Monday, June 13, 2016

A German "Stolperstein" (stumbling stone) - you can stumble upon it but not trip over it

Of stones and "city private property".

Someone was nice enough to create an English Wikipedia page on the subject of "Stolperstein" (literally "stumbling stone"), so we start out with a fair amount of quotes.

A stolperstein (German pronunciation: [ˈʃtɔlpəʁˌʃtaɪn] from German, literally "stumbling stone") is a cobblestone-size (10 by 10 centimetres (3.9 in × 3.9 in)) concrete cube bearing a brass plate inscribed with the name and life dates of individual victims of German Nazism. The stolperstein art project was initiated by the German artist Gunter Demnig in 1992, and is still ongoing. It aims at commemorating individual persons at exactly the last place of residency – or, sometimes, work – which was freely chosen by the person before he or she fell victim to Nazi terror, euthanasia, eugenics, was deported to a concentration or extermination camp, or escaped persecution by emigration or suicide. As of 11 January 2015, over 50,000 stolpersteins have been laid in 18 European countries,[1] making the stolperstein project the world's largest decentralized memorial.

The majority of stolpersteins commemorate Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Others have been placed for Sinti and Romani people (then also called "gypsies"), homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, black people, members of the Christians opposition (both Protestants and Catholics), the Communist Party and the European anti-Nazi Resistance, military deserters, and the physically or mentally disabled.

Among the arguments against the stones, a couple stand out. One was that that people might accidentally step on them with their feet, another that they were a bit too close to the use of gravestones as sidewalk slabs by the Nazis. The then mayor of Munich, warned against an "inflation of monuments". Munich banned stolpersteins in 2004 and confirmed the decision in 2015.

The first two were made by members of the Jewish community, the latter by the Social Democrat mayor. The historical context makes the first two understandable, although other members of the German Jewish community rejected them.

The "inflation of monuments" is different, and Munich is not known for having a large number of memorials covering the years between 1933 and 1945.

To make matters worse, the city wanted to find a way to ban demonstrations by the xenophobic PEGIDA movement in 2015 and declared the whole Munich city center a memorial space that justified restrictions on demonstrations.

The descendant of a deportee sued the city to be allowed to place a stolperstein into the sidewalk in front of the house where his great grandmother had lived. He argued that the city was required to allow the installation because it was for information purposes and did not constitute an obstacle.

The court agreed but stated that a stolperstein - despite the catchy name - is not an obstacle because it is installed flush with the surrounding surface. Hence, by design not being an obstacle obviates - in the opinion of the court - any need for a permit process.

If that sounds good, it really is not.

The court decided that the sidewalk then has to be treated as private property which just happens to be owned by the city.

This removes the administrative court system from the dispute, leaving only regular civil courts if the city refuses to enter into a private contract with the plaintiff.

The city has no intention of letting the man install a stone and came up with a lofty explanation for larger, column or standing monuments: giving the victims "equal standing".

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