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Archaeologies of Prosaic Materiality and Traumatic Heritage

This July 1942 stone marker in Oulu commemorates the 6th SS Mountain Division Nord’s time in the city (see close-up below).

Few dimensions of heritage in living memory have more power to spark our collective sociopolitical imagination and evoke personal trauma than World War II landscapes.  At the end of an otherwise non-descript dead-end in the Oulu, Finland suburbs sits a modest wartime memorial that says much about how we commemorate, remember, preserve, efface, and ignore the most complicated dimensions of that heritage.  The little monument tenaciously illuminates the area’s Nazi experience and evokes powerful social and personal traumas, even as the surrounding landscape of ephemeral wartime features risks slowly drifting into invisibility as it passes out of living memory.  It is the sort of material thing and landscape associated with very recent historical trauma that increasingly more archaeologists are examining.

Various archaeologists have turned their attention to an archaeology of the “contemporary past,” examining the politics of materiality and heritage in the memories of living people.  Alfredo Gonzalez-Ruibal paints a picture of a consciously politicized archaeology of the recent past that aspires to “haunt us” by summoning forth “the presence of the past in a vivid way.”  Gonzalez-Ruibal focuses on spaces of “abjection” that are “beyond social remembrance, where memory is erased,” historical moments that “too recent, conflicting, and repulsive to be shaped as collective memory.”  Such spaces and things are rarely part of actively accessed memory or intentional commemoration, instead largely left to gradually decay.  The Oulu memorial and a landscape of trenches, scattered landscape features, and at least one standing structure are the sort of apparently mundane things that evoke complicated and painful wartime experiences, a “vanishing present” that most of society has been reluctant to confront.

Much of this work has examined 20th-century wartime spaces that a European Association of Archaeologists panel last week referred to as “terrorscapes.”  In the hands of these archaeologists, landscapes of terror and trauma materialize various forms of violence outside the normal channels of political struggle, reaching from concentration camp and prison spaces to everyday landscapes and objects.  The EAA session chaired by Jan Kolen, Rob van der Laarse, and Marek E. Jasinski included a selection of papers on World War II concentration camps; Cold War prisons (many like the Falstad Camp in Norway were both SS concentration camps and subsequently held Nazi prisoners after the war); Anna Zalewska’s “gas-scapes” charting World War I gas attacks; and landscapes of war in places ranging from Western Bohemia to the Netherlands to Finnish Lapland.  The session is part of a shift in archaeological and heritage studies toward broad and politically reflective scholarship on 20th century wartime experience, work that has focused on Europe but has included projects in places like Canada, Africa, and the US.  Such research examines life in the face of terror as well as now-forgotten wartime landscapes and prosaic things that can evoke genuine trauma as we negotiate these complicated histories.

Archaeologists have painted a rich picture of Nazi landscapes and materiality that has most closely examined landscapes such as concentration camps and prisoner of war camps,  festival spaces, monumental sites like Nuremberg, planned communities, and plantscapes.  These spaces all share some degree of centralized planning reflecting functional, symbolic, and often ideological purposes.  Other archaeologists have examined the most prosaic dimensions of terrorscapes like the Sobibor Extermination Camp, where false teeth, souvenirs, and house and luggage keys were found across the camp and pathways to the gas chambers were archaeologically identified in 2007; the Buchenwald Concentration Camp revealed comparably modest everyday things; and in 2005 at Majdanek survivors helped archaeologists recover a series of objects buried by camp prisoners over 60 years before.

The Oulu memorial reveals how the war remains very much a part of contemporary memory and is invested in a broad range of prosaic landscapes beyond planned spaces and battlefields.  This was a point made in the EAA session by Taisto Karjalainen, who is documenting the cultural resources in Finland’s massive Lapland forests for Metsahallitus, the Finnish state-owned enterprise administering the forests.  His research in Finnish Lapland has identified a broad range of bases, scattered equipment, roadways, prison camps, and mass graves from the two phases of World War II that Finns refer to as the Continuation War and subsequent Lapland War.  Oula Seitsonin and Vesa-Pekka Herva have likewise illuminated a complex wartime landscape that included roughly 30,000 Soviet prisoners in nearly 100 Lapland prison camps doing the exceptionally arduous labor of building roads and supplying bases in northern Finland.  Their study of the Peltojoki camp recovered ski’s, gas masks, tin cans, burnt notebook binders, and ceramics destroyed when the Germans fled in 1944, reflecting much of what the Germans brought with them rather than what they may have provisioned to their Soviet prisoners.

This Finnish war experience is not especially well-understood in the US, and it is not always completely appreciated outside Finland and the Nordic world.  The Soviet Union invaded Finland in the Winter War in November, 1939, ceasing hostilities in March, 1940.  The Finns inflicted significant Soviet losses, and the Soviet attack on Finland wounded their diplomatic and military reputation, but Finland ceded roughly 11% of its territory to the Soviets to end the conflict, which included the Karelian home to 12% of the Finnish population.

The wartime landscape in Finland was changed radically by the arrival of the Germans in 1941.  Eager to regain their lost territory and apprehensive of a renewed Soviet attack, the Finns joined the Germans as co-belligerents against the Soviets between June, 1941 and September, 1944 in the Continuation War (Jatkosota).  The first German Operation Barbarossa troops in the German attack against the Soviets landed in the harbors of the Bothnian Gulf, including Oulu, on June 10, 1941.  In September, 1944 the Moscow Armistice between the Soviet Union and Finland ended the Continuation War and the Finns turned against the Germans in what is referred to as the Lapland War.  During the Lapland War the retreating Germans destroyed the northernmost Finnish network of small camps and bases, discarding equipment along their retreat, killing livestock, mining roads, and destroying virtually everything they crossed.

A close up of the Oulu marker, which reads
der 2/Pz.Jg.Abt.
Im Juli 1942

Dated July, 1942, the Oulu memorial is a rather distinctive, anonymously crafted commemoration to the 6th SS Mountain Division Nord, almost certainly carved by a soldier with the Waffen SS Division.  The little monument is quite different than a state-sanctioned marker endorsed by either the Nazis or Finns, and its preservation over the subsequent 70 years illuminates the rich range of material forms taken by wartime memory.  Bases like that in Oulu were sometimes referred to as “Little Berlins,” and in communities like Oulu Finns lived alongside Nazis in a strategic and often personally close relationship, with roughly 10,000 Finns working on Nazi construction projects and many Nazi’s paying rent to local Finnish residents.  During the Continuation War the Germans built garrison and supply bases on the outskirts of northern towns like Oulu, Tornio, and Kemi and in the existing city center of Rovaniemi.  Oulu housed the largest Waffen-SS encampments in Northern Finland, hosting military bases, hospitals, and training areas for troops.  Unlike the well-studied monumental centers of the Third Reich or sanctioned Nazi architectural forms, these distant support centers transported an idiosyncratic range of material designs reflecting the functional needs of such places.  These landscapes were shaped by a complex confluence of functional need, a Nazi desire for some forms of material regimentation, local Finnish practices, and concrete environmental conditions that required the Germans to organize themselves distinctively in places like Oulu and Lapland.   Seitsonin and Herva’s study of the Peltojoki camp in Lapland paints a picture not of a highly regimented military base but instead one that was “relatively loosely organized” with “quite insubstantial” structures despite some standardization in the portable material culture found at the site.  The Germans fled their Oulu base and port at the outset of the Lapland War, so there is no concrete archaeological evidence of the degree of regimentation in places like Oulu.

This 1942 Alpine-style SS Officers Club was subsequently a youth hostel and now serves as an Oulu fire house.

The Nazis’ presence in Oulu is now materially visible to only a reflective eye, in the form of a couple postwar monuments, at least one standing Nazi structure (a 1942 SS Officer’s Club), a fragmentary streetscape, a network of eroding wooded trenches and mortar positions, and the little Waffen memorial.  Much of the wartime landscape of support structures for the military was razed long ago, and development and the thick forest have together reclaimed much of the more ephemeral features like trenches and firing ranges associated with the Germans’ alliance with the Finns.

Some communities have chosen to efface Nazi materiality as thoroughly as possible; others have aspired to leave it an “open wound”; and many more chart a middle ground.  Many places like Oulu have the rather mundane material reminders of war, often left to abandonment, removed without any thought to their significance, or simply preserved without any especially coordinated heritage strategy.  The Waffen memorial in Oulu belongs in that latter group, moved to its present position from an adjoining corner several years ago by anonymous city staff who recognized the significance of the carved stone.  In some ways the marker’s symbolism as a personal expression of a German soldier–as opposed to a monument left by the Nazi’s–may have helped ensure that it survived since the war.  Concentration camps tell remarkably powerful stories, and many of the Nazis’ planned spaces underscore the state’s effort to use architecture, space, and things to serve the most heinous ideological and social ends.  These more modest spaces dot much of Europe, extending into the furthest reaches of Lapland, numerous unremarkable countrysides, and many other cityscapes whose rich and traumatic heritage remains nearly completely unseen.  Many archaeologists are now confronting these seemingly prosaic material things and landscapes and illuminating traumatic heritage within the very recent past.  Such work can ideally be part of or even start discussions about those dimensions of heritage and contemporary social life that we have been unable to confront.

Compare (most of these journal articles are by subscription access)

Mats Burström and Bernhard Gelderblom (2011) Dealing with difficult heritage: The case of Bückeberg, site of the Third Reich Harvest Festival Journal of Social Archaeology 11(3): 266-282.

Caroline Sturdy Colls (2012) Holocaust Archaeology: Archaeological Approaches to Landscapes of Nazi Genocide and Persecution Journal of Conflict Archaeology 7(2):70-104.

Simone Gigliotti, Marc Masurovsky, and Erik Steiner (2011) Landscapes of Experience: Representing the Evacuations from the Auschwitz Camp System during January 1945. Geographies of the Holocaust

Isaac Gilead, Yoram Haimi, and Wojciech Mazurek (2009)  Excavating Nazi Extermination Centres. Present Pasts,

Alfredo Gonzalez-Ruibal (2006) The Past is Tomorrow: Towards an Archaeology of the Vanishing Present. Norwegian Archaeological Review 39(2): 110-125.

Alfredo Gonzalez-Ruibal (2008) Time to Destroy: An Archaeology of SupermodernityCurrent Anthropology 49(2):247-279.  A non-subscription version is available on Gonzalez-Ruibal’s page.

Alfredo Gonzalez-Ruibal, Yonathan Sahle and Xurxo Ayán Vila (2011) A social archaeology of colonial war in Ethiopia. World Archaeology 43(1): 40-65. Non-subscription, pre-publication version.

Gert Groning (1992) The Feeling for Landscape—A German ExampleLandscape Research 17(3):

Gert Groning (2002) Teutonic Myth, Rubble, and Recovery: Landscape Architecture in Germany.  In The Architecture of Landscape, 1940-1960, edited by Marc Trieb, pp.120-145.  University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.

Joshua Hagen (2004) The Most German of Towns: Creating an Ideal Nazi Community in Rothenburg ob der TauberAnnals of the Association of American Geographers 94(1):207-227.

Jan Kolen (2009). The “anthropologization” of archaeological heritage.  Archaeological Dialogues, 16:209-225.

Sharon Macdonald (2006) Words in Stone?: Agency and Identity in a Nazi Landscape Journal of Material Culture 11(1/2):105-126.

Sharon Macdonald (2006) Mediating Heritage: Tour guides at the former Nazi Party Rally Grounds, Nuremberg.  Tourist Studies 6(2): 119-138

Adrian Myers (2008) Between Memory and Materiality: An Archaeological Approach to Studying the Nazi Concentration Camps Journal of Conflict Archaeology 4(1): 231-245.

David Passmore and Stephan Harrison (2008) Landscapes of the Battle of the Bulge: WW2 Field Fortifications in the Ardennes Forrest of Belgium Journal of Conflict Archaeology 4(1-2):87-107.

William H. Rollins (1995) Whose Landscape?: Technology, Fascism, and Environmentalism on the National Socialist AutobahnAnnals of the Association of American Geographers 85(3):

Oula Seitsonin and Vesa-Pekka Herva (2011) Forgotten in the Wilderness: WWII German PoW Camps in Finnish Lapland.  In Archaeologies of Internment, edited by Adrian Myers and Gabriel Moshenska, pp. 171-190.  Springer, New York.

Frank Uekotter (2007) Native Plants: A Nazi Obsession? Landscape Research 32(3)

Timo Ylimaunu, Paul R. Mullins, James Symonds, Markku Kuorilehto, Hilkka Heikkilä, and Siiri Tolonen (In preparation)  Memory of barracks – World War II German ‘Little Berlins’ and post-war urbanization in Northern Finnish towns.