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The Roma, the Sinti & Me Reflections on Antigypsyism Then and Now

A Memorial and its Meaning

After a mere five-minute walk from the Brandenburg gate in the shadow of the German Bundestag, we reach the Memorial for the Roma and Sinti victims of National Socialism. In order to enter we step through a wooden doorway into a small, secluded area. While walking towards the pond, with a triangle at its center, we step over a path of cobblestones. We notice the names of concentration camps engraved on several of the stones. The closer we get to the pond, the more tightly they form together. A poem reads around the perfectly round pond:

 

Pallid face,

dead eyes,

cold lips.

Silence.

A broken heart

without breath,

without words,

no tears.

 

 

The Memorial to the Murdered Roma and Sinti was only opened to the public on October 24, 2012. It reinforces the importance of remembering and understanding the atrocities committed against Roma and Sinti during the Second World War and the way they have shaped German society and the German psyche until this day.

“You cannot know where you are going until you know where you have been.” This simple yet profound statement was the starting point for our self-reflective journey into the subject matter of Antigypsyism. While forming our ideas about what shape this article should take, we felt a strong need to create a personal narrative of the topic. Unsurprisingly, instead of clarifying the issue, this approach created more questions: What exactly do we know about the history of the Roma and Sinti? Where do we start? What is worthy of inclusion in such a vast field? How does the historical context help us understand the phenomenon of Antigypsyism today? We knew this group had been persecuted and murdered under the Nazi regime in Germany. But surely there must be more to the story. After all, the Roma and Sinti according to McGarry (2011) remain the most discriminated minority group in Europe and are still viewed with suspicion by the majority of society. Sadly, this discrimination and persecution of the Roma and Sinti has a long tradition.

 

A Short History of the Roma

During the Middle Ages, the Roma and Sinti emigrated from the Indian sub-continent to Europe. It is not possible to accurately re-create why they immigrated to Europe, as written historical records are non-existent. However, since their arrival, majority populations marginalized the Roma. In order to understand Antigypsyism it is essential to acknowledge that many of the prevalent prejudices and stereotypes have not considerably changed over the course of history.

This seemingly unaltered adherence to centuries-old stereotypes and prejudices seems to suggest that it cannot simply be a matter of one group reacting to the cultural practices of another (in this case the majority European population opposed to the Roma and Sinti). It becomes evident that a process of “othering” is the cause of the ever-present prejudices and stereotypes, which in their basic nature do not change. However, they appear to shift in the context in which they are expressed.

This situation is problematic: It creates a vicious cycle. The in-group forces its prejudices on the Roma and Sinti, as it has for centuries, thereby pushing them further away from inclusion into society. How then can the out-group actually be blamed for not being able to integrate into society? Could the problem instead lie within the majority society? 

We could have used many different examples of the ways in which European societies have been prejudiced and outright discriminatory towards the Roma and Sinti. However, at the heart of the discrimination against Roma and Sinti and their exclusion seem to lie the atrocities that occurred during the Second World War. Early on during the Nazi regime it was made clear that the Roma and Sinti were not seen as part of the German society, but were stigmatized as “work-shy” and “social parasites” not willing to adapt to German society and German principles. The fanatical division of society along racial lines, exemplified by the Nuremberg laws, was the first step in the direction of the mass murder of around 500,000 Roma and Sinti (Weisz, 2011).

Porajmos. This is the Romani term given to the genocide of the Roma and Sinti in Europe during National Socialism. It literally translates to “the devouring”. We did not know this term prior to our research. Why have we never encountered it before? It is so powerful; it invokes fear and terror – while at the same time perfectly portraying the industrialization of mass murder. Sometimes, it seems as though the crimes committed against the Roma and Sinti are a mere statistic. This word, however, reinforces the severity of the genocide on a personal level and truly conveys the injustices that were forced upon the Roma and Sinti.

It is important to note that the Porajmos and the ideas behind it are not only relevant to Nazi Germany. Forces driven by prejudices and active discrimination were and are prevalent in German history. German state institutions have long before the Nazis ostracized the Roma and Sinti and – more shockingly – continue to do so even after the Porajmos.

In 1899, a special police task force (Gypsy Affairs Unit) and an agency (Central Office for Fighting the Gypsy Nuisance) were established, in order to counter the perceived threat of the Roma and Sinti. Among other things, one goal was to establish a database that listed all Roma and Sinti in Germany. This database was in turn used by the Nazis to conduct perverted research. For example, the Racial Hygiene Center (Rassenhygienische Forschungsstelle, RHF) was based on the skewed racial worldview of Nazi Germany. What is most shocking is that the research that had been conducted since 1899 has formed the basis of knowledge for experts of post-war Germany in the 1950s and onwards.

Hermann Arnold was seen as the foremost expert on Roma and Sinti in Germany after the Second World War. However, his research material was heavily based on the work of the Racial Hygiene Center RHF. Even his vocabulary was borrowed from Nazi terminology. In addition, the archival material collected by Hermann Arnold was not open to the public. The research material was available to distinct private individuals only, making it impossible for survivors of the Porajmos to gain any insight on what was collected regarding their community.

Why was there no clear break after the Porajmos? How was it possible that worldviews so obviously fed by hate and prejudice were allowed to further develop in an academic context after the Second World War?

In 1982, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt met with a delegation of the Council of German Roma and Sinti in which he formally acknowledged the racially motivated murders of around 500,000 Roma and Sinti during the Nazi regime. Prior to that, the predominant view was that the Nazis had persecuted the Roma and Sinti because of their perceived asocial behavior. Thereby they were reinforcing the idea that the Roma and Sinti were unwilling to adapt to the majority society. It is shocking that it took the German state so long to acknowledge that the crimes against the Roma and Sinti were racially motivated. Without the efforts of the Roma and Sinti community itself, no one would have bothered to recognize the crucial difference between these two lines of argumentation. 

 

Contemporary Discrimination of Roma and Sinti in Europe

In the West today, we are often priding ourselves for having overcome World War Two and the racist inclinations and practices of the National Socialist regime. However, we must ask ourselves if racism and discrimination are only phenomena of the Nazi past. History shows us that stereotypes and prejudices existed long before National Socialism, as they were the foundation that allowed the Nazi regime to build its racist ideology without much defiance. We know that it was these stereotypes and prejudices that were used as building blocks to solidify the inferiority of Roma and Sinti, ultimately leading to their mass murder. Also we currently do not realize that the end of National Socialism has not marked the end of stereotypes, prejudices and racism. A racist legacy continues not in the form of mass murder, but in the form of widespread discrimination.

Despite being the largest minority group in Europe, numbering between 10 and 12 million (European Commission, 2004), Roma are “the most discriminated and marginalized community in Europe” (McGarry, 2011). If we look closely at those around us and at ourselves, we will notice that negative perceptions of Roma live within us whether intentionally or not. These negative perceptions are byproducts of stereotypes and prejudices that continue to pervade European societies. Moreover, they are the cornerstones of a society that tolerates and enables the discrimination of Roma in various countries on various levels.

For centuries, Roma have been excluded from European societies, experiencing countless forms of discrimination. While facing social exclusion everywhere, Roma in Eastern and Western Europe have also been subjects of physical exclusion. In France and Italy, Roma have been concentrated in “authorized” and “unauthorized” camps in periphery areas of major cities. Situated in some of the most impoverished neighborhoods, many of these camps provide a less than comfortable living environment. In addition to harsh living conditions, the camp inhabitants also have to fear eviction. Violence against Roma camps is on the rise, too. On numerous occasions, locals have set camps on fire with the intention of forcing Roma out of their neighborhoods.

What is further disturbing is the mere existence of these camps. The ghettoization of Roma and Sinti is all too familiar. Widely used during World War Two, ghettoization was a crucial step in a process that ended with the deportation of thousands of Roma perceived as “gypsies” to forced labor and death camps. We must ask ourselves how it is possible that ghettoization is allowed anywhere, but even more so, in countries with dark histories of complicity in the deportation of Roma.

During the Second World War, Vichy France openly facilitated deportations. Also, Italy had an instrumental role as one of the three key axis powers. Today, the discourse in Italy on its “gypsy problem” shows clear remnants of its fascist past, including the existence of Roma camps. While the meaning of the “gypsy problem” remains unclear, the very term seems problematic. Is this language not far too similar to the “gypsy question” rhetoric used during World War Two? Have we overlooked the signs that point to continuity, i.e. the continuity of racism and discrimination?

Indeed, we have. Discrimination against Roma and Sinti in education systems throughout Europe is no new phenomenon. In fact, as in many European countries, in the Czech Republic, “special schools had been designed after the First World War for children with special needs, mainly those with mental or social deficiencies” (Ignatoiu-Sora, 2011). The stigmatization of Roma has allowed these special schools to operate as schools largely for Roma children. Since their creation, Roma children had been assigned to these schools, segregating them from non-Roma children despite their proven capability to attend traditional schools. In 2007, it was estimated that “a Roma child was twenty-seven times more likely to be assigned to a special school” than a non-Roma child (Ignatoiu-Sora, 2011). 

This idea of segregated schools remains equally problematic in Hungary, as in many other parts of Europe. As of 1999, Hungary still had over 150 segregated schools (Ignatoiu-Sora, 2011). While some efforts have been made to improve the education system in Hungary, this has only slightly lessened educational segregation. 

Stigmatization of Roma has been extremely prevalent in Hungary and seems to be on the rise. The growing power of the far right wing in Hungary has allowed for escalating violence against Roma. In its 2013 report to the European Commission, the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) reported “22 known cases of violence against Roma. In these incidents seven people died, including a five-year old boy, and a number of individuals were seriously injured. Ten Romani homes were set on fire with various levels of destruction. Guns were involved in 10 of the examined cases and in two cases hand-grenades were used. Out of the 22 attacks, nine, resulting in six deaths, are believed by police to have been committed by the same four suspects who are currently on trial” (European Roma Rights Centre, 2013). ERRC went on to comment on the inadequacy of the police force in terms of not only police misconduct but also various procedural errors. Could it be possible that the Hungarian police force, if not actively supporting racially motivated violence, at least tolerates it? If so, we should ask ourselves how it is that this is possible? This seems to be largely reflective of a government unwilling to implement a system that will allow for racially motivated crimes to be considered as hate crimes. 

Why should we be concerned? Hungary has a history of fascism and cooperated heavily with Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany during World War Two. Do we not have reason to be concerned with a democracy that is heading in the direction of authoritarianism when considering that Roma cannot even escape discrimination in many of Europe’s oldest democracies?

Today in Hungary, as in the Czech Republic, Roma women continue to undergo forced sterilization (ERRC). As part of the Eugenics movement, forced sterilization was common practice during the Nazi era. It aimed to reduce reproduction of the perceived inferior race so as to eliminate undesirable genes from the genetic composition of the human population. Resultantly, many Roma perceived as ”gypsies” were forced to undergo sterilization. Forced sterilization remained a government practice even after the Second World War and is still tolerated today even if it is not necessarily incentivized by the current administrations. Roma women in Hungary and the Czech Republic continue to report instances of being sterilized after Caesarean sections and abortions without knowing. Some describe being asked to sign paperwork that allows permission for sterilization without understanding what they are signing.

What does this tell us about our societies? It shows us that discrimination in institutions still exists. Moreover, it reveals prejudices on individual levels. If not government mandated, how is it that doctors still continue to perform these forced sterilizations? Do doctors not have agency to make moral decisions? How is it possible that doctors have used their agency to hinder Roma life when the very point of their existence is to preserve life? Is it irrational to question whether the individuals performing these forced sterilizations are racist towards Roma? Doctors are everyday people and everyday people can be racist. Racism does not only occur on the societal level, it takes individuals to create and enable racist societies.

Let us take a look at Germany. Germany is just one example of a society that suffers from racism and discrimination with only few acknowledging it. What is important, however, is that there are clear signs of racism and discrimination in Germany. As in Hungary, German authorities often fail to acknowledge that crimes against Roma and Sinti are based on racist attitudes. The police force might be reluctant to consider racism as a factor in hate crimes. Should we not consider a racist crime to be a hate crime? Is genocide not the mother of all hate crimes and was race not a factor in the Nazi-led genocide? We should ask whether Germany has learned all it can learn from its past. 

However, our aim should not be to just point the finger at Germany as a state but to also question ourselves. What we are doing to contribute to a racist Germany? Many of us stereotype Roma and Sinti referring to them as “gypsies” who beg and steal among other things. It is these negative perceptions that prevent us from sympathizing with Roma and Sinti when they are discriminated against. We are bystanders. We have been socialized into thinking that Roma and Sinti are all the same and that it is okay to dislike them. It has been deemed normal and unproblematic to look down on Roma and Sinti. However, although it may be a societal issue, it needs to be addressed at the individual level before it can be addressed in a national context. 

First, we need to work through shedding stereotypes. Although every stereotype might have some truth to it, it is never representative of an entire group. Thus, if and when we encounter people fulfilling the stereotype, we should ask ourselves why this person is acting in such a way. Many face so much structural violence and institutional discrimination that they have no other choice. Our society has stigmatized Roma and Sinti so much that it is nearly impossible for many to find employment. If employers do not hire them, how will they make ends meet?

 

My prejudice is your prejudice. And: What really matters.

What is perceived and understood as common knowledge of Roma is actually to a large extent based on stereotypes. Many of them stem from times even before the Third Reich. These stereotypes have survived the Porajmos and keep shaping Roma lives today. But how can we discuss Antigypsyism when we know so little about Roma? And why do we know so little about them and their discrimination, given that the phenomenon of Antigypsyism is – unfortunately – everything but new?

Markus End, a Berlin-based political scientist who is writing his PhD on Antigypsyism, has invited us to his office in Berlin-Neukölln on a hot and sunny day in June. He is a perfect example of an academic who protruded into a scholarly field that is severely understudied and finds himself in high demand concerning the issue even before receiving his academic title. As we apologize for stealing his time, he reassures us that he is glad we decided to work on Antigypsyism. This is not only his PhD topic, it is also his political agenda. Antigypsyism, he argues, is a neglected form of racism. Only slowly have universities and NGOs addressed this pressing issue. Even social scientists know little about hatred against Roma and less about Roma themselves.

 

The first step, then, towards less prejudice against Roma is to fill the knowledge gaps. And this is what we set out to do. “Maybe we can just collect a few stereotypes and then show that they are not true”, we thought when we were planning this paper. How naive…

The idea stemmed from a discussion that we had about the confusion of Roma and travelers. The assumption that “the” Roma are a travelling people is wrong. But the stereotype prevails and – as has been shown – led to some solid discrimination even in the last few years. As we dove deeper into the subject matter, we thought it would be useful to address another, very basic stereotype first: the mere existence of ‘the gypsy’. We were planning to explain how ‘the gypsy’ is a group-ist perception, an assumed collectivity that is not mirrored in society. We were going to show that Roma people in Germany today are composed of various different groups; how some have been here for centuries (‘Sinti’), others migrated during the post-USSR wars and have had a status of suspension of deportation ever since; how yet another group immigrated after the opening of the borders with the ‘new’ EU-member countries Romania and Bulgaria and finally, how Roma refugees from EU-associated third country states like Serbia and Macedonia have to apply for asylum in Germany.

But does it matter how many different ‘statuses’ Roma people in contemporary Germany can have? Should we not rather concentrate on the fact that ‘the Gypsy’ in itself is a social construct?

The ‘gypsy’, we learn in End’s lecture, is constructed as the out-group by majority society. He is construed as the parasitic freeloader, but also associated with a romantic idea of freedom and happy carelessness. This person, however, does not exist. 

“Let’s talk about prejudices against Roma people in Germany today”, we suggest to Nedjo (*name changed). Nedjo is a volunteer with AmaroForo e.V., a Berlin-based Roma youth organization. He had agreed to meet us and answer our questions on Roma prejudice and discrimination. “What do you think are the most common stereotypes and how do you address and confront them?” Our interviewee remains quiet. 

We wonder whether we should rephrase the question, explain that we mean well, that we are just trying to get an idea of what a member of the Roma community might be confronted with in everyday life. But then, he replies: “Why don’t we turn that question around? Why do people only ever see the bad aspects of Roma? Why do people always want to talk about the negative stereotypes?”

We are taken aback. Could it be that we were planning to address the issue of prejudice from a very privileged and academic perspective? Instead of testing other groups for their collective identity, should we not look at ourselves and ask why we feel the need to judge? By assuming that prejudices might simply be wrong and can easily be disproven, we probably disregard 1) the independence of prejudice from ‘reality’ and 2) the interdependence of prejudice and discrimination.

It does not matter to Nedjo whether or not Roma wear long, colorful skirts, or how many percent of Roma receive a degree from a secondary school.  It does not matter because it does not change anything. Prejudices function independently of reality. 

 

When we talked to Markus End about our idea of deconstructing Roma-stereotypes he walked over to his shelf and handed us a book that is entirely dedicated to ‘testing’ stereotypes against the Roma. What is the point, he asks, of checking prejudices against reality as long as human beings still believe in the inferiority of peoples. They will simply exchange the context of one stereotype for another. Roma, nowadays, are no longer associated with horse-carriages, but with trailers and container settlements instead. Facts cannot kill a prejudice. But lived experience can steadily revitalize it.  

Google tells us that a prejudice is “a preconceived notion not based on reason or experience.” But what if someone has seen a Roma person begging? What about those people who have de facto been robbed by someone they identified as Roma? These things do happen, and we need to acknowledge that sometimes experience proves prejudices. The important thing is to realize that this does not mean that all Roma are begging or stealing, and that the person you might have identified as Roma might not actually belong to the Roma community. Even worse: Could it be that you would not identify a person as a Roma when he or she does not fit the stereotype? This would mean that experience can only prove the stereotype, but never disprove it.

We need to ask why we identify the person foremost as Roma when he or she is stealing, and why we seem reluctant to identify someone as Roma, when he or she is the chairman of a company or a member of the local fire department. This is what Nedjo meant when he asked us to turn the question around. Why do we focus on negative stereotypes? Why can we not understand individuals as such, instead of taking them as representatives of their respective ethnic group? On the contrary, why do we not generalize positive experiences?

There is a striking and interesting difference between our two interviewees. While the academic encourages us to deconstruct the construct of a prejudice in itself, the activist asks us to focus on positive and successful Roma biographies. This means that while in theory prejudices become irrelevant when they are unmasked and deconstructed, this theoretical advancement does not necessarily imply change in the lives of Roma. Also, the academic would argue, positive stereotypes still reinforce the conception of an ethnic group as an entity and do not question the collectivity of those assumptions. True. Yet, this discourse only reaches a small audience and provides little practical advice on how to tackle the issue.

Also, social psychology tells us that human beings need stereotypes in order to cognitively be able to perceive the world. Then, instead of questioning these stereotypes in terms of their content, we should learn how to question their structure. This also means that it is pointless to talk about prejudices against Roma without addressing prejudices as a cognitive structure. As Markus End put it, there were prejudices that existed before Roma people came to Germany and they were simply applied to that vulnerable population. 

And although it is beyond the scope of this, or possibly – any – paper to analyze why the existence of prejudices almost seems to be a necessity for human existence, we need to keep this question in mind. What is the value of the academic approach when aiming at the deconstruction of stereotypes in general is a rather futile enterprise?

The activist, therefore, chooses an approach where common perceptions of ‘the other’ are used as a tool in fighting discrimination. To that end, he suggests to replace negative stereotypes by positive ones. Why not tell a story of a successful Roma immigrant, Nedjo asks. We look at each other. Sure, we could do that. But… we do not know any Roma people and also – is that not just one example against a whole array of negative examples? It is not. Why should a positive example not be just as powerful as a negative example? 

“Tell us your story,” we suggest to Nedjo. He hesitates. Is he unsure whether his is a successful immigrant biography? But does it have to be successful? It would be good enough to show that people who identify as Roma also have so called ‘normal’ lives. That they make plans, succeed, fail, and get up again; in other words: that they are just like everyone else.

 

Nedjo’s example

Nedjo was born and raised in Macedonia, a successor state of the former Yugoslavia in the Balkans. Roma in Macedonia are facing severe discrimination. From a young age, Nedjo recounts, he was active in a Roma youth movement. When he was old enough, he became a volunteer with the European Volunteer Service in Germany. In this capacity he worked with AmaroForo e.V., the Berlin branch of the national Roma Youth Organization AmaroDrom e.V. He did not return to Macedonia after his voluntary year was over. He wanted to stay in Germany and has been a volunteer with AmaroForo ever since. Just a few weeks ago he passed an exam for immigrants to prove that they have sufficient language skills to study in Germany. Next, Nedjo tells us, he will apply for university, “I want to study Culture Management”.

 

What can we learn from Nedjo’s narrative? That he is a young, ambitious activist like many others. Like us. The difference? - His ethnic background. Does it matter? Certainly not.

It is important to note that Nedjo is not an exception among the Roma. In his office alone, we could easily find a dozen young, confident individuals who are fighting to make a change. Yet, on the street, we might see these same exact people and wrongly make assumptions about their background, their incentives, and their way of life. 

Prejudices and discrimination go hand in hand. Neither can live without the other. Do Roma steal? Do they beg? Do they wear colorful skirts? Some of them do. Others do not. Those who do might or might not do so as a consequence of discrimination. It does not matter. It is time for us to move on and acknowledge our own pre-structured perception. Prejudices are not about ‘them’ – they are about ‘us’ and how we deal with (ethnic) groups, with perceived difference and inequality. 

Final Thoughts

In our first discussion we had set ourselves an ambitious task: to state various prejudices towards Roma and Sinti and deconstruct them one by one. Additionally, we were going to reflect on these prejudices on a personal level, giving insight into the way these prejudices have infiltrated our perspective as well. But the more we researched, and the more people we talked to, we had to acknowledge that this approach was not going to lead us anywhere. It became clear that structural forces are the catalyst that ultimately manifests prejudice and discrimination towards the Roma and Sinti to this very day. Society as a whole reproduces both negative and positive images of Roma and Sinti.

Realizing this, it became important for us to show how this dynamic has been prevalent throughout history. And coming up with a solution to this problem is out of the scope of this essay. We learned a lot about the Roma community, about their struggles and defeats, but also about their allies and their strengths. The ways in which the Roma and Sinti community slowly regains agency – despite all obstacles – is astonishing and admirable. Addressing and dealing with the structural forces placed upon the community by an overwhelmingly hostile majority is not an easy task. We hope that this piece is one more drop in an ocean of empowerment, and thereby helping to bring agency back to a heavily discriminated and severely underestimated minority.

References

Aidan McGarry, The Roma Voice in the European Union: Between National Belonging and Transnational Identity, (Brighton, UK: School of Applied Science, University of Brighton, 2011), 283.

Emanuela Ignatoiu-Sora, The Discrimination Discourse in Relation to the Roma: its Limits and Benefits, European Commission, The Situation of Roma in an Enlarged European Union. Fundamental Rights and Discrimination, (Brussels: DG Employment and Social Affairs, 2004), 9.

European Roma Rights Centre, Written Comments Concerning Hungary For Consideration by the European Commission on the Transportation and Application of the Race Directive on the Legal Issues Relevant to Roma Integration, (Budapest, Hungary, 2013), 9.

Frank Sparing, NS-Verfolgung von “Zigeunern” und “Wiedergutmachung” nach 1945, (Bonn, 2011), 8-15.

Ian Hancock, Gypsy History in Germany and Neighboring Lands: A Chronology to the Holocaust and Beyond, The Romani Archives and Documentation Center, available online: http://www.radoc.net.

Wikipedia: ‘Hermann Arnold’. Available online: http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hermann_Arnold_(Arzt). 

Zentralrat Deutscher Sinti und Roma: http://zentralrat.sintiundroma.de

Zoni Weisz, Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte: Ein immer noch vergessener Holocaust, (Bonn, 2011), 3-8.

 

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