Mike Stuchbery explains how, rather than mute statues, Germany has a much more dynamic dialogue with its traumatic imperial past

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With the toppled statue of 17th Century slave trader Edward Colston now retrieved from the waters of Bristol Harbour, almost every public memorial now seems to be a flashpoint — a potential figurative and literal battleground in the wave of upheaval and protest following the death of George Floyd in the US. 

From my vantage point in the south of Germany, I cannot help but feel a little bemused. In Stuttgart, the capital of the state of Baden-Württemberg, it seems as if a dialogue with the recent past is constantly taking place.  

What is clear is that instead of the triumphant figures — who only grace the central Schlossplatz — Stuttgart’s memorials commemorate an absence; of something being torn away. 

The Stolpersteine project, created by artist Gunther Demnig, is perhaps the largest memorial project ever undertaken. Outside the addresses of those murdered or deported by the Nazis, a standardised, small brass plaque is set into the pavement, bearing a name, a date of birth and a date and place of death. There are around 500 in Stuttgart alone and I cannot walk anywhere without encountering these traces of lives taken. 

Solpersteine from Stuttgart. Photo: Wikimedia

At the Nordbahnhof, another memorial remembers the Nazi deportations. By a section of track, a 70-metre wall remembers the 2,600 Jews deported from the train station. It is stark in its simplicity and seems all the more powerful on those grey, chilly autumn days. 

Closer to the centre of town, the former Gestapo headquarters, nicknamed ‘Hotel Silber’ for a former owner, has been turned into a museum. For all the work that has been done to educate the next generation, perhaps the most sobering facet is the memorial outside. It is just a street name — Else-Josenhans-Straße — and a small interpretive panel. 

Those who read the panel learn that it remembers a Jewish woman by that name who was hanged in the basement of the building on the evening of 11 April 1945. Such is the placement of the panel that those who park their bikes or use a bus there cannot help but encounter Else’s story. It is a kind of sharp slap that still stings no matter how many times you come across it. 

Less than half a kilometre away, at the Supreme Court of Baden-Württemberg, those entering the building cannot help but come across the legend: ‘TO REMEMBER THE JUDICIAL VICTIMS OF NATIONAL SOCIALISM — Hundreds were Executed Here in the Courtyard’. Nearby, stand three columns with the names of hundreds of resistance fighters, dissidents and ordinary Stuttgarters who somehow fell foul of the regime. 

A View from the top of Birkenkopf. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the most sobering memorial is the Birkenkopf — the artificial hill created in Stuttgart using the rubble from the bombed city. Ascending the hill, one behind to see columns, arches and other stonework emerging from the ground, until one reaches the summit crowned only by a stark cross. 

To live in Stuttgart — to live anywhere in Germany — is to live in a country where the sins of the past have not been shied away from. Rather, they have been turned into permanent, physical scarring. They have become brass and stone containers of an absence – of humanity, of compassion and the rule of law. 

One hasn’t seen the same sort of targeting of memorials in Germany that has happened throughout the Anglosphere, as this seismic cultural shift takes place. Perhaps that is because the injury has begun to heal, as ugly as the wounds may be. It is only through an honest an open dialogue with the past, as painful and traumatic as that may be, that we move forward.


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