Grave robbers are plundering the burial sites of thousands of German soldiers to feed the demand in Britain for Nazi memorabilia.
Tens of thousands of troops from the Third Reich were killed in battlefields in east Europe during the Second World War. Alongside their fallen bodies were items such as dog tags, rifles, daggers and helmets.
Organised gangs are now digging up the graves of the dead soldiers to make off with the valuable items. The trade in Nazi memorabilia is worth millions of pounds and Britain is one of a handful of European countries where it is still legal.
But Armed Forces groups have slammed the practice of unearthing the bodies of the men in the hunt for collectible items. The bones are simply scattered on the ground or tossed into mass graves, or in some cases they are even sold.
Military archaeologist Peter Reed branded it ‘wholesale looting’ and said the men’s skeletons are ‘tipped into holes’.
‘Second Word 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 who do not deserve to have their bones dug up,’ he told The Times.
The trade is focused around battlefields in eastern Europe and Russia. Items being sold at recent fairs include those excavated from sites in Demyansk in Russia and Kurland in Latvia.
Experts say that Russian authorities turn a blind eye to activities of the gangs, because they have ‘little regard for Germans’. They added that the trade was ‘almost mafia-run’.
Memorabilia incudes troops’ dog tags, coins, medals, helmets, rifles, daggers, ammo boxes, and any other pieces of equipment that have survived the decades in tact.
The items are sold on eBay, various other online sites, through networks of dealers and trade fairs.
At the recent War And Peace fair – the biggest in Europe – which took place at the Hop Farm in Paddock Wood, Kent, various Nazi collectibles taken from the graves are said to have been on sale.
One trader was offering more than a dozen Nazi dog tags. He said that a tag that had been snapped in half was likely to be from a grave.
According to a young female collector of war memorabilia, it is mostly historians who buy items from war graves and not neo-Nazis.
The 20-year-old woman, known only as Virginia, said collectors ‘know more than most the pure evil that was the Third Reich’.
‘If you’re a devout Nazi, you want something clean. With the relics, what you’re doing is buying a piece of history.’
She said a Hitler Youth dagger she had bought caused a ‘very strong and sad’ feeling in her, and that she would study each detail and mark on it.
But despite the enthusiasm from collectors to get hold of relics, the trade has sparked anger from the German War Graves Commission.
The organisation traces around 40,000 dead soldiers each year and reburies them. They say that the gangs are deliberately trying to obstruct their work.
Charity president Fritz Kirchmeier said: ‘Often staff discover that graves have been looted. Worst is the lack of dog tags, without which we cannot identify the soldiers.’