Only a few thousand Roma in Germany survived the Holocaust and the Nazi concentration camps. They faced enormous difficulties when trying to build their lives again, having lost so many of their family members and relatives, and having had their properties destroyed or confiscated. Many had their health ruined.
For these survivors, no justice came with the post-Hitler era. Their claims for compensation were rejected for years. Significantly, the mass killing of Roma people was not an issue at the Nürnberg trial. In fact, the genocide of the Roma – Samudaripe or Porrajmos – was hardly recognised in public discourse.
The history of repression against the Roma precedes the Nazi era and goes back several hundred years – following their migration from the Indian subcontinent. The methods have varied over time and have included enslavement, enforced assimilation, expulsion, internment and mass killings. The Roma have been routinely stigmatised as unreliable, dangerous, criminal, and undesirable. They were the outsiders who could easily be used as scapegoats when things went wrong and the locals did not want to take responsibility.
The sad history of the Roma people in Europe is still largely unwritten, though efforts are nowadays made by scholars – some of them with Roma background – and for instance the Council of Europe.
A pattern of repression for centuries
In Wallachia and Moldavia (today’s Romania) the Roma lived in slavery and bondage for centuries up to 1855 when the last Roma slaves were finally emancipated.
In Spain more than 10 000 Roma were rounded up in a well-planned military-police action one day in 1749. The purpose according to a leading clergyman who advised the government was to “root out this bad race, which is hateful to God and pernicious to man”. The result was devastating – deportations, detentions, forced labour and killings destroyed much original Roma culture.
In the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the 18th century, rulers applied a policy of enforced assimilation. Roma children were taken from their parents, and instructions went out that no Roma were allowed to marry another Roma. The Romani language was banned. This policy was brutally enforced and use of the language was punishable by flogging.
Escalating atrocities in the 20th Century
Fascists in the 20th century also turned against the Roma. In Italy a circular in 1926 ordered the expulsion of all foreign Roma in order to “cleanse the country of Gypsy caravans which, needless to recall, constitute a risk to safety and public health by virtue of the characteristic Gypsy lifestyle”. What followed in fascist Italy was discrimination and persecution. Many Roma were detained in special camps; others were sent to Germany or Austria and later exterminated.
The fascist “Iron Guard” regime in Romania started deportations in 1942. Like many Jews, about 30 000 Roma were brought across the River Dniester where they suffered hunger, disease and death. Only about half survived the two years of extreme hardship before the policy changed.
In France, about 6 000 Roma were interned during the war, the majority in the occupied zone. Unlike other victims, the Roma were not systematically released as the Germans retreated. The French authorities saw continued internment as a means of forcing the Roma to settle.
In the Baltic states, many Roma were killed by the German invasion forces and their supporters within the local police. Only 5-10% of the Roma in Estonia survived. In Latvia about half the Roma population were shot. It is estimated that the vast majority of Roma in Lithuania were also killed.
In fact, all countries in Europe were affected by the racist ideas, in particular during the years between the two world wars. In neutral Sweden, the authorities encouraged a sterilisation programme to target the Roma (and some other vulnerable groups like the Sami people). In Norway likewise, pressure was exerted on Travellers to be sterilised.
Mass killings by the Nazis and their collaborators
The Nazi regime in Germany defined the Roma (including the Sinti) as “racially inferior” with “asocial behaviour” which was deemed hereditary. This reflected old and widespread prejudice in both Germany and Austria. The Nürnberg race laws of 1935 deprived the Roma of their nationality and rights as citizens: they were interned in labour camps and sterilised by force. Some Roma, not least children, were singled out for Josef Mengele’s cruel medical experiments. A policy of forced sterilisation was implemented, often without anaesthesia.
The systematic murder of Roma by Nazis started in the summer of 1941 when German troops attacked the Soviet Union. The Roma were seen as spies for “Jewish Bolshevism” and were shot by the German army and the SS in mass executions. In all areas occupied by the Nazis there were executions of Roma people. Figures are uncertain, but it is estimated that far more than 100 000 Roma were executed, including in the Balkans where the killings were supported by local fascists. The Ustascha militia in Croatia ran camps, but also organised deportations and carried out mass executions.
In December 1942, the Nazi regime decided that all Roma in the “German Reich” should be deported to Auschwitz. There, they had to wear a dark triangle and a Z was tattooed on their arm. Of all camp inmates, the Roma had the highest death rate: 19 300 lost their lives there – 5 600 gassed and 13 700 dying of hunger, disease, or as a result of medical experimentation.
It is still not known how many Roma in total fell victim to the Nazi persecution. Not all Roma victims would have been registered as Roma, and the records anyway were incomplete. The fact that there were no reliable statistics about the number of Roma across Europe before the mass killings took place makes it even more difficult to determine the precise number of Roma casualties. Council of Europe research has concluded that it is highly probable that the number was at least 250 000. Other credible studies indicate, however, that there may have been 500 000 Roma who lost their lives, and perhaps many more.
Need for truth commissions and official recognitions of the crimes committed
The Roma victims of the Nazi era were forgotten for many years. The struggle by survivors to obtain compensation received a very minimal and tardy response. There have been a few positive exceptions. In 2003, the Romanian Government established a commission to document the repression and killings in Romania during the fascist period. After long delays a dignified memorial site for Roma victims was created in Berlin close to the building of the Bundestag.
The Swedish government recently issued a study into the treatment of the Roma people during the last century. The report, published as a White Paper in 2014, demonstrated systematic discrimination, for instance in relation to job seeking and schooling. Roma fleeing from Nazi or fascist repression in other parts of Europe were prevented from entering the country; a law to that effect was in force from 1914 up to 1954.
The Swedish White Paper was produced by a team inside the government administration. Though the team protected its independence it would have been preferable to delegate this task to a totally independent truth commission (in fact, an independent commission was set up after the White Paper was published with the task to propose actions against current anti-Gypsyism). Irrespective of the process, the fact that the White Paper was produced and published was immensely important for the Roma community in Sweden.
The grim history of the Roma people in Europe has been largely forgotten and partly denied. This is unacceptable and contributes to the continued marginalisation of the largest ethnic minority on our continent. Truth commissions should be established in all European countries with a Roma population. Ideally, there should be a Europe-wide review of the mass atrocities against the Roma during past centuries up to now. A full account and recognition of these crimes might go some way to restoring trust amongst the Roma towards the wider society.
Many Roma continue to see the authorities as a threat. When required to register or to be fingerprinted they fear the worst. This is all the more understandable when they explain how they see similarities between much of today’s anti-Roma rhetoric and the language used in the past in Europe by Nazis and fascists. They are acutely aware that such inflammatory racist language made way for the mass killings of their people in the 1930s and 1940s.
By Thomas Hammarberg, Former Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights and Chair of the Swedish Commission against Anti-gypsyism, article published in ENARgy, The European Network Against Racism’s webzine