The Peep Show of Death: Televising Human Remains
In the waning moments of World War II the Soviet Army launched a massive Baltic offensive, and the German Army Group Courland was among the Nazi units that became isolated along the eastern front until the surrender in May 1945. Between its formation in October 1944 and the surrender in May 1945, six major engagements were fought by the Army Group, with about 189,000 Germans surrendering to the Soviets. Like every wartime landscape, the region was littered with material culture, ranging from arms and vehicles to human remains, and like many World War II landscapes this relatively recent material heritage has long been pilfered by collectors. The excavators who seek out the material remains of the war for pillage and profit are often referred to as “black diggers,” in contrast to “white diggers” who are working to recover wartime dead in places like the Eastern Front, where perhaps four million dead remain missing in action.
The assault on the remains of the Army Group Courland is now somewhat surprisingly being spearheaded by National Geographic, which is promoting its alarming reality show “Nazi War Diggers.” A host of archaeologists immediately responded to a video from the show that featured human remains recovery that broke from all standard archaeological recovery methods and most standards of human dignity, let alone archaeological ethics (and the channel hastily removed the video and posted an awkward defense). The show features several avocational collectors (including a war artifact dealer) superficially committed to preserving the remains of the war, including human remains.
Shows that tear bottles and bullets out of archaeological context violate archaeological ethics because they make no effort to systematically interpret the material record and they quite often recover things simply for commercial benefit. Reducing human bodies to the same status as bottles to be trafficked online has consequential methodological, ethical, and moral implications alike. For better than a century archaeologists did excavate human remains, consigning many to boxes in storage and displaying others, suggesting that this was pure scholarship and inelegantly avoiding our deep-seated emotional attraction to human remains. It is not really surprising that no other material thing is as fascinating as human remains, and our curiosity about the rich and complicated stories told by the bodies of the dead in places like the eastern front is perfectly understandable. Nevertheless, the dead have genuine connections to us in the present-day world: bodies are linked to descendant communities who feel some moral responsibility for safeguarding them, and in the absence of descendants most of us feel some comparable moral responsibility to preserve the dignity of the departed by preserving their stories and shepherding their remains.
Systematic archaeological recovery of human bodies is methodologically sophisticated and painstaking, and in most of the world it is a licensed activity because a body is an enormously complicated artifact. The archaeological excavation of human remains in even the best-preserved conditions is an exacting process of recovering skeletal material that can be highly fragmented and unevenly preserved, and in most contexts it includes artifacts that were deposited alongside a body. These are all part of the record archaeologists use to tell the stories of people who in many cases may always remain largely anonymous to us, but their bodies provide a final testament to the life they led and the scientific process ideally restores some dignity by documenting their life narrative and returning them to rest.
In National Geographic’s telling, human remains excavations are simply the display of skulls conveniently wrested from the eastern European landscape. What is perhaps most alarming about National Geographic’s new foray into shallow archaeological programming is the reduction of human remains to simply another thing. National Geographic has long understood the power of visuality, but this crass public display of human remains indulges our curiosity without providing any dignity or depth. Our fascination with these dead soldiers is not something we should necessarily disavow, but for nearly all of us it is a fascination with the dead themselves. At some level, our curiosity should lead to an acknowledgement of our moral responsibility to the dead, not simply the moments of death and the condition of an anonymous soldier’s body more than a half-century later.
National Geographic is hoping to exploit and thrive on our fascination with the tales of human sorrow and terror that were experienced along the eastern front, and their fixation on these dead as “Nazis” (instead of Germans with descendant communities) clumsily attempts to sanction this grave-digging. However, this show has no evidence it will tell the narrative of these long-dead soldiers, it simply indulges our fascination with mortality and the material culture of death. Recovery of lost soldiers does indeed provide a mechanism that respects their dignity, but not if we spend the moments of recovery displaying the body as a shallow visual mechanism in an undignified peep show.
Nazi War Diggers image from Powered By Osteons