Nazis, the Holocaust, and Archaeology as Reality TV

It’s ironic that while the new National Geographic reality TV show “Nazi War Diggers” has evoked howls of outrage from archaeologists all over the world for its happy-go-lucky desecration of human remains for tabloid documentary entertainment, the new Smithsonian show “Treblinka: Hitler’s Killing Machine,” has received interest, fairly positive reviews, and widespread (if ghoulish) curiosity.

Actually there is a lot more that links these two shows than distinguishes them.  They are both clear signs of how reality TV is transforming World War II and the Nazis into seductively entertaining documentary fare, rather than history that we really have to take seriously. Not only that.  Archaeology no longer plays the role of the handmaiden of history; it has become reality TV’s whore. Young people digging for the unexpected treasures can be quite photogenic and it’s fairly easy to turn into a narrative with breathless, cliffhanging teasers to keep us tuned in across the commercials.  Like so many “Secrets of the Bible” documentaries, archaeology has allowed itself to become a new medium of video trivialization.  Or in these cases, a medium for the banalization –or even outright denial– of the horrors of the Holocaust and the battles on the Eastern front.

"Nazi War Diggers" - National Geographic Channel

“Nazi War Diggers” – National Geographic Channel

What are the main objections to Nazi War Diggers?  Well, mostly disrespectful handling of human remains and poor archaeological technique.  The first objection is due to the positive influence of the passionate and effective ethical movement of indigenous peoples all over the world to stop the archaeological collection (or sometimes even discarding) of human skeletal remains as just things. There are many complex issues to be settled of course, especially in regard to ancient, unclaimed, or non-indigenous (if such a term can be used) human remains unearthed in excavations, but Nazi diggers, with its gleeful display of femurs and skulls as alongside the holsters, guns, and other military paraphernalia is just grotesque treasure hunting.  Its airing on the National Geographic Channel is a disgraceful blot on the NG brand, which anyway has sold away its reputation along with the management of the channel to the Rupert Murdoch empire.  What else do you expect when you sell your brand to the impresario of industrial-grade history porn?

The second objection to Nazi Diggers comes from the defenders of cultural property and the fighters against looting, another impact of the turn in archaeology and heritage practice to recognizing that artifacts and sites are not merely sandboxes for private treasure hunters or open pit mines for the private antiquities collectors’ market.  A valid point certainly, and cause for the condemnation of other cable reality shows like American Diggers on Spike TV, which valorize looting and make it into a sort of a video contest in which the digger who can rip the most valuable thing out of the earth is the winner.  But then, for that, the American Institute of Archaeology’s favorite mythic archaeologist, Indiana Jones, is the champion of the world.

So what is my beef with the “”Treblinka: Hitler’s Killing Machine,”?  It can’t be faulted in relatively greater respect shown to of human remains, or the sophistication of its archaeological technique.  The excavation is headed by Dr.Caroline Sturdy Colls, a forensic archaeologist who teaches at Stafforshire University and whose 2012 dissertation, “Holocaust Archaeology: Archaeological Approaches to Landscapes of Nazi Genocide and Persecution” eminently qualifies to lead such a dig.

Dr. Caroline Sturdy Colls, star of "Treblinka: Hitler's Killing Machine" - Smithsonian Channel

Dr. Caroline Sturdy Colls, star of “Treblinka: Hitler’s Killing Machine” – Smithsonian Channel

But what is the show trying to show through archaeology?  An admiring promo in livescience.com credits the dig with being “The first-ever archaeological excavations at the Nazi death camp Treblinka [which has] revealed new mass graves, as well as the first physical evidence that this camp held gas chambers, where thousands of Jews died.”  Is this news to anyone?  Should not the remains of the victims be left in peace?  The camp, its purpose, its layout, and its mass extermination machinery has been extensively documented, not least by the history-conscious Nazis themselves. The archaeological finding that the Nazi’s did not quite obliterate all evidence of their crimes would hardly raise an eyebrow for most normal people.

But for the viewers, this scientific exercise provides a ghastly, voyeuristic entertainment.  Worse yet it actually provides holocaust deniers a kind of intellectual legitimacy.  Like the pseudo-scientific assertions of the Scientific Creationists who surf decontextualized scientific data and debates between scholars that evolution (and likewise in a different context, Global Warming) is just a theory, the comments have begun to roll in about the Treblinka dig:

Here are a few samples, questioning the archaeological interpretation of the site:

–Did a word search for “cubic” and “square”. No hits. Where are the numbers? How much area did they excavate, how many bodies did they find and / or estimate based on the grave volume?  How big were the mass graves? Compare that to other mass graves which are less politicized and we know the death count, and compare the sizes of the two to get an estimate. If you want to say, “well, we can’t find them all because most of them were incinerated. We got some Nazi to say that after pulling his teeth and crushing his balls a few times at Nuremburg.” – that’s conspiracy theorist logic based on confession extracted from torture.

–Oy vey, look at this picture of us digging in the ground. Obviously this proves that the Nazis holocausted over 60 trillion people. Don’t ask for any specifics, like about how much of the area was actually excavated, or how many bodies were actually exactly found.”

–So they found a brick wall and some tiles. Let’s rush out an article saying its gas chambers. Cheap journalism.
When will an archaeologist do work on the millions of German civilians that were fire bombed to death by the Allies, or the 25 million Christian Ukrainians killed by the Bolsheviks in the 30’s? Or the Japanese that we held in concentration camps and nuked. They get no memorials, no museums, no reparations, no constant media articles, no Hollywood movies. It would be nice to have more balance in the world.

Yes, archaeology can raise as many questions as it asks.  But they are often the wrong ones when archaeologists allow themselves to be packaged for fast-food, channel-surfing cable TV.

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First they change the name… then the domain

Interesting signs of the times (and of the increasingly brand-named, officialized, and internetified Heritage World).  Just look at these two recent developments relating to the site of Auschwitz and ponder awhile:

1.)  In the summer of 2007, the World Heritage Committee approved official change of name of World Heritage Site from “The Auschwitz Concentration Camp” to “Auschwitz Birkenau German Nazi Concentration Camp (1940-1945)” upon the request of the Polish government, seeking to distance itself as much as possible in time and responsibility from that very unlovely heritage attraction on their soil.

2.)  And, now in January 2011, as if the clear marking of extraterritorial status for unpleasant heritage sites (and acts!) in the real world were not enough, a similar move has been taken in cyberspace:

From Agence France Press,  February 2,2011

Poland asks Nazi camp museums to drop .pl websites

(AFP) – 3 days ago

WARSAW — Poland’s culture minister said Tuesday he had asked museums at former Nazi death camps to drop their Polish .pl Internet suffix to help counter the false impression they were Polish-run.

The minister, Bogdan Zdrojewski, told Polish news agency PAP he had written to the directors of three museums in Poland asking them to use other suffixes for their websites, such as the more neutral, pan-European .eu.

The three memorial museums, run and largely financed by the Polish state, are Auschwitz-Birkenau (www.auschwitz.org.pl), Majdanek (www.majdanek.pl) and Stutthof (www.stutthof.pl).

“I’ve asked them to use the appropriate term systematically,” Zdrojewski said.

Warsaw keenly watches the global media for descriptions of such camps as “Polish” because it says the term — even if used simply as a geographical indicator — can give the impression that Poland bore responsibility for Nazi Germany’s World War II genocide…

For full article, click here.

*   *   *

Do nation-states have the sovereign right to externalize unpleasant heritage and exclude it from their national internet domains?  At least they seem to have the means…

Sensing Weakness?

It’s interesting to see how dependent heritage “political correctness” is on the flow of politics.

Watching events unfold in Egypt– and maybe approach the tipping point– it’s instructive how the strident, uncompromising demands of a Mubarak functionary are now met with an uncompromising “no”…

From The Independent  January 26, 2011

Germany refuses to return bust to Egypt

By Tony Paterson in Berlin

A diplomatic row between Germany and Egypt over rights to the 3,400-year-old bust of the fabled Queen Nefertiti reopened yesterday when Berlin flatly refused to accept an official request from Cairo to return the priceless artefact to the banks of the Nile.

Nefertiti Bust in the Ägyptisches Museum Berlin. Photo: Magnus Manske

The world-renowned bust has been on public display in Berlin since 1923 following its discovery by the German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt at Amarna in 1912. It rates as one of the capital’s top tourist attractions and is seen by some 500,000 visitors a year.

Egypt, which argues that Germany obtained the bust illegally and by deceit, has been lobbying for Nefertiti’s return for more than half a century. But on Monday, Zahi Hawass, the head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, declared that an “official request” had been sent to Berlin demanding the bust be handed back.

“We ask that this unique treasure be returned to the possession of its rightful owners, the Egyptian people,” the statement said.

Mr Hawass said the demand had received the full backing of the Egyptian Prime Minister and Culture Minister and was submitted to both the German government and the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which runs Berlin’s Neues Museum, where Nefertiti is on permanent display.

But Germany dismissed Egypt’s demands yesterday. “This is not an official request,” a foreign ministry spokesman insisted. “An official request is from one government to another,” he added. He said Germany, which argues that the bust is too fragile even to be loaned to Egypt, would continue to reject demands for Nefertiti’s return.

The Archaeology of “Degenerate Art”

Here’s a fascinating excavation (and exhibition) in Berlin that I somehow missed at the time and just came across– that speaks volumes about both the creators and the dumpers.  The artifacts here show that high cultural tastes are weapons of both domination and resistance– that the archaeology of modernity is as important as the archaeology of antiquity– and that used as a means of telling alternative stories, archaeology has the power (eventually) to expose the banality of even the most violent cultural purification programs.

A journalist looks at a sculpture that was discovered during archaeological excavations in central Berlin and is now on display in the New Museum in Berlin November 8, 2010. The sculpture entitled "A Likeness of the Actress Anni Mewes" by Edwin Scharff is one of 11 pieces of art that were found during archaeological excavations in Berlin and initially thought to be of ancient origin. Research revealed that the pieces were part of the 1937 travelling exhibition "Entartete Kunst" (Degenerate Art): a collection of art the Nazis deemed un-German or Jewish and which they displayed in a manner that derided the works and their authors. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

From Der Spiegel Online November 8, 2010

Buried in a Bombed-Out Cellar

Nazi Degenerate Art Rediscovered in Berlin

By Charles Hawley

The works were thought to have been lost forever. Eleven sculptures, all of them shunned by the Nazis for being un-German, have been found during subway construction work in the heart of Berlin. But how did they get there?

An archeologist uncovers a bronze head by the artist Otto Freundlich in front of the Berlin city hall in August. The remains of the buildings on Königstrasse were simply bulldozed to make way for reconstruction. Photo: Landesdenkmalamt Berlin/ Manuel Escobedo

Digging new subway lines in Europe is no easy task. It’s not the excavating itself that is so problematic; modern machinery can bore through the earth with surprising speed these days. Rather, in places that have been inhabited for centuries, if not millennia, no one really knows what one will find. The delays for archeological research can be significant.

In Berlin, that hasn’t often been a problem. Aside from significant numbers of unexploded bombs dropped on the city during World War II and a few long-forgotten building foundations, construction tends to be relatively straightforward. The city, after all, spent the vast majority of its 770 year history as a regional backwater.

This autumn, however, an extension to Berlin’s U-5 subway line means the city can gloat over a world-class delay of its own. Workers in the initial phases of building a subway stop in front of the Berlin city hall stumbled across remains of the city’s original city hall, built in 1290. Archeologists were ecstatic.

On Monday, however, Berlin’s Mayor Klaus Wowereit announced a new series of finds that has generated even greater enthusiasm. In digs carried out throughout this year, archeologists have unearthed 11 sculptures thought to have been lost forever — valuable works of art that disappeared during World War II after having been included on the Nazis’ list of degenerate art. Most of them have now been identified and have been put on display in Berlin’s Neues Museum.

‘A Minor Miracle’

“We hadn’t expected this confrontation with this period of time, with these samples of degenerate art — it is a minor miracle,” Wowereit said at a press conference on Monday. “It is unique.”

The finds were made among the ruins of Königstrasse (King Street), a formerly bustling street in the heart of prewar Berlin. Allied bombs decimated the quarter, however, and much of the rubble was simply buried after the war to make room for reconstruction. Much of the archeological work currently under way consists of sifting through the rubble that remains in the intact cellars of the structures that once lined the street.

In early January, workers discovered a small bronze bust in the shovel of a front loader that was cleaning out one of those cellars.

“We thought it was a one-off,” said Matthias Wemhoff, director of the Museum of Prehistory and Early History in Berlin and a member of the archeology team looking into the finds. “It wasn’t immediately clear that it was linked to degenerate art.”

Soon, however, more artworks were discovered — all sculptures, all from early 20th century artists and all bearing clear indications of having been fire-damaged. Only at the end of September did it become clear that all of the art pieces — by such artists as Otto Freundlich, Naom Slutzky and Marg Moll, among others — were on the list of artworks branded as undesirable by the Nazis. All were thought to have been lost forever.

For the rest of this amazing story, click here.

For a slideshow of the recovered artworks, click here.

The Nazi leadership and their sneering cultural advisors visit the 1937 exhibition.

Fake Cuisines @ UNESCO

Well I see it didn’t take long for the heritage geniuses on the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for the Intangible Cultural Heritage Convention to go down the same sorry national(ist)-marketing-and-promotion trail that the World Heritage List has already blazed.  There is so much that is new and innovative in the ICH convention– so much that stresses evolving ideas and practices over fossilized “specimens”– that it is a shame that so many policy makers and decision makers have such a hard time distinguishing patriotism from heritage, and heritage from economic promotion that is artificially themed.

At the recent 5th meeting of the Committee in Nairobi, fifty-one intangible traditions from around the world were recognized,protected, or honored, but two in particular stand out as laughable attempts at EU puffery:

The gastronomic meal of the French besides being insanely homogenized, detached from class and region, and frozen in a seemingly timeless, homogenized national identity, this ICH “element” makes a mockery of any idea of cultural authenticity .  Read the description for yourself but note: “The gastronomic meal should respect a fixed structure, commencing with an apéritif (drinks before the meal) and ending with liqueurs, containing in between at least four successive courses, namely a starter, fish and/or meat with vegetables, cheese and dessert. Individuals called gastronomes who possess deep knowledge of the tradition and preserve its memory watch over the living practice of the rites, thus contributing to their oral and/or written transmission, in particular to younger generations.” Um.  What about poor people, fully French, who did not or could not afford all the courses.  Was the Gastronomic Meal in Lille even remotely similar to the Gastronomic Meal in Marseille?  Or what about the couscous of St. Denis?  Is that meal (and its eaters) somehow not French?  This is Intangible Heritage that teaches homogenization and disregards local contexts– more or less exactly the opposite of what the Convention seems to intend.

The Mediterranean Diet description reads like a restaurant advert or the promotion of a faddish weight-loss plan: “The Mediterranean diet is characterized by a nutritional model that has remained constant over time and space, consisting mainly of olive oil, cereals, fresh or dried fruit and vegetables, a moderate amount of fish, dairy and meat, and many condiments and spices, all accompanied by wine or infusions, always respecting beliefs of each community. However, the Mediterranean diet (from the Greek diaita, or way of life) encompasses more than just food. It promotes social interaction, since communal meals are the cornerstone of social customs and festive events. It has given rise to a considerable body of knowledge, songs, maxims, tales and legends. The system is rooted in respect for the territory and biodiversity, and ensures the conservation and development of traditional activities and crafts linked to fishing and farming” I mean, come on!  Wine or infusions?  There are many more unlump-togetherable customs here, making its sponsors Spain, Greece, Italy, and Morocco, ignore the distinctive variations that they do not share.  Is this highly generalized cluster of food habits really a single tradition? And are the countless Greek and Italian restaurants of the Western Hemisphere, Northern Europe, Asia and Australia– with their Mediterranean wall murals and faux-classical statuary part of this intangible heritage too?

Mama's Pizza, St. Paul, Minnesota USA. Authentic Intangible Heritage or not?

For all it has done to promote culture and heritage worldwide, UNESCO is in danger of packaging as “heritage” almost anything its most powerful states-parties call for– and emptying the concept of “Authenticity” of almost any meaning at all…

Selling Venice?

Is the situation described below:

a.)  A crime against World Heritage?

b.) A clever (if presently mismanaged) way of funding architectural restorations?

c.) A cultural mold spore infection from The Venetian in Las Vegas?

c.) The inevitable surface eruption of consumer desire that has animated mass cultural tourism over the years?

From The Art News issue 217, October 2010

Ads of Sighs

The huge ads proliferating in Venice, now also lit up by night, are not bringing in huge money and stretch the application of the law to the point of illegality

By Enrico Tantucci

Since 2008, more and more huge advertisements have appeared in Venice, on palaces up and down the Grand Canal and on the façades of St Mark’s Square, the Biblioteca Marciana, and the Doge’s Palace. Now they are also lit up at night to give the advertisers a bigger bang for their bucks. The price, however, is not high; it costs about €40,000 a month for three years to cover part of Doge’s Palace overlooking the lagoon and connecting with the Bridge of Sighs—less than two pages of advertising in a daily paper. And even with this money coming in, the restoration is still €600,000 short of the €2.8m needed to finish the job.

The Doges' Palace, Venice

The city council and the superintendency of architecture for Venice, which has given permission for these ads, are adamant that this is the only way to finance the restoration of historic public buildings in the city as public funds have been very short since the special financing Venice used to get has been diverted to build the barriers between the Adriatic and the lagoon (due to be completed in 2014), and the restoration budget of the ministry of culture has been cut. Despite protests by amenity groups such as Fondo Ambiente Italiano and the Association of Private Committees for Venice, mayor Giorgio Orsoni and superintendent Renata Codello announced last month that they intended to carry on with this method of raising money. The ad spaces on the Biblioteca Marciana and in St Mark’s Square have been granted in return for €3.5m to Plakativ Media, a German company that rents out spaces to agencies and here the ads are already up yet some of the restoration has not even begun…

For entire article, click here

 

Modern Druidism: What’s Continuity Got To Do With It?

Well I suppose this makes it clear that historical/archaeological authenticity and uninterrupted continuity are no longer preconditions for civil recognition of cultural traditions.  It was probably inevitable that cultural belief systems only need to be “historically themed” to be meaningful.    

The danger is, of course, our growing inability to distinguish (or even to care if there is a difference between) historical reality and historical fantasy.  I’m sure that many think that The Lord of the Rings is as old as Beowulf… And what exactly does the lead sentence “Druids have been worshipping the sun and earth for thousands of years in Europe” in the following article mean?     

From the AP Oct 3, 2010:    

Druids recognized as religion for first time in UK

By SYLVIA HUI    

LONDON — Druids have been worshipping the sun and earth for thousands of years in Europe, but now they can say they’re practicing an officially recognized religion.    

 The ancient pagan tradition best known for gatherings at Stonehenge every summer solstice has been formally classed as a religion under charity law for the first time in Britain, the national charity regulator said Saturday. That means Druids can receive exemptions from taxes on donations — and now have the same status as such mainstream religions as the Church of England.    

The move gives an old practice new validity, said Phil Ryder, the chairman of the 350-member Druid Network.    

“It will go a long way to make Druidry a lot more accessible,” he said.    

Druids have practiced for thousands of years in Britain and in Celtic societies elsewhere in Europe. They worship natural forces such as thunder and the sun, and spirits they believe arise from places such as mountains and rivers. They do not worship a single god or creator, but seek to cultivate a sacred relationship with the natural world.    

FILE - This Tuesday Aug. 10, 1999 photo from files shows Arch Druid Ed Prynn as he calls down the sun during his sun dance around a ring of stones, in St. Merryn, England. The druid dance is to celebrate the total eclipse of the sun, which is due in this part of southwest England on August 11. Druidry has been officially recognized as a religion in Britain under charity law. The Charity Commission has granted the Druid Network charitable status, giving it tax breaks and equal status to mainstream religions like Christianity. The commission said Saturday that druidry has a coherent and serious set of beliefs and that it offers a beneficial ethical framework. (AP Photo/Dave Caulkin, File)

 

Although many see them as robed, mysterious people who gather every summer solstice at Stonehenge — which predates the Druids — believers say modern Druidry is chiefly concerned with helping practitioners connect with nature and themselves through rituals, dancing and singing at stone circles and other sites throughout the country believed to be “sacred.”    

Ancient Druids were known to be religious leaders, judges and sages among the Celts during pre-Christian times, although little evidence about their lives survived. There are now various Druid orders and about 10,000 practitioners in Britain — and believers said the numbers are growing because more people are becoming aware of the importance to preserve the environment.    

The Druid Network fought for nearly five years to be recognized under the semi-governmental Charity Commission, which requires proof of cohesive and serious belief in a supreme entity and a moral framework.    

After initially rejecting the Druid Network’s application, the Charity Commission decided this week that Druidry fit the bill.    

“There is sufficient belief in a supreme being or entity to constitute a religion for the purposes of charity law,” the commission said.    

Adrian Rooke, a Druid who works as a counselor, said Druidry appeals to people who are turning away from monotheistic religions but still long for an aspect of spirituality in their lives.    

“It uplifts the spirit,” he said. “The world is running out of resources, and in that context it’s more important to people now to formulate a relationship with nature.”