The 'Stolpersteine' and the Commemoration of Life, Death, and Government: A Philosophical Archaeology in light of Giorgio Agamben

Research output: Book/ReportPh.D. thesisResearch

Lars Östman

The subject for this PhD-dissertation is the Stolpersteine: monuments that since the 1990s commemorate victims of the Third Reich. The Stolpersteine are small artistic cobblestones made by the German artist Gunter Demnig, and disregard religious and racial, political and sexual background of the victims. The Stolpersteine are made out of cement and with a ‘HIER WOHNTE’ engraved on the brass plate on top of the stone they indicate where the individual victim lived; name, day of birth and death as well as the victim’s fate is also engraved on the stone. The Stolpersteine are installed not only in Germany, but all over the former Reich reaching a total of 43.500. Through three parts—one methodological and two theoretical—the dissertation discusses and interprets the Stolpersteine in light of Giorgio Agamben’s homo sacer-project. In Part One the dissertation develops the philosophical archaeology where the ideas of both
Agamben, Michel Foucault, and Carlo Ginzburg are interpreted in opposition to Jan Assmann’s theory of cultural memory. Thus, the dissertation argues for the principle of reality maintaining a fundamental insistence on the difference between commemorating myth and fact, Pesach and Auschwitz.
In Part Two the dissertation argues that the state of exception is a key to understand the Third Reich in its transition away from the Weimar Republic. The National Socialist ‘gewollte Ausnahmezustand’ fundamentally breaks with Carl Schmitt’s theories of commissionary and sovereign dictatorship respectively. Hence, due to the anti-constitutionalism of National Socialism where the Führer is Law, the state of exception develops into what Agamben—on the shoulders of Foucault—has identified as a biopolitics. Such a politics has stripped the citizen of his juridical and ethical clothes and thus left him as what Agamben defines as naked life. In Part Three the dissertation discusses to what extent the Stolpersteine succeed in commemorating the humanity of the victims in the midst of the inhumanity in which they found themselves. The analyses show that the Stolpersteine on crucial points challenge the integrity of the homes of current residents. The Stolpersteine wish to restore the victims’s dignity via the use of legal, ethical, and religious categories; hence, through the Stolpersteine the factual past seems to be normalized using the same principles from the state of law which the Third Reich destroyed. The dissertation discusses the implications of such a politics of commemoration on the basis of Karl Jaspers and Hannah Arendt, i.e. whether not something far worse happened to the victims of Third Reich exterminations than what can be grasped by law, ethics, and religion.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherKøbenhavns Universitet, Det Humanistiske Fakultet
Number of pages288
Publication statusPublished - Sep 2014

ID: 123461845