“The allegations are demonstrably false, and they are slanderous”
An interview with the president of the university Günter M. Ziegler and archaeologist Susan Pollock on the allegations made by Götz Aly in the Berliner Zeitung
Jun 30, 2021
The leadership of Freie Universität Berlin vehemently rebuts the allegations made by Götz Aly in the Berliner Zeitung with regard to the human remains found on the campus of the university. In particular, the university refutes the unfounded allegations that its leaders have not been willing to clarify a possible connection with Auschwitz victims. In the interview below, Professor Susan Pollock from the Institute of Near Eastern Archaeology, who led the archaeological excavations and scientific investigation of the remains from the very beginning, and Professor Günter M. Ziegler, the president of Freie Universität Berlin, discussed the issue with campus.leben.
What is your opinion about the statement made in the article with regard to the origin of the bone fragments in which Aly claimed that “all evidence points to Auschwitz”?
Susan Pollock: I cannot agree with that statement. On the contrary: a number of factors point to earlier origins.
It is very likely that the bones were buried in the the Nazi era, with the exception of those found in one pit, which is probably connected to the construction of an extension to the university library. It is conceivable that a pit with bones was found there in the 1970s, the remains of which were deposited along with other materials in a newly dug pit not far away.
It should be noted first of all that the osteological analysis of the bones carried out by anthropologists Emmanuele Petiti and Julia Gresky from the German Archaeological Institute points to their origins from several different sources. There are indications that some of the bones had already been in collections for some years prior to the time of their burial. Adhesive residues on some of the bones are, for example, indicators that they came from collections that were curated at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics (KWI-A).
Radiocarbon analysis of two animal bones found with the human remains (one from a cow and one from a sheep or goat) dated them to the 2nd millennium B.C.E., indicating that they most likely came from archaeological collections. It is well known that scientists at the KWI-A, including the first director Eugen Fischer, carried out archaeological excavations and also purchased skeletal remains from colleagues and collectors.
Other results from the excavations in 2015 and 2016 demonstrate the complex nature of the findings. Many of the animal bones come from species used as laboratory animals. According to the archaeozoologist Jana Eger, these were mainly rats and rabbits, both species known to have been used by researchers at the KWI-A for experiments. They were animals bred for experimentation, and some show pathological anomalies associated with being kept in stables.
The plaster cast of a man can also be dated to a time from 1917 onward and is therefore very likely to be attributed to the activities of the KWI-A.
In summary, the human bones unearthed by the excavations, together with the associated objects, almost certainly come from the KWI-A. The evidence, however, points to diverse contexts of origin, not to a single place, whether Auschwitz or any other.
How often and under what circumstances did excavations take place on the site on Ihnestrasse?
Günter M. Ziegler: Following the discovery of the bones in 2014 and the very problematic handling of the bones and associated objects, culminating in their cremation arranged by the responsible authorities, a series of excavations took place on the site between Ihnestrasse, Harnackstrasse, and Garystrasse. At first the excavations accompanied construction works. Archaeologists were involved every time the soil was disturbed by repairs, garden work, or construction.
Susan Pollock: Whenever contexts were encountered that appeared to be of potential archaeological interest, they were recorded and carefully excavated. All bone fragments, objects, etc. were recovered and documented.
We also approached the Executive Board of Freie Universität – at that time led by Professor Peter-André Alt – with a request to excavate a specific area in order to clarify some open questions. The response was prompt and positive, leading to an investigation of the site where the bones were found in 2014. Based on knowledge gained by this re-excavation, another major excavation was undertaken in the summer of 2016. The trench that was dug with mechanical equipment in 2014 and where the bones were originally uncovered, was thoroughly examined by the archaeological team. As part of this work, two other pits were found that contained significant amounts of bone, both from animals and humans. Objects were recovered, such as numbered labels.
What is your position on the issue of further excavations on the site?
Günter M. Ziegler: We are still discussing this complex issue very carefully. I cannot give you a final answer yet. My predecessor as president, Peter-André Alt, had already set up a working group in 2015, which includes representatives from the Max Planck Society as the successor to the Kaiser Wilhelm Society as well as the Berlin State Monuments Office. I took over as chair of this working group when I took office as the president of Freie Universität in July 2018. Ms. Pollock is also a member of this group, which last met at the beginning of this month. Since this group was founded, it has been involved in the procedure for dealing with the bone fragments found on our campus. Discussions on the measures to be taken have been held in the course of numerous meetings and in close consultation with all those involved.
The excavations in 2015 and 2016 as well as the analysis of the recovered bone fragments and artifacts were extremely important and informative. Even if the bones could not be assigned to individual victims, they tell us a lot about the origin of the bone fragments and other objects from collections and laboratories of the former Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, as well as the nature of the institute’s premises and the objects found on the edge of the premises.
Of course, the working group is still discussing the issue of further excavations intensively and openly. In the process of deciding how to deal with the site and possible further excavations, the group places particular value on the recommendations made by the organizations representing victims of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute and its politics.
The issue of further excavations is also related to the group’s current considerations regarding the assessment and design of the site as a memorial and education center. No further specific archaeological excavations are being planned at the moment, but we will continue to discuss this. There was and is no such thing as a prohibition or “preventing” of scientific investigations of this kind, which Götz Aly personally attributed to me in his recent article. Anyone who makes that claim is spreading fake news. The allegations are not made any more correct by repetition and dissemination. What is certain, however, is that future construction work on the site at Ihnestraße 22-24, will be accompanied by archaeologists, as it has been in the past and as stipulated.
You mentioned cooperation with other organizations. Can you give some examples?
Günter M. Ziegler: In August 2020 we presented the findings of the investigations and our current considerations to the Central Council of Jews in Germany and the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma. Then we invited the general public to a large information event on February 23 of this year with around 280 participants. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, the event had to be held online.
That event led to very constructive exchange and to further valuable and intensive discussions with representatives of various organizations and survivors’ associations. In this context, too, the issue of further excavations was raised, and we noted that further discussions are needed.
In the article by Götz Aly in the Berliner Zeitung on June 7, Aly accuses the university leadership of stonewalling for years, preventing clarifications, and unrestrainedly playing for time. Was Freie Universität neglectful in its response?
Günter M. Ziegler: That is ignorant, if not intentionally wrong. If the author had been better informed before he wrote his article, for example, by sending us his questions and asking us for answers, as is common practice in good journalism, then these untenable allegations would not have been raised again.
The opposite is true. When there was new information, we always posted it in our online magazine campus.leben. Press inquiries were answered regularly. The information event on February 23 that I mentioned above was designed for the largest possible audience. We publicly invited anyone interested to attend the information event organized jointly with the Max Planck Society and the Berlin State Monuments Office. Invitations were issued via press releases and announcements posted in both German and English. We also communicated the invitations to attend the online event via social media and personally informed both individuals and representative organizations. Of the 350 or so registrations, about 280 attendees from Germany and abroad took part.
The information event was originally planned for 2020. We wanted to inform the public as quickly as possible after the very time-consuming examination of the bones was completed and the discussions within the working group with the Central Council of Jews in Germany and the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma had been held. That was very important to us – then, unfortunately, the pandemic intervened.
At the risk of sounding redundant, we will state it again: We do not stonewall, we do not prevent clarification, we do not play for time, and we do not work against forgetting: The allegations in the article are demonstrably false and slanderous.
In retrospect, is there anything that you would assess differently or decide differently?
Günter M. Ziegler: I think we made a very wise decision in setting up the working group to ensure that the findings of bone fragments and other objects were handled appropriately and properly. That decision goes back to the initiative taken by Peter-André Alt. In particular, it was important to work closely with the Max Planck Society and the Berlin State Monuments Office throughout the process.
We are making good progress in continuing to process the situation and the publicly discussed issues of commemoration, remembrance, and information. With a view to further investigations and some aspects of memory and education that have been raised in our working group, I intend to encourage the working group to examine whether we should involve additional partners from the state and federal governments. Remembering the victims of crimes performed in the name of medical science during the Nazi era and earlier, but also issues of ethics in research today and tomorrow – these are all issues that affect not only Freie Universität and its two partners in the current situation. These are complex issues of national and international scope.
Professor Ziegler, you were personally attacked in the article. What is your reaction to that?
Günter M. Ziegler: Even if I keep reminding myself that the attacks are so untenable and so far from the truth that they cannot really affect me personally, the baseless allegations and the insulting undertone hurt me deeply.
In 2015 the author of the article had already made very similar untenable allegations and accusations in the Berliner Zeitung against my predecessor Peter-André Alt. At that point Freie Universität Berlin immediately demanded and obtained a correction from the publisher. Since the most recent contribution by Götz Aly also contains untrue allegations and defamatory and disparaging representations of the university and the author also makes numerous false assertions, we felt compelled to contact the newspaper’s editors and publishers again and take legal action against the article. We would have liked to save ourselves this step.
Unfortunately, in spite of these measures, there is still a risk that Aly’s misrepresentation will be taken at face value and reproduced by others without further research. If anyone is genuinely interested in my and our handling of these disturbing but important topics – reflections on history, the bones and other objects, the excavations, the research outcomes, further handling of the objects, the design of the site, ideas for its future as a memorial and education center – I cordially invite you to approach me. Unfortunately, in Mr. Aly’s article, I cannot see any genuine interest in respectful exchange.