Stolpersteine – Stumble Upon Memory in Europe

Historical Memory shapes the identity of Europe. But it’s not a simple subject. The different perspectives, from which it can be analysed or lived, tend to generate debate. One of the most lively debates, with regard to memory in recent years in Germany, is the one that revolves around the Stolpersteine.


 

Stumbling Stones on the Sidewalks

The Stolpersteine, or „stumbling stones“, are the product of an artistic project. Its goal is to materialize the memory of the victims of Nazi concentration and extermination camps in the urban space. The ultimate intention of the Stolperstein project is to return to these victims their names and their place in the communities. Instead of creating a monument for a larger or smaller group of victims, each Stolperstein represents a murdered person. This artistic project has achieved great international success, especially in central Europe, but it also has its detractors – as active as they are influential.

A Stolperstein is a square-shaped concrete paving stone covered by a brass plaque in which the name and relevant data of the person killed by the Nazis are inscribed. This is placed on the sidewalk at the door of the house – or, in some cases, workplace – where the person who was the victim of deportation lived. In spite of what the name could indicate, the stone is introduced in the sidewalk being at ground level. The Stolpersteine cannot generate accidents but can – and this is one of the arguments of the detractors – be stepped on by simple carelessness. The project was conceived during the 1990s by the artist Gunter Demnig.

 

Stolperstein for Margarethe Müller in Hamburg

Stolperstein for Margarethe Müller in Hamburg

 

The Debate about Stolpersteine

The first Stolperstein was installed in Berlin in 1997 without authorization from the city. This was recognized and legalized later. Since 2000, the project has expanded to reach a large number of German municipalities. It has also expanded to other European countries and also to Russia. In total some 50,000 of these stones have been installed. That is, why we can speak without doubt of great success and great public acceptance for this project. But not everyone agrees. The discussion has even given way to a strong rejection in the city of Munich. But the specific case of Munich deserves an article of its own.

On September 8, 2015, the forum of the Körber Foundation in Hamburg organized a debate under the title „Streit um Stolpersteine“ (The Debate about Stolpersteine). The discussion reflected well what this debate means in German public life. And yet one has to admit that the debate was not entirely fair: the participants who supported the project were a majority (two to one) and „played at home“. Among the attendees there was also a clear majority in favour of the project. And I have to admit, if it has not been clear yet, that I belonged to that majority.

The discussion was attended by Peter Hess (Stolpersteine project coordinator in Hamburg), Micha Brumlik (author and publicist) and Daniel Killy (journalist). The latter was the only one on stage opposing the project. But the fact that his task in the debate was so complicated does not excuse how badly he did it: He put himself on the defensive, used arguments ad hominem when he saw no other way out and repeated the thesis of his „side“ ad nauseam without being able to avoid that his arguments were refuted. Carmen Ludwig from the Körber Foundation, who moderated that afternoon, tried, but could not avoid, that the debate had clear winners and losers. This was mainly due to the lightweight of the arguments against the Stolpersteine.

 

Criticism of the Stolperstein-Project

The main argument against Stolpersteine is the fact that the stones can be ignored or even stepped on. The artist makes up for it with the fact that, to read them, one has to bow down to the victim. And any monument is part of the street furniture and can be ignored from the beginning or you cannot pay attention when you pass by for the umpteenth time. If, as some argue, plaques were put on the facades of the buildings, they could end up covered in graffiti and, more problematic, permission would have to be obtained from the owner of the building for each, instead of getting it from the city’s urban planning department for the project in general.

Then, there is the fact that there are relatives of victims who do not like these monuments. In these cases, the Stoplersteine are not made. Or, if a stone has already been established, it will be removed or modified, if what was bothering was the form. (Sometimes, the use of Nazi terminology can offend – even if it is placed in quotation marks and in a radically opposite context). The latter is due to the fact that family permits cannot always be obtained because they are often not available or can not be located. And, on top of that, it seems that in most of the cases in which the relatives have known of a Stolperstein already installed, they have supported the idea.

And then there is the view that the Stolpersteine represent a kind of monopoly. What they are, is an original idea that arose when there was still nothing similar. It is an idea that has been easy to accept overcoming ideological barriers. And it is a type of monument that does not discriminate between groups of victims, a monument that can be installed for any individual. The idea has mobilized numerous groups of volunteers and can be carried out by anyone. That combines manual work with historical research. In my opinion, this is a good idea. And, on the other hand, it does not prevent victims from being remembered in other ways.

Part of this monopoly argument is the fact that Gunter Demnig holds the rights of the Stolpersteine and does not make them for free. This seems to me the vilest way to oppose the project. According to certain people, this type of work should not provide money. This idea is terribly elitist. It’s the idea that the arts and social work should only be hobbies of those who have time and money for it. Starting from this, they should only reach the mass through an act of charity. I do not think I should explain here how this argument makes me feel.

Trying to paralyze a project for Historical Memory because one does not like it, seems too intransigent. I recommend that, if you walk through a city in Germany, Austria, Belgium, Croatia, the Czech Republic, France, Italy, Hungary, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Ukraine or Navàs near Bacelona, look at the ground from time to time. You may stumble over the memory of someone who lived there, with the name of someone who was taken away to give him a number before assassinating him. Or, if not, have a look at the website of the project.

 


This article is a contribution to the project #SalonEuropa by Museum Burg Posterstein.


Pictures: Angelika Schoder, Hamburg 2015

6 Gedanken zu „Stolpersteine – Stumble Upon Memory in Europe

  1. Pingback: Einladung zur Blogparade “#SalonEuropa – Europa ist für mich…” – Geschichte & Geschichten

  2. Marlene Hofmann / Museum Burg Posterstein Antworten

    Dear Damián,
    thanks for presenting this successful European art project in connection to our blog parade #SalonEuropa. It clearly fits well, because it connects European history enthusiasts and art and a culture of remembering the terrible things that happened in the 1940s. Do you know if there are critical debates about the project in other European countries as well? I think, it clearly is better to have a debate then not to have a debate. And that as well fits perfectly to our aim with SalonEuropa – to make people talk to each other about Europe and its good and bad sides.

    Thanks again for sharing!
    All the best wishes,
    Marlene

    • Damián Morán Dauchez Autor des Beitrags

      Dear Marlene
      It’s a very good question regarding the Stolpersteine. I’m not aware of any debates on the project in other European countries. Especially the debate in Munich seems to be unique I think. But that doesn’t mean there are no debates at all on Stolpersteine. Maybe these debates just don’t get recognized on an international level.

      Thank you for initiating the very interesting blog parade #SalonEuropa.
      All the best, Damián

  3. Pingback: 18. MusErMeKu: Stolpersteine – Stumble Upon Memory in Europe // @musermeku (3.10.2018) – Salon Europa

  4. Tanja Praske Antworten

    Lieber Damián,

    vielen herzlichen Dank für deinen Beitrag zur Blogparade #SalonEuropa!

    Mir gefällt dein Überblick der kontroversen Diskussionsstränge zu den Stolpersteinen sehr gut. Ich war mal auf einer Podiumsdiskussion zum Thema, was Apps dürfen und was nicht, ob sie sensible geschichtliche Themen behandeln dürfen oder nicht. Der Direktor des Jüdischen Museums München saß auch auf dem Podium. Tatsächlich wurden die Stolpersteine angesprochen – ein in der Tat schwieriges Unterfangen.

    Also, merci für deine Gedanken!
    herzlich,
    Tanja

    • Damián Morán Dauchez Autor des Beitrags

      Liebe Tanja,
      die Debatte um Stolpersteine in München ist sehr speziell. In keiner anderen Stadt (im In- oder Ausland) kenne ich eine ähnliche Diskussion zu dem Projekt. Ich finde es sehr schade, dass Stolpersteine in München so eine Ablehnung erfahren. Das Projekt ist eine gute Aktion, die Menschen zum Nachdenken bringt. Die Lösung in München mit Stelen und Gedenktafeln heißt nicht, dass diese Gedenkmerkmale nicht auch von Passanten übersehen oder ignoriert werden können. Gedenkhinweise sind sogar schwieriger umzusetzen, weil die Genehmigung von einzelnen Hausbesitzern eingeholt werden muss. Das ist ein viel größerer Aufwand als einmal eine zentrale Genehmigung von der Stadt einzuholen. Die hat sich nun dagegen entschieden. Es ist schade, dass es in München bis auf weiteres deshalb keine Stolpersteine geben wird.

      Viele Grüße, Damián

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