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Stumble Blocks and Public History

2014 September 16
Stumble blocks in central Vienna, November 2012

Stumble blocks in central Vienna, November 2012

I have been preparing for the new course on Public History that I am teaching at the University of Greenwich as part of the new MA in History. I will be emphasising Public History as a process and thinking about the different ways in which people learn about (as well as construct) particular pasts. Inevitably memorialisation in the landscape will come into this.

An interesting example are the ‘stumble blocks’ I have seen in Germany and Austria. Here the pedestrian ‘comes across’ a discredited part of a nation’s past  – an idea initiated and developed by the artist Gunter Demnig. His work both highlights and individualises the victims of Nazi oppression. Echoing some of the ideas of psycho-geographers, coming upon unexpected details from the past in contemporary wanderings, over 43,500 stumble blocks (Stolpersteine), small bronze plaques on small concrete blocks, can be found embedded in pavements in many European countries. By the end of 2013 they were present in more than 1000 locations. They are of a standard form and include brief details of the individual names of people who had lived nearby with dates of birth and of either deportation or murder at the hands of the Nazis.

While the work is an artistic representation it was made possible through the research of historians (including family historians) and, of course, the very existence of those who had died but lived in a particular locality. Since the blocks are within pavements and not normally indicated on nearby walls it is inevitable that pedestrians walk upon such memorials (in a way they would be unlikely to walk on, say, a gravestone within a church without making a conscious choice.) The pedestrian may then have a choice – if the ground beneath her feet is noticed as she stumbles – whether to stop and read the name or to pass on. As indicated in the image here, since the stumble stones are indeed part of quotidian life they may also attract rubbish and cigarette butts. It has been suggested that the very walking over ‘ keep[s] the memories alive by inadvertently rubbing the rust off the metal and bringing back the shine.’ Moreover, to read the inscriptions one needs to bend over ‘which may be interpreted as bowing to the victims in tribute.’

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