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Morteza Hessari, Reinhard Bernbeck, Sozan Pollock,
year 6, Issue 21 (12-2022)
In the past decades, archaeology has turned toward research on societies that lie temporally between the industrial age and the present, what can be considered a “late historical archaeology.” The cultural materials for the study of this branch of archaeology include archival written sources, audio and video sources, and eyewitnesses, all of which are analysed together with the findings of archaeological excavations. Studies of the modern period in archaeology, which includes the industrial age and the era of globalization, document both individual and collective processes. Archaeology of modern times requires an interdisciplinary perspective, drawing on the disciplines of art history, history, sociology, anthropology, and even criminology in analysing and interpreting its findings. The present article is the result of a study in the archaeology of modernity, in which the authors investigated a World War II Nazi training camp in Wustrau, located in the German state of Brandenburg, about 70 km northwest of Berlin. The camp was built to “retrain” - or brainwash -non-Russian members of the Red Army such as Ukrainians, Muslim Tatar prisoners as part of a plan to send them into the territories of the Soviet Union as trained Nazi administrators. The archaeological excavation in Wustrau was conducted jointly by members of the Free University of Berlin, Isfahan Art University and the Cultural Heritage and Tourism Research Institute.
Keywords: Modern Archaeology, Indoctrination Camp, World War II, Wustrau.
This paper offers an account of two seasons of excavations in 2020 and 2021 in Wustrau, northwest of Berlin. At the edge of this village, the Nazis had erected in the 1940s an indoctrination camp for Soviet prisoners of war. The framework of our research in this former camp is informed by the archaeology of modernity, which goes beyond the search for cultural-historical chronologies to identify connections among material remains, historical documents and the violent conditions under which they emerged (fig2 -3). Fieldwork was funded by the “Peace and Conflict Studies” program of the Free University of Berlin and supported by the Regional Heritage Office of the state of Brandenburg.
The work is the result of a joint research program of the Free University of Berlin, Isfahan University of Art and the Iranian Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organization. This German-Iranian joint excavation was designed to counter traditional expectations, in which European, American or other archaeologists of foreign nationalities travel to Western Asian countries to carry out field research. Instead of researching the cultural history of Iran, the archaeological excavation took place in Germany with the goal to reconstruct a part of 20th century German history. The archaeology of modernity, is the second exceptional characteristic of the project. Investigating the material culture of the 20th or 21st centuries is still unusual in both Germany and Iran.
A brief historical background shows that after the First World War (ending in 1918), nationalism and extreme racism grew quickly in Germany. In this general climate, National Socialism was able to gain power and turn the racist Adolf Hitler into its “leader“ in 1933 and continuing until 1945. In the short time of 12 years, the repressive regime incarcerated more than 10 million people from 20 European countries in more than 44000 forced labor and extermination camps; the highest number of prisoners came from Poland and the Soviet Union.
In the year 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union and opened a new theater of war, the „Eastern Front.“ The German attack was initially successful and the Wehrmacht occupied large parts of the western Soviet Union. In a short time, the German military also captured more than one million Red Army soldiers. To handle the occupied territories and the large number of prisoners, a new „Reich Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories“ was established within the government. The handling of prisoners of different ethnicities and religions was planned in this ministry. One case concerned the recruitment of different ethnic groups of Soviet prisoners into the Wehrmacht and sections of the repressive special units of the Nazi system such as the SS.
With the establishment of the Prisoner of War Department in July 1941, prisoners of war were screened and segregated by ethnicity. As the war continued, the Reich Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories started a “re-education” program for Red Army prisoners of Turkic origin to turn them into administrators or Wehrmacht members. Before being sent back to the east, a system of indoctrination and training was established. At the end of the program, the prisoners were integrated into battalions such as the “Eastern Muslim Battalion”, others into special SS units. According to preserved documents, the military formation aimed at uniting all Muslim Turks into such fighting units (Volga Tatars, Azerbaijanis, Turkestanis). One of the ethnic groups that was separated from the bulk of Russian Red Army prisoners were the Tatars. Many of them had been captured in 1941 and early 1942 around Byalistok, Lviv, Kerch and Kharkiv.
In 1942, around 1,500 prisoners of war of various ethnicities, some of them Tatars, were held in the camp of Wustrau and trained there to be later recruited into the battalion “Idel-Ural”(fig. 1). The most famous of these prisoners in Wustrau was Musa Jalil, a person who later formed a resistance group against the Nazi regime. Unfortunately, the group was discovered by the Gestapo, and most of its members were executed on August 25, 1944 in Plötzensee prison.
Wustrau is located in the district Ostprignitz-Ruppin about 70 km northwest of Berlin. It has the geographical coordinates 52°51’N, 12°52’W and lies at an altitude of 38 meters above sea level. The area is characterized by lakes formed at the end of the last ice age. Wustrau is located at the southernmost end of one of the Ruppin lake. The area has been inhabited by Slavic groups since at least the 13th century C.E., was invaded several times by the Swedes in the 17th and 18th centuries, and then ruled by the von Zieten family, a branch of the Prussian dynasty, after 1766, as attested by a small palace in the village(fig.4).
The main goal of our archaeological soundings in Wustrau was to recover material remains that would reveal practices within the camp, including those of repression and racism. A brief and unsystematic surface survey in the surroundings of Wustrau in 2018 had already revealed elements of the indoctrination camp in the form of a barrack’s foundations still visible on the ground surface. In the first of two short seasons, architectural traces and finds were recovered in a series of five excavation trenches labeled 1, 2, 6, 7, and 8(fig.5). In 2021, three more trenches were added to investigate open areas of the camp and another barrack that was located next to the small river Rhin at the southern edge of the camp. In 2020, three of four corners of a barrack were uncovered, including massive concrete foundations that reached a depth of up to 1m(plan.1). Deep foundations were necessary because of the marshy environment of this area. The upper walls of the barracks consisted of a footing of kiln-fired bricks and walls of wooden planks, covered by a gabled roof (knowledge of the walls and roof come from documentary sources) (fig.6 A-C).
One of the most interesting finds was a button of a uniform that was decorated with a five-pointed star as well as hammer and sickle, clearly from a Red Army uniform(fig.7). Since documents inform us that the barracks had been built by the prisoners themselves, they must also have been responsible for leaving this (subversive) trace of their presence. Rediscovered more than 80 years later, it is a sign of resistance against the conditions of confinement.
Historical documents attest to daily lessons lasting six hours, followed by supplementary discussions. Prisoners were even taken to various German cities to learn National Socialist principles. Excavation finds confirm the sources that mention teaching: we discovered many broken pieces of thin slate tablets, some with incised lines or grids for writing letters and numbers. Styli for writing on the slates were frequent finds as well(fig.8-9).
At the opposite end of the barrack, we found a more recent layer from the times of the German Democratic Republic that contains finds from a doctor’s office. Apparently, parts of the barrack continued to be used by people from the nearby village of Wustrau after the demise of the Nazis in 1945. An aerial photograph from 1953 shows that the northeastern portion of the school barrack was partitioned off from the southwest section. In the northeastern segment, we discovered partially melted test tubes, needles from syringes, and small containers for medicine. One test tube contained the inscription “VEB Leipziger ...”, which should be completed with “… Arzneimittel werk “(fig.10). The company was founded in 1957, and we therefore assume that the doctor’s assemblage dates from around 1960.
This project of an archaeology of modern times in Germany helped to reconstruct elements of violent practices and ruthless indoctrination by the Nazis and their murderous system, the forced education camp for Tatar Muslims and other prisoners of war from the east. This system sought to deploy the ethnicities of the Soviet Army in what the Nazis conceived of as their eastern European colonies. However, as we know now, the project of indoctrination of Soviet Muslim prisoners to serve the Nazi system failed badly. Miraculously, two notebooks with poems of Musa Jalil survived (fig.11). They give ample testimony of his feelings while in Berlin’s Moabit prison awaiting his death.