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  • Writer's pictureHester Vaizey, PhD

A Brief History of the Stolpersteine in Berlin

What are the Stolpersteine?

The Stolpersteine, or Stumbling Stones in English, are concrete brass-capped squares installed around Berlin and across Europe that commemorate victims of the Nazi regime.

Stolpersteine in Berlin

Sergey.chemkaev, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Stolpersteine History

Germany has earned a reputation for facing up to its dark past rather than shying away from it. There are a number of famous landmarks and museums in Berlin which pay tribute to the six million Jews who lost their lives during Hitler’s twelve years in power, for example the Holocaust Memorial and the Jewish Museum. These are unmissable destinations for tourists and residents alike to visit and learn more about the systematic, racial persecution of Jewish people by the Nazis, which began with harassment in everyday life and violent ostracisation from society, and culminated with the attempt to exterminate all the world’s Jews – a genocide on a scale never known before or since.

The Stolpersteine, which literally translate as ‘stumbling stones’, are a lesser known project started by the artist Gunter Demnig in 1992 to commemorate the victims of Nazi persecution. Stolpersteine are little concrete squares with sides of ten centimetres, set into the pavement outside the dwellings of people who were forced from their homes by the Nazi regime. Each Stolperstein is topped with a brass plate, which bears the name of a victim and describes his or her fate.

Stolpersteine not only commemorate Jewish victims, but also include people from the Sinti and Roma communities, members of political or religious resistance movements, victims of involuntary ‘euthanasia’, gay people, Jehovah’s Witnesses and people who were persecuted for being categorized as ‘asocial’. There are currently over 8,000 Stolpersteine in and around Berlin and over 75,000 across Europe. This makes the Stolpersteine the largest decentralised memorial in the world.

Demnig’s choice of name for his project is a canny one, as it has a poetic richness of many meanings. An anti-Semitic German custom during (and perhaps before) the Third Reich was to mutter ‘a Jew must be buried here’ if you tripped over a protruding paving stone. A Stolperstein can also denote a ‘potential problem or stumbling block’, and ‘to stumble across something’ can mean to find out by chance. Each of these interpretations illuminates an aspect of the meaning of Demnig’s work. In contrast to other, more prominently displayed memorials, his Stolpersteine are discreet; pedestrians come across them by chance.

It’s no secret that while Germans have for a long time outwardly expressed contrition for the crimes of Nazism, coming to terms with it privately, within families, has been the source of huge generational difficulty – mainly the victims themselves, of course, but also the descendants of those responsible in varying degrees. Those who lived through this period have often been reluctant to talk about it, whilst their children have wanted to understand, and sometimes challenge, the roles that their loved family members played in the grand historical narrative. There’s an understandable temptation amongst the relatives of perpetrators to explain away their actions and to suggest that they had little choice, or were just following orders. This is perhaps easier than facing the truth. There have been a great deal of stumbling stones for Germans of all backgrounds as they come to terms with their Nazi past.

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