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 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.

A Facelift for Auschwitz

Ironically this is precisely the same challenge facing almost every site of memory– sad or happy, triumphant or tragic.  The effort to make time and deterioration stand still, without considering the ever-changing context for the preserved site makes the actual place more and more “antique” and less and less resonant with the present.

There are no easy answers for the role of heritage in contemporary society, except perhaps to wonder about the ways that traditional physical forms of “world heritage attractions” may tend to museum-ize, routinize, and perhaps even trivialize what need to be powerful memories– even after all the original rememberers are gone.

Tourists at Auschwitz I, August 2004. Photo: Lars De Jaegher, Ename Center

Latest news from    December 17, 2010

Germany Announced It will Give $80 Million in the Next Year to Fix Auschwitz Memorial

By Monika Scislowska, Associated Press

WARSAW, POLAND (AP).- Germany pledged Wednesday to pay euro60 million ($80 million) over the next year into a fund for Auschwitz-Birkenau to preserve the barracks, gas chambers and other evidence of Nazi crimes at the former death camp, some of which are deteriorating to the point of collapse.

Germany is the largest of several countries contributing to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Fund, which was set up in 2009 to gather money to maintain the 472-acre expanse made up of the original camp, Auschwitz, the nearby satellite camp of Birkenau. The camp was operated by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland during World War II.

More than 1 million people, mostly Jews, died in the camp’s gas chambers or through forced labor, disease or starvation.

“Germany acknowledges its historic responsibility to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive and to pass it on to future generations,” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in a statement. “Auschwitz-Birkenau is synonymous with the crimes of the Nazis. Today’s memorial recalls these crimes.”

Museum director Piotr Cywinski first issued a worldwide appeal for help in 2008, saying that euro120 million was needed to repair the memorial site, which stands as one of the most powerful symbols of the Holocaust.

The barracks, gas chambers and other buildings are in need of urgent repair, having been worn down by the ravages of time and the pressure of more than 1 million visitors a year…

For full story, click here.

Earlier essay on the issues from the New York Sun    January 10, 2007

Restoration or Preservation?


By John Moretti

Is Auschwitz a tourist attraction to be updated with the times, or a solemn burial ground to be left untouched? An international debate has focused on this question ever since the new director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, Piotr Cywinski, announced plans to renovate and remodel parts of the infamous death camp.

Controversy surrounding Mr. Cywinski’s proposal was sparked by an article in Ha’aretz, following his visit in October to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. The article described a “beautification” of Auschwitz.

“I think they got the impression I was going to turn it into a kind of Disneyland,” Mr. Cywinski said. “I will not alter anything, only the exhibition.”

Worries swirled among some former prisoners that the historical integrity of the place would be compromised, and historians posed the question: If you replace even one piece of rusted barbed wire, can the site still be called authentic?

“There are some people who say you should put salt in the earth, so nothing will grow,” the incoming chairman of the International Task Force on Holocaust Education and also the director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, David Marwell, said. “But if you’re going to let people in, you have to make the site accessible.”

Mr. Cywinski, 34, inherited a delicate task when he was installed as director over the summer to prepare for the museum’s first-ever facelift as it approaches its 60th anniversary this coming July. His plans to redesign exhibits that focus on prisoner life, housed in the original Auschwitz camp, and to continue structural upgrades to the crematoria in Birkenau — the massive and sprawling camp three kilometers away, where most of Auschwitz’s prisoners were put to death — were approved in December by the International Auschwitz Council, a group composed of politicians, historians, and Holocaust survivors. Since then, the director has been circling the globe, building support and elaborating on the project.

Like any other museum curator and guardian of a historical artifact, Mr. Cywinski needs to please a number of diverse interests, and regularly fends off charges of revisionism. This balancing act is especially challenging because Auschwitz is one of the most soul-stirring shrines in the world.

“It is a place upon which the entire world is focused,” Mr. Cywinski said during the holiday break, immediately after returning to Poland from Washington, D.C., where he spelled out details of his plans at the United States Holocaust Memorial. “The job requires taking into account a lot of perspectives, but I must prepare for future generations.”

For full story, click here.

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If the medium = message, does the form of the heritage site = the memory?

Pretty Brutal, No?

Human Dignity can never be divided or based on disrespect.


Barbarism in the name of “Tolerance” continues in Jerusalem.  How ashamed of our selfishness and self-serving hypocrisy we will all be when we finally come to our senses– or when the flow of History demands that we do.  

Just look at this.  

And look at my earlier posts of Feb 10 and Feb 12 for some context. 

Are the Criteria for World Heritage Changing?

Is the international beauty contest of natural and historical wonders also becoming an international platform for moral redress against the crimes of others?   Is Heritage itself being redefined? 

From  China Radio International (  

Unit 731 Ruins: World Heritage or Not?

    2010-07-15 10:38:27      Web Editor: Zhang Xu

China wants to turn the ruins of Unit 731, a camp where the Japanese Army conducted grisly human experiments as part of its germ warfare program, into a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site. However, the application has aroused debate in China, the China Business Times reports.  

According to the report, Unit 731 was based in the Pingfang District of Harbin in northeast China’s Heilongjiang province, and the use of its biological weapons during World War II resulted in possibly as many as 200,000 deaths of military personnel and civilians in China. The authorities of Pingfang District plan to triple the size of its Unit 731 memorial and turn it into a park to be registered as a World Heritage Site.  

”]The report noted that the ruins still fall short in several key requirements for the Convention Concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage, and local authorities are stepping up efforts to meet the requirements.  

Jin Chenmin, an expert on modern history, told the newspaper that the Unit 731 ruins should become a base for worldwide anti-fascist education.  

“The ruins meet the list’s criteria, as it is associated with events of outstanding universal significance, just as Auschwitz in Poland and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial in Japan are on the World Heritage Site list. As the world’s largest germ warfare program site, Unit 731 should also qualify since the remaining ruins can serve as a reminder of the horrible atrocities Japanese troops committed in China” Jin said.  

However, a news commentator named Yan Yang disagreed with the application, considering the Unit 731 ruins as an evil legacy.  

“The Unit 731 ruins reflect bloody culture and it is not proper to list it as World Heritage.” Yan said.  

The report also said that some experts thought that the local authorities’ main motive in applying may be the tourism and economic effects of becoming a World Heritage Site.  

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And note that one of the proporties being presented for inscription to the World Heritage List this summer is Bikini Atoll.  



A Long Way From Plymouth Rock


Guardsmen walk off Blanket Hill at Kent State University as civilians come to the aid of one of the wounded after the shootings on May 4, 1970.


 If anything symbolizes the turn in “official” heritage from tangible monuments to intangible significance, the recent inscription of the 1970 Kent State shootings during an anti-Vietnam protest on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places has to be one of the clearest signs of a change in attitude.      

All there is there is a solitary “pagoda,” some sidewalks, and a great expanse of grass.  It isn’t the architectural history that makes this place significant.  It is the significance that makes this place a site of heritage.      

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Kent State shootings site added to National Register of Historic Places

The site of the Kent State shootings on May 4, 1970, has been a local landmark for nearly 40 years — attracting scores of visitors annually.      

Now it is officially a national historic site.      

The Ohio Historic Preservation Office announced today that the site has been added to the National Register of Historic Places.      

Franco Ruffini, deputy state historic preservation officer, said the site made the National Register because of its ”significance to national history.”      

Four students died and nine students were wounded when Ohio National Guardsmen fired into a crowd of people during a protest of the U.S. invasion of Cambodia.      


Two students walk past the spot where Ohio National Guard troops fired on student anti-war protesters. AP Photo/Tony Dejak


The historic site includes 17.24 acres of the KSU campus comprising three areas: the Commons, Blanket Hill and the Southern Terrace. It covers the areas where the guardsmen, student protesters and observers moved from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. May 4, 1970.      

”What happened here at Kent State was historic, and it’s appropriate that it receives this special designation,” said Kent State University President Lester A. Lefton in a prepared statement. ”The National Register recognizes those places that are significant in American history and culture, and the May 4 site definitely qualifies for this recognition.”      

For full article click here.

Heritage as Worthwhile Reflection

There are so many cases of the abuse, misuse, and cynical manipulation of traces from the past, that I have to stress something that offers at least a glimmer of hope.

Yes, there were abuses, bureaucratic boondoggles, and scientific wrangles over the excavation and commemoration of the African Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan

But as I look at the conflicts between heritage administrations and local communities all over the world about the proper regard for human dignity and historical reflection, I cannot think of a better example of a project that, at the end of the day, benefitted everyone.

A Burial Ground and Its Dead Are Given Life

From the New York Times  Feb 26
By Edward Rothstein

Cemeteries are at least as much for the living as the dead. They are the locus of tribute and memory; they affirm connections to a place and its past.

So in 1991, when during construction of a General Services Administration office building in Lower Manhattan, graves were discovered 24 feet below ground, and when those remains led to the discovery of hundreds of other bodies in the same area, and when it was determined that these were black New Yorkers interred in what a 1755 map calls the “Negros Burial Ground,” the earth seemed to shake from more than just machinery. The evidence created a conceptual quake, transforming how New York history is understood and how black New Yorkers connect to their past.

That is a reason why Saturday’s opening of the African Burial Ground Visitor Center, near where these remains were reinterred, is so important. Among the scars left by the heritage of slavery, one of the greatest is an absence: where are the memorials, cemeteries, architectural structures or sturdy sanctuaries that typically provide the ground for a people’s memory?…

… The new visitor center, inside the federal building that was ultimately constructed over a portion of the excavation (the other part became a burial site and memorial), is meant to explain the site’s significance — not a simple task, because the passions stirred by the discovery were not just historical, but also personal. There was a felt connection to the people, unearthed in their disintegrating coffins, who in the early decades of the city’s settlement were often forced into its construction. A sacral regard for the dead was joined with a sense of identification and continuity…

…So there is still much more to be understood about the history of slavery and black Americans in New York. But in the meantime the burial ground gives back to both the “descendant community” and to everybody else a sense that we are all arising out of a more complex and painful past than we have often imagined.

Click here for entire story

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Note the contrast with the last post about the “Tomb Economy” in rural China…

Wedding Bells at a Site of Conscience…

Valentines couples get hitched at Mandela’s prison

(AFP) – 3 days ago

ROBBEN ISLAND, South Africa — South African icon Nelson Mandela’s former prison Robben Island held its tenth annual Valentine’s Day wedding ceremony on Sunday in which 25 couples tied the knot.

Dressed in wedding finery, the group travelled by ferry to the island 12 kilometres (seven miles) off Cape Town where they exchanged wedding vows and rings days after South Africa marked Mandela’s 20th year as a free man.

 “This island has a history of pain. You are all changing history today,” Robben Island museum tourism services senior manager Winston Tsematse told the group.

Sonia Sauls, 49, and Charmaine Weber, 34, whom organisers said were the annual event’s first same-sex newly weds, were among those to say “I do” in the small island chapel bedecked for February 14 with red and white decorations.

“I nearly cried. I couldn’t believe it, that we’re going to get married and especially at Robben Island,” said Weber after the ceremony.

One of South Africa’s major tourist sites, the island has hosted the annual Valentine’s Day event since 2000 with couples taking their vows in succession…

A Museum of Tolerance?

The hypocrisy, double moral standards, and refusal of the Israeli authorities to be the impartial stewards of the country’s entire cultural and religious heritage could not be clearer.   Whatever one thinks of the idea of a new “Museum of Tolerance” in Jerusalem– a city more appropriate perhaps as the home for a Museum of Intolerance– its location at the site of a historic Muslim cemetery is a sign of how utterly empty the museum’s purported message has become– and how hollow President Shimon Peres’s rhetoric of the museum offering “an eternal message of understanding, togetherness and unity” now sounds.

Despite the indefatigable PR and fund-raising efforts of Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and “dean” of the LA-based Simon Wiesenthal Institute, the usual bombastic rhetoric of Prime Minister Netanyahu, and the support of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Jerusalem Museum plan has already acquired a bad odor as the sudden departure of celebrity architect Frank Gehry last month testifies. 

The currently circulating petition to stop the desecration of the graves (in the same way that the desecration of ancient graves in Barcelona, Toledo, Tarrega, and Malta have been opposed on religious and moral grounds) should be supported by all people of good will.


The Perfect Storm

My host at the Institute for Asian Cultures at the Sophia University in Tokyo– whose research theme this year is “Nationalism and Cultural Heritage”– urged me to visit Hiroshima, and I’m grateful that he did.     

The name “Hiroshima,” like those of Auschwitz, Treblinka, Dachau, and more recently Srebrenica, Halabja, Kigali, and Darfur are conversation stoppers, bringing either a nervous change of subject or futile expressions of collective guilt and/or grief.                            

Yet Hiroshima, in the bustling, busy present, is much lighter and more beautiful than I imagined.  Unlike the grim, gritty frozen un-reality of Auschwitz or the still raw rage and sadness of Srebenica, this western Japanese port city calmly goes about its business, as a city not only with a UNESCO World Heritage site, outdoor morality classroom, and formal memorial to the victims of war—but with a cause.     

Hiroshima in the morning


 At lunchtime, on the bridge that links “Peace Island” to the east side of the city, the white-coated doctors and nurses of a local hospital solicited signatures from passers-by for a petition to support the city’s 2009 Peace Declaration to ban all nuclear arms.                                

Yes, we’ve all seen and heard it before.  Nothing special about that.  But at Hiroshima, inside a strikingly modern museum, an extraordinarily powerful narrative unfolds—illustrated with facts, models, photos, documents, seared children’s clothing, grotesquely melted artifacts, and irradiated human flesh.                                

That story is how a medium-sized industrial city both embodied and was incinerated by runaway nationalism and regimented, industrialized terror and violence of the modern world.  And it happened so suddenly:  at 8:15am on August 6, 1945, when a US air force B-29 called the Enola Gay released a newly perfected atom bomb and detonated it precisely 2000 feet above the city’s heart.                                

Everyone knows that general story; Wikipedia can add most of the other relevant facts-and-figure details.  What I want to speak of here is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum’s interpretation of the meaning of that event—which is one of the finest public presentations at a “site of conscience” that I have ever seen.                                

The original museum, designed in a strikingly modern style, opened a scant ten years after the bombing, as the “Memorial Museum of Atom Bombed Relics” on an island in the river whose buildings had been levelled by the bomb.  It was part of a larger peace park, yet its exhibits– like the A-bomb itself– were designed for their shock and awe effect.    

The tatters and ruins, the watches frozen precisely at 8:15am, the burnt and bloody children’s clothing, melted housewares, grisly photos of radiation burn victims, and even shreds of the victims’ bodies are all still  there, of course, as incomparably graphic illustrations of the effects of nuclear devastation.    

But today’s renamed and renovated Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum (opened in 1995 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the bombing) gives those relics a context, a story, that shows a seemingly unstoppable process of dehmanization– a perfect storm of morally unbridled technological development that began in the late 19th century and reached its climax at 8:15am on August 6, 1945– in which a modest fishing port became an industrial city, an industrial military center, and eventually the ultimate target in an industrially designed war.  

原爆ドーム Genbaku Dōmu


How ironic that one of the only buildings in the city to survive the blast was the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, where the products of Hiroshima’s laboratories and factories were once proudly displayed.  As an architectural monument it is a rather ho-hum example of early twentieth-century commercial style.  But as an iconic symbol of the incinerated lives of those caught up willingly or forcibly in the race to build ever more powerful things, regiment lives, and concentrate power ever more intensely, it is, even as a crumbling hulk, an industrial exhibition hall indeed.  It was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1996.                     

The Dome and the museum do not look backward only, but remember forward, urging action.  Its story does not end, as usual for a heritage site, in the relationship between past and present, between former crimes or achievements and the society we have built today.  The story does not end so neatly, but narratively extends its “history” into the uncertain future that humanity will make for itself.