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SECOND WORLD WAR

German war graves are being desecrated on TV

Military historian Robin Schäfer explains why he and thousands of German families are horrified by a British TV show promoting the looting of German war graves - exactly as happened to his own great-uncle's remains.

German war graves are being desecrated on TV
Hundreds of books like this one recorded German famillies' desperate search for information about the fate of their loved ones after the war. Photo: Robin Schäfer collection

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 were just as alien and difficult to place as they were for me, when I started researching Heinrich’s military career in 2006.

While at the time of Heinrich’s death the cemetery lay more or less safe behind 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.

Robin Schäfer's great-uncle Heinrich Gilgenbach's remains are lost forever thanks to wildcat amateur archaeologists. Photo: Robin Schäfer collection

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 hope of finding the place where Heinrich had been buried.

I was over the moon when a couple of days later they sent me some photographs by email and let me know that they had found the remains of the village and the German cemetery, which was still marked by three large earthen tumuli. It wasn't long before 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. By retrieving valuables, equipment and dog-tags they 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 eBay. It might have fetched a price of 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.

A group of German soldiers with a flamethrower in front of a burning farmhouse in the Soviet Union, 1941. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1974-099-19 / Kempe

While 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 are 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 in 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 Channel 5 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 up 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 illegal digging for 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 up a steel helmet and a cool machine gun themselves.

Hundreds of books like this one recorded German famillies' desperate search for information about the fate of their loved ones after the war. Photo: Robin Schäfer collection

The show has zero educational value. I failed to hear any mention of 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.

Robin Schäfer is a German military historian specializing in the period between 1800 and 1945. His first book, “Fritz and Tommy: Across the Barbed Wire” was published in October 2015.

This article originally appeared at The Pipeline.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

Why the Greens are the real winners of Germany’s state elections

German state elections don't tell us everything about the public mood, but the past few votes have revealed some pretty clear winners and losers. While support for the SPD is flagging, the Greens are growing in stature by the day, writes Brian Melican.

Why the Greens are the real winners of Germany's state elections

It’s one of the peculiarities of Germany’s federal system that we’re almost never more than six months away from an election being held somewhere. Alongside the national elections (Bundestagswahl) usually every four years, each of the 16 states also hold ballots (Landtagswahl) on varying cycles; then there are local and mayoral elections, too. As such, rolling campaigning and more-or-less continuous election analysis are a part of life here: “What does Election X say about Government Y?” is a question you will always hear being asked somewhere.

Nevertheless, regional elections have a habit of clustering – and generally come at points when national governments would rather not have people poring over electoral data. And this year, after barely six months in office, Olaf Scholz’ novel tri-partite traffic-light coalition has already been faced with three regional elections – in Saarland (27th March), last week in Schleswig-Holstein (8th May), and yesterday in North-Rhine Westphalia (15th May). On a regional level, the popularity of the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) has already been thoroughly tested. 

Understanding state elections

The key thing to remember about German regional elections are that they both are and aren’t about national politics. Firstly, here’s how they aren’t. At a basic level, these regional elections are simply about voters choosing a government to deal with state-level remits (mainly health, education, and housing). They will vote first and foremost on these issues.

Personality politics are also important: long-serving German state premiers frequently garner the unofficial honorific Landesvater or Landesmutter –  literally: ‘father/mother of the state’ – and benefit from high personal approval ratings, allowing them to withstand changes in mood at national level. So it is by no means infrequent for voters to return completely different parties in regional than at national elections. By way of example, while Olaf Scholz, SPD, remained a popular Landesvater figure in Hamburg, Merkel’s CDU still won more Hamburg votes at national elections.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Why Sunday’s state parliament vote in NRW is important for German politics

Then again, regional elections also are about national politics. That’s because they never take place in a vacuum (except for in Bavaria, of course, where everyone always votes CSU). Even the most beloved of state premiers faces an uphill struggle if their party is currently making a hash of things in Berlin. What is more, the larger and the more representative the Bundesland, the more results of its elections can show swings in voter mood which may be of national relevance.

The Greens’ slow ascent from their mid-2000s funk to their current swagger began in Baden-Württemberg: winning control of this state populated by 11 million people and many of Germany’s top industrialists showed that voters trusted them to be part of a government. That set the ball rolling and by the time of last year’s national election, the Greens were already in power in half of federal states. Incidentally, it is often overlooked that state governments make up the Bundesrat, the second chamber of parliament, which can accept or refuse laws made by the Bundestag. So shifts in power here can be of national relevance.

This dichotomy has the predictable effect that, in the aftermath of every Landtagswahl, the losing parties usually claim that it was simply a regional ballot with nothing to say about national politics while the winning parties play up the significance at federal level.

Olaf Scholz and Thomas Kutschaty

Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) congratulates Thomas Kutschaty, SPD candidate in North Rhine-Westphalia, after the party wins 26.7 percent of the vote. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

An SPD disaster 

This is why it is very bad news for Olaf Scholz and the SPD that their only victory in spring 2022’s three Landtagswahlen was in dinky little Saarland, a state whose population is smaller than that of a major city like Cologne and whose local politics are so marked by rivalries and infighting as to have little-to-no relevance nationally. Despite winning an absolute majority in the regional parliament at Saarbrücken (a rare feat in proportional representation), there was no way the SPD could claim a national bearing – and, to its credit, didn’t try to do so either.

In Schleswig-Holstein, the SPD wasn’t expected to unseat the CDU’s Daniel Günther, a likeable and well-liked premier coming to the end of five years at the helm of a surprisingly successful Jamaica coalition with the Greens and the FDP. Here, too, the national relevance was relatively low: Schleswig-Holstein has only 3 million inhabitants and few large towns and cities. Nevertheless, losing over half its seats while the Greens and CDU gained by the same amount was not a good result for the SPD.

What was disastrous, however, was last night’s result in North-Rhine Westphalia. With a population the size of the neighbouring Netherlands (17 million) and everything from Germany’s largest urban conurbation down to isolated mountain regions, NRW is often considered a microcosm of the country as a whole. As something of a swing state, parties which succeed here often go on to win the next national election (if they aren’t already in government).

READ ALSO:

What is more, unlike in Schleswig-Holstein, NRW was the SDP’s to win. Until last year, its premier was the luckless Armin Laschet (remember him?), who plumbed popularity depths in his failed bid to become Chancellor. He then left a badly-damaged CDU-FDP administration to Hendrik Wüst, a successor whose profile, if he had one at all, was defined by various low-level corruption scandals (including a regrettable incident where he sold slots with the then-NRW premier, Jürgen Rüttgers, to high-paying commercial lobbyists…).

Hendrik Wüst (CDU)

Re-elected NRW state premier Hendrik Wüst (CDU) celebrates his victory. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Rolf Vennenbernd

Even if Wüst proved to be an unexpectedly good campaigner and the SPD’s Thomas Kutschaty remained oddly faceless, the fact that Olaf Scholz himself got involved and that the SPD still ended up with its worst showing in NRW ever is nothing less than a serious defeat for both the Chancellor and his party – one which, in my view, underlines how Scholz has not yet lived up to expectations.

Nevertheless, he is in luck. Firstly, the electoral cycle means that this upset is occurring at the beginning of his term; there will be time to recover. Secondly, although Wüst gets first crack at forming a government, the Greens are his only real potential partner – and will take a lot of courting. NRW Greens are on the more left-wing end of the spectrum and will play the field, potentially trying to usher in a mini traffic-light coalition in Düsseldorf if it looks feasible later.

READ ALSO: OPINION: Scholz is already out of step with Germany – it’s time for a change of course

Growing support for Greens

So after the post-Merkel rout, the CDU has scored an important and much-needed victory, but harnessing it to get momentum nationally may yet prove difficult. Indeed, it’s the Greens who have come out of the last two weekends with a new swing in their step. Following a disappointing national election last year, they have once again hit their stride, due in no small part to the Ukraine reminding voters of why renewable energy is important on the one hand and the impressive figures cut by Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock in government on the other.

For the FDP, things are not looking so good. Despite negotiating a disproportionately high amount of their manifesto into last year’s agreement, they are suffering the fate of many a junior coalition partner: a lack of profile. On strictly regional terms, they lost votes to the popular Daniel Günther in Schleswig-Holstein (perhaps unavoidably, despite a good record as part of his coalition) and to the not-yet-popular Hendrik Wüst (following lacklustre performance in government in Düsseldorf).

Greens party posters NRW

Posters featuring Greens candidate Mona Neubaur highlight the link between fossil fuels and Russia’s authoritarian leadership. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Roberto Pfeil

Worryingly for Christian Lindner, however, this may be harbinger of history repeating itself. Essentially, FDP voters tend to get enthusiastic for a business-friendly go-getter type who promises to lower taxes and slash regulation, only to later turn their back on him when, once part of a coalition government, he proves unable to deliver the small-state free-for-all promised. That’s what happened to Guido Westerwelle in the 2009-2013 administration, in any case.

There is, however, one bit of unadulterated good news for all parties and indeed our country as a whole: the AfD lost vote share everywhere. The populist outfit didn’t even make it into parliament in Schleswig-Holstein and only just scraped in in NRW. It would seem that, in times of crisis, voters don’t want to add to the list of potential disasters by putting populists anywhere near power. This is a hypothesis we’ll be able to test in just under six months’ time, by the way, when Lower-Saxony goes to the polls on 9th October. 

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