The Past Isn’t Past


Alan McIntyre in The Scottish Review:

In 2012, Historic Scotland decided that it would follow the lead of English Heritage and start commemorating notable Scots through a 'Blue Plaque' scheme to identify buildings closely associated with them. With an admirable eclecticism, the initial set of 12 honourees ranged from Dudley Watkins, the creator of 'Oor Wullie', to John Logie Baird, the man ultimately responsible for the scourge that is Ant and Dec.

Walk the streets of Germany and you’ll see a very different type of link to the past. In 1995 the German artist Gunter Demnig laid the first 'stolperstein’ stones in the city of Cologne. Twenty years later, there are now 50,000 of these four-inch brass-covered cubes of concrete embedded in the streets of 18 European countries. In their day, some of the people commemorated by these stones may have been considered great men and women, but the purpose of these stones is the exact opposite of singling out the few over the many. Instead, the project seeks to be comprehensive in remembering the displacement of huge swathes of the European population by the Nazis.

Originally planned to just focus on the 1,000 gypsies deported from Cologne in the 1930s, the vast majority of the stones now identify Jews who ultimately died in the Nazi death camps. Not all who are commemorated underfoot died, but all were displaced and all were discriminated against.

These 'stumbling blocks’ are intended as a permanent reminder to the German population of the horror of those years; a visual stimulus to always think about the lives disrupted, scarred and prematurely ended during that dark period in their history. As the brass covers catch and reflect the sunlight against a generally grey background, they’re a conduit that brings the past into the present in an unobtrusive but persistent fashion. The biographical information on each stone is scant; name, date of birth, date of deportation and date of death if known. This lack of biography gives them a stark eloquence and allows the observer standing in front of a nondescript house or office block to conjure their own backstory for the victim.

America has its own historic markers. Get off the interstate highways and the verges of the USA are festooned with reminders of the revolutionary war, the war of 1812, the opening of the west, and the various other facets of what is now nearly a 250-year history.

More here.