THE REAL COST OF BLACK DIGGING: A personal view by Military Historian Robin Schäfer

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Feldwebel-Heinrich-Gilgenba
The face of a victim of “Black Digging”,  Feldwebel Heinrich Gilgenbach of Pionier-Battalion 291 KIA near Krasnaya-Ghorka, March 1942  [Copyright:  the Robin Schäfer collection]

 

German Military Historian Robin Schäfer is the grand nephew of a German soldier killed on the Eastern Front in March 1942.  In this personal view he describes the emotional cost to one family of “black digging” and describes his fear that, far from saving history as the producers claim, “Battlefield Recovery” is an invitation to the ignorant and the unscrupulous which could put that history and even the peace of mind of other families of all nations who still grieve for the missing, at risk.

 

 

In March 1942 my great grandparents were informed that their eldest son, Heinrich, had been killed in action during a patrol operation in the area of Krasnaya-Ghorka, in the swamps and pine forests south of Leningrad in Russia. He was the first of their three sons they would lose during the war, the other two were killed in action in 1944 and 1945.

They were told that Heinrich had been buried on a divisional burial ground in a place known as Glubotschka, 12 kilometres south-west of Tosno. For my great grandparents these names where just as alien and difficult to place as they were for me, when I started researching Heinrich’s military career in 2006. While during the time of Heinrich’s death, the cemetery lay more or less safe behind the German lines, that changed when the Soviets opened their offensive to relieve Leningrad in January 1944. Glubotschka was overrun and it soon became forgotten, fell into disarray and was reclaimed by nature shortly afterwards. As the village itself, like so many others in the region, was never reoccupied after the war it did not take long to disappear off the maps completely. Glubotschka became the name of a region, which could only found on some obscure, Soviet era, maps. After about 2 years of work, using veterans accounts and data found in a number of German regimental war diaries I managed to pinpoint the location on modern satellite maps. In 2008 some friends in St. Petersburg did me an incredible favour and travelled into the wasteland of swamps and forests south of the city in the hopes to find the place where Heinrich had been buried.

I was over the moon when a couple of days later they send me some photographs by email and the announcement that they had found the remains of the village and the German cemetery which was still marked by three large earthen tumuli. I didn’t take long until I was able to spend a week in St. Petersburg to have a look at the location myself. My Russian friends had found the correct spot. It was untouched, overgrown by grass and pine trees and the graves mounds clearly visible.

When I returned to Germany I sent a letter to the German war graves commission (the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge or VDK) informing them about our discovery. Finally, after all those decades we would be able to bring at least one of my grandmother’s brothers home to Germany. Personally I never got any direct feedback on my letter, so it came as a bit of surprise when in 2011 I read that the Volksbund had staged an expedition to Glubotschka to exhume the soldiers buried there. What I read came as a bit of a shock as the article in the Volksbund magazine spoke of an expedition to a “partly plundered” cemetery. My fears were confirmed in a telephone call where I was told that the cemetery had indeed been plundered. The team (consisting of German Reservists and serving Russian soldiers) had been able to exhume 21 bodies (out of more than 120 that should have been there). They had found two Erkennungsmarken (dog-tags). 19 of the individuals found could not be identified. The remains of the other 99+ German soldiers had been strewn across the landscape.

My granduncle Heinrich had not been identified. In the years between my visit and that of the exhumation party Russian black-diggers had struck and by retrieving valuables, equipment and dog-tags had efficiently destroyed the identities of more than 119 German soldiers. By stealing their names and identities they were killed a second time. They are now gone forever.
Even though Heinrich was ‘lucky’ enough to have been buried in a registered burial place in 1942 (something denied to his two brothers who lie where they fell in the steppes of Russia and a field somewhere in Silesia), he has disappeared. His grandson will never have the chance to visit his grave.

His dog-tag, like so many others, might have ended up on E-Bay. It might have fetched a price 15 or 20 Dollars and maybe it forms part of someone’s WW2 relic collection right now.
Nearly a million German soldiers still rest on forgotten cemeteries and battlefield all over what was once Soviet Russia. Every German family has a father, a grandfather, an uncle or brother who never came back from the Ostfront and who is now resting in a shell crater or ditch somewhere in Stalingrad, Demjansk, Courland, the Crimea and in countless other places where German soldiers fought and died. Every year thousands of those men are effectively killed a second time by those who make a good living by selling their equipment, their medals and their dog-tags. Whereas in the past decades these ‘black-diggers’ have been primarily Russian, a quick look on YouTube and various “collectors” boards on the internet shows that today their ranks a swelled by metal detecting collectors from Holland, Great Britain, France, America and even Germany. The severity of damage that is done by those people can’t be described by words.

I was among those who fought against the screening of “NAZI WAR DIGGERS” when it was first announced in 2014 and I happily joined the fray again, when I learned that Channel5 was to show in Britain under the new name of “BATTLEFIELD RECOVERY”.

I can hardly describe how much this show offends me, so I try to sum my main concerns as briefly as possible.

I know that the producers of the show worked with semi-official organisations in Poland and Latvia (Pomost and Legenda). Having witnessed the exhumation of WW2 casualties myself, I know that the methods used by groups such as this are probably not state-of-the-art archaeological techniques. Looking at the mass of bodies (both Russian and German) that are still out there, these groups work to achieve quick results, mainly trying to establish an identification of remains found. Yes, sometimes their heavy machinery is parked on the lip of a hole and yes, they do not usually wear helmets or protective shoes. Nevertheless, they do a great job for both the German and the Russian war graves commission. I do not have a problem with that. I also do not mind that the military equipment these groups find might not necessarily end up in Museums. Military museums all over Russia, Latvia and Poland are crammed with rusty plunder and it is no wonder that they are not interested in yet another rusty steel helmet. I do not have a problem with that either.

What I have a problem with is, that instead of producing a documentary on the great work these groups do, ClearStory chose instead to create to what amounts to a series of advertisements promoting the illegal digging of relics in the greatest, free of charge, militaria store in the world. And not only that, instead of using the experienced professional archaeologists they had actually approached for advice and then ignored, ClearStory made the insulting choice of choosing a renowned dealer of ‘Nazi’ militaria and a bunch of British metal detectorists with no relevant experience whatsoever to host the show. By dropping them into locations chosen by the professionals of Legenda and Pomost and by making it appear that it is actually almost entirely them (and only them) who are doing the digging, they have created what is to me and many other people a cheap and nasty piece of television that is likely to tempt dozens of metal detectorists to go ‘over there’ to dig a steel helmet and a cool machine gun themselves.

The show has zero educational value. I failed to hear any mention on how many millions of Russian and German men are still out there in unmarked graves. I failed to hear any credible description of the Courland battles, or the horrible massacres that happened in and around Poznan in January 1945. The hosts of the show have no link to the men whose remains they are digging up. Faced with a complex set of human remains, or an unexploded munition they appear utterly clueless (which is possibly because they are indeed utterly clueless about the real meanings and dangers of these things). In fact all too often they behave like children playing soldiers, treating guns as big toys and the fact that Herr Gottlieb manages to force himself to squeeze out a few tears for the camera whenever he handles a skull or bone does not make it any better. For me it makes it even worse.

Not only due to my family history, but also due to my job as a military historian, I identify with the fallen and their families. I have spent unmeasurable time looking at the faces of the missing in the photographic registers published by the German Red Cross in the early 1950s. Millions of faces, millions of stories of men whose final resting place is unknown and whose identities are wiped out by illegal digging. Illegal digging, which is (in my opinion and that of many experts who are not heard in the films) only promoted by “BATTLEFIELD RECOVERY”.

This must not be allowed to continue.

Photographic-lists-of-the-m

Two pages of lost lives pointing to grieving families, a two page spread  from the German Red Cross list of the missing.
The 225 volumes contain the names and photographs of 1.4 million missing soldiers [Courtesy:  the Robin Schäfer collection]
13 Comments
  1. Bill Callaghan

    January 13, 2016 at 11:46

    This really is heartbreaking.
    I’m disgusted by these pedlars of stolen valour, the sites need protecting and the laws of dealing with antiquities amending to make their plunder and dealing a crime.
    Sadly there’ll always be a market for militaria and audience for some Walter Mitty professing his passion for it.

  2. Kenneth Thomas

    January 13, 2016 at 19:08

    Channel 5 should hang its head in shame if this programme is shown. The programmers should look into their heart’s its wrong to glorify grave robbers the only people who should do this work are the trained experts who are well trained and sponsored by the relevant government departments in Germany and Russia.

  3. Renie

    January 13, 2016 at 20:39

    I’m not in the viewing area for this show but I assume they have companies advertising on it. A boycott should be done of all the advertisers.

  4. Will Mathieson

    January 14, 2016 at 02:00

    Site locations should not be revealed to the public. Any digging and exhuming of bodies must be done correctly so identification is possible and they can be placed at rest again. There is more than enough militaria out there that rusted buried items do not need to be recovered. Proper laws are needed if not already in place to protect these sites. There needs to be respect, just because the graves are up to 77 years old does not mean they are free picking. No one would dare dig up graves in a cemetery of that or any age. I collect militaria and I find this sort of thing disgusting, it’s about $$, not respecting the dead.

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  6. Tom L. Keller

    January 14, 2016 at 08:44

    Just wow, I can hardly describe how much this article “offends” me. If anyone is to blame here, it should be the feet dragging German population who has now squandered over 77 years in cleaning up their mess they left all over the world. There are lots of cases, still ongoing, regarding art, land, belongings and stuff the Germans still refuse to return after STEALING it from families they MURDERED and EXTERMINATED. And now this article.
    Just no.
    If this really “offends” anyone, let me make this point very clear, if you do not like it, blame the German government, its voters and blame the people who supported Hitler in his grand plan. And if your grandparents did not want to lose their sons, maybe they should have stayed home. They could have helped these people being more than just 10 single souls fighting the horrors.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_Rose
    There is ALWAYS a choice, even if death is the only outcome of both.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_they_came_
    Please be kind and try and read the history behind and stop cherry picking isolated incidents, because I am pretty sure there are millions of families who lost members in gas chambers, random shootings, revenge shootings and fighting to stop your German killing machine who has a much more legit moral right to feel offended.
    Quote “As the village itself, like so many others in the region, was never reoccupied after the war”
    hmm, wonder why, could it be because your members of the family EXTERMINATED the families living there? Does the expression LEBENSRAUM ring a bell here? Have you even read up on what happened to ordinary families of Slavic decent in Hitler’s third Reich?
    The only sane response to this attempt to gloss over your family’s own crimes and minimize your family’s victims suffering is a loud and clear NO.
    If you should chose to use your fine and expensive education on something useful, please write the story of the people who lived in the places your family members fell. You could try and find those graves.
    I, for one, will not stand idle by, while you try and minimize the history of the horrors left by “The Third Reich”.
    Your soldiers where NOT victims, casualties or anything else with a positive connotation, they where perpetrators.
    I, for one, do not care if any leftovers from your perpetrators is forever deleted from history, there is a reason why there is no Monuments for Goring, Hitler and the rest of his criminal gang today, and I will not let you build any for the rest of the bunch. You lost the war, please realize that before the rest of the world have to clean up your mess again.

    • thePipeLine

      January 16, 2016 at 23:48

      thePipeLine exists to support freedom of speech and information and we would undermine that principle if we withheld a comment submitted legitimately under our comment policy, even if it is a comment with which we deeply disagree.

      In this comment Mr Keller puts forward a personal view of Herr Schäfer’’s article and our readers can respond to that view and to the original article, as they like.

      For our part, while thePipeLine recognises that the deep wounds that conflicts inflict can long outlive those who took part in those conflicts, this site has an outlook which is internationalist and humanitarian. Therefore any idea of collective guilt, let alone the idea that those born long after contentious historical events carry any responsibility for those events, or should be somehow criticised or punished for the fact such events happened, is absurd and intellectually dishonest.

      We would also point out that the principles of ethical archaeology which we stand for treat everyone as equal in death and everyone as equally entitled to consideration as a part of the greater human story, good and bad. Which of course is partly what Herr Schäfer’’s article is about in the first place.

  7. Mark Simner

    January 14, 2016 at 09:39

    As an author and historian of British military history, I wonder if Channel 5 would be equally as enthusiastic about airing a show that depicted ‘unqualified amateurs’ digging up the remains of British soldiers lost during the Second World War, or indeed any other conflict? I suspect not, and why they feel fallen German soldiers should be treated differently is beyond me. All war dead should be treated with respect regardless of nationality.

    I am disgusted by this TV program and Channel 5’s decision to show it in the UK, and I do hope they will reconsider further plans to air it in the future.

    Robin Schäfer’s excellent article above should be read by the directors of Channel 5.

  8. Howell Clark

    January 15, 2016 at 18:59

    I saw the 1st episode of this program and soon came to the conclusion the 4 “presenters” were idiots!! They drive down a dirt track until their 4wd bogs down and overheats, they apparently then tramp across a bog to get to the site. Later they see a car with people watching them. What springs to mind is why did the intrepid 4 not just look at a map and drive along the same road the black diggers did!! The American says he’s a military officer, not a very good one I add, I hope his men never get to see this program and then have to serve under him. He showed an amazing lack of battlefield awareness as to the siting of an artillery command bunker and why it wasn’t on the crest of a hill (And thus readily seen from afar). Their mucking about with the MP40 was more like that – no making sure the MP was safe after firing it, and waving it around as well. I personally would have preferred to have seen Legenda in action, a few days ago I read that recently they repatriated 276 Latvian soldiers, who’d served with the Wehrmacht, back home and every single one of them had a name. That to me would be more interesting than “4 Plonkers go walkabout”. I will watch the other episodes but am not feeling too hopeful that my esteem for the 4 Plonkers will change.

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  11. The model warrior

    January 20, 2016 at 12:28

    Very good article and I completely support your views. Unfortunately it is going to very hard to stop the trade of militaria as companies like fleabay are not interested in checking the source of items for sale and are totally driven by profit.

  12. Finn

    January 25, 2016 at 13:22

    Having worked formerly at the Finnish Military Archives, we faced occasionally requests (lists of ID-tags, maps etc) from Finnish and Russian searching parties. As far as I’ve understood, there is a genuine co-operation between the two parties and several hundred bodies (remains) have been brought back to Finland.

    As for Soviet POW-graves in Finland, these are generally kept in decent shape by the Finnish authorities.

    This won’t prevent me of understanding how this could turn out to be a different story between the Russian and German authorities and illegal searchers.

    This could be just one of those reconciliation acts (Versöhnung) that I’d dare to suggest for a joint communiqué between Mr. Gauck and Putin, should there ever be a meeting between the two in Russia.