Germany’s stumbling stones go missing amid far-right backlash

Artist Gunter Demnig works quickly and quietly. He kneels down to remove a slab of Berlin pavement and carefully replaces it with three small brass plaques, engraved with the names of the Boschwitz family. They lived here 75 years ago before they were sent to Auschwitz and murdered.

“For some people, it’s like a gravestone. They don’t have somewhere to grieve,” Demnig explains to CNN. “So this is a place to remember. It cannot be a gravestone but for some people it is like a gravestone.”

These are “stumbling stones,” Demnig’s extraordinary memorial to the more than 6 million killed in the Holocaust. The concept is simple: a brass plaque for every casualty of the slaughter.

He began 20 years ago and the idea has now taken him to more than 21 countries, installing more than 67 thousand plaques. It is the largest memorial of its kind in the world.

Someone once chided him about placing memorials that people could trip over. “I said, no. You won’t fall. But if you stumble and look, you must bow down with your head and your heart,” he said.

Germany has worked to ensure the horrors of World War II are not forgotten. The walls of the country’s parliament are still scarred with the anti-Nazi graffiti left by Soviet soldiers. And German schoolchildren are required to visit Holocaust memorials. But a backlash against the way history is taught has been brewing.

Germany’s nationalist, far-right party the Alternative for Germany (AfD) is challenging not just Demnig’s memorial but Germany’s “culture of remembrance,” which it has described as a “dictatorship of memory.”

“With their actions, the stumbling stone initiators impose a culture of remembrance on their fellow human beings, dictating to them how they should remember who and when,” wrote AfD lawmaker Wolfgang Gedeon in a statement to his local parliament in February. “Who gives these obtrusive moralists the right to do so?”

Wolfgang Gedeon’s call to ban stumbling stones in his constituency was rejected by the local mayor, but it sparked a debate in parliament about how Germany should remember its World War II history.

The far-right AfD party is now the largest party in parliament and its lawmakers have become increasingly vocal in their demands, not only to put an end to immigration and ban Islam, but also to revise Germany’s remembrance culture.

Alexander Gauland, the head of the AfD’s parliamentary wing, has openly praised the “achievements” of Nazi German soldiers.

And when Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, a Holocaust survivor, addressed the Bundestag in January to praise Germany’s “generous brave and human gesture” to take in modern-day refugees, AfD lawmakers sat in stony silence and refused to applaud.

Gedeon declined CNN’s request for an interview. When Demnig is asked how he views Gedeon’s complaint, the artist laughs it off: “That’s their normal way. But we will continue this for the young people. That’s the idea: We do it for the young people.”

Irene Weingartner has harsher words: “Those people who think they are very good Germans are bad Germans if they refuse to remember what has happened in Germany and by the German people.”


Subscribe to the EJC newsletter

Get the EJC newsletter, including the latest statements and news from the European Jewish communities, direct to your inbox.

European Jewish Congress will use the information you provide on this form to contact you. We will treat your information with respect and will not share it with others. By clicking Subscribe, you agree that we may process your information in accordance with these terms.

browse by community