In the last several years, questions surrounding monuments that aim to memorialize Confederate-era actors and events have achieved a heightened state in public discourse. And the spaces they occupy have been marked by extreme violence, protest, and debate. I am not so much interested in diving into the present to wonder at what particular intersections of politics, culture, and events have contributed to these monuments taking on significance in our current moment. But rather I suggest casting a gaze sideways towards modern Germany, a different locale with different circumstances in order to help think through what types of work memorials do as part of our built environments and how that work shapes the infrastructures of our collective memory.
Germany has a complicated and unsteady relationship with its past. The question of what to remember about its national history and how to remember it has been answered differently depending upon both location and generation. Obviously, the atrocities of the Third Reich loom large. Ever since memorializing the Holocaust became a central concern throughout the 1980s, a significant amount of work has gone into imagining, designing, and implementing structures of memorial dedicated to the many victims of the Nazi regime. And the stakes are high. Getting it right matters.
Indeed, monuments are invested with the concerns of the present in order to lend meaning to the past, bringing intellectual and material artifacts of history into dialogue with contemporary styles, thought, and debate. Memorials are often centralized, both in how they are brought into being and where they are located. Holocaust memorials are no exception (take the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, as one example). The space in which these more traditional memorials open up are often significant in their occupation of prime real estate in state budgets, urban landscapes, and cultural imagination. In so doing, they often inspire powerful responses: reverence, violence, controversy.
However, a different sort of project has emerged, one that is, I think, instructive. Beginning in 1992, German artist Gunter Demnig began to engrave brass cobblestones with the names, dates, and places of birth and death of Holocaust victims. He then installed the stones—called Stolpersteine, or “stumbling stones”— in front of the person’s last chosen address, often at the request and expense of the current inhabitants of the building.
While the project was initiated in Germany, it has since spread all over Europe, with over 70,000 stones placed so far. This number does not even begin to approach the total number of Holocaust victims (estimates range anywhere between six and seventeen million), but in walking through the streets of the cities in which they appear—Berlin in particular—one is struck by their presence. Subtle at first, the little stones are not without their own power, drawing in visitors and residents alike. Having consumed the information they contain, one’s gaze tends to drift upward toward the building itself. In which apartment did this person reside? What kind of life did they lead?
In effect, the project of the Stolpersteine is “decentralized,” in that the stones contribute to the urban infrastructure quite differently than “centralized” memorials. And yet aspects of their existence are systematized. They carry a uniform appearance, are installed by the same artist, and are tracked with a useful website that allows you to search by name or by location.
The Stolpersteine are not without controversy. Some critics argue that their subjection to everyday use tarnishes the memory of those it seeks to memorialize. Indeed, they weather the elements, they are walked on and over, they accrue various unwanted substances, and they are subject to vandalism and theft. But of course this is precisely the point. They connect the power, weight, and responsibility of remembering a difficult past with everyday lived experience.
It is not my intention to conflate victims of the Holocaust with those of North American slavery, Jim-Crow, and later civil rights struggles. But I think it is worth thinking through how memory of the confederacy, slavery, and the general flavor of US history would differ if such a bottom-up strategy of memory were adopted. How would we remember differently if the focus of our memorials were placed on the victims of power than the abusers of that power? For example, what if the locations of lynchings, slave dwellings, and other race-induced violence and oppression were marked in some way? And furthermore, what if these memories of oppression were made visible and part of the infrastructure of the everyday landscape we all encounter?
Beginning in 2010, the EJI (Equal Justice Initiative) began to research and document terror lynchings in the Deep South “in an effort to reshape the cultural landscape with monuments and memorials that more truthfully and accurately reflect our history.” They have created 800 corten steel monuments, one for each of the counties in which these acts of violence occurred (the EJI estimates the total number of lynchings to be about 4,400). While these memorials are all centralized at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, AL and open for public consumption beginning in April of 2018, the EJI promotes the monuments as offerings, to be claimed and installed by the communities where lynchings occurred.
Certainly, this project is exactly the type I have in mind, a memorial structure capable of rendering a difficult past visible and making simplistic narratives of national history untenable. It is not just what is remembered that is important (although even this unfortunately meets political push-back), but how it is remembered. Centralized museums and institutes do important work by assembling the resources, expertise, and cultural gravity necessary to research, document, and publically present history. Spaces such as the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture or Atlanta’s Civil Rights Museum are excellent examples. But often, audiences who participate in such spaces are self-selected. In addition to these, I suggest we begin to also adjust our environments to include more local, from-the-bottom memorials, ones that participate as part of our everyday infrastructures.
Brianne Wesolowski is a PhD candidate of modern Europe and the history of science and technology at Vanderbilt University, with a special focus on the intersection of aesthetics and science in the early twentieth-century body cultures of Dresden, Germany.