Long before the Nazi Party came to power in Germany,
the European Roma were despised and rejected. Their foreign appearance,
their strange customs and language, their nomadic way of life and lack
of regular employment contradicted established conventions. The European
states decided that the only way to deal with the Roma was to remove them
by expulsion, repression, assimilation and, later, extermination.
Early Persecution in Europe
The King of Denmark, in 1589, decreed that any leader of a Roma band
found on Danish soil was to be sentenced to death. In the seventeenth century,
any vessel bringing in Roma would be confiscated. From that time on, and
until 1849, any Rom found in Denmark was subject to deportation. "Gypsy"
hunts were organized with rewards to those who captured a Rom.
Norway, too, confiscated any vessel that brought Roma to Norwegian soil.
In the nineteenth century, Norway passed a law allowing Roma to remain
in the country only if they abandoned their nomadic ways. Norwegians found
the Roma way of life unsanitary, and felt justified in taking Roma children
away from their parents.
Sweden enacted harsh laws to deter the Roma, also. Roma were not allowed
to enter the country. Those who managed to do so were immediately expelled.
Those who failed to leave were brutally attacked or hanged. All Roma who
managed to escape to neighboring Finland were driven back to Sweden, since
Finland also refused them.
France enacted a series of expulsion laws beginning in 1510. Throughout
the sixteenth century any Roma caught in the country were flogged. In the
following century, Romani women who were captured had their heads shaved
and were sent to workhouses. The men were put into chains in galleys.
In the sixteenth century England, Roma were ordered to leave or be imprisoned
because the English believed them to be sorcerers, thieves and cheats.
Signs were posted in the English countryside, telling the Roma that they
must leave England. Those who remained were given forty days to leave.
Failure to do so meant death. Despite this, many Roma hid in the countryside.
In 1562, all English men and women who showed sympathy with the Roma became
subject to punishment. The Romani way of life was considered a crime, and
those who kept company with or in any way imitated Roma were guilty of
Some European countries deported the Roma to their colonies as cheap
sources of labor. The English sent many of their Roma to Barbados, Australia,
and North America. The French sent many of their Roma to Louisiana in the
early nineteenth century, but this plan was later abandoned when Louisiana
was sold to the United States. The Portuguese sent hundreds of their Roma
to Brazil, and the Spanish deported many to their South American colonies.
Repressive laws were also common. Nomadism was banned in Spain, and
the speaking of Romani was forbidden. Roma were forced to abandon their
traditional clothing and could not own horses. No marriage was permitted
between them. They were not allowed to gather in large groups. At one time,
Roma who neither conformed to Spanish ways nor left the country were made
Slavery was a solution to the "Gypsy problem" in other countries. Because
of a shortage of workers in Wallachia and Moldavia (present day Romania),
Roma were forced into serfdom. They were owned by local rulers, and some
were even owned by the government. The church not only condoned this practice
but also bought Roma slaves. This practice continued until around 1864.
Switzerland allowed "Gypsy" hunts in the sixteenth century, as did
Holland in the eighteenth century. In the former Moravia, it was allowed
to cut off the left ear of all Romani women who were caught. In Bohemia,
removal of the right ear was legal.
In Hungary the Roma were taken into slavery in the fifteenth century.
Once freed, a number of restrictive measures were taken against them, including
a 1740 law that stated that no Rom could perform metalworking outside his
tent. This law was aimed at any attempt by the Roma to compete against
In 1761, the Queen of Hungary decided to turn these Roma into what she
called "New Hungarians." They were supplied tools, seed and animals for
farming, despite the fact that they had never shown any interest in farming.
The Romani language was outlawed, and they were not permitted to trade
horses or to sleep in tents. The Queen's son and successor carried on and
implemented his mother's policies. Nomadic communities were forced to settle,
children were required to attend school and go to church. Adolescent Roma
were taken from their families to learn trades. Roma music was prohibited,
except on special holidays. All these measures failed, and by the nineteenth
century the Roma had gained a certain amount of freedom.
By the end of the eighteenth century, Spain encouraged the Roma to give
up their nomadic way of life and to become integrated with the Spanish
people. A law was passed called "Rules for Repressing and Chastising the
vagrant mode of life, and other excesses, of those who are called Gypsies."
Roma could follow any career of their choosing, but only if they renounced
their own traditional way of life.
The fundamental hostility towards the Roma remained
unchanged, reaching its most tragic limits in Hitler's Germany before and
during World War II. The Roma were seen as "asocial," a source of crime
and culturally inferior. When Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany in
1933, his Nazi administration inherited "anti-Gypsy" laws that had been
in force since the Middle Ages.
The Roma presented a problem for Hitler. The racist policies he directed
against the Jews were based on the fact that they were non-Aryans. The
Roma were one of the oldest Aryan groups in Europe and did not fit into
this category. At first, the Hitler regime tried to force German scholars
to deny the truth, and to state that Roma were not Aryans. However, many
scholars refused to follow Hitler's demands, often resulting in their own
imprisonment. The Nazis soon abandoned the non-Aryan argument, and they
created other reasons for doing away with the Roma. According to Nazi policy
the Roma were not Nordic. They were "asocial," "subhuman beings" and members
of a "lower race."
On 15 September 1935, Jews were restricted by the Nuremberg Law for
the Protection of Blood and Honor, and Roma were added later in 1937. This
law forbade intermarriage or sexual intercourse between Aryan and non-Aryan
peoples. Criteria for classification as a Rom were twice as strict as those
applied to Jews. If two of a person's eight great-grandparents were even
part-Rom, that person "had too much Gypsy blood to be allowed to
live." According to the Nazi hierarchical system, Roma belonged with Jews
at the bottom of the racial scale.
In 1937, the Roma were forced into concentration camps, officially called
"resident camps" at Dachau, Dieselstrasse, Mahrzan and Vennhausen. The
Roma interned included those found in Germany and in the Nazi occupied
countries. The Nazi Party was given the cooperation of other European governments
in its campaign to locate and identify Roma throughout Europe. Prisoners
at Buchenwald were worked to death as slave laborers in the camp quarry
or at outlying arms factories. There were no gas chambers but thousands
were shot, hanged, or tortured to death by the camp's guards.
To the Nazis, being a Rom meant being diseased, so these prisoners were
sterilized to prevent them from spreading this disease by reproduction.
Some Roma were sterilized as early as 1933, though no Jews had yet been.
In July 1938, the Endloesung, or Final Solution, plans were being
finalized. Among the many categories of Nazi victims, only the Roma and
the Jews were singled out for annihilation on racial grounds. Only Jews
and Roma were considered genetically "tainted," threatening German racial
purity. During the following months, Roma were transported to the camps
in Poland. These Roma movements were later stopped because of the expense
involved. Roma in the Baltic States, Poland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, France,
Italy, Hungary and the rest of Nazi-occupied Europe were forced into camps
for later extermination.
In February 1943, large-scale roundups were established in Germany,
and over ten thousand Roma had arrived in Sachsenhausen by April. Hitler's
infamous deputy, Heinrich Himmler, decided that the Roma camps were to
be eliminated, and began a program of liquidation. Roma were beaten and
clubbed to death, herded into the gas chambers, and forced to dig their
The fate of the Roma paralleled the tragic fate of the Jews, who were
also imprisoned and exterminated. They were tortured, used for inhuman
scientific experiments, and put to death in the infamous gas chambers.
One of the worst of the camps, Auschwitz, held sixteen thousand Roma at
one point. By August 1944, only four thousand Roma remained. After a visit
by Himmler, the last imprisoned Roma were led to the gas chambers.
An estimated 1.5 million Roma were murdered from 1935 to the end of
World War II.
1945 to Present
After the war, the Roma received little, if any,
reparations from any government for their losses and suffering. Not a single
Rom was called to testify at the Nuremberg Trials, or has been to any of
the subsequent war crime tribunals.
Today, German scholars acknowledge the Roma suffering in Nazi Germany,
although prejudice at the popular and governmental levels remains. In 1985,
the Mayor of the City of Darmstadt, Guenther Metzger, told the Central
Council of the German Sinti and Roma that their request of recognition
"insult[ed] the honor of the memory of the Holocaust victims by aspiring
to be associated with them."
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council has taken an interest in the Roma
situation. Former director Micah Naftalin has gone on record as stating
that "the only other ethnic group [besides Jews] marked also as a genocidal
target was the Gypsies."
Recognition of the Roma persecution by the Nazis
is slowly being acknowledged and accepted. In his acceptance speech for
the Nobel Peace Prize on 16 September 1986, Professor Elie Wiesel stated:
"I confess that I feel somewhat guilty towards our Romani friends.
We have not done enough to listen to your voice of anguish. We have not
done enough to make other people listen to your voice of sadness. I can
promise you we shall do whatever we can from now on to listen better."