Laying traces in public spaces was an important theme for the sculptor and conceptual artist Gunter Demnig long before the first Stolpersteine were laid. The projects “Duftmarken Cassel-Paris” (1980), “Blutspur Kassel-London” (1981), “Ariadne-Faden Kassel–Venedig” (1982), “Landschaftskonserven” (1984) and “Flaschenpost Kassel–New York” are but some examples.
In 1990, Gunter Demnig used white house paint to commemorate the deportation of 1,000 Sinti and Roma in Cologne in May 1940. He saw it as a last dress rehearsal for the later mass transportation of Jews to ghettos and concentration and extermination camps. The idea to engrave brass plates and fix them into the ground in 21 places to preserve the text “Mai 1940 – 1000 Roma und Sinti” (May 1940 – 1000 Roma and Sinti”) emerged when the paint began to fade.
The 16th of December 1992 marked 50 years since Heinrich Himmler’s signed a decree to deport Sinti and Roma to extermination camps. Gunter Demnig used the occasion to commemorate the prelude to the deportations by engraving the decree’s first sentence onto a stone. This first Stolperstein was laid in front of Cologne’s Historic Town Hall. It was Demnig’s intention to thus engage in the debate currently underway about granting Roma from former Yugoslavia the right of residence in Germany. Gunter Demnig has explained that the next Stolpersteine were triggered by an encounter with a Cologne inhabitant who had lived through the war and was firmly convinced that no Sinti or Roma had ever lived in her neighbourhood. Thus was born his idea to commemorate all victims of Nazi persecution in front of their last chosen place of residence. A Stolperstein would symbolically return them to their neighbourhood so many years after being torn away from their daily lives.
In 1993, Gunter Demnig formulated the laying of commemorative stones for the victims of National Socialism as a theoretical concept in the publication “Großenwahn – Kunstprojekte für Europa” (“Megalomania: Art Projects for Europe“). A year later, Gunter Demnig made a first step in this direction at the behest of Kurt Pick, a priest at St Anthony’s Church in Cologne – he exhibited 250 Stolpersteine for murdered Sinti and Roma in the church. In January 1995, these concrete blocks (measuring 10 cm x 10 cm) were laid into the pavements of the city of Cologne.