Our digging permit and supervising archaeologist must be here somewhere? The Battlefield Recovery Team searching at Fort No 3 Poznan.
[ClearStory Ltd for Channel 5: Fair use for reporting and review]
An abortive dig in a Polish fort and excavations at the scene of a wartime massacre of women and children in Sarbka, Poland, have led to more questions for London based production company ClearStory over the making of troubled series Battlefield Recovery and accusations that the role of local organisation Pomost was deliberately played down by the programme.
Andy Brockman reports for thePipeLine.
It was not exactly a red carpet event, but tonight, avoiding the “local technical fault” which had scuppered its broadcast in Poland, the previously unseen fourth episode of the controversial documentary series Battlefield Recovery was finally given its premiere on Channel 5 in the UK. A sobering watch it was too on a number of levels. Not least because the second half of the programme focussed on one of the countless small atrocities which took place as the Eastern Front collapsed and descended into an inferno worthy of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch in the early months of 1945. The murder of ethnic Germans in the Polish village of Sarbka. However, true to form, the programme also left hanging a number of uncomfortable questions about the series. Most particularly questions are being asked as to whether the digging activities shown were fully compliant with Polish legislation relating to archaeology and whether the portrayal of the host of the programme makers ClearStory productions, the Polish organisation Pomost, was a fair and accurate representation of Pomost’s contribution to the making of the programme. To critics of “Battlefield Recovery”, Pomost, who in reality were in charge of the excavation at Sarbka, were presented in the programme as walk on players in a production starring ClearStory’s team of amateur diggers. A team who, the programme shows, were left completely unprepared for what Pomost’s excavation would uncover.
However, before taking the journey into the heart of late World War Two darkness, Battlefield Recovery first visited Fort No 3, in the historic fortress city of Poznan, where the regular team of diggers, Stephen Taylor, Kris Rodgers and Adrian Kostromski were soon resorting to their much criticised, tried and tested methodology of looking at the ground, spotting a supposed trench line which could be full of stratified archaeology, and deciding to rip it out with a mechanical digger. But not before fellow presenter and dealer in Nazi memorabelia, Craig Gottleib, had warned that:
“There could be live ordnance everywhere so be careful.”
In which case where was the EOD briefing and safety cover?
More to the point, critics argue, where was the supervising archaeologist because, even if they did have permission to use metal detectors as the programme subtitle claimed, under the Protection and Care of Historical Monuments Act passed into Law in Poland in 2003, every excavation of archaeological heritage requires a permit from the local inspector who can specify the extent of an excavation, the methods to be used and level of recording. Under that system a group of amateur metal detectorists and a militaria dealer digging random holes with a mini digger in the hope of hoiking out military stuff and not recording the excavation, would not ordinarily receive a permit. For that reason a number of critics of the series, including thePipeLine, have asked ClearStory Productions to produce the specific excavation permits for all the excavations in Poland including the two trial pits at Poznan. Requests which ClearStory have so far declined to respond to.
With or without a permit, the Poznan episode seems to have descended into farce and programme padding, with a by now semi-detached Craig Gottleib visiting the fort museum to look at the relics; after all as Mr Gottleib said, “Everybody needs a Panzerfaust”; while Taylor, Rodgers and Kostromski managed to rip up some more Polish real estate and find precisely nothing, in the process making a delicious nonsense of the pretentious voice over at the start of the programme which had declared that the team’s mission in visiting Poznan was to “…save the remains from this epic battle for History.” Thankfully History did not suffer because, as Mr Gottleib’s museum visit revealed, someone has already gathered a representative sample.
However, the absurd antics in Poznan were simply taking the role of the comedy turn in the darkest Shakespearean tragedy as the team left Poznan in an attempt to trace the route taken by retreating hordes of German soldiers and civilians who were fleeing west in an attempt to escape the pursing Red Army. One place on the road was the village of Sarbka.
On its website Pomost, or the Bridge Association, states that its mission is to help bring about reconciliation between Poles and Germans through the recovery and reburial in appropriate settings of German soldiers and civilians killed during World War Two. Given this mission and the fact that ClearStory wanted to show human remains being recovered in its proposed series, contacting Pomost was a logical move and recording in Poland took place in late 2013. However, it did not take long for the relationship between Pomost and the programme makers to turn sour.
Although there have been claims that senior members of Pomost saw the programmes and approved them, in Spring of 2014, when the Battlefield Recovery/Nazi War Diggers controversy first broke, a spokesperson for Pomost, acting at the request of the leader of Pomost Mr Thomas Czabański, clarified just what the organisation claimed had actually happened during the Sarbka excavation telling this author, who was then writing for the on-line news magazine “Heritage Daily”;
“The Clearstory crew come to us…in Sarbka. Mr Gottlieb was not present there during exhumation.
All of exhumation works were done by our specialists, but in some scenes we allowed one Clearstory actor to “help us” with a brush or trowel. That was one case they were directly cooperating with us.”
However, this is not how the exhumation is presented in the programme. The arrival of the Pomost team is described as “bringing in extra muscle” and as “reinforcements” because the ClearStory crew need support. Indeed, presenter Kris Rodgers says;
“Pomost are the good guys and it’s great having their help.”
A statement which is utterly misleading. It was Mr Rodgers and his colleagues who were the “help” and as we shall see it is questionable how much that “help” was appreciated by Pomost.
Indeed, it is never made clear by the programme that under the Polish system for regulating archaeology, Taylor, Gottleib, Rodgers and Kostromski would not be allowed to undertake the work independently and what the viewer is actually seeing is a regular, authorised, Pomost excavation, which would have taken place anyway, with or without ClearStory and the Battlefield Recovery diggers.
The story line of the programme sees the members of the presentation team inserted at various points and presented as if they were driving the excavation, rather than piggybacking on the work of Pomost. Most telling is the fact that unlike the episodes of Battlefield Recovery recorded in Latvia, where bones and objects are wrenched from the ground as soon as they are located, and local workers and expertise are almost entirely absent from the screen, when ever the presenter team are seen in the trench and working with human remains at Sarbka the remains have been uncovered completely so they can be seen in context and the team are accompanied by Pomost archaeologist Maksymilian Frąckowiak.
One of the best indications as to what actually went on is the fact that in the case of the apparent execution of a member of the German women’s trades union organisation, the identifying badge was left in context on the skeletal remains. Similar badges and identifying material in Latvia is shown being lifted, usually with great excitement rather than the more reflective questioning here, as soon as they are spotted. The same sequence also shows up the failure of the series to provide historical expertise and context when, with Mr Frąckowiak having identified the badge as that of a woman worker, instead of talking about the role of women workers and domestics in the Nazi period in Poland, Adrian Kostromski then talks at length about what the women’s role would have been had she been a Nazi ideologue, which the evidence of the badge suggests she was not. There is the sense that the producers are disappointed that the victim seems to have been an ordinary woman worker rather than a dyed in the wool, card carrying Nazi. But then even more disturbing is the admission by two members of the team that they are shocked to see women involved in and as victims of war. In between collecting all their big boys toys did the team not read any history books or watch any documentaries like The World At War which has been around for over forty years?
This is a key point because all the evidence is that the digging up of human remains by the team in Latvia was done without any historical or archaeological context, method, system or recording. A clash of approach and method which is made painfully clear in tonight’s episode where, unable to participate in Pomost’s actual excavation of the human remains, the three presenters were allowed to begin burrowing in their usual chaotic style all three of them huddled around their single hobbit hole. However, as soon as Stephen Taylor is seen to actually “discover” some human bone Pomost move in and take over, off camera.
BATTLEFIELD RECOVERY SPOT THE DIFFERENCE
Only one of these three images from Battlefield Recovery shows a properly laid out and dug trench, appropriate tools and a supervising archaeologist in shot, can you see which one it is?
[ClearStory Ltd for National Geographic and Channel 5: Fair use for reporting and review]
In an effort to distance the organisaton from ClearStory, National Geographic and the way what was then titled “Nazi War Diggers” was being presented the spokesperson in 2014 stressed that POMOST;
While the spokesperson’s final comments on the series and on the experience of working with ClearStory and National Geographic was damning.
Referring to the trailers showing the digging up of human remains in Latvia the spokesperson said;
“The way of “exploration” and “exhumation” shown there is unprofessional…Showing some guys playing with their detectors, showing them posing as a deer hunters with human remains is very irresponsible… Both title and way of “work” is disgusting for us.”
“We don’t want to cooperate with National Geographic or ClearStory any more. We’re not interested in taking part in TV series like “How to learn to dig a grave in one weekend” or “Many Nazi Badges Waiting For You In Middle Europe Underground”.”
This statement was corroborated by a spokesperson for the German war graves authority, the VDK, who told thePipeLine last week;
“Pomost says that they were very disappointed with these journalists and they canceled the cooperation with them in 2013.
For some years Pomost have worked for us in Poland. They work very correctly and accurately.
In 2015 they recovered more than one thousand German soldiers and civilians.”
The VDK spokesperson added that Pomost;
“…are no battlefield diggers. They work officially in the public area with all necessary police and public administration permits.”
In the end one thing is brutally clear from the latest programme in the Battlefield Recovery series. The uncovering of the scene of what is almost certainly a wartime atrocity involving the execution of women and children is a long way from the high fiveing, blank firing, stag do, road trip style celebration of big boys toys of the previous two episodes.
Indeed, perhaps because the regular presenters were distanced from the actual excavation process and were forced to act as observers and reporters, once or twice the programme even began to approach the style and tone of a mainstream historical documentary. Although when it came to explaining the mass grave the absence of a trained osteologist, with experience of war crimes work was painfully obvious. Certainly the ClearStory team’s shock and lack of experience at what they were seeing is hinted at in another comment from the Pomost spokesperson in 2014.
“Their way of behaving was correct and I think finding two young ladies (in military uniforms) was a shock for them. I think that was first time they saw a complete, carefully uncovered skeleton in a grave. A carefully uncovered skeleton, not some bones.
…I have to mention that I felt our way of exhumation was a great novelty for some of them. I hope it taught them something.”
Indeed, this exposure of the presenters and crew to the remains of murdered civilians leads to another question for ClearStory. Working on a mass grave, in particular one which includes the remains of women and children, is not something to be undertaken lightly and it left members to the team visibly affected. Did ClearStory consider the potential psychological effects of what they were asking their team to do? Given the other egregious health and safety lapses shown in the series one doubts it.
At the end of the programme there was even a rare moment of self awareness on the part of presenter and self-styled World War Two artefacts expert, Stephen Taylor. In a piece to camera he all but admits that, faced with a scene which forced them to confront the true complexities and horrors of war, not to mention what those big boys toys actually do to people at close range, even toddlers and women with false teeth, the team was completely out of its depth, saying;
“For me it wasn’t about World War Two relics anymore…”
The problem is, as ClearStory were told plainly over and over again by professionals and experts in the field, it should never have been just “about World War Two relics” in the first place.