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.

The Idea of an Individual Monument

There is the criticism 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.

European Memory

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.

Pictures: Angelika Schoder, Hamburg 2015