Incomprehensible Heritage: Archaeology of Concentration Camps

Flossenburg Castle sits in the background overlooking these SS officers guarding captive laborers in the Flossenburg Concentration Camp quarry.

Today Flossenburg Castle is an impressive granite rubble ruin lording over the northern Bavarian town, which has been home to a quarry industry since the medieval period.  Between 1938 and 1945 that labor was done by Nazi prisoners in the Flossenburg “protective custody” camp.  Roughly 100 satellite camps dotted the landscape around Flossenburg in a network of labor, custody, and death camps that were part of a vast swath of such camps reaching throughout contemporary Germany and Austria.

The conventional historic site experience clarifies historical events, moments, and figures and underscores if not resolves their significance and placement in a grand historical narrative.  Weaving these narratives in concrete landscapes lends them a unique spatial immediacy that reduces how we distance such places and events in time, so they are often more emotionally powerful than even the most thoughtful text narrative.  In many ways camps share that immediacy with other historic sites: The sheer numerical horrors of genocide risk remaining abstract to many people, but such quantifiable and temporally if not geographically distant trauma is much more difficult to dehumanize in the heart of a preserved camp.  Nevertheless, genocide on such a scale remains impossible to “resolve” or to a certain extent “explain” in a wholly satisfying way.

Looking through Flossenburg’s former camp gate onto the roll call ground.

Flossenburg very effectively provides stark descriptive detail acknowledging the behavioral atrocities of captors and their state; the sheer demographic weight of genocide; the material culture of camp soldiers and prisoners; and the complex landscape of camp labor and imprisonment that reached well beyond the confines of contemporary camp boundaries.  Perhaps the argument that “we must never forget” remains the justifiable pedagogical goal of such camps and landscapes of trauma, but much of the effect of camp visits is to induce incomprehensible and inexpressible shock.  That is, from the distance of time, geography, and culture (in my case, speaking as an American), the holocaust is a bounded event with specific demographics, clear narrative foci, a spatially circumscribed place, and a series of agents (some human—like Nazi party ideologues and camp soldiers—and others structural and social—ethnic tensions in inter-war Europe, economic depressions following World War I, and so on).  When that narrative is told in the context of a camp landscape, though, in many ways it remains incomprehensible and indefinable.  There is not really a conventional pedagogical goal addressed by camps but instead a sober historical and spatial experience that requires no especially coherent and immediate response beyond fostering a deeply rooted reflection.

The execution area sat in the detention courtyard and originally held gallows and was the scene of tortures and murders of captives.

Following visits to Flossenburg Concentration Camp Memorial and Mauthausen Camp Memorial within a week, people persistently have asked me “what I thought,” driven by a desire to turn their own mostly inexpressible sentiments into a concrete set of conclusions that logically and rationally resolve a human experience without any clear logic or rationality.  This is not a trauma completely unique to the camps—landscapes of warfare dot the globe, many involving horrific homicidal mania uncomfortably akin to the World War II experience—but the preserved camp spaces do provide a landscape to reflect on the depth of the trauma attached to the holocaust, persistently pushing the reality back into collective consciousness where other instances of terror and trauma have receded in memory and are masked in space.

The Mauthausen quarry today. SS soldiers pushed captives off the sheer wall, referring to it as the “parachutists’ wall.”

Archaeology at these camps is among the discipline’s most compelling examples of the power of material culture to evoke the depths of terror and say something truly consequential.  The Austrian camp Mauthausen was based near a granite quarry, much as Flossenburg.  After 1942 Flossenburg prisoners worked on arms production for the Messerschmitt company, as did captives at Mauthausen, and both camps were part of a complex network of smaller camps: nearly 100 sub-camps reached out from Flossenburg, and Mauthausen was supported by the massive Gusen camp and probably 60 more subcamps.  The camps were spatial nodes in a landscape of terror that canvassed nearly all of contemporary Germany and Austria.

The walls and one of the towers along Mauthausen’s massive perimeter.

Like Flossenburg, Mauthausen is set in a picturesque spot that is today cleared of a vast number of camp structures and nearly all the powerful sensory cues of camps, which were confined and dirty places with the sounds of labor and trauma and the smells associated with work, refuse, and death.  In Mauthausen’s truly beautiful Austrian countryside, it is difficult to comprehend such horror in what is now a well-manicured, even peaceful place, so archaeology can contribute to a narrative that firmly roots these camps in human horror by documenting the everyday world of the many lives that intersected in such places.  University of Vienna archaeologist Claudia Theune has been part of a team of scholars conducting excavations at Matthausen, and she recognizes that archaeological interpretation can begin to evoke that landscape’s complexity and breadth beyond existing fence lines, watchtowers, crematories, and post-war memorials, revealing much about the lives of captives and captors alike.  Mauthausen is currently undergoing a significant revision of its interpretive spaces that aspires to provide an increasingly reflective and challenging experience, and archaeology and buildings archaeology have been significant dimensions of that design.

This slope contained a dense ash deposit formed from the cremations of thousands of people burnt in the Mauthausen crematory.

Few archaeological deposits at Mauthausen are more compelling than a seemingly non-descript slope along a fence line outside the camp.  An electric fence covered one side of the central camp, with the other sides ringed by massive stone walls.  Outside this electric fence a slope referred to as the “ash heap” was the final resting place of cremated remains intermingled with a variety of camp refuse.  Core drillings established the depth of the cremation deposits, and those human remains were immediately returned to the mass grave.  Many such camps todays are scattered with human remains, a reality that archaeologists can assess, but one that is challenging to interpret.  Few archaeological artifacts in any context are more powerful than human remains, and in Mauthausen they are especially sobering reminders of the scope of terror imposed in these camps.

These hand-tooled utensils from Flossenburg are among the personal effects attesting to the everyday lives of captives.

Archaeology can document and reconstruct the camp’s vast, now-dismantled landscape of soldiers’ barracks, support buildings, spatial features (e.g., trash pits), human remains, post-war commemorative memorials, and post-war camp modifications in a rigorous and reflective analysis.  Increasingly such archaeological scholarship is shaping the interpretation of camp spaces in particular and wartime landscapes in general (compare the projects at Sobibor; Auschwitz; Sachsenhausen; Majdanek; Adrian Myers’ review of camp archaeologies; and Isaac Gilead, Yoram Haimi, and Wojcieh Mazurek’s survey of extermination camp projects).  Beyond the dignified recognition of lives lost in such places, much of what archaeology offers can potentially humanize the range of people in camps, including captors like the SS soldiers at Mauthausen who tortured strangers, pushed many people referred to as “parachutists” off quarry cliffs, and lorded over 100,000 murders.  Archaeology can systematically document the everyday life of such captors and begin to address how they experienced power over captives.  This may not un-do the incomprehensibility of the camps at all, and its humanization of soldiers may be especially unsettling as it complicates caricatures of evil and potentially evokes unexpected affinity; that is, the everyday life of captors is potentially mundane in many of the same myriad rhythms of life as anyone else, which only deepens the incomprehensible shock of what occurred in such places.  For the thousands of captives who did not survive these places, the most modest material things that archaeology recovers—like shoes, keys, jewelry, combs—begin to undermine the powerless anonymity the Nazis hoped to impose on their captives long after their deaths and make concentration camp archaeologies one of the discipline’s most consequential contributions to healing.

Posted on November 19, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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