Romanies (Gypsies)

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While the major episode in Romani history during the nineteenth century was the abolition of slavery in Romania and the resulting massive out-migration from that part of Europe to the rest of the world, the twentieth century was marked by two main events: the Holocaust and the collapse of communism in Europe. It also saw the emergence of organized Romani political activity, which flourished following the end of the First World War in eastern Europe. In the Soviet Union however, all Romani activism was quickly suppressed by dictator Joseph Stalin (1879–1953), who later forbade speaking the Romani language.

The First World War saw no specific actions taken against Romanies, although they suffered considerable losses in combat. This was particularly so in the conflicts between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. Romanies fought loyally for Serbia, and a monument was later erected in Belgrade "in recognition of the Romani heroes who died or were killed during the 1914–1918 war."


The interwar experience of Romanies was characterized by antagonistic reception, a movement to develop Romani political organizations, and increasing persecution of Romanies by the Nazi government.

Reception in western and northern Europe

In 1922 in Baden the German government began the process of fingerprinting and photographing all Romanies. In Switzerland in the following year, the Pro Juventute child welfare organization began the forced permanent removal of Romani children from their parents, a practice that lasted until 1984. In 1926 a law was passed in Bavaria to combat "Gypsy nomads."

In Prussia in 1927 Romanies were required to be photographed and fingerprinted and to carry identity cards, and in Bavaria none were allowed to travel in family groups or to own firearms. Those over sixteen were liable for incarceration in special work camps. A group of Romanies was tried for cannibalism in Slovakia, and a Norwegian law forbade the entry of Romanies into that country. A year later in Germany, Romanies were placed under permanent police surveillance, in direct violation of the constitution of the Weimar Republic. In 1929 the Munich municipal government jointly established the Division of Gypsy Affairs with the International Criminology Bureau (Interpol) in Vienna. Working together they imposed up to two years detention in "rehabilitation camps" for Romanies aged sixteen years and older.

Development of Romani political structures

Meanwhile in Romania, the General Association of Gypsies of Romania was founded by Nicolae Gheorghe, who organized a conference in Bucharest called "United Gypsies of Europe." He sought to establish a national commemoration of the abolition of slavery each 23 December. His organization also envisioned a Romani hospital and university, and pushed for better communication and cooperation with Romani populations outside of Romania. It was at that conference that the official green and blue Romani flag was adopted.

The late 1920s also saw the emergence of a Romani "royal line" in Poland, dominated by members of the Kwiek family, descendants of slaves liberated in Romania seventy years before. A number of Kwieks had been able to establish a dynasty and be recognized as "kings" by local police and government officials, who even endorsed their elections. Michael Kwiek II, who succeeded his father King Gregory in 1930, held court regularly. In 1934 he announced his aim of creating a Romani state on the banks of the Ganges in India, the original Romani homeland. This far-reaching plan was terminated when he was forced to abdicate and leave Poland by his successor, Mathias Kwiek. Mathias made a number of proposals to the Polish government for civil and social reform for the nation's Romani population, but general antigypsyism, and tensions within the Romani community over competition for the throne, resulted in little being accomplished. Among those contending were Joseph Kwiek, who had his own plan for a Romani homeland in South Africa, and Basil Kwiek, who had helped to depose King Michael.

It was not until 1937 that Janusz Kwiek successfully petitioned the archbishop of Warsaw to recognize him as king of the Romani people in the country. As a consequence, invitations were sent to various European heads of state, and he was crowned Janos I on July 4 of that year. He approached the Italian Fascist government of Benito Mussolini (1883–1945) to ask that Romanies be allowed to settle in an area between Somalia and Abyssinia. The following year, however, Dr. Tobias Portschy, the Nazi provincial governor of Burgenland in Austria, recommended that the Romani population be eliminated, rather than simply removed from Europe, and sterilization measures were immediately stepped up. The establishment of a Romani colony in Africa never materialized. With the Nazi invasion of Poland and the policy of extermination of the Romanies, Romani unity was critically disrupted. Kwiek, as leader, was ordered to collaborate with the death squads, but refused, and was executed. Meanwhile, some members of the Kwiek family had moved to France, where their talent for stimulating Romani political activity later helped to establish a new organization, the World Romani Community .

Nazi persecution

In 1920 Karl Binding and Alfred Hoche had published On the Disposition ofLives Unworthy of Life, employing in the title a phrase coined in 1863 by Richard Liebich to describe Romanies. The book appeared in Germany and recommended euthanizing those with "incurable hereditary diseases." On 26 May 1933 the new Nazi government introduced a law to legalize sterilization; on 14 July the cabinet of Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) passed a law against the propagation of "life unworthy of life," using Liebich's phrase. It was "the law for the prevention of hereditarily-diseased offspring," and operated against certain categories of people, "specifically Gypsies and most of the Germans of black color." Perceived "criminality" was interpreted as a genetic, that is, racial defect characterizing Romanies, and as such an incurable disease. In Nazi Germany from January 1934 onward, Romanies were selected for transfer to camps for processing, which included sterilization by injection and castration. Camps were established at Dachau, Dieselstrasse, Sachsenhausen, Marzahn, and Vennhausen during the next three years. Starting on 15 September 1935, Romanies became subject to the restrictions of the Nuremberg Laws, which forbade intermarriage or sexual relations between "Aryan" and "non-Aryan" peoples. Romanies were no longer allowed to vote, and a policy statement issued by the Nazi Party stated: "In Europe generally, only Jews and Gypsies come under consideration as members of an alien people."

In March 1936, the first document referring to "the introduction of the total solution to the Gypsy problem on either a national or an international level" was drafted under the direction of State Secretary Hans Pfundtner of the Reich's Ministry of the Interior, and the main Nazi institution to deal with Romanies, the Racial Hygiene and Population Biology and Research Unit of the Ministry of Health, was established in Berlin. Its expressed purpose was to determine whether Romanies were "human" or "subhuman" (Untermenschen). Romanies were cleared off the streets of Berlin and put into a camp because of the upcoming Olympic Games. In 1937 a Nazi law was passed that stated that a person could be incarcerated for being inherently, as well as actually, a criminal.

The first Nazi documents to mention the "Final Solution of the Gypsy Question" were issued on 24 March and 8 December 1938, signed by the chief of the Gestapo, Heinrich Himmler. Between 12 and 18 June that year, "Gypsy Clean-Up Week" (Zigeuner-aufraumungswoche) was in effect, and hundreds of Romanies throughout Germany were rounded up and incarcerated. Hitler's chancellery received a report stating that "Gypsies place the purity of the blood of the German peasantry in peril." The following year, the Office of Racial Hygiene issued the statement that "All Gypsies should be treated as hereditarily sick; the only solution is elimination. The aim should therefore be the elimination without hesitation of this defective element in the population."


In January or February 1940 the first mass murder of the Holocaust took place in the concentration camp at Buchenwald, when two hundred fifty Romani children from Brno were used as guinea pigs to test Zyklon-B, later used in the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau. In Czechoslovakia, special camps for dispatching Romanies were built at Lety and Hodonín. On 31 July 1941 Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Reich main security office and the leading organizational architect of the Nazi's final solution, ordered the Einsatzkommandos "to kill all Jews, Gypsies and mental patients." In Slovakia, the "Decree on the Organization of the Living Conditions of the Gypsies" ordered that Romanies be physically separated from the rest of the population.

In Croatia in May 1942, the government and the Ustaša police jointly ordered the arrest of all Romanies for transportation to the extermination camp at Jasenovac. Their personal valuables were sent to the Vatican, where they evidently remain. On 31 July the Ministry of the Eastern Occupied Territories reaffirmed to the Wehrmacht (German regular army) that Romanies and Jews were to be dealt with identically. Justice Minister Otto Thierack stated, "Jews and Gypsies should be unconditionally exterminated." At this time the Nazis were beginning to compile data on Romani populations in Britain and elsewhere in anticipation of the eventual takeover of those countries. On 16 December, Himmler signed the order stating that "[a]ll Gypsies are to be deported to the Zigeunerlager at Auschwitz concentration camp regardless of their degree of racial admixture," marking the actual implementation of the final solution of the Gypsy question. On the night of 2–3 August 1944, twenty-nine hundred Romanies were gassed and cremated at Auschwitz-Birkenau, in an action remembered as Zigeunernacht (Night of the Gypsies).


At the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal in October 1945, the former SS general Otto Ohlendorf stated that in the killing campaigns "there was no difference between Gypsies and Jews," although no Romanies were called to testify on their own behalf. Current estimates now place Romani losses in the Holocaust as high as one and a half million. In 1950 the Wurttemburg Ministry of the Interior denied war crimes reparations claims by Romani survivors, stating "Gypsies were persecuted under the National Socialist regime not for any racial reason, but because of an antisocial criminal record." In 1980, a West German government spokesman, Gerold Tandler, called Romani demands for war crimes reparations "unreasonable" and "slander[ous]." The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council was established in Washington, D.C., but no Romanies were invited to serve on it.

During the years following the war, the Romani population in Europe was numb. Political activity was minimal, and Romanies were reluctant even to identify their ethnicity publicly or to draw attention to it through group effort. No reparations had been forthcoming for the Nazi atrocities committed against them, and no organized attempts had been made by any national or international agency to reorient the survivors such as were being put into large-scale effect for survivors of other victimized groups; instead, prewar anti-Romani legislation continued to operate against them. In Germany, until as late as 1947, those who had come out of the camps had to keep well hidden or risk being incarcerated once again, this time in labor camps, if they could not produce documentation proving their German citizenship.

Developing Romani political structures

This began to change in 1959, when Ionel Rotaru, a Romanian Romani living in France established the World Romani Community. His endeavors gained support from as far afield as Poland and Canada; he drew up elaborate, nationalistic plans for the Romanies, including the creation of an autonomous territory within France, and a homeland in Somalia. He sought schooling, the repeal of anti-Romani laws, the development of Romani-language literature, and war-crimes reparations from the German government. He founded the Romani Cultural Center in Brussels and went so far as to have Romani passports printed. His utopian ideals proved to be a threat to the government of Charles de Gaulle (1890–1970). Said to be embarrassed by Romani claims for war crimes reparations, that government in 1965 made the World Romani Community illegal. Rotaru continued to fight, however, and the notion of a geographical homeland, Romanestan, remained uppermost in his mind. It was important, he said, to have "a territory which would serve as a refuge in the event of persecution."

In that year also, and in response to de Gaulle, a new organization called the International Gypsy Committee was created to replace it. Its leader was the French Romani, Vanko Rouda (Jacques Dauvergne) whose more pragmatic approach concentrated on issues such as war crimes reparations rather than Romani passports. It stimulated the creation of affiliated bodies in other countries, such as the Romani Council in Britain and the Nordic Roma Council in Sweden. Within six years, twenty-three international organizations in twenty-two countries had been linked by the International Gypsy Committee. In 1971 it organized the first World Romani Congress, an event funded in part by the World Council of Churches and the government of India and attended by representatives from India and some twenty other countries. At the congress, the green and blue flag from the 1933 conference, now embellished with the red, sixteen-spoked chakra was reaffirmed as the emblem of the Romani people, and the national anthem, Dželem Dželem, since sung at all congresses, was adopted. The International Gypsy Committee was renamed the International Rom Committee at the congress and became the permanent secretariat and executive authority presiding over the congress. From it, negotiations were successfully initiated with the Council of Europe (primarily in connection with anti-Romani legislation and free passage), and with the government of West Germany (in connection with war crimes reparations).

The second World Romani Congress took place in Geneva in April 1978, attended by sixty delegates and by observers from twenty-six countries. This time, the Indian links were more heavily emphasized and better represented: the prime minister of the Punjab, and his ministers of foreign affairs and of education, as well as a number of other dignitaries from India came, and were instrumental in urging the congress to apply for nongovernmental status within the United Nations. A petition was drawn up and in November 1979 was presented in person to the Nongovernmental Organizations (NGO) bureau of the United Nations in New York. Making the formal request for consultative status was a delegation led by the honorary president of the Romani Union, the actor Yul Brynner (1915–1985). By the following February, this request had been granted. An earlier petition seeking recognition of the Romanies had been sent to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights by the International Rom Committee in 1968 but was unsuccessful.

At the Geneva congress, a committee called the International Romani Union—whose name has gradually come to stand for the International Rom Committee itself—had been created to plan the third World Romani Congress. That took place in Göttingen in 1981, with three hundred delegates from over twenty countries participating. In 1993 the United Nations approved elevation from Observer to Special Consultative (Category II) status for the International Romani Union, which is now registered in the Economic and Social Council, the Department of Public Information, United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), and as a nongovernmental organization.

Between 4 and 13 April 1990, the fourth World Romani Congress took place at Serock on the outskirts of Warsaw, Poland, sponsored in part by United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and in July 2000 the fifth World Romani Congress was convened in Prague, in the Czech Republic. The sixth World Romani Congress took place in Italy in 2004, and elected the Polish Romani journalist Stanislaus Stankiewicz as its new president.

Continued persecution

The overriding theme of the Geneva congress in 1978 had been the fate of Romanies in the Third Reich, but while numbers of survivors of the Baro Porrajmos (the Romani Holocaust) testified and the resolution was made that the issue of reparations be tackled head-on, the German governments still remained intractable in their position not to give full acknowledgment to Romani losses under the Nazis. Four years later, one German newspaper wrote that Romanies had "insulted the honor" of the memory of the Holocaust by wanting to be associated with it. In 1988 the East German government announced its resolution to pay $100 million in war crimes reparations to Holocaust survivors, but refused to include Romanies as recipients. Thousands of Romani refugees were expelled by the German government in 1992, which paid Romania $20,000 to take them back. In response to the rising tide of antigypsyism, the UN Commission for Human Rights passed a resolution that same year to protect Romanies. In Barcelona, Spain, Romanies were cleared from the streets by police and confined to El Campo de la Bota in preparation for the forthcoming Olympic Games.

In Bradford, England, laws were introduced in 1985 forbidding Romanies from entering that city's limits without a permit. In October the next year, the U.S. Congressional Caucus on Human Rights sent a petition to the government of Czechoslovakia protesting its policy of the coercive sterilization of Romani women and the forcible permanent removal of Romani children from their families. In Hungary, street gangs were reported as beating up Romanies, but "police [we]re giving violence against Gypsies low priority."

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 brought major changes to Europe's six to eight million Romanies. The resulting rise of ethnic nationalism led in its extreme form to "ethnic cleansing," particularly in the Balkans. Romanies, with no country of their own in which to find refuge, suffered particularly harshly. Refugees from central Europe began seeking asylum in the West, particularly Canada and Britain, making headline news. Responses have included the creation in 1995 of an advisory council on Romanies by the Council of Europe and of the European Roma Rights Center in Budapest in 1996. A conference entitled The Prevention of Violence and Discrimination against Romanies was held in Romania in 1997. In 2001 a delegation of Romanies from many countries attended the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa, and delivered a petition to the United Nations asking that they be recognized as a nonterritorial nation with a permanent seat in the UN Assembly.

The situation did not seem to be improving at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The Economist was able to report that throughout Europe, Romanies were "at the bottom of every socio-economic indicator: the poorest, the most unemployed, the least educated, the shortest-lived, the most welfare dependent, the most imprisoned and the most segregated." A World Bank report dated 2003 stated, "Roma are the most prominent poverty risk group in many of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. They are poorer than other groups, more likely to fall into poverty, and more likely to remain poor. In some cases poverty rates for Roma are more than 10 times that of non-Roma. A recent survey found that nearly 80 percent of Roma in Romania and Bulgaria were living on less than $4.30 per day.… Even in Hungary, one of the most prosperous accession countries, 40 percent of Roma live below the poverty line."

See alsoEthnic Cleansing; Eugenics; Forced Labor; Holocaust; Refugees.


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Ian Hancock