Sidelining Polish team who did the real work in Sarbka', The Pipeline January 24, 2016), whereby the Clearstory lads would pose in the trenches dug by the Polish team. As Brockman points out there is a huge difference between the activities of the two groups and what they are there for.  To make things more complicated, it seems there was some friction between the two parties by the time the programme was ready to be broadcast, and as reported elsewhere, this episode was pulled from the schedule of the Polish TV airing of this series. This is the reason why this is the first showing of episode three. If these allegations are true, this would be another expression of the utterly exploitive and colonialist attitudes of these collectors towards eastern Europeans and their heritage. They imagine they can just walk in, do what they want (take what they want) here and 'never mind the natives'. Whatever Clearstory and its diggers think, Poland (slap-bang in the centre of Europe) is not Wonga-Wonga Land.

For some reason the programme-makers decided they wanted to make up some fiction about how "their team of experts" found this site. Instead of admitting that it was already known and Pomost had an exhumation scheduled here, Dealer Craig  is set up for a fake conversation with a local who tells him they'd buried some Nazi soldiers in some trees. Ah, Nazis! There will be Lots of Nazi Relics there then for British viewers to gawp at. Swaasstikkaaasss. So off they go to search for the mass grave among the trees. In reality, this is one of thousands of places all over Poland where living oral tradition and documented history localise the graves of the tens of thousands of fallen of all nationalities and religions. Why four foreigners should take it upon themselves to dig up these dead bodies and not (for example) the three officers in the forest just up the road from where I write this is not explained. Especially as these artefact hunters had apparently come totally unprepared for what they were about to do.

First they set about finding where there could be a mass grave in those trees. They are shown roughly thrusting a metal spike into the site to find soft spots (!) Really. This is the team of British "experts" Clearstory brought in. Now it just so happens that when this sorry apology for a TV show was pulled from Polish TV it was replaced by a programme of work done by another British team in Poland - at Treblinka. There the Polish TV viewers learnt that even in backward England, they have heard of geophysics. (Poland has several well-equipped teams, including one run by a very good friend of mine, which do some exceptionally spectacular work - why did Clearstory and its "experts" not call them in?) Why instead did a bunch of cowboys come with their retarded tombarolo methods? That it is not normal practice in the English speaking world is indicated by Sam Hardy's post today ('I have never before seen anyone jam a metal pole into a suspected mass grave'). As conflict archaeologist Sam Wilson judged: ‘Probing a possible burial pit with an auger. ***ing clowns.’ Sam quotes other people saying more or less the same thing: ‘Intrusion by both probes and augers can… damage human remains if undertaken by inexperienced personnel’. Why is it that a team of British excavators think they can walk into a country like Poland and apply the most rough-and-ready primitive techniques they can think of? Why is it that Britain does not send a team of properly qualified people with cutting-edge (also "boys toys") equipment? Why this total disrespect for themselves and the archaeological  (not to mention human ) remains exhibited by the use of such cavalier techniques? Appalling.

Then the British clowns start digging. This they cannot do without having an unseemly argument on camera, which rather belies the claim that this "investigation" was carried out with decorum and respect. The editors did not have the nous to delete this footage (probably thinking it made the digging look more like a 'reality show'). Obviously their notions of recovering human remains with decorum and respect differ from those over here on the Continent.

The argument was about soil slipping into the raggedy hole they dug - basically because they were dumping the spoil right on its edge.  Here they are digging for Nazi War dead, a hoik-hole straight down:
[ClearStory Ltd for Channel 5:  Fair use for reporting and review]
This one looks like the Hollingbourne Hoik hole all over again. You know that one where the FLO back in England told Estuary English and his mates "you done well". THIS is the consequence of the PAS not properly doing its job of instilling best practice among its metal-detecting and artefact hunting "partners". We will soon see this British-archaeologist-approved standard of "you done well" all over Europe. "Made in Britain". Are you watching, Jennifer Jackson?  Here's another raggedy hole, dug by history-hunting methods "Made in Britain":

[ClearStory Ltd for Channel 5:  Fair use for reporting and review]
Now, what actually is happening here? First of all let us note the discrepancy between this and the Pomost statement that Nazi relic dealer Craig Gotlieb was not on their site. Here he is, digging down to those Nazi War dead with whatever's on the bodies for all he's worth. They seem to be digging in an area where there are no trees or modern gravestones. Are they actually in the cemetery? Are they actually where Pomost was expecting the mass grave? What really happened? The fictional story presented is that the lads from Britain found a soft spot where local intelligence had indicated a grave, started digging and then found a bone in that hole and then called in the Pomost team "for help" (see Brockman's account) and then "with their help" enlarged the hole. That is what the film, shows.

Here is a problem. As Estuary English mumbles "We're on village land wiv village regulations. We can't just dig where we want to". Too right you can't. But in Poland, excavation permits are not issued by the village headman (soltys), but by the provincial conservator. Other documentation is needed for exhumation work, arranged at provincial level too. So where are the permits for the hole we see being dug by these diggers before Pomost comes in? Can we now see them?  Without them, these screenshots (and I have more) would be evidence of an offence being committed on camera. Can we see the permits now? I am even more worried about the failure to show them now I have seen the final subtitle that came up as the credits begin to roll. Look at this:

[ClearStory Ltd for Channel 5:  Fair use for reporting and review]
What on earth do they mean "all excavation holes were checked following filming"? Checked, by whom and for what? What strange phrasing for excavations which we are assured were carried out with the requisite permits "The relevant authorities ... were notified". Eh? No, you get a permit and the provincial conservator should be coming out to see if you are complying with its conditions. That at least is how it worked when I was in the Chief Archaeologist's office. You do not "notify" the conservator, but invite them. This is the Wielkopolska voivodship - where still Ordnung muss sein. Can we see the documentation of the formalities associated with the permit, a protocol of a site visit confirming conditions were met would be helpful too.  Where are the documentation and site archive (finds) currently?

To come back to what really happened, is this hole, a regular excavation with secondary spoil heaps (sifted earth?), the same hole as we saw the lads enthusiastically grubbing out among the trees earlier before they "got help"?

[Fair use for reporting and review]
Where has the tree gone that is in the centre of the second picture above? It is not clear how many holes were dug, or whether this is the same site at all. I suspect this is the area of disturbed soil at  52°56'7.34"N  16°39'13.74"E and the shot is taken looking northeast to the long building 130 away. So where are the trees in the earlier shots? 

More comforting, in this episode, unlike the others, our four heroes changed their clothes between shoots. They walked around Latvia in sweaty and dirtied clothes while the film crew and continuity people tried (for reasons best known to themselves) to make it look like the digging was crammed into a much shorter time than we are assured each project took. This was obviously part of the fiction. But it meant our heroes had to turn up day after day in the same grubby wardrobe. Yuk. What led to the change of policy? Was there a quarrel about working conditions, working in close proximity to a sweat-stinking metal detectorist cannot be much fun. Or maybe one of the crew got a rash from wearing soiled clothing? Who knows? But at least when they are working with a Polish team going about things in a far more methodical way, the metal detectorists changed their clothes. Good archaeology is clean archaeology.

In the hole they first find a skeleton or skeletons of German soldiers (Nazis!!) thrown in. There's bits of uniform etc. I do not recall whether it was discussed how they'd got there.  No mention was made of any pathological examination to determine cause of death. Were they prisoners killed at the pit edge, were they corpses picked up on the road outside the village where they'd been caught in  crossfire? Were they corpses cleared out of the fields where they'd been lying several weeks? Attention was then shifted to the bodies underneath, they were not in uniform.

The diggers seem surprised that there are not only soldiers in the hole. I cannot imagine what world they come from where it would come as a surprise to anyone that women and children die in a war zone. Perhaps they do not watch the news from Gaza, Yemen, Syria, or as Andy Brockman suggests old film reels of the Second World War. This is pathetic. We are talking about Occupied Poland here, and the period when the Red Army advanced brutally across the region on its way to Berlin, sweeping all before it - and leaving not very much behind. Is it perhaps the case that these artefact collerctors had before they came, not the slightest idea of what happened here in this whole period? Unbelievable. It is not so much unbelievable that British metal detectorists and collectors seem to be ignorant (as we can see from their forums, a lot of them appear to be ignorant in general). What is unbelievable is that a responsible production company would hire such people as "experts" to head a programme like this, dealing with a subject as sensitive as this in such a totally insensitive way.

On finding the bodies of a woman and a child, one of the presenters (the one that collects all the military bits) is depicted as saying: "I feel more angry than sad". Well, of course it is good to feel angry that we have wars where real people do, indeed, die. But then, if one feels angry about wars, you don't go on camera glorifying it, running around like nine-year olds with rusting guns shouting "bang-bang-bang-bang", or cackling as you blast off a series of bursts from an MP40. That is just hypocrisy.

But this merges into stupidity when they lapse into pathos-for-the-camera. They find a baby, or rather where a baby's bones had dissolved in the acid soil and all that is left are the clothes, a plastic nappy cover in particular. These relic hunters had earlier been seen happily tipping skulls out of helmets and ignorantly waving femurs around and mistaking them for humeri. Suddenly it occurs to them that they are dealing with the remains of real people. One guy tearfully realises  "I can relate this to my daughter. Because she wears clothes". Hmm. Was he expecting "Nazi" babies to have crawled around naked? If this numpty finds it so traumatic, why on earth did he sign a contract which involved digging up people's bodies for Saturday night entertainment?

Bearing in mind that this was made as a programme to be called "Nazi War Diggers", it is no surprise that there is a lot of focus on a Deutsches Frauenwerk badge(lots for sale here) with a runic logo and a Swaasssticcaa which was found in the soil near some of the bones. Immediately the remains are identified by the metal detectorists as a German and what is more a "Nazi". I did not see where the badge was lying in relation to the rest of the skeleton, to judge from the contemporary photos showing them worn, it should have been over the left breast, was it? Or was this a loose badge that was in the soil filling the grave? There was no discussion of the osteological evidence for the bones being those of a woman. Real osteologists do not assign biological sex based solely on one artefact.

In the programme, the remains found in the lower level of the grave are presented as those of Germans (why?), but more to the point are being positioned by the programme's metal detectorist presenters as victims, killed by the Polish villagers as the war ended. I think this is one of the dangers of entering on such a project without adequate preparation. The four men have already been dumped by the production company in the Kurland-Kessel (their Latvian escapades), the last stand of the Reich - sacred ground for the Neo-Nazis. Now we see them getting embroiled in another ideological trap. If they'd take a look at some White Supremacist material (actually I do not really recommend it -its worse than metal detecting forums), they would soon find the motif of the 'persecution' of the good Germans by the Bolshevik and Semitic 'liberators' at the end of the War. These ideologues stress how the teutonic population was exposed to rape, arbitrary killings, theft, and other abuses at the hands of the inferior people which had somehow temporarily gained the upper hand (I'll leave the rest of what they say about that to the reader's imagination). An egregious example of this genre is Thomas Goodrich's 'Hellstorm—The Death of Nazi Germany, 1944-1947'. Horrific reading it is, to be sure, but it plays to a certain mindset. And this is exactly where Kris, Craig, Adrian and Steve are going.

Screenshot for the purposes of review and criticism
What evidence is there that these are not bodies collected in the fields rather than the victims of deliberate murder by vengeful Polish villagers who according to the metal detectorists (a) had a bizarre 'oriental' grudge that the Germans would not let them ring a bell and (b) just happened to have a gun lying around the house at the end of the Occupation? Oh, there is a skull with a round hole in the frontal... I am not a forensics expert, but have seen skulls of Polish officers killed by the NKVD and this "bullet hole" does not look very convincing to me. It does not look like the classic bullet wound made in living bone with fractures radiating from it. To my eye, this looks just as likely to be a relatively fresh hole made in ground-softened bone. Like with a fork tine in digging (raising the question of when this grave was actually made and where the bodies in it were collected from - no proper dating evidence was given). Several observers in their comments have suggested this hole was made when the metal detectorists were thrusting a metal rod down blind into a mass grave.

The metal detectorists incline to this hole being the result of a pistol held to the forehead and the person executed by someone "looking them in the eyes ['shudder, shock-horror]", what is said to be an exit wound (no radial fractures here either?) is briefly shown on the left of the occipital. Now, I am no expert on summary executions, but there are forensic traces on the bodies exhumed after the War and a lot of photographic evidence which you will forgive me for not linking to here, which show that a preferred method was having the condemned walk to and kneel on the side of the burial pit, and shoot them in the occipital from a position standing above and behind them, which meant not only that the bullet exited into the hole rather than among anybody standing around watching, but more importantly that the victim fell forwards, into the hole. That way the executioner did not have to stoop down and push or drag the body in. I am not saying that this is not an execution victim, but there is no proper presentation of the evidence for making that, and not another, interpretation. There was fighting between the German soldiers trying to reach the border and the Second Guards Tank Army chasing them. Why were the women and children found in this pit not victims of the crossfire but interpreted by the programme makers as victims of retribution? What evidence was there in the hole dug for such an interpretation? Was that conclusion reached simply to make "good television"? If so, that is a hugely irresponsible choice to make and thing to do. Where, in that light, were these people's remains reinterred and with what rite?

Several commentators made the point on the basis of the programme-makers' preferred interpretation that what had been discovered here was a "war crime" site. Perhaps it is, but if that is the case then it needed far better and more forensic work done than four foreign metal detectorists were equipped to do. That bullet hole for example, the bullet will be somewhere in the pit if the victim was executed on the spot, did they find it with their metal detectors?  Was it fired by a Polish civilian (a villager angered by the ill-treatment during the previous five-and a half years of occupation) or a Soviet soldier executing a civilian prisoner? Actually, that is not an unimportant question, given that Pomost is all about reconciliation between Poland and Germany - a question which gains additional importance in Poland today under its new nationalist, retrospective, xenophobic and myopic PiS government.

If we look at the website of Pomost, there is total silence about any kind of collaboration with Clearstory who used material filmed on one of their projects to make a programme called "Nazi War Diggers". To be frank, I am not surprised, and I would be astonished to learn that they entered into any kind of agreement with the TV production company knowing that. There is just a brief note here:
Listopad Sarbka, gmina Czarnków, woj. wielkopolskie
Lokalizacja i ekshumacja grobu żołnierzy niemieckich. Wydobyto szczątki 36 żołnierzy i cywilów.
The remains of 36 people were found by the end of (that phase of?) the project. Clearstory make their conclusions on the basis of the first few skeletons and then scarpered off back to England. There is no presentation by Pomost at the end of the film of their final results, and their own conclusions about what the site held, but then they find out that the four volunteers filmed working on the sitye with them have made a programme presenting the work as their own and disseminating their own interpretation of the results. If that happened to a project of mine, I would be more than a little annoyed. It is the same attitudes of entitlement and exploitation we see throughout this sorry spectacle. I would be even more annoyed if the foreigners who were working as volunteers on my project were disseminating not only the results of my team's work, but disseminating a picture which totally contradicts what I had found out as a result of further work. Is that what happened here? What is being reported is that Pomost apparently say they will never work with Clearstory again.

Historiography and archaeology always have a complex social and political context. Nowhere is this more true than here in central Europe, and Poland in particular. This is why four foreign amateurs waltzing in here with metal detectors, spades, cameras and a lot of ignorance mixed with stupid ideas to make an exploitive "history" programme is not only a completely hare-brained notion, compromising all involved. It also involves repercussions of which none of those involved have even the foggiest idea.What were they thinking?

1 comment:

Grimmalf said...

Common grave robbers.

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