Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Germany’s Stolpersteine monuments show how a historic force of terror unfurled on the same streets people walk down today. Their disappearance is cause for concern.
The vandals certainly chose their date carefully. In the run-up to November 9th, the 69th anniversary of the Kristallnacht pogroms, vandals in the Britz neighborhood of southern Berlin prized away 16 so-called Stolpersteine (literally “stumbling blocks”), brass cobblestones commemorating victims of the Nazis. Embedded in sidewalks outside the victims’ former homes, they detail the deportations and deaths (and, occasionally, escapes) under Nazi terror. They mark dwellings of people from persecuted groups, including Jews, Roma and Sinti, homosexuals, people with disabilities, and Jehovah’s witnesses.
Suspecting neo-Nazis are the culprits, locals are disgusted. Many have already donated money to have the stones restored. These thefts do not stand alone. Some vandalism of stones has occurred all across Germany since the memorial program began in 1992—a man stealing two in the small town of Boppard was even caught on camera this May, although not ultimately tracked down for arrest. Never have they been so systematically carried out as this month in Berlin, however, leaving communities to steel themselves for a possible rash of new thefts.
That the desecration of any Holocaust memorial matters deeply is too obvious to be worth stating. The attacks on these stones are especially painful because Stolpersteine might be among the most powerful monuments to the victims of tyranny yet created. When introduced in the 1990s by artist Gunter Demnig, they offered a privately funded alternative to the tradition of larger-than-life commemorative monuments commissioned by the state (which are often powerful in their own right). Rather than becoming part of a city’s catalog of heritage—places where dignitaries came to lay flowers—these markers distributed around the city force people to integrate the memory of Nazi atrocity into their daily lives.
Indeed, it’s the stones’ locations that make them so striking, locating victims of the Nazis in the neighborhoods where they lived. You can walk down a humdrum backstreet on some ordinary errand when suddenly you come across a few glinting stones in the pavement outside a building. Bending down, you read the names and ages of the people who once walked through the door right in front of you, out toward their deaths. A 74-year-old woman here, an 8-year-old child there. You imagine their footsteps clattering down the staircase. Did they bring luggage? Did they know what was coming? Some clearly did. Among the many murdered, a few stones are marked “suicide before deportation.” The experience is close to unbearable, as it should be. This savagery didn’t just happen in scratchy newsreel footage, on parade grounds or cratered battlefields. It also happened in ordinary streets, streets like yours and mine.
It’s no wonder the concept has spread so widely, with stones now present in 22 countries. Such is their effectiveness that the program now also creates “stumbling thresholds” (Stolperschwellen), large sidewalk plaques for locations where large number of people were deported. The stones’ great strengths—their modesty, their placement in authentic, everyday locations—is nonetheless also their weakness. The number of people vandalizing them may be very small, but it’s all too easy to uproot a small, portable plaque located away from security cameras in a regular street.
But why this sudden spike in Berlin? As across Europe, the extreme right is currently on the rise in Germany. On September 24, they even entered Germany’s national parliament in the form of the AfD, an extreme-right party which nonetheless loathes being described that way. There’s no direct evidence to link the rise of the AfD with the Stolpersteine vandalisms. One nauseating detail, however, is that this October, AfD representatives in the borough where the vandalism happened (Neukölln) protested the idea of public funding for Stolpersteine—because concentrating on Nazi victims was supposedly offensive to people who suffered under the East German government, under whose jurisdiction Neukölln never fell. This kind of public denigration of the monuments’ role may not be a direct cause of their vandalism, but it certainly doesn’t help.
At least the far-right’s resistance to Stolpersteine reveals the power of the monuments. German media still holds an overwhelmingly positive attitude toward them. The stones are cared for carefully by communities in a country where the Nazi legacy precipitated decades of soul-searching and painstaking commemoration, and a horror of anti-Semitism has forced itself into most people’s DNA. Fascists hate the stones, I suspect, because they make Nazi terror so concrete. They leave the viewer with no doubt that not only did terrible things happen, but that they happened on this date, to this person—right here.