20 years of remembering the Holocaust on German streets

20 years ago today, on May 3rd 1996, the first Stolpersteine - brass plaques laid in the street to remember Holocaust victims - were laid in Berlin. They have now spread all across Europe.

20 years of remembering the Holocaust on German streets
Stolpersteine. Photo: DPA

Who are they for?

Stolpersteine – literally stumbling blocks – are commonly associated with Jewish victims of the Nazi regime – but they are in fact for all the victims of the Holocaust.

Roma, homosexuals, black people, communists and socialists, and other opponents of the Nazis are commemorated through the small brass plaques.

Why did the project start?

Gunter Demnig, a German artist born two years after the end of the war, came up with the idea for the Stolpersteine. Quoting the Talmud, Demnig says on the official website that “a person is only forgotten when his or her name is forgotten”.

The project is thus an attempt to ensure that the Nazis were unsuccessful in their attempt to eradicate their victims from history.

Demnig officially laid the first stones in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, although he had already laid some without permission a year earlier in Cologne.

How do they work?

A Stolperstein from Budapest, Hungary. Photo: DPA

Each block is set into the street in front of the last known address of the person before they were killed. It contains the person's name, birth date, death date, and how they died or fled their home, for example being sent to and murdered at Auschwitz.

How big has the project grown?

There are currently Stolpersteine in around 1,000 German municipalities.

But the project has long since spread beyond the borders of the Bundesrepublik. The plaques can now be found in the streets of cities in Austria, Hungary,  the Netherlands, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Norway and Ukraine.

There are some 58,500 across Europe – still a tiny fraction of the roughly 6 million victims of the Holocaust.

Why do I never see any in Munich?

Munich remains stubbornly out of step with the rest of Germany on Stolpersteine. Not a single one can be found on the southern city’s streets – despite the fact that at least 4,500 of the city's Jews died in the genocide.

But, it is not because the city’s authorities are embarrassed about discussing their past. The head of the Jewish community in the Bavarian capital has put the brakes on the project.

Charlotte Knobloch, President of the Jewish Community of Munich and Upper Bavaria (IKG), herself a Holocaust survivor, has described Stolpersteine as “dishonorable and impious”.

Her anger stems from the fact that people stand on the plaques. Munich is therefore developing columns as an alternative form of commemoration.

Demnig has personally laid over 55,000

At the end of March, Demnig laid a Stolperstein for Bela Feldheim in Valentinskamp, Hamburg. It was the city's 5,000th.

Feldheim was a baby when she was murdered by the Nazis because of her Jewish heritage.

Demnig, himself, has laid 95-98 percent of all the Stolpersteine in Europe.

Gunter Demnig lays a Stolperstein for Bela Feldheim in Hamburg. Photo: PBela Feldheim. DPA

Correction: This article originally stated that Demnig had laid 5,000 Stolperstein, rather than the over 55,000 he has laid.


German justice contaminated by Nazis in post-war years

Germany's justice system was still filled with former Nazis well into the 1970s, as the Cold War coloured efforts to root out fascists, according a damning official inquiry presented Thursday.

Professors Friedrich Kießling and Christoph Safferling present their report
Professors Friedrich Kießling and Christoph Safferling present their report "State Security in the Cold War". Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Uwe Anspach

In the 600-page collection of findings entitled “State Security in the Cold War”, historian Friedrich Kiessling and legal scholar Christoph Safferling focused on the period from the early 1950s until 1974.

Their research found that between 1953 and 1959, around three in four top officials at the federal prosecutor’s office, which commissioned the report, had belonged to the Nazi party.

More than 80 percent had worked in Adolf Hitler’s justice apparatus, and it would take until 1972 before they were no longer in the majority.

“On the face of it they were highly competent lawyers… but that came against the backdrop of the death sentences and race laws in which they were involved,” said Margaretha Sudhof, state secretary at the justice ministry, unveiling the report.

“These are disturbing contradictions to which our country has long remained blind.”

‘Combat mission’

It was not until 1992, two years after Germany’s national reunification, that the last prosecutor with a fascist background left the office.

“There was no break, let alone a conscious break, with the Nazi past” at the federal prosecutor’s office, the authors concluded, stressing “the great and long continuity” of the functions held and “the high number” of officials involved in Hitler’s regime.

Chief federal prosecutor Peter Frank commissioned the study in 2017. The federal prosecutor’s office is one of Germany’s most powerful institutions, handling the most serious national security cases including those involving terrorism and espionage.

With more than 100 prosecutors, it is “the central actor in the fight against terror,” the report authors said, underlining its growing role in the decades since the September 11th, 2001 attacks in the United States.

The researchers were given unfettered access to hundreds of files labelled classified after the war, and found that rooting out alleged communists was often prioritised over other threats, including from the far right.

“In the 1950s the federal prosecutor’s office had a combat mission – not a legal but a political one: to pursue all the communists in the country,” the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung said in a summary of the report.

‘Recycling’ Nazis

The fact that West Germany widely used former officials from the Nazi regime in its post-war administration had long been known.

For example, Hans Globke served as chief of staff and a trusted confidant to former conservative West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer between 1953 and 1963 and was responsible for recruitment to top posts.

However, Globke had also been a senior civil servant in the Nazi-era interior ministry and was involved in the drafting of the 1935 Nuremberg race laws that imposed the first dramatic restrictions on Jews.

In recent years, systematic digging into the past of key ministries and institutions has unearthed a troubling and previously hidden degree of “recycling” of Third Reich officials in the post-war decades.

A 2016 government report revealed that in 1957, more than a decade after the war ended, around 77 percent of senior officials at the justice ministry had been members of the Nazi party. That study, also carried out by Safferling, revealed that the number of former Nazis at the ministry did not decline after the fall of the regime but actually grew in the 1950s.

Part of the justification was cynical pragmatism: the new republic needed experienced civil servants to establish the West German justice system. Furthermore, the priorities of the Allies who won the war and “liberated” the country from the Nazis were quickly turned upside down in the Cold War context.

After seeking to de-Nazify West Germany after 1945, the aim quickly shifted to building a capitalist bulwark against the communist threat. That approach often meant turning a blind eye to Germans’ previous involvement in the Third Reich.

In recent years, Germany has embarked on a twilight attempt to provide justice for concentration camp victims, placing several former guards in their 90s on trial for wartime crimes.