Plundering from the dead is certainly not something new to society. Detestable to say the least, grave robbing has been a dark part of the culture of mankind for thousands of years.
Dating back to the time of the Egyptian pharaohs, when members of the pinnacle of society were buried with all of their worldly treasures and gifts to take with them on their journey in the afterlife, opportunists have been pursuing the easy riches when fortunate enough to locate the hidden tombs. Evidence exists that stealing from the dead back then was as disgusting as it is today.
After sending millions of troops to the Eastern Front in an effort to subdue the Red Army and to take capture principal cities in the Soviet Union, Hitler’s plan began to fail early in 1942. As the Russian began to win the war of attrition, the Wehrmacht began to fall back, slowly ceding territory gained in 1941, the preceding year, leaving a trail of Germany’s finest buried in more than 3 million graves behind in their wake.
Since the end of World War II, a market for Third Reich militaria has thrived, fueling the growth of militaria collecting. During the last few decades, prices and demand for WWII German militaria have exploded, driving some sellers to seek new sources for the much-desired items. Unscrupulous sellers, seeking to line their wallets, have turned to the rich soil of Russia and Latvia, literally digging up the graves of Wehrmacht soldiers in search of dog tags and other in-demand pieces. Once the prizes have been removed, the desecrated bodies are disposed into mass graves, leaving no means for future identification.
Aside from the disturbing thoughts that the militaria items you are purchasing may have been removed from the grave a veteran some 70 years after his burial, there are other more disheartening results.
Most of us have heard the “no one is left behind” mantra of the U.S. armed forces demonstrating the concept that regardless of the situation (wounded, deceased or missing), our service men and women will not be abandoned. To this day, the military is still working to reunite those service members killed in all previous wars, seeing that they are returned to their loved ones for burial, providing closure and finally answering decades-old questions (see: Remains of WWI veteran identified, returned for burial).
Since the fall of communism and the dismantling of the iron curtain, German officials have been providing families with answers as to the final disposition of their missing veterans, and to date, 716,000 Wehrmacht soldiers have been located and reburied. Unfortunately, many will not be identified due to the theft of their identification tags.
From the Times of London:
“It’s wholesale looting of battle sites, and the bones are just tipped into holes at the end of the day” – Paul Reed, a military archaeologist.”Second World War archaeology is in its infancy at the moment, and these people are destroying our future, as well as desecrating the graves of fallen soldiers. None of them deserved to have their bones dug up.”
As collectors and sellers rejoice at the steady flood of these new-found pieces hitting the market, thousands of families will never know what befell their family member.
The United States government recognized the impact of grave robbers and treasure seekers would have on grave sites and submerged ship and aircraft wrecks in the Pacific, establishing laws and relationships with other nations to protect them from theft.
Hopefully, lawmakers and law enforcement in these countries will honor their former adversaries by providing protection for the graves of these soldiers.