Search the cataclysms

A new archeology is born. His contributions on mass violence in XXe century oscillate between history and memory. A specialist in these areas draws up an impressive assessment that sounds like a plea.

The time, undoubtedly, had come to do it, says the work as it ends with the exploration of the foundations of the gas chambers of Sobibr, one of the extermination camps in eastern Poland. Wojciech Mazurek, a Polish archaeologist, is now fighting alone against a assassination of memoryto borrow the words of Pierre Vidal-Naquet, the one that the Nazis attempted there by leveling the camp after the deportation revolt in 1943.

We cannot hide much from archaeologists, and this is the reason why they are today invited to investigate mass crimes other than the Shoah, from Argentina to Rwanda and soon no doubt in Ukraine.

Genesis of a new archeology

From 1945, some improvised excavations took place to collect evidence, with a view to the first trials of criminals against humanity: thus began very early on a spontaneous archeology of the Second World War.

The way in which Oradour-sur-Glane was made a heritage site also comes, in its own way, from an archaeological approach, as does the inventory of resistance graffiti by the writer Henri Calet or, later, the observations of the architect Paul Virilio on the Atlantic Wall. In the United Kingdom, a methodical and professional approach then began, during the 1980s, with a program listing the 20,000 sites designed to defend the island in the event of a German invasion.

In France, it is only the archeology of the First World War that is just beginning and timidly, at the beginning of the 1990s, when a preventive archeology was also born prior to major land development works. The exploration of large areas in conflict zones reveals remains considered first of all as pollution disfiguring older sites, sometimes dangerous given the numerous munitions still threatening. But very quickly, some archaeologists developed original research on the remains of 1914-1918, in particular on funeral gestures improvised under fire.

It is in this wake that the French archeology of the Second World War falls, and it was not until 2013 that its interest was recognized by the Minister of Culture in its scientific programming. Vincent Carpentier, researcher at the National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP), campaigns for this recognition and by example. We owe him in particular the study of the quarry of Fleury-sur-Orne, in the suburbs of Caen, where a thousand people found refuge at the beginning of summer 1944 during the bombings of the area. Many testimonies of a very precarious life were collected there, and they were commented on by a former refugee, then aged 11.

Between history and memory

Other excavations such as Westerbork, the transit camp of Dutch Jews heading towards extermination, have this particular role of reactivating the memory of a few survivors at the moment when their generation disappeared. More broadly, the entire archeology of the conflict contributes, among subsequent generations, to creating a new memory soon without witnesses.

Now and already, forgotten areas occasionally resurface. This is the case in the Anglo-Norman camps where the Germans grouped together, in extremely harsh conditions, deportees of twenty-seven nationalities, sometimes Jews, used as slaves for the construction of the Atlantic Wall. Regarding this, which has been the subject of systematic mapping since 2015, it is clear that archeology serves, in addition to memory, to bring together new knowledge. The chronology of the constructions becomes clearer, and we see to what extent those of 1944, deviating from the standards, reflect haste and shortage of materials.

Ultimately, it's about system D, in other words of everything that has left little trace in other archives, that the scientific contribution of archaeologists can best be measured. This is particularly noticeable with the inevitable improvisation in the theaters of operation, Vincent Carpentier leading us to the best prospects: the landing of 1944 and the battle of Normandy, as well as the Peleliu atoll where the Americans and Japanese engaged in fierce combat even in the caves. In these contexts, it is a micro-story battles that the archologist grasps.

However, these battle sites continue, like many others, to deliver human remains: giving them a burial and, if possible, an identity is one of the missions that archeology undertakes everywhere. And when the remains consist only of charred heaps, like Sobibr, there are a number of personal effects whose owners can occasionally be identified. On this same camp, archaeologists have located the gas chambers and the place where the arrivals, before reaching there, were stripped of their hair. They also retraced the path surrounded by barbed wire that led there from the train, which was nicknamed the way to heaven by the SS.

There we sense the extreme cynicism of the architects of the killing, who had the first gas chambers of Treblinka paved with bricks traditionally decorating the Jewish ritual baths of the region. The future will tell if such rel effects facilitate the transmission of knowledge, which we can also hope for from the link that is established with the disappeared who have emerged from anonymity. We think of the engraved inscriptions in the Drancy internment camp or on trees in Poland, the only evidence of the presence there of prisoners of war used by the Todt organization to build defenses.

Issues and boundaries

Such vestiges are obviously very fragile, and archeology undoubtedly finds one of its primary justifications in the safeguarding of a very threatened heritage. It was first because of the emergencies immediately after the war. There was both recycling, for example of planes, the wrecks of which therefore constitute the only studyable examples, and also a desire to be forgotten or preserved.

In Caen or Warsaw, we examine some deep ruins, while in Hiroshima, archeology has so far only revealed vitrified microparticles. This is also all that remains of Omaha Beach, where the other remains were methodically raided by prospectors from military. Looting also concerns ship wrecks, which, incidentally, are a gigantic potential source of oil pollution.

Ecological issues combine here with the conservation of heritage, sometimes threatened by rising sea levels. The urgency today is therefore to preserve what can be preserved, and the book raises the questions that this raises. Can we continue to convert sites, such as the German submarine base in Bordeaux, into cultural spaces?? How can the archeology of extermination be carried out, without desecrating the immense mass graves that result?? Should we search everything, including Hitler's Berlin bunker, at the risk of creating a place of pilgrimage??

Reading Vincent Carpentier raises many other questions, sometimes implicit. In this completely new phase of data accumulation, we would have appreciated if the author explained very concretely how the masses of remains resulting from these investigations are managed. But we understand that we must wait for more epistemological perspective. Moreover, as other specialists in very recent archeology remind us:

Practice, in our discipline, has often preceded theoretical reflection and, from this point of view, (contemporary) archeology is no exception: it remains opportunistic, firing on all cylinders.

However, this new frontier of the discipline questions the very definition of archeology and its field of competence. Does it only concern what is physically buried or hidden?? Or also what was repressed, the vestiges of Rivesaltes being particularly metaphorical of these layers of oblivion since, in this camp, Spanish republicans, Jews and Harkis were successively parked?

Or does archeology concern itself more broadly with all the material waste that historians are less concerned with, who devote themselves to other sources?? What is the opinion of these? Has their way of approaching their own documents changed since archaeological sources have been used to write about such a recent past?? Questions still open, just like these archaeological projects which are as fascinating as they are necessary.

Vincent Carpentier, For an archeology of the Second World WarParis, La Dcouverte, 2022. 368 p., 24.