Archaeologies of Totalitarianism, Authoritarianism, and Repression: Dark Modernities. Edited by James Symonds and Pavel Vařeka. 2020. London: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978-3-030-46683-1

Reviewed by:
Barbara Hausmair, University of Innsbruck
[email protected] 

An intriguing conversation about their experiences of growing up and studying archaeology on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain provides James Symonds and Pavel Vařeka with the point of departure (Chapter 1) for their edited volume on “archaeologies of totalitarianism, authoritarianism and repression”. A reflection on how their own lives and attitudes have been shaped by the Cold War and a commitment to uncover the traces of violence and repression that totalitarian regimes have inflicted on millions of people set the stage for a collection of papers that covers a wide range of recent and current forms of authoritarianism and oppression in Europe and the Middle East and varying ways of how archaeology can engage with the diverse material manifestations of these “dark modernities”.

The book takes readers on a journey that starts with the forensic and archaeological analysis of the mass graves (Chapter 2) and concentration camps (Chapter 3) of the Spanish Civil War and the early Franco dictatorship, and then moves on to the World War II heritage of German occupation in the Channel Islands (Chapter 4) and the remains of the gas chambers at the Nazis’ extermination camp near Treblinka (Chapter 5); after this, readers follow the trail of Polish forced migration from Soviet Russia into Anglo-Soviet occupied Iran (Chapter 6), before returning to Poland to search for the “living ghosts” of Communist repression, military facilities and deserted villages (Chapter 7), and then visiting bunkers of the Lithuanian Partisan War (Chapter 8) and the remains of the Iron Curtain between Bohemia and Germany (Chapter 9). The final destination is the reality of living and practising archaeology under the authoritarian regime of present-day Iran (Chapter 10).

The editors have succeeded in bringing together archaeological research on many of the dictatorial regimes that existed in twentieth-century Europe, and to my knowledge they are the first to offer an international audience comprehensive insight into the archaeology of several former Communist states. The chronologically and consequently geographically determined line-up of the chapters, which are not grouped into sections, seems reasonable from a historical point of view, and although the theoretical underpinning of the concepts featured in the book’s title remain unexplored, the detailed case studies expose multifaceted manifestations of repression in different cultural and social contexts, geographical areas and time-periods.

However, the chronological arrangement of the chapters does distract from the volume’s methodological strengths and creates the impression of a somewhat random selection of historical cases studies, which makes it difficult for readers to situate the volume in relation to the diverse avenues of enquiry that archaeologies of twentieth-century conflict have taken since the emergence of the discipline some 30 years ago. If the volume’s aim is to provide a comprehensive overview of current archaeological research on totalitarianism and authoritarianism in twentieth-century Europe (and its far-reaching effects), then some key themes of archaeological research are noticeably absent, such as studies on labour exploitation, war industry and the complex cosmos of internment camps in Nazi Germany (for a summary see Theune 2018) or research on monumentalism and abuses of the past under dictatorship (e.g. Galaty and Watkinson 2004). If the goal is a methodologically or theoretically distinct contribution, then it is not entirely clear what that distinction may be as regards the various subfields of conflict archaeology, such as archaeologies of internment (e.g. Myers and Moshenska 2011; Carr et al. 2018), cultural heritage and memory (e.g. Sørensen and Viejo Rose 2015), forensic archaeology and handling human remains (e.g. Anstett and Dreyfus 2015), or ethics and conflict archaeology (González-Ruibal and Moshenska 2015).

An arrangement of the chapters either according to context (mass killings, imprisonment, military, displacement) or approach (documentary, heritage-oriented, interpretative) would have been more beneficial, as this would have enabled either a diachronic perspective on manifestations of oppression and violence in different time-periods and contexts or made it possible to emphasise the scope of methodological and theoretical angles employed by the different authors. Chapters 5, 7 and 8, for instance, demonstrate the value documentary approaches have for identifying material remains of oppression and violence and for closing gaps in historical (factual) knowledge.

In Chapter 5, about the Treblinka extermination camp, Caroline Sturdy Colls and Kevin Colls present the results of their efforts to identify the location of the camp’s gas chambers – which many readers may feel familiar with from previous publications by the chapter’s first author (e.g. Sturdy Colls 2015). Through a combination of well-established methods of historical archaeology, survey and excavation techniques it was possible to uncover remains of the old gas chambers and thus to verify their location in the camp’s topography, which had been uncertain due to the Nazis’ demolition and concealment of the camp in 1943.

Moving on to Chapter 8, Gediminas Petrauskas and Aistė Petrauskienė present an overview of recent research on the archaeology of the Lithuanian Partisan War, including the search for and identification of human remains and the systematic recording of battlefields and bunkers. Through the example of a partisan bunker in Daugėliškiai Forest they also demonstrate how a thorough documentary approach that combines archaeological and forensic methods with information derived from archival sources and oral testimonies may enable a detailed reconstruction of historic events, in this particular case a Soviet assault on a group of partisans.

These two chapters are complemented by Chapter 7, in which Paweł Konczewski summarises the impressive array of Polish research into sites of the Communist period, including the recovery and identification of fatalities and the establishment of the “Polish Genetic Database of Victims of Totalitarianism”, along with the archaeological documentation of a broad variety of sites connected to violence, militarism, control and politics of displacement (e.g. prisons, jails, graves, military facilities, deserted villages). Konczewski convincingly shows how documentary approaches can unveil the omnipresent and multifaceted traces of oppression and rightfully argues that “we should not restrict ourselves to symbolic sites, but rather show […] that we live in ‘marked landscapes’” (p. 143). What make this contribution particularly relevant are the author’s considerations regarding the ethical dimensions of conflict archaeology: while archaeology may have a power “for compensating for the suffering of the victims of twentieth-century totalitarianism” (p. 144) and providing certainty to relatives and friends about their loved-ones’ fates, it is also a highly ambiguous heritage we are dealing with. It may be violently rejected (or, I would add, glorified) by former perpetrators or their supporters, while local communities who suffered oppression may be reluctant if these legacies are perceived as “an unwanted stigma that strengthens the ghosts of the past or limits economic growth” (p. 143).

This ambiguity is also central to Gilly Carr’s contribution on the “Politics of Visibility” and material legacies of German occupation in the British Crown dependencies of the Channel Islands (Chapter 4), which constitutes the only predominantly heritage-oriented approach of the volume. Based on theoretical considerations about modes of “making-visible” (Sichtbarmachung – Bernbeck and Pollock 2018), the material traces of a difficult past and conflicted attitudes towards such heritage in the (post-)occupation generation of the Channel Islands, she discusses the potential of digital archaeology to visualise and mark landscapes of occupation without “physically imposing taboo heritage on local communities” (p. 74). Carr considers communication with local communities important, but in contrast to Konczewski (Chapter 7), who clearly advocates a public archaeology approach through which research becomes a shared endeavour of archaeologists and local communities, she conveys the impression that knowledge production is a one-way street where local communities are predominantly recipients of narratives constructed by “reliable and professionally trained archaeologists” (p. 78). Certainly, these diverging approaches have to be understood in relation to often very ambiguous attitudes towards conflict heritage that can even become blunt rejection. But – from my experience – it is not only an ethical obligation actively to involve local communities in research and decision-making processes, but a necessity if we want to make a difference.

Chapters 2, 3, 6 and 9 take a different angle by employing archaeology’s potential to interrogate both the material record and a broad range of historical sources as a way to explore several issues: the practices and strategies that are constitutive of the power exercised by authoritarian regimes; the multitude of effects on peoples’ lives in different contexts (killing, imprisonment, military rule, displacement); and peoples’ responses to various kinds of oppression.

In her analyses of mass graves from Extremadura, Spain, Laura Muñoz-Encinar in Chapter 2 demonstrates that the ways in which executions of political opponents were conducted and how their bodies were treated varied considerably during different stages of the Spanish Civil War and the early phase of the Franco dictatorship. She convincingly argues that modes of visibility and concealment – including the places where bodies were disposed of – depended “on the interest of the perpetrators connected to the time and context in which the executions occurred” (p. 34).

In Chapter 3, Xurxo Ayán uses the material culture of the Francoist Catuera concentration camp to trace different “subjects of the New Spain” and the varying survival prospects of the approximately five thousand prisoners at the camp. Local ceramics and dishes, for instance, stem from the illicit interaction of prisoners with relatives – mostly women – outside the camp. The objects make it possible to trace women’s role in raising the chances of survival for the imprisoned by smuggling food into the camp, but they also highlight the harsh reality that only prisoners from the local area could rely on such acts of outside support; in contrast, inmates who were deported to Catuera from distant areas depended on the solidarity of their fellow prisoners to avoid death by starvation.

Vařeka and Symonds assess the development of barriers and spacing at the border zone along a 10.5 km section of the Iron Curtain between Czechoslovakia and the Federal Republic of Germany in Chapter 9, in relation to political measures taken by communist governments to isolate their citizens and prevent emigration to the West. Their analysis of two border patrol unit waste areas dating to before and after the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia shows how the everyday lives of soldiers were impacted by changes in the country’s political leadership. In particular, after the Soviet Union’s takeover, social activities, access by civilians (= family and friends) to the unit base and alcohol consumption were all strictly prohibited, and this is reflected by changing ratios of civilian items and alcohol bottles in different strata of the archaeological record.

A particularly intriguing contribution is Maryam Naeimi and Arman Massoudi’s study of forced migration of Poles in Chapter 6. After initially being deported to Soviet Russia during World War II, many Poles were then exiled to Anglo-Soviet Iran for the purpose of creating a Polish “Army-in-Exile” that the Allies could later send to Europe to fight the Nazis. A thorough analysis of the places and spaces of this forced migration, including data collected from Polish gravestones in Iran and photos of Polish migrants taken by Allied photographers, unveils the hardships of exile but also modes of Allied propaganda in colonial settings. Not only does this chapter succeed in exposing the global extent of oppressive systems and their entanglement with colonialism and displacement; it also stresses the utter need to expand archaeology’s current focus from the most shocking and extreme sites of oppression – mass graves, killing sites, prisons/camps, military facilities and battlefields – to the seemingly more mundane areas of quotidian live.

The chapters by Konczewski and by Naeimi and Massoudi are a call to acknowledge that authoritarianism is not restricted to genocidal and lethal actions, but permeates any part of life. This fact is also apparent in the book’s final chapter, an experimental essay by Leila Papoli-Yazdi in which she tries to convey her experience as a female archaeologist of the contemporary past working and living under the authoritarian regime of present-day Iran (Chapter 10). This very intimate account brings to the fore gendered forms of oppression and the entanglement of materiality, colonial histories and present-day dictatorship. It also painfully reminds us that oppression is not a thing of the past but a brutal reality for many people across the globe and – because not counteracted decisively – creeping its way back into Europe and other democratic states.

Taken as a whole, the volume is a rich and diverse collection that should be read by anyone with an interest in the archaeology of recent and current conflict or concerned about re-emerging authoritarian tendencies. Some readers may feel a little overwhelmed at first by the wide scope of themes and issues that are brought up, but it is definitely worth taking the time to read the work twice in order to fully appreciate the threads that connect the different chapters at various levels. The volume lives up to the back-cover’s promise to “foreground how contemporary archaeology can be used to enhance the documentation and interpretation of totalitarian and authoritarian regimes”. Not least, it provides a lot of food for thought about where archaeologies of the contemporary past may be heading in the future, and which issues we need to consider further: Which contexts and aspects of past oppression and totalitarianism have we neglected until now? Is it possible to assess underlying strategies for establishing, sustaining and extending repressive power in a diachronic and comparative way without negating cultural context and historically specific experiences of individual and collective suffering? What are our possibilities of exposing past violence and injustices with the uttermost vigour while being sensitive to diverging attitudes towards such material remains in present communities? How is past oppression connected to present political and social developments and in what ways will it shape our futures?

Anstett, E. and J.-M. Dreyfus, eds. 2015. Human Remains and Identification: Mass Violence, Genocide, and the “Forensic Turn”. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Bernbeck, R. and S. Pollock. 2018. “Quotidian and Transgressive Practices in Nazi Forced Labor Camps: The Role of Objects.” International Journal of Historical Archaeology 22 (3): 454–71.

Carr, G., M. E. Jasinski and C. Theune, eds. 2018. The Materiality of Nazi Camps. International Journal of Historical Archaeology, Special Issue 22. New York: Springer.

Galaty, M. L. and C. Watkinson, eds. 2004. Archaeology under Dictatorship. New York: Kluwer Academic / Plenum Publishers.

González-Ruibal, A. and G. Moshenska, eds. 2015. Ethics and the Archaeology of Violence. New York: Springer.

Myers, A. and G. Moshenska, eds. 2011. Archaeologies of Internment. New York: Springer.

Sørensen, M. L. S. and D. Viejo Rose, eds. 2015. War and Cultural Heritage. Biographies of Place. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sturdy Colls, C. 2015. Holocaust Archaeologies: Approaches and Future Directions. New York: Springer.

Theune, C. 2018. A Shadow of War: Archaeological Approaches to Uncovering the Darker Sides of Conflict from the 20th Century. Leiden: Sidestone Press.