Reinventing Forensic Investigations? ‘Humanitarian’ Medicine and the Corpses of Mass violence

On 31 May, we held a session on forensic medicine and the genealogy of exhumations. Chaired by Antoine Burgard (HCRI, University of Manchester), this session brought three great panellists together to think about the development of forensic techniques and knowledge during the ‘long’ Second World War, at a time when forensic medicine suffered from a lack of recognition as a discipline.

Laura Tradii (University of Cambridge/LSE) began the session with a fascinating paper entitled ‘Developments in identification practices in the Great War – Exhumations and the Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC)’. In her paper, Laura examined the specificities of British military identification practices and considered how these were shaped by the commemorative activities of the Imperial War Graves Commission.  She reminded us that prior to the war, no army had an extremely systematic method of identifying the dead bodies. The IWGC performed exhumations on an unprecedented scale: by 1918, the Commission had identified about half a million dead corpses. Laura insisted on the specificities of British state policies, including the prohibition of the repatriation of dead bodies and individual burial. She then examined post-war scandals triggered by exhumation malpractices. In conclusion, Laura pointed to some important continuities between the First and Second World Wars, including the use of dental charts, the ritualistic functions of exhumations and the role of public opinion. You can read more about Laura’s research here.

Jean-Marc Dreyfus (University of Manchester) followed with a rich and stimulating paper on the reinvention of forensic investigations within the French civilian mission for deportees’ corpses. Set up in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, this mission aimed at finding the remaining corpses of people deported from France, either victims of ‘racial deportation’ (Jews) or ‘political deportation’ (resistance fighters). This mission carried most of its activity in Germany, even though it went a little bit further East (Poland and Romania). In contrast with what Laura described, Jean-Marc demonstrated that families could claim identified bodies, but noted that in half of the cases, families did not want them back. For Jean-Marc, this was the result of the collective memories of the scandals of exhumation of the inter-war period. The search mission exhumed 50,000 corpses:  amongst them, 7500 bodies were identified as coming from France. While its scale was limited, the mission functioned over a long period and carried out systematic investigation from the early summer of 1945 to 1960. Ironically, this mission was looking for corpses that were not supposed to exist, only finding those who died in the last months of the war. Jean-Marc examined the medical techniques used, which resembles ‘forensic archaeology’, even if the term emerged later (in the 1980s). Drawing on the rich documentation left by this mission, Jean-Marc argued there was no transfer of forensic technology from the military, but instead that the mission built on knowledge from the police and criminology. For Jean-Marc, ‘It is as if the Mission started from scratch’.

Taline Garibian (Maison de l’histoire, University of Geneva) concluded the session with a thought-provoking paper ‘Forensic Intervention during WWII. Rethinking the Making of Evidence’. Drawing on her research on the British Army, she examined the place of forensic evidence in post-war trials. For Taline, forensic practices were widespread, but discreet, in part because the International Military Tribunal privileged ‘documentary’ evidence.  These judicial choices have contributed to leave forensic evidence in the shadow both in the trials and in the historiography. In her paper, Taline traced the origins of the techniques developed by the British Wartime Investigation Unit.  She analysed their work in the Ravensbrück concentration camp, highlighting the role of the military and the ways in which they used testimonies to carry out the exhumation. Although the use of forensic evidence remained limited, Taline demonstrated that discussions about the relevance of this type of evidence in combination with documentary evidence were already taking place in the aftermath of the Second World War, long before what has been called ‘the forensic turn’. For Taline, considering forensic practices thus complicates the history of evidence production in the aftermath of mass violence.

Discussions that followed probed the legacies of post-World War one exhumation scandals, the politicization of these missions and the tensions between the meticulous techniques and the expectation of results.

On 25 November 2022, Jean-Marc Dreyfus, Benoit Pouget and Taline Garibian will continue these discussions further: they are co-organising an international conference at Sciences Po Aix on exhumations in post-war France. Further information available here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: