When we think of the appalling crimes perpetrated by the Nazis, perhaps the first that springs to mind is the Holocaust. This massacre of six million European Jews is infamous and widely understood. But what is less well-documented is the fate of the Romanis, or Gypsies as they’re often called, at the hands of the Nazis.
But who exactly are the Romani or Gypsies? In fact their very name is controversial. Although they are still often called Gypsies, some find that term offensive because of its associations with social deviance. The English word “gypsy” comes from the widely held belief that the Romani people originated from Egypt – gypsy is simply a shortening of the country’s name.
But the Romani people – or the Roma – generally prefer that name. And the traditional story of the Roma is an extraordinary one which has only been confirmed by genetic analysis in recent years. In 2012 The New York Times reported that the legend describing how the Roma had originated from north-western India around 1,500 years ago had now been ratified by science.
David Comas, a scientist from Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, Spain, told the newspaper, “Some genetic studies have also pointed to India before, but it was not clear what part of India.” But now here was evidence of the true origin story of Europe’s Roma.
Comas expanded on the Roma story. “Fifteen hundred years ago these people went to the Balkans and then spread all over Europe,” he said. “And they have mixed with Europeans during different periods throughout. This is an example of one minority that has been ignored in most genetic studies. What we have now is an idea of the origins and genetic structure of this population.”
So the Roma were a people who spread across Europe from medieval times onward, with substantial populations in many European countries such as Spain, Greece, Bulgaria and Croatia. And they had been subject to discrimination for centuries, with racist attitudes crystallizing and hardening in the latter part of the 19th century, particularly in German lands.
This increased discrimination against the Romani was based on new “scientific” theories of racism. Many now embraced the theory that people’s social conduct was determined by their race. And of course the Nazis eagerly embraced this pernicious theory. It fitted perfectly with their idea of a white, Aryan master race atop a pyramid of inferior races. And the Romani and the Jews were especially singled out as inferior.
But state-sanctioned discrimination against the Roma was not initiated in Germany by the Nazis. In fact, it started before the National Socialist German Workers’ Party was even founded. As early as 1899, an agency was established by the German Empire’s security police to record and monitor all Romani people.
Then in 1926 the “Law for the Fight Against Gypsies, Vagrants and the Workshy” was introduced to the statute books in the state of Bavaria. The Roma were now forbidden to follow their nomadic lifestyle. Anyone without a regular job could be sentenced to two years of forced labor. Even more explicitly titled racist legislation – the “Law for the Fight Against the Gypsy Menace” – was passed in Hessen state in 1927.
So the deck was well and truly stacked against the Romani even before Hitler assumed power in Germany in 1933. And in 1936 the screw tightened. Dr. Robert Ritter was put in charge of a new body, the scientific-sounding Racial Hygiene and Demographic Biology Research Unit. This racist creation was tasked with providing the information needed to formulate a new “Gypsy Law.”
Unsurprisingly, Ritter concluded that the Romani, like the Jews, were a threat to the racial “purity” of the German people. In his 1991 book Racial State: Germany 1933–1945, Michael Burleigh quoted the architect of the Holocaust, Heinrich Himmler. “The aim of measures taken by the State to defend the homogeneity of the German nation must be the physical separation of Gypsydom from the German nation, the prevention of miscegenation, and finally, the regulation of the way of life of pure and part-Gypsies,” Himmler wrote.
From 1936 onwards, Romanis were arrested and thrown into internment and concentration camps. But mass murder was not the order of the day – yet. In fact, there was a bizarre and macabre debate in the upper ranks of the Nazi hierarchy about the proper solution to the Romani “problem.”
The Nazi ruler of occupied Poland, Hans Frank, refused point blank to allow the deportation of 30,000 Roma from Germany and Austria to his territory. Himmler apparently believed that “pure-blooded” Roma were an ancient Aryan people and wanted to save some of them. Martin Bormann, a key Hitler aide, wanted to deport them all. But Himmler settled the debate in 1942 when he ordered that the Romani should be sent to death camps such as Treblinka and Auschwitz.
The fate of Germany and Austria’s Roma was now sealed. But, of course, there were Romani people living in all of the countries that had been conquered and occupied by the Nazis during the early years of World War II. They too were subject to murder, but the precise details of how these grisly acts were carried out varied from country to country.
In the region of 3,000 to 6,000 Roma were rounded up in France and sent to the death camps. In Eastern Europe, the Nazi’s mobile murder squads, the Einsatzgruppen, massacred Jews and Roma, although records were often not kept. We know that there were some 8,000 documented murders of Roma individuals in Russia alone.
Like the Jews, Romanis often resisted the Nazis. At Auschwitz in 1944 a section of the camp was set aside for the Roma. When the Nazis tried to move them to the gas chambers they were met by their intended victims, well aware of their planned fate, armed with crude homemade weapons. The Nazis backed down at that point, but most of the Romanis were killed later. Some 23,000 Roma entered Auschwitz; by conservative estimates 19,000 of them were murdered.
Elsewhere in Europe, the level of persecution varied greatly. In those countries such as Poland and of course Germany itself where the Nazis exercised direct control, the oppression was at its most severe. In supposedly independent satellite countries such as Romania, Hungary and Slovakia, the Roma mostly survived. But in fascist Hungary, as many as 33,000 of the Romani population of between 70,000 and 100,000 were forcibly expelled.
When it comes to putting a definitive figure on the number of Roma slaughtered by the Nazis, there are various difficulties. You see, in the chaos of the Einsatzgruppen operations in Eastern Europe, records were seldom kept. And when records were kept in concentration camps these were often lost or deliberately destroyed by fleeing Nazis.
So the estimates of how many Roma died at the hands of the Nazis vary wildly, as do the projections for the numbers of Roma who were living in Europe before the Nazi era. At the conservative end of the scale, the historian Martin Gilbert believes some 220,000 out of a total population of 700,000 were killed. Meanwhile, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Research Institute historian, Dr. Sybil Milton, reckons that the Nazis killed “something between a half-million and a million-and-a-half.”
At any rate, the Nazis failed in their goal of eliminating the Roma from the face of Europe, just as they had with the Jews. But just recently, the Romani people have faced renewed waves of discrimination in Europe. Amnesty International has reported discrimination and persecution in several countries including Hungary, Serbia and Kosovo. It seems that the long struggle by Europe’s Roma for acceptance is most certainly not over.