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Springtime for Hitler and “Nazi War [Death Porn] Diggers”

March 31st, 2014 | by Andy Brockman
Springtime for Hitler and “Nazi War [Death Porn] Diggers”
Archaeology News
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UK Production Company ClearStory and National Geographic Channel have been accused of unethical practice and ignoring advice in a new battlefield metal detecting series.

Header Image : Craig Gottlieb holding a WW2 skull on Nazi War Diggers. Published in the public domain on his facebook profile.

Andy Brockman discusses the issues raised by “Nazi War Diggers”.

The bitter fighting in Latvia, Poland and the Kurland Peninsula which took place in the Winter of 1944/45 became known as Nazi Germany’s Dunkirk.  Last weekend, The National Geographic Channel and British television production company ClearStory; producers of the Channel 4 series “Sex Box”, as well as documentaries featuring Historian David Reynolds and Scientist Richard Dawkins; are facing their own ignominious retreat and bitter rearguard action over their new television series “Nazi War Diggers” [http://natgeotv.com/za/nazi-war-diggers], which was partly shot in Kurland and  Poland and which is set to premier on the National Geographic Channel in April 2014.

The series of four programmes set out to “ to hunt for relics and bodies, uncovering a forgotten story of World War Two’s bloody front.” promising  that the programme’s team of amateur talent would “come face to face with the dangers and cost of war.” However, hundreds of archaeologists from the USA, the UK and Europe as well as from across the blogsphere and social media, including many experts in human osteology and battlefield archaeology, are united in condemnation of the series.

The allegation is that a video and images originally posted on the National Geographic Channel website publicising the series apparently show behavior which, while it may be legal under Polish and Latvian Law, is in archaeological terms unethical. In particular human remains are shown being pulled from the ground and displayed for the camera in a way which would be completely unacceptable on any conventional  archaeological site; would be forbidden by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and UK Ministry of Defence if they related to the remains of a British Serviceman and, worst of all, would destroy forensic evidence and the context of the burial making a positive identification of the individual soldier difficult, if not impossible and potentially denying him a named grave.

The video, the promotional website originally launched to publicise the programme, and statements from the programme producers ClearStory, all suggest that the programme format follows a tried and tested television template whereby a group of metal detector users investigate a historic site accompanied by a dealer in antiques and other historic material.

This kind of cheap reality television demands a strong back story which the audience can engage with and iconic objects around which stories can be woven.  Such formats are frequently criticised by archaeologists as promoting commercial value over historic value and glorifying treasure hunting over the more questioning gathering of knowledge for the common good.  However, these formats are very popular with television audiences.  A programme with the same basic premise, an exercise in discovery and valuation, the BBC’s “Antiques Roadshow” has been running for thirty five years and thirty six series with the format being sold all over the world.

The initial fear in this case, expressed by many archeologists when the video first surfaced, was that the excavations shown might have been illegal.  A televised version of the kind of antiquities theft by metal detector users working illegally which is sometimes given a spurious glamour by the name “nighthawking”.  However in a statement released on Friday 28 March by the National Geogrpahic Channel stresses that the work was done in conjunction with two community based battlefield research and recovery groups, “Legenda” in Latvia.

[http://kurlandlegends.wordpress.com/] and the “Pomost Archaeological Association” in Poland, both of which claim to obtain proper permissions and licences from landowners and their respective Governments and liaise with appropriate war graves organisations in Germany and Russia.  However, there is a far more fundamental question which raises very difficult questions for both ClearStory and the National Geographic Channel.

That is; even if the work was undertaken in full compliance with the legal regimes pertaining in Latvia and Poland and even if the programmes were recorded under the wing of the two community based organisations which set out to search battlefields and recover missing servicemen, “Pomost” and “Legenda”; that reflects Polish and Latvian practice, undertaken by Latvians and Poles.

What ClearStory facilitated and what National Geographic Channel appear to be about to broadcast, are the efforts, not of Poles or Latvians working to a common purpose, but of an imported team of three amateur metal detector users, UK based Stephen Taylor, Kris Rodgers and  Adrian Kostromski and militaria enthusiasts and an American dealer in Nazi militaria and memorabelia, Craig Gottleib.

nazi2

Nazi War Diggers – Craig Gottleib, Stephen Taylor, Kris Rodgers and Adrian Kostromski – Published in the public domain on Craig Gottleibs facebook profile.

None of the “Nazi War Diggers” employed by ClearStory appear to have any training in the kind of archaeology, forensic anthropology or explosive ordnance safety which would be of use to “Legenda” or “Pomost” in their principle work recovering battlefield casualties along with the war material which accompanys them.  Mr Taylor, a Pharmacist who lives in Leicestershire, is heavily involved in the World War Two Relic Retrieval and Preservation Group [http://www.ww2rrpg.com/#!about-us] and is a regular contributer to metal detecting and militaria websites. While Mr Rodgers describes himself on his Twitter account as a “blogger, teacher, writer, musician, treasure hunter and now TV presenter.”

However, in the promotional clip, now withdrawn, Mr Rodgers is shown apparently giving direction on the delicate matter of exhuming human remains to the third member of the team of on screen talent, Mr Gottlieb.  Mr Gottlieb, a former United States Marine, is able to employ his particular expertise in the collection and sale of Nazi era militaria and memorabilia.  As he was quoted as saying in the programme publicity “I feel that by selling things that are Nazi related and for lots of money, I’m preserving a part of history that museums don’t want to bother with”   “Nazi Shmazi” as American satirist Tom Lehrer once said.   Mr Gottleib’s quotation has now been removed from his biography on the series website.

Meanwhile, although the UK has great expertise in the archaeology of twentieth century conflicts, there is no recognised professional conflict, battlefield or forensic archaeologist named in any of the pre-publicity for the programme. Perhaps not surprisingly, because what the employment of MrTaylor, Mr Rodgers and Mr Gottleib suggests and what the programmes appear to show, is not battlefield archaeology, carried out in a controlled research focused way for publication, but the more or less random recovery of objects and human remains from battlefields.  Something entirely different.  However it is known that the production company were briefed in detail about the ethical and safety issues surrounding battlefield archaeology on twentieth century battlefields including in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.  They were also given the contact details of recognised UK based archaeologists with specific expertise in unexploded ordnance and ammunition safety and the ethical forensic recovery of human remains on the battlefield.

In a statement issued to Heritage Daily on Friday 28 March, , National Geographic Channel responded to the initial criticism of the video and web site content saying,

“Despite misinformation being circulated, our show will in fact demonstrate the need for the activities portrayed to be done in an authorized and legal manner. This will be a point of emphasis in the opening of each show, and the series will be complemented by a robust website further exercising this point.

In addition, during filming, our production crew remained in close contact with local museums, including the Latvian War Museum. All relics uncovered by the team were cataloged and photographed and are now in safe storage. Items have been offered to museums. No items were trafficked or sold. The human remains found in the series will be reburied with due ceremony in military cemeteries under the supervision of the relevant war graves commissions.”

Of course the devil is in the PR detail and the precise meaning of the language: “a point of emphasis in the opening of each show,” leaves the rest of the show open to breathless descriptions of weapons and ordnance and descriptions of their effects on the human body, while ”authorised and legal” is not the same in archaeological terms as ethical, archaeologically competent and safe.

The wider question of course is how this particular programme pitch came to be accepted. There is a truism in the media, pointed out by the author Robert Harris in his best selling account of the Hitler Diaries fiasco, that having the word “Hitler” or “Nazi” in a book or programme title immediately adds to the sales and audience ratings.  You might have noticed HeritageDaily cynically using the same trick in the title of this article demonstrating that this fact is as true of media analysis and historical documentary making as it is of SS fetishising, sexploitation films like “Ilsa She Wolf of the SS”.

craig1

The period of Nazi Germany is also one of the eras in history which attracts a general television audience in addition to what might be perceived as the “military anorak” market,  meaning it is a relatively easy sell to commissioning editors and channel controllers.  Although I have been told by one TV professional that according to at least one Commissioning Editor [Factual] “the Romans are the new Nazi’s”.

Be that as it may, speaking before the controversy erupted in online archaeological forums, Russell Barnes, the Co Executive Producer for ClearStory along with Molly Milton, made a familiar pitch to the public in justification of the series saying:

“The Eastern Front of World War II saw probably the bloodiest fighting in human history and time is running out for us to capture the historical truths of the conflict that lie literally hidden in the ground…Nazi War Diggers not only tells the lost human stories behind the battles, but it also explores ethical ways to preserve our history and the dignity of the people who made it.”

Bloody gore and Nazi’s might indeed sell and we are genuinely on the edge of human memory as far as World War Two goes.  Therefore television has an important role in collecting testimony and in conveying the realities, complexities and tragedies of War to the public.  That is why Jeremy Isaac’s landmark series for ITV “The World At War” is still being broadcast forty years after it was made.

Equally, the war on the Eastern Front and the sacrifice of the tens of millions of soldiers and civilians on all sides who died there, is not as well known in the West as it should be.  However, it is in invoking the words “ethical” and “dignity” that most archaeologists and historians will finally part company with Mr Barnes’ view, because on the strength of the video trailer these are two qualities which it appears are conspicuous by their absence in his company’s product.  As a result “Nazi War Diggers” lays down a number of challenges to both the archaeological community and to the media.

““Nazi War Diggers” may well lead to calls for a boycott of the National Geographic Channel and ClearStory by mainstream archaeologists”

In spite of Friday’s rapid backtracking and the re-launching of the series website minus the controversial  video and photographs, there is a clear risk that the National Geographic Channel, will suffer further damage to a reputation already severely compromised in the academic community by the channels insistence in commissioning or broadcasting a number of earlier series which have been criticised for condoning treasure hunting masquerading as archaeological or historical research, including another series featuring metal detecting, “Diggers,” which attracted thousands of signatures to an on-line petition calling for it to be scrapped.  Something the National Geographic Channel declined to do.

For the archaeological sector there is the challenge that the media in general knows so little and thinks so little of archaeological opinion and practice that a programme including this type of content could even be commissioned in the first place.  Indeed, this is not the first time unethical, illegal and potentially dangerous practice in the archaeology of conflict has been put on screen by a UK based production company.  Archaeology must find a way of confronting these profound ethical and safety issues in a way which gains traction with the production companies such as ClearStory who make this sort of work, principally because it is far cheaper to employ a couple of metal detectorists to find visually interesting stuff and fantasise about it, than it is to do a proper archaeological job.

For television producers archaeology is an expensive activity which requires desk top studies, project designs, licenses, and a team of trained diggers, all of whom need flights, hotels, food, PD’s and a honey wagon and who also want to do irritating, visually boring and time consuming things like plan and record the finds and publish the results.

Even when you do get them on camera there is the problem  that many archaeologists only talk a complex dialect  called “academic” so it is next to impossible to explain a subject in a way that could be passed on around the water cooler and you can never get them to commit themselves to a simple answer!  On the plus side a lot of them dress eccentrically and some of the younger ones can be quite “fit”, so it is easy to create a character driven programme.  Squaring this circle is a challenge which is made even more difficult in the current climate in television commissioning which is seeing tight budgets, even tighter shooting schedules and shorter series as broadcasters and producers seek sustainable business models in the multimedia age.

More contentiously, it is also the case that many professional archaeologists either appear on National Geographic Channel sponsored programmes, or work on projects at least in part funded by the National Geographic Channel. If “Nazi War Diggers” is allowed to go to air without substantial changes which turn the series into a exploration of the ethics of archaeology on battlefields and a demonstration of how not to undertake the excavation of human remains, rather than an exercise where big boys go and play in someone else’s toy shop of buried weaponry, there may even be calls for a boycott of the National Geographic Channel, and ClearStory by mainstream archaeologists.  Voices are already being raised to that effect in on-line comments.

Of course the ramifications of the “Nazi War Diggers” affair may stretch wider still, prompting a discussion of the ethics and content of history and archaeology based TV Factual.  The National Geographic Channel is actually part of the Fox Networks, a division of 21st Century Fox,  Chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch.  With former senior management and employees currently embroiled in the UK phone hacking scandal and the related trial, it was of course another Murdoch owned media operation, the Sunday Times, which demonstrated the disdain of some media executives for historical perspective and accuracy when it published the original [non] Nazi best seller, the Hitler Diaries hoax in 1983.  An event which gave rise to the legendery repost to the historian Hugh Trevor Roper Lord Dacre, when Dacre changed his mind about the authenticity of the notorious forgery.  Knowing his company would make money either way Murdoch allegedly told the Sunday Time’s editor,  “F**k Dacre, publish!”  An attitude among senior executives  which is may follow in the case of “Nazi War Diggers” too, albeit after the current strategic withdrawal to regroup.

That might be a serious mistake.  The issue of the proper treatment of the missing casualties of war and the trade in unethically or illegally acquired or potentially dangerous items of militaria is of particular sensitivity and huge public interest as the centenary of the outbreak of World War One and the seventieth anniversary of the D-Day landings, the Arnhem drop and indeed, the beginnings of the bloodletting in Poland and Kurland approach.

Indeed, many archaeologists have been concerned that these high profile anniversaries and the media coverage and commissions they generate, would lead to excavation projects on potentially dangerous World War One and World War Two sites undertaken by untrained or inexperienced personnel putting people at risk and further stoking the market for World War One and World War Two militaria.

I understand that the UK Police and heritage authorities have been anticipating this effect for several years. To that extent National Geographic Channel have been unlucky in that their series is first over the top and became the bullet magnet.  Nonetheless, I also understand that the Heritage Protection team at English Heritage have been informed about “Nazi War Diggers” because UK nationals are involved and that the Latvian and Polish Embassy’s may be  formally contacted and asked to check whether all the excavations shown in the series were indeed properly licenced and that local heritage law and law relating to the treatment of human remains, firearms and explosives was complied with.

Because the programme involves the possible excavation of German soldiers it is also likely that the German equivalent of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge, and the Russian authorities may well also be contacted.

Curious then that the team was apparently allowed to behave so unethically in front of the camera …and that it was that precise clip which was then chosen to publicise the series.

Meanwhile, again commenting before National Geographic Channel’s rapid retreat of 28 March,  one of the three metal detectorists, Mr Rodgers, defended the programme on Twitter saying “You haven’t even seen it yet….That clip is VERY bad, but please trust me that everything is done right. This is TV.”[https://twitter.com/theblogofkris].

The world of TV can indeed be a cynical one and it is possible to have some sympathy for someone like Mr Rodgers, who while not a media professional, was left hanging for nearly two days as a lightning conductor, while the professionals at National Geographic Channel and ClearStory tried to work out how to deal with the public relations disaster they had walked into.

Particularly when the channel was clearly culpable because the programme publicists  knew exactly what they were doing by promoting a programme with that dog whistle title and that eye catching clip of human remains. Mr Rodgers also promised that a Q and A was in preparation which would answer all the criticisms and show how the series was all done under archaeological supervision.  Sure enough, on the afternoon of 28 March National Geographic dishonourably discharged the bulk of the website content  including all the video, comments and photographs and replaced it with a new, responsible version, emphasising the legality of the programmes and offering sensible advice on undertaking research on 20th century military sites.

However, the question which the new content does not answer is how far the “Nazi War Diggers” programmes will reflect the advice given on the new look web site?  There has to be a suspicion that the programmes are closer to the content depicted in the purged video and photographs, than to a cool, professional, exploration of the practicalities and ethics of finding of the fallen of the Eastern Front and the archaeology of battlefields as it is properly practiced.

This suggestion is prompted by the question that, if the series was so legally and ethically grounded from the start as the web site now suggests, why were the British and American diggers apparently allowed to behave so unethically  when in front of the camera and undertaking just about the most sensitive and responsible task an archaeologist can undertake, the exhumation of a fellow human being?

Even more curious is the fact that it was that precise clip which was then chosen to publicise the series. Of course I am not for a moment suggesting that either ClearStory or the National Geographic Channel would be so cynical as to welcome the controversy and the publicity it brings.  Indeed, the panic withdrawal, of first the video and then the bulk of the web content and all the photographs suggests that the channel has catastrophically misjudged the promotion of the series and knows it.   However, it remains to be seen whether the series is postponed pending a major re-edit to take account of the criticisms or whether National Geographic Channel have made the calculation that, having defused the immediate threat of a media explosion, the row will blow over and the series can be broadcast unchanged and unmoderated.  The fact that the story is now being picked up in the mainstream press such as the Daily Mail, suggests that such simple damage limitation may not work.

On viewing the video an experienced conflict archaeologist who was approached for advice by ClearStory while the series was in development commented to HeritageDaily:

“Given the Baltic battlefields are some of the most contaminated in the World; and apart from the ethical issues surrounding the apparently incompetent and unnecessary excavation of the grave site of a human being; these gentlemen are prime contenders for a Darwin award.

Given the amount of seventy year old high explosives in the areas they are digging they could  easily end up following the instructions for actions to be taken when stepping on a mine given by Captain E Blackadder.  That is to “jump about 200 feet in the air and scatter yourself over a wide area.” This time taking the TV crew with them.  And they would not have any excuses because the programme’s producers were warned explicitly about all these issues over a year ago and they were also given the contact details of reputable UK based archaeologists with extensive media experience who could ensure their resulting programme would be safe and ethical.”

That archaeologist was me (Andy Brockman) and the discussion, which involved a Producer and the Co Executive Producer of the series, took place over lunch in Camino in Kings Cross, London in February 2013.

However, on the positive side, the world of modern archaeology does not win many battles in this world of diminishing funding, cuts to University archaeology departments and a generation of politicians who see the historic environment as something to be built on and bulldozed in order to get to Birmingham a few minutes faster.  But a victory this is.  However, this was not a victory of archaeological organisations and professional bodies who have scarcely reacted to the affair. Instead, it has been achieved by the combined voices of hundreds of committed individual archaeologists who  have raised their voices in the name of an ethical position and forced a corporate giant , the National Geographic Channel, part of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox media empire no less, to blink first. 

Nazi War Diggers –  Published in the public domain on Craig Gottleibs facebook profile.

Nazi War Diggers – Published in the public domain on Craig Gottleibs facebook profile.

At the moment the withdrawal of the video and reworking of the “Nazi War Diggers” website is merely a tactical victory which must be followed up and secured, in case the National Geographic Channel regroups and attempts to broadcast the series unchanged.  As Churchill said after the victory at El Alamain in 1942 “Now this is not end.  It is not even the beginning of the end.  But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

Archaeology can and should engage with every available media outlet, pitching the content  to suit the audience while at all times treating all its audiences with respect.  Twenty years of “Time Team” taught us that.  But it must be a case of Great Archaeology making Great Television, not Television generating content out of Archaeology at any cost, or calling people archaeologists just because they dig holes in the ground in response to the bleeps of a metal detector and pull up old stuff.  That requires archaeologists to be active partners of the media, and to be prepared to say “No, you need do it this way.”

Perhaps the principle lesson of the “Nazi War Diggers” affair and a lesson which places our politicians, and yes media production companies, on notice, is that when their opinions are properly, passionately and bravely articulated, archaeologists have more influence and more sheer people power than anyone thought possible.

Written by Andy Brockman

 

 

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  • Dave Tooke

    It could be case of, “forgive them, for they know not what they do”. Except that clearly they knew exactly what they did, since they had already been told.

  • Gillian Rowe

    Desecrating war graves for financial gain=good tv programming(not)

  • Dwight Courtemanch

    This is giving them free press, it may be counterproductive.

  • Mary Henning

    “Oh, this bone is stuck up in here” the idiot says as he wrenches it free from the femur. Stuck? How about attached…. “It’s part of an arm; oh, no it isn’t it’s too long”. This is respectful treatment of human remains? They don’t even know basic anatomy.

  • Archaeology News

    Well it’s seems to have worked Dwight, the show has been cancelled due to public pressure from general public and archaeological community.

  • Richy O Caerau

    Ghouls!

  • Phil Blank

    Not WW 1, notice the mistake under the first photo?

  • Bubonicrab

    Cheer up ya blighters! Those buried would have zombied out in front of the dribble box watching this show if they lived in this day and age. Not even the dead can excuse themselves from this clusterfudge.

  • Phil Blank

    You handle dead and dirty thinks at the dig site, then set down with firty hands and eat lunch?
    What bothers me more is that these people and people like these, have to respect for the dead or for nature, all in the name of making a buck with lies and fabricated stories.
    Most of what they tell you is scripted B.S!