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This article considers how the reburial and commemoration of the human remains of the Republican defeated during the Spanish Civil War (1936–39) is affected by the social, scientific and political context in which the exhumations occur. Focusing on a particular case in the southwestern region of Extremadura, it considers how civil society groups administer reburial acts when a positive identification through DNA typing cannot be attained. In so doing, the article examines how disparate desires and memories come together in collective reburial of partially individuated human remains.

Human Remains and Violence: An Interdisciplinary Journal

Thousands of people died in Rotterdam during the Second World War in more than 300 German and Allied bombardments. Civil defence measures had been taken before the German invasion of the Netherlands in May 1940 and these efforts were intensified during the country’s occupation as Allied bombers attacked Rotterdam’s port, factories, dry docks and oil terminals. Residential neighbourhoods were also hit through imprecise targeting and by misfired flak grenades. Inadequate air raid shelters and people’s reluctance to enter them caused many casualties. The condition of the corpses and their post-mortem treatment was thus co-constituted by the relationship between the victims and their material circumstances. This article concludes that an understanding of the treatment of the dead after war, genocide and mass violence must pay systematic attention to the materiality of death because the condition, collection and handling of human remains is affected by the material means that impacted on the victims.

Human Remains and Violence: An Interdisciplinary Journal

In discussions of conflict, war and political violence, dead bodies count. Although the politics and practices associated with the collection of violent-death data are seldom subject to critical examination, they are crucial to how scholars and practitioners think about how and why conflict and violence erupt. Knowledge about conflict deaths – the who, what, where, when, why and how – is a form of expertise, created, disseminated and used by different agents. This article highlights the ways in which body counts are deployed as social facts and forms of knowledge that are used to shape and influence policies and practices associated with armed conflict. It traces the way in which conflict-death data emerged, and then examines critically some of the practices and assumptions of data collection to shed light on how claims to expertise are enacted and on how the public arena connects (or not) with scholarly conflict expertise.

Human Remains and Violence: An Interdisciplinary Journal

During the Second World War and its aftermath, the legend was spread that the Germans turned the bodies of Holocaust victims into soap stamped with the initials RIF, falsely interpreted as made from pure Jewish fat. In the years following liberation, RIF soap was solemnly buried in cemeteries all over the world and came to symbolise the six million killed in the Shoah, publicly showing the determination of Jewry to never forget the victims. This article will examine the funerals that started in Bulgaria and then attracted several thousand mourners in Brazil and Romania, attended by prominent public personalities and receiving widespread media coverage at home and abroad. In 1990 Yad Vashem laid the Jewish soap legend to rest, and today tombstones over soap graves are falling into decay with new ones avoiding the word soap. RIF soap, however, is alive in the virtual world of the Internet and remains fiercely disputed between believers and deniers.

Human Remains and Violence: An Interdisciplinary Journal

In recent years, exhumation campaigns of mass graves resulting from the armed conflict (1980–2000) between the Maoist guerrillas of PCP-Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) and the States armed forces have increased in Peru. People in rural Andes, the most marginalised sectors of national society, which were also particularly affected by the war, are the main group concerned with exhumations. This article examines the handling, flow and re-appropriation of exhumed human remains in public space to inform sociopolitical issues underlying the reparation policies implemented by the State, sometimes with the support of human rights NGOs. How do the families of victims become involved in this unusual return of their dead? Have the exhumations become a new repertoire of collective action for Andean people seeking to access their fundamental rights and for recognition of their status as citizens? Finally, what do these devices that dignify the dead reveal about the internal workings of Peruvian society – its structural inequities and racism – which permeate the social fabric?

Human Remains and Violence: An Interdisciplinary Journal

Based on a study of intersecting French archives (those of the Val de Grâce Hospital, the Service Historique de la Défense and the Archives Diplomatiques), and with the support of numerous printed sources, this article focuses on the handling of the bodies of French soldiers who died of cholera during the Crimean War (1854–56). As a continuation of studies done by historians Luc Capdevila and Danièle Voldman, the aim here is to consider how the diseased corpses of these soldiers reveal both the causes and circumstances of their deaths. Beyond the epidemiological context, these dead bodies shed light on the sanitary conditions and suffering resulting from years of military campaigns. To conclude, the article analyses the material traces left by these dead and the way that the Second Empire used them politically, giving the remains of leaders who died on the front lines of the cholera epidemic a triumphant return to the country and a state funeral.

Human Remains and Violence: An Interdisciplinary Journal

Mercenaries are fighters who operate under special conditions. Their presence, as shadow combatants, often tends to exacerbate the violence of their enemies. That’s why the analysis focuses on the singularity of the relationship to death and ‘procedures’ concerning the corpses of their fallen comrades. As a fighter identified and engaged in landlocked areas, the mercenary’s corpse is treated according to material constraints pertaining in the 1960s. After violence on their body, and evolution towards the secret war, mercenaries favour the repatriation of the body or its disappearance. These new, painful conditions for comrades and families give birth to a collective memory fostered by commemorations.

Human Remains and Violence: An Interdisciplinary Journal

Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, Spain has experienced a cycle of exhumations of the mass graves of the Spanish Civil War (1936–39) and has rediscovered that the largest mass grave of the state is the monument that glorifies the Franco regime: the Valley of the Fallen. Building work in the Sierra de Guadarrama, near Madrid, was begun in 1940 and was not completed until 1958. This article analyses for the first time the regimes wish, from the start of the works, for the construction of the Valley of the Fallen to outdo the monument of El Escorial. At the same time the regime sought to create a new location to sanctify the dictatorship through the vast transfer to its crypts of the remains of the dead of the opposing sides of the war.

Human Remains and Violence: An Interdisciplinary Journal
Results of the Charité Human Remains Project

From 2010 to 2013 the Charité Human Remains Project researched the provenance of the remains of fifty-seven men and women from the then colony of German South West Africa. They were collected during German colonial rule, especially but not only during the colonial war 1904–8. The remains were identified in anthropological collections of academic institutions in Berlin. The article describes the history of these collections, the aims, methods and interdisciplinary format of provenance research as well as its results and finally the restitutions of the remains to Namibia in 2011 and 2014.

Human Remains and Violence: An Interdisciplinary Journal

Established during the Guatemalan Peace Process, the Oslo Accord contemplates the question of compensating the victims of internal armed conflict. Not only was this accord founded on the principles of victims rights, but it also intends to contribute to the democratic reconstruction of Guatemalan society through a process of recognition of victims status and memory – intended to have a reconciling function. The article focuses on the work of two organisations implementing the Oslo Accord and aims to analyse the discourses and practices of the local actors and their perception of the application of victims rights. Civil society actors and members of the National Compensation Programme demonstrate different approaches both in practical work and in representations of what is right. However, revendication of local cultural values is present in all actors discourse, revealing their ambiguous position in regard to state government.

Human Remains and Violence: An Interdisciplinary Journal