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Although for centuries the Romanis have been referred to by a score of exonyms, such as gypsies, Tsiganes, Zigeuner, Gitanos, and others, the preferred self-ascriptions—Romani, Romanies, or Roma—are being used more frequently as media attention focusing on the Romanis has multiplied in recent years. This has been the result of social changes brought about by the collapse of communism in Europe, which then led to the emergence of previously suppressed ethnic nationalism with such extreme measures as ethnic cleansing in the early 1990s, and the expulsion or even destruction of non-co-ethnics from historically claimed ethnolinguistic territories. Lacking a country of their own into which to retreat, the Romanis have suffered a particularly harsh existence as a consequence.

Almost the entire experience of the Romanis has, in fact, been one of conflict, highlighted by two major episodes in their millennium-long history: enslavement and the Holocaust. Their plight does not seem to be improving; at the beginning of the twenty-first century the magazine The Economist reported that throughout Europe, the Romanis were "at the bottom of every socioeconomic indicator: the poorest, the most unemployed, the least educated, the shortest-lived, the most welfare dependent, the most imprisoned and the most segregated" (2001, p. 29). In the early 2000s there were between nine and twelve million Romanis worldwide, with the majority residing in Central and Eastern Europe, and about a third of that number living throughout North and South America.


The original homeland of the Romanis was India. Knowledge of this fact was not retained by the population itself, nor was it recognized by Western scholars until the mid-eighteenth century. Before that time many other places of origin, some quite imaginative, were proposed, including Atlantis, Nubia, and the Moon. Since the Indian connection was first established (through the Romanis language), scholars have attempted to piece together the historical details. The prevalent hypothesis is that the ancestors of the contemporary Romanis population were a conglomerate of diverse ethnolinguistic peoples assembled into a military force together with their camp-followers in order to resist the incursion of Islam in northwestern India during the early eleventh century. Many thousands were taken prisoner by the Muslim Ghaznavids; these captives were then subsequently co-opted by the Seljuqs for use as a militia when they defeated the Ghaznavids in 1038 ce.

The Seljuqs, in turn, brought their captive Indian troops to Anatolia when they occupied Armenia in 1071. It was here that this population, of various Indian origins, gradually melded into a single ethnic one, and where the Romanis language took shape within the linguistic and social environment of the Byzantine variety of the Greek language. It has been suggested that the very name Rom may derive from the Seljuqs' then newly established Sultanate of Rum, although an Indian etymology is more likely. The Byzantine Empire conquered the Sultanate in 1099, but the entire area was gradually infiltrated by the Ottoman Turks, who took control of Constantinople in 1453 and extended their territory across into Europe, using the Romanis as military personnel and manufacturers of weaponry. A Romanis presence in Byzantine and Venetian territory in the Balkans was documented as early as the thirteenth century.

Expansion into Europe and the World

Once in Ottoman-controlled Europe, the Romanis found themselves in an economy in decline. The Crusades had failed, and the trade routes to the East were blocked—resulting in the shift of economic strength toWestern Europe and the beginnings of colonial expansion overseas. One repercussion of this in the Balkans was the transition from an agriculture based to a market-based economy, with an increased reliance on artisan labor. In the area of present-day Romania, the Romanis population was used to supply this need, quickly becoming indispensable to the economy. To keep this source of manpower from leaving, laws defining Romanis as property (and referring to them as sclavii, or slaves) began to be written into the civil code by the early 1500s; slavery was not completely abolished until 1864. Nevertheless, some Romanis were able to avoid this condition of servitude by continuing their journey to other parts of Europe. Their presence in almost every European country was recorded by about 1500. It is because of this late medieval diaspora that there are many different present-day Romanis populations, distinct from each other in their dialect of the Romanis language and the extent of Asian vs. European elements in their respective cultures and genetic makeup.


As early as 1416 the first anti-Romanis law was issued, in Germany, with fifty more to be enacted during the course of the next four centuries. Romanis in Spain were persecuted during the Inquisition, and in 1498 they were ordered to be expelled from all German-speaking territories of the Holy Roman Empire. The following year the Romanis were banished from Spain by order of the Catholic Church, and in 1504 France expelled them. Many other governments followed suit. Western European nations found an easy way to accomplish this: by shipping Romanis to their overseas colonies. Portugal transported them to Angola, India, and Brazil; Spain, France, England, and Scotland relocated them to the Americas. In 1568 Pope Pius V ordered the expulsion of the Romanis throughout the realm of the Holy Roman Church. In 1659 their mass round-up and murder took place outside of Dresden; in 1721 King Charles VI ordered the extermination of all Romanis throughout Germany. A year later Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia made it an offense, punishable by hanging, to be born a Romani, and in 1727 the mass public torture of this group took place in Giessen. The roster of atrocities seems endless.

If the identity of the Romanis as a distinct ethnic population only dates from the Byzantine period then, their Asian roots notwithstanding, they are in one sense a Western people who came into being in a Christian, Greek-speaking land. Certainly, their entire experience since that time has occurred exclusively in the Western world. The Asian component of their heritage, however, which manifests itself in language, culture, and often appearance, must be acknowledged as an overriding factor in the pervasive discrimination against them. Regarded as Christians by the Ottoman Muslims, although considered as heretics by the Christian establishment, they were probably already slaves of the Turks even before that condition was instituted in Europe.

The Islamic presence along the eastern routes out of Europe threatened not only trade but also the religious establishment; Muslims, who had also occupied Spain, were viewed as the enemy of the Christian Church. Romanis were perceived to be Muslims, and even Turks in countries where the Ottomans were only known by reputation. Turks is still a name applied to Romanis in some locales. This perception of the newly arriving Romanis as a non-European invading force is evident in yet another label applied to them: Tatars. In twentieth-century newspapers one can find numerous references to the arrival of Romanis in an area as an "invasion."

In addition to their foreign appearance and language, the Romani's lack of a country has added to their "outsider" reputation; their nonterritoriality remains a major characteristic, especially in countries where nationality is judged more by one's ethnicity than passport. Over the centuries these factors have created a situation that stigmatizes the overwhelming majority of Romanis in Europe as illiterate, unemployed, criminal, and impoverished, locked in a self-perpetuating cycle for which the means of escape simply do not exist without intervention from various human rights and other non-Romanis bodies. This image of "dependency," whether on philanthropic organizations or public sympathy, only fuels the overall distaste and hostility that segments of the non-Romanis population harbor.

The details of Romanis history are not generally known, and this was especially true during the decades of communism, whose ideology placed little emphasis on history in the classroom. The fact that for centuries Romanis have routinely been refused access to shops, schools, and churches is never taken into account as an underlying reason for their contemporary plight. Even the fact of their centuries of enslavement finds no discussion in modern history books, and only in the early twenty-first century is their targeting during the Holocaust receiving acknowledgment. Their present-day situation alone forms the basis for growing negative attitudes about them. Furthermore, countries in which such thinking predominates have traditionally regarded themselves as single-nation states, not egalitarian multiethnic societies, and the tolerance of ethnolinguistic minorities within their borders has been—and remains—minimal. Many Romanis would welcome a return to communism if only for the protection from interethnic conflict it afforded, in addition to the greater chances of employment.

External circumstantial factors contributing to antigypsyism, such as the historical association of Romanis with Islam, their nonterritoriality, and their fragmentation into numerous distinct and widely separate subgroups lacking any central representation, have only been reinforced by the overriding internal factor of exclusionism. Undoubtedly traceable to the Indian caste system, the self-imposed separateness of Romanis has been strengthened by centuries of slavery and other kinds of social distancing practiced by the European host societies. From group to group, and to a greater or lesser extent, the different Romanis populations maintain cultural behaviors that curtail intimate interaction with the non-Romanis world. From the Romanis perspective, one's luck and health depend on spiritual balance, which can only be acquired by interacting circumspectly with gadj (non-Romani; singular, gadjo, feminine, gadji), as well as with members of the opposite sex within the group, with animals, with the preparation of food, and so on. Because non-Romanis do not maintain the same behaviors, they are regarded as polluting, in a ritualistic sense, to Romanis individuals with whom they might come in contact in too intimate a manner (e.g. by sharing food, clothing, or bedding, etc.). Thus, the extent to which a Romanis would create a permanent business relationship with a non-Romani, eat food prepared by a non-Romani, allow his or her children to attend public school, or condone intermarriage seriously impacts on the achievement of an integrated society.

Porrajmos—The Romanis Holocaust

The Holocaust is undeniably another major factor in explaining the poor living conditions of the Romanis in the early twenty-first century. That "it was the will of the all-powerful Reichsführer Adolf Hitler to have the Gypsies disappear from the face of the earth," (Broad, 1966, p. 41), because they were considered a genetic contaminant threatening the gene-pool of his envisioned "master race," has been well documented. The first document referring to "the total solution to the Gypsy problem on either a national or an international level" was drafted by the Reich Ministry of the Interior in March 1936. In March 1938 Heinrich Himmler issued a statement entitled "The Final Solution of the Gypsy Question," and on December 16, 1942, he put this proposed policy into effect along with an order that "all Gypsies . . . be deported to the Zigeunerlager at Auschwitz concentration camp with no regard to their degree of racial impurity." Although Romanis losses amounted to between a half and three-quarters of their total population in Nazi-occupied Europe, no reparations were made to survivors, nor indeed were any Romanis called to testify on their own behalf at the Nuremberg Trial. Indeed, pre-Nazi anti-Romanis laws were still in effect after World War II, and numerous Romanis survivors were arrested for not possessing documents of citizenship. Some remained in hiding in abandoned concentration camps because of this until as late as 1947. The files of the Washington, D.C.–based War Crimes Tribunal from 1946 state plainly that of all the groups victimized by the Nazis, only Jews and Romanis were to be exterminated "unconditionally." Despite this, no reparations were set aside for the latter, funds that would have been of immense help to the surviving population in the areas of health, education, and assimilation, and that, one might assume, would have yielded a more positive present-day reality.

Both the targeting of Romanis by the Nazis and the failure of the world to respond to their plight after the Holocaust are the result of the extremely marginalized and fragmented nature of the Romanis people. Following World War II there were no international Romanis bodies to speak out and demand reparations, and pervasive Antigypsyism ensured that few non-Romanis organizations were moved to come forth on their behalf. The targeting of the Romanis was the culmination of centuries of German Antigypsyism, which only mirrored similar attitudes evident throughout Europe.


Romanis issues are given higher or lower priority from country to country, and Romanis populations regard themselves—and are regarded—as functioning nationally, not internationally. In practical terms, a pan-Romanis global identity, an attractive ideal for the growing number of Romanis nationalists, although a threat to the leaders of some European governments, is not likely to be achieved in the short term, if ever.

In 1993 the president of the new Czech Republic, Václav Havel, stated that how the plight of the Romanis was addressed throughout Europe following the demise of communism would be "a litmus test not of democracy but of a civil society" (Crowe, 1996, p. 1). One can count since then hundreds of racially motivated Romanis deaths, document flagrantly discriminatory statements made by spokespersons for several different governments, and evidence of the forced sterilization of Romanis women, and permanent removal of Romanis children from their homes and parents in different parts of Europe well into the 1970s and 1980s. Some of the new European democracies continue to fall short of Havel's civil ideal. In the United States too, the last of many local laws (at the state and county level) against so-called gypsies were only removed from the books in 1989, and racial profiling, in the form of "gypsy" crime units, remains a reality.

In addition to the historical and cultural factors, the institutionalized attitudes toward, and beliefs about, Romanis have been overwhelmingly reinforced by the creation of a fictional gypsy persona, which portrays Romanis as romantic, wandering thieves, and as possessing magical powers. The word Romanis is still not widely recognized, and if asked what a gypsy is, most people will offer the literary stereotype instead of an accurate description. If Romanis continue to be perceived as fantasy figures, then the serious consideration of their problems will never occur. Clearly, education is fundamentally key to positive change. For non-Romani, ethnic diversity programs in the public schools is a place to start, as well as required sensitivity training for employers, educators, and hospital staff; it is neither difficult nor expensive to accommodate the cultural requirements of Romanis in a non-Romanis environment, but they first have to be recognized. For the Romanis themselves it is recommended that externally funded teacher-training programs be instituted, or that instruction in business and artisan skills, and legal rights be available. Harsh penalties for discrimination in housing, education, and healthcare should be enforced, and compliance closely monitored. What is essential is that the cycle of dependency and exclusion be broken, and the Romanis develop the wherewithal to determine their own destinies.

SEE ALSO Holocaust; Minorities


Crowe, David (1994). A History of the Gypsies of Eastern Europe and Russia. New York: St. Martins Press.

Economist (2001). May 12, p. 29.

Fraser, Angus (1992). The Gypsies. Oxford: Blackwell.

Guy, Will (2001). Between Past and Future: The Roma of Central and Eastern Europe. Hatfield, U.K.: Hertfordshire University Press.

Hancock, Ian (1987). The Pariah Syndrome: An Account of Gypsy Slavery and Persecution. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Karoma.

Hancock, Ian (2002). We Are the Romanis People. Hatfield, U.K.: Hertfordshire University Press.

Ian Hancock