“A natural disaster always strikes when the last one is forgotten.”– Japanese Proverb
Peppered across 1,200 towns and cities throughout Europe are more than 75,000 Stolpersteine. A Stolperstein ; plural Stolpersteine; literally means ‘stumbling stone’ and metaphorically symbolises a ‘stumbling block’. In 1992, the German artist Gunter Demnig initiated the project to commemorate individuals at exactly the last place of residency—or, sometimes, work—which was freely chosen by the person before they fell victim to Nazi terror, euthanasia, eugenics, deportation to a concentration or extermination camp, or escaped persecution by emigration or suicide.
The stones are not placed prominently but are designed to be discovered by chance, only recognizable when passing by at a close distance. In contrast to central memorial places, which can be easily avoided or bypassed, Stolpersteine represent an intentional intrusion of memory into everyday life.
In Nazi Germany, an antisemitic saying was: “A Jew must be buried here” when accidentally stumbling over a protruding stone. In a metaphorical sense, the German term Stolperstein can mean “potential problem”. The term “to stumble across something”, in German and English, can also mean “to find out (by chance)”. Thus, the term provocatively invokes an antisemitic remark of the past, but at the same time intends to provoke thoughts about a serious issue.
In the 1950s, the West German government undertook a programme called Wiedergutmachung, in English, to make good again. The programme aimed to atone for the atrocities of the Holocaust and beyond. However, according to extensive research by Paul R. Bartrop and Michael Dickerman, “in December 1951 a mere 5% of West Germans polled admitted feeling “guilty” toward Jews; a further 29% recognized that Germany owed some recompense to the Jewish people; 40% of those surveyed thought that only people “who really committed something” were responsible, while 21% considered the Jews themselves were partly responsible for what happened to them during the Third Reich.“
Post-war generations in the 1960s and beyond were much more willing to acknowledge the Holocaust and pay reparations. This generation not only questioned the actions of their parents and fellow citizens but actively sought to educate their children on the importance of questioning everything.
Collective memory refers to how groups remember their past, however, collective remembering implies that collective forgetting also occurs. Without written records, without persistent reminders of mistakes of the past, it takes just about three generations to lose the memory of a disaster. The first generation passes their direct experience (or knowledge) to their children, maybe to their grandchildren if they live long enough, but then the memory quickly fades.
According to German-British journalist Alan Posener, the “…failure of German films and TV series to deal responsibly with the country’s past and to appeal to younger audiences feeds growing historical amnesia among young Germans. Well, I don’t know about you as parents, but my kids do not even watch TV, they are unknowingly fed content by algorithms (and to their chagrin, I regularly remind them of that). A September 2017 study conducted by the Körber Foundation found that 40% of 14-year-olds surveyed in Germany did not know what Auschwitz was.”!!! Well, of course, that was just in Germany, right? Unfortunately not.
A survey released on Holocaust Remembrance Day in April 2018 found that 41% of 1,350 American adults surveyed, and 66% of millennials, did not know what Auschwitz was. 41% of millennials incorrectly claimed that 2 million Jews or less were killed during the Holocaust, while 22% said they had never heard of the Holocaust. Over 95% of all Americans surveyed were unaware that the Holocaust occurred in the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.
What about in Israel? A study conducted in Israel has shown that young participants in social media use the Holocaust as a discursive means to critique and object to Israel’s current surveillance agenda.
Stumbling stones are a way to warn future generations of the potential dangers of humanity turning on itself like a cancerous cell. Stolpersteine intend to provoke public debate and involve young generations in commemoration by getting them to explore the past. Ideally, they aim to counter similar developments in society today, making people aware of human rights violations and reminding them of how important an open, broad-minded society is.
“If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must man be of learning from experience.” – George Bernard Shaw
In my book, Undisruptable, a Mindset of Permanent Reinvention I share the remarkable reinvention by FujiFilm, who did not forget their past but became positively paranoid about it. Here is a direct excerpt from the book:
In the year 2000, photographic products delivered 60% of Fujifilm’s sales and 70% of its profit. Within a decade, digital cameras destroyed that business. In 2012, Fujifilm’s old sparring partner, Kodak filed for bankruptcy. Yet Fujifilm continues to go from strength to strength. How did Fujifilm succeed while the number 1 in the market failed?
During the 1970s the photography business was rocked to its core when the price of silver jumped tenfold from five dollars to fifty dollars per ounce. Silver was an essential ingredient to photo processing and manufacturers like Kodak and Fujifilm feared their businesses were in jeopardy. When the price plummeted again in 1980, Kodak and the other photographic businesses settled back to business as usual, soon forgetting the past! Because they enjoyed success, they soon overlooked the crisis as a blip. This was not how Fujifilm’s new CEO, Ohnishi viewed the event.
Ohnishi prepared the organisation for a radical shift in the photography business. Once Sony introduced its digital camera in 1984, Ohnishi was utterly convinced Fujifilm had no choice but to reinvent. With utter conviction, Fujifilm set to work building diverse digital capabilities. To show the extent of their commitment to the future, consider that by 2003, Fujifilm had nearly 5,000 mini digital processing labs in chain stores throughout the U.S. while Kodak had fewer than 100. As Ohnishi built Fujifilm’s capabilities before the imminent crisis, he experienced the inevitable resistance that accompanies such a large-scale transformation. Ohnishi led business process transformation in tandem with Fujifilm’s diversification efforts. When he handed the baton to Shigetaka Komori as CEO, it was the company’s most vulnerable point in history, but the reinvention flywheel was well and truly in motion and Komori built on that momentum.
In society, in families, in organisations, the past contains valuable lessons, we can’t whitewash what doesn’t feel comfortable, we must face it, accept it and learn from it. In the words of Confucius, “Learning without reflection is a waste. Reflection without learning is dangerous.”
Thanks for Reading
I was inspired to share this analogy thanks to the marination of knowledge from the diverse guests I am privileged to host each week. This week’s dish features a sprinkling of the Innovation Show episodes with Terri Givens’ “Radical Empathy” and Kenneth Cukier’s “Framers” and many more that I have subconsciously absorbed.
This week we feature David Schonthal on his book “The Human Element” and Brett King on “Bank 4.0”