Groups of Roma first arrived in Europe at the start of the fifteenth century, from India and from Egypt. They suffered hundreds of years of cultural persecution and discrimination. During World War II the Nazis murdered hundred of thousands Roma using methods similar to those used for the murder of Jews.
Groups of Roma people, also known as Gypsies or “Sinti and Roma”, first reached Europe in the early 15th century from India and Egypt. The Roma carried patronage certificates from Christian rulers, posing as religious pilgrims. This façade provided them a stable status for a few decades in German-speaking areas.
Although the Roma were welcomed initially, the attitude towards them began to shift throughout Europe toward the middle of the 15th century. In 1449, they were expelled from Frankfurt, and in other places the Roma were even bribed into exile.
From 1497 through 1774, the Holy Roman Empire issued approximately 146 proclamations against the Roma, mostly pertaining to removal from German lands. The Roma were forbidden to work the land, and even at times not permitted within the boundaries of the Empire, because they were considered spies of the Turks and enemies of Christianity. The law also allowed Imperial subjects to harm or even kill Roma with no legal repercussions.
These restrictive ordinances, deportations, and threats proceeded throughout the subsequent centuries. In the 18th century, the absolutist regime in Prussia increased the amount accusations and the severity of the punishments. The Roma were subjected to accusations of theft, arson and murder in this absolutist regime, because of their nomadic lifestyle. In the name of the rule of law, Roma were subjected to violence and even death sentences without trial or due process. In addition, policy dictated that Roma children must be “corrected” by sending them to Christian educational institutions so that they would not follow in the footsteps of their parents.
At the time, Germany was divided in various states, each one with its own local laws and conditions, which allowed the Roma to slip from one state’s principality into another in order to escape harsh treatment. As the state institutions grew stronger and more cohesive, the Roma faced increasing difficulties fleeing from state to state.
During the second half of the 18th century, and the beginning of the Era of Enlightenment, orders were given to enlist Roma in the army and to force them to settle in permanent locations. In Vienna in 1762, an official proclamation declared that the Roma were decent citizens and a Roma town was even established in Berleburg, Germany. In the Kingdom of Württemberg where they were given citizenship, the policy of many authorities was to monitor the Roma using social assistance. In the spirit of the Enlightenment, special importance was placed on educational means to “correct” the Roma, or in other words, erasing their ethnic uniqueness and assimilating them.
Governments created a distinction between local and foreign Roma in order to prevent the growth of the Roma population in their territory, and continued to expel foreign Roma. This distinction remained policy in many places during the 20th century. The main problem with integrating Roma into the state was community opposition, which grew from prejudice as well the fear that the Roma would become needy and a burden on communities in that were already quite poor. The government did not invest resources in integrating Roma into society, their children did not find work after completing their studies, and they therefore continued in the traditional occupations of their ancestors. The inability to solve the issue of nomadism and the failure of attempts to either expel or assimilate the Roma caused the optimistic public attitude towards the Roma to gradually turn skeptical and racist. Government policy then sought to be rid of the Roma. In the wake of industrialization the Roma were monitored more intensely, and starting in the 20th century Roma were stigmatized and criminalized. In Munich a news agency was established, which tracked and collected personal information such as details about property, birth, marriage and death.
By the end of the 1920’s the desire to solve the “Gypsy Problem” led to improvements in registration and monitoring, as fingerprints were taken for all Roma aged 16 and up.
Hitler and Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Reich Main Security Office, saw the Roma in German territory as a nuisance to rural Germans, based on ancient stereotypes. They put great efforts into “fighting the Gypsy nuisance.” The Nazis expelled them from their permanent homes; placed legal restrictions on Roma, including the law banning marriage between Aryans and lesser races; put the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor into place, and more. The Nazi Institute for the Study of Racial Hygiene saw the children of mixed marriages as completely Roma, and some even saw them as a more of a problem than “pure” Roma.
In accordance with the regulations of the “Preventative Fight against Crime,” in 1938, more than 2,000 Roma were imprisoned throughout Germany and Austria. Many were transferred to the concentration camps Dachau, Buchenwald, Mauthausen, and more. At the end of 1938 the Police Department enacted regulations for “The Fight Against the Gypsy Nuisance,” signed by Himmler. The regulations stipulated that from that point on, the “foreigners in the community” policy no longer applied to Roma, but rather they would be subject to a special policy of persecution.
In 1939 the Reich Main Security Office decided that all Roma who were caught would be transferred to special concentration camps, where they would be held until they were ultimately exterminated. In May 1940, 2,330 German Roma were transferred to the General-Government, and by the fall of 1940 another 500. 80% of those transferred were killed.
In the fall of 1941, 5,000 Roma were sent from the Burgenland region. Hundreds died of hunger, typhus and other diseases. Those who did not die of disease were gassed to death at Chelmno or other camps, similarly to the Jews. In addition, from 1940 to 1942, thousands of Roma were massacred at gunpoint.
In December 1942, the methods of persecuting and executing Roma, which until then had been carried out in various ways, were systematized. This was based on an order from Himmler for their deportation to concentration camps. Roma from Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium and northern France were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. No expulsion order was issued for Roma in Poland, the Soviet Union or the Baltic region, but whoever survived until 1943-1944 was still in danger of being sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. The order included small children, and many whole families were sent to the camp and held in the families section. The purpose was clear: “cleaning” towns throughout Europe of any Roma.
Starting in the spring of 1944 a large new wave of Jews was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and in order to make space for them in the camp, the 3,000 inmates of the Roma camp in Birkenau were exterminated.
In total, more than 19,300 of the 22,600 Roma who were in Auschwitz and Birkenau were murdered. More than 5,600 Roma were gassed to death and over 13,600 died of hunger and disease. Many survivors of the concentration camps were forced, in the last weeks of the war, to join the German war effort by being sent to the front lines and compelled to fight the Red Army.
Together with the extermination at Birkenau, a systematic, forced sterilization program was carried out in Germany in 1943-1944 in order to prevent the continuation of the Roma race. This was experienced as an indescribable tragedy by its victims, who saw themselves as a “tree which cannot bear fruit” or a “walking corpse” as the Roma were known for having many children. More than 2,000 Roma were forcibly sterilized.
The accepted estimate is that during the course of World War II some 150,000 Roma were murdered by the Nazi regime. But because the Roma were dispersed and lacked strong community organization, it is very difficult to estimate accurately. According to some researchers, the numbers are much higher and some estimates are as high as one million murdered.
After the genocide:
Germany only formally recognized the genocide of the Roma in 1985, and held two official ceremonies to commemorate the genocide. This came only after 40 long years of disagreements, and political and legal red tape on the matter of recognizing the genocide. Disputes regarding the definition of the murder as genocide, the date the genocide began, and the number of victims, were some of the many topics of discussion. The Roma received no significant compensation from Germany after World War II and many political forces in Germany consistently denied the genocide of the Roma.
Even after the recognition of the genocide, public opinion in Germany remains unfavorable towards Roma. Today there are between 5 and 11 million Roma, scattered throughout the world but with the most significant concentrations in Europe – particularly in the Balkans, Spain, France, and Turkey. Most speak both the local language of the country they live in and the Romani language.
Even today, Roma suffer from racism and discrimination by their neighbors, and sometimes even from attempted expulsions. French President Nicholas Sarkozy announced in August 2010 that Roma camps would be dismantled and their residents deported to Eastern Europe. In 2008 a Roma camp in Naples was burned to the ground, and also a public survey revealed that 68% of Italians would like the Roma expelled from Italy.