Photo Credit: Bundesarchiv, R 165 Bild-244-52 / CC-BY-SA 3.0
Deportation of Sinti and Roma in Asperg, 22 May 1940

*Editor’s Note: After running Dr. Grobman’s very well-received series on the Final Solution, The Jewish Press Online is proud to begin Dr. Grobman’s new series discussing other groups persecuted in the Holocaust.

The Germans did not create racial ideology and theories, yet the Third Reich established the first country in the history of the world whose tenets and practice were founded on racism. The Germans alleged that differences in the physical and psychological nature of individuals and races were a symptom of their intrinsic ‘value,’ and proceeded to develop an entire racial hierarchy reflecting this dogma. Racial -anthropological theories provided the legitimacy to justify domination over the European races and to legitimize “claims to hegemony by particular classes within society.” The ultimate of goal of the Nazi regime was to construct a “utopian society” designed in harmony with the principles of race. In the process, it sought to demolish the prevailing social structure by repudiating their European heritage, and form a society founded on race rather than class. [1]  

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Noble principles such as “freedom, equality and tolerance” would become inevitable if only race were safeguarded, and its enemies vanquished. Explicit distinctions were made between “good and evil” races, helping to explain “the puzzling modern world” in which a person lived. Racism defined a man as a  person with a position and status in this world. [2] National Socialism, the Nazi nationalist movement, offered “the disillusioned a comfort and a sense of belonging which society could never provide.” [3]   

Historians Henry Friedlander and Sybil Milton asserted the Jews were not the only biologically chosen group to be murdered. They also included the Sinti and Roma (gypsies). In an exchange with historian Yehuda Bauer, Milton argued “the Naz regime applied a consistent and inclusive policy of extermination-based on heredity.” They [Sinti and Roma] could not escape their fate by changing their behavior or belief. They were selected,” she said, “because they existed, and neither loyalty to the German state, adherence to fascist ideology, nor contribution to the war effort could alter the determination of the Nazi regime to exterminate them.” [4]  

In this series of essays, we will examine the validity of Friedlander and Milton’s claim that Jews and Gypsies were treated in the same manner as the Jews and shared their same fate under Nazi rule. We begin by investigating who are the Gypsies; how were they viewed by the Germans; the decrees and statutes issues against them; how this compared to the way the Jews were perceived, and whether the Final Solution included every Gypsy man, woman and children throughout the world. [5]  

Who are the Gypsies? 

The Gypsies, who came from Northwestern India and arrived in Western Europe by the 14th century, presented a social and an ideological dilemma for the Nazis. By virtue of their being from India, they were Aryans. Prohibited from settling the land in medieval Europe, they supported themselves by becoming travelling tradesman: training and trading horses, making and repairing tools, engaging in other forms of trade and having their women dance and tell fortunes. Without a land of their own and being rootless, they were marginalized and oppressed. Between the 15th and 19th century, considerable numbers of Gypsies were abused, persecuted and murdered. Occasional attempts were made to abduct their children and raise them as Christians. [6] 

Gypsies were accused of engaging in sorcery, witchcraft, stealing children and spying. They were also charged with being loud, filthy, immoral and asocial. Their claim they could predict the future attracted people to them and at the same time horrified others. Much of the animosity and overt harassment was “rooted in prejudice and xenophobia.”  Like the Jews, Gypsies were accused of every imaginable offense and crime.  [7]  

During the period of the Enlightenment, intolerance and persecution of the Gypsies did not decrease. Only by abandoning their culture and way of life could they hope to gain acceptance. They were trapped in a wave of repression against “vagabondage and begging.”  As a rootless people, they were viewed as an aberration whose position could only be rectified the state. Even when, in the nineteenth and early 20th century, significant numbers of Gypsies in Germany and Austria established permanent residences and were employed in conventional occupations, they were still perceived as swindlers, beggars, pickpockets, and thieves. To survive in the midst of this oppression, some turned to their long-established expertise in forging passports, enabling them to obtain the sought-after  license to practice an itinerant trade,  a prerequisite required beginning in the first half of the 19th century. [8] As a “dark-skinned” population, they experienced “color prejudice.”  [9]   

German state governments transferred jurisdiction over the Gypsies to the police at the beginning of the 20th century. Bands of Gypsies were viewed as intimidating, and regulations were issued to control them, dissuade them from traveling or expel them. During the Weimar Republic (1918 to 1933), Gypsies were accorded full citizenship, yet the police continued to hassle them with all types of restrictions and kept them under surveillance. [10]  

Hitler Assumes Power 

After President Paul von Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933, the future of the Gypsies transformed dramatically. There were between 30,000 to 35,000 Gypsies in Germany or about .05 percent of the German population. [11]  

 In Austria, they had the approximate same ratio. In Germany, Zigeuner (German for Gypsy), had different names to distinguish themselves for the other Gypsies. Typically, the name indicated the language in which they conversed. The largest group of Gypsies in Europe were known as Roma, since they spoke the Romani language. In Germany, the largest group of Gypsies was known as the Sinti, the language spoken in the Sind region of India.  In Austria, there were more Roma Gypsies than Sinti: 8,000 Roma and 4,000 Sinti.  [12] 

Within these linguistic groups, there were subgroups such as the Lalleri, who were commonly regarded as Sinti. Even though a number of Gypsies were part of a particular language group, they defined themselves according to their occupation. In Austria, Roma Gypsies employed as travelling horse traders called themselves Lowara. [13]   

Marked as “Asocials” and an Economic Burden 

The Nazis branded Gypsies “asocials.” This was considered a serious offense in a society demanding strict control based on the principle of a stable and settled life. Of even greater concern, the Nazis viewed their “asocial” conduct an immutable genetic defect. Gypsies were identified as “parasites” or as “a peculiar form of the human species who are incapable of development and came about by mutation.” [14] 

Though small in number, they constituted an inadequately under-utilized labor force and an economic burden for the German bureaucracy. Local governments were obliged to fund their social and educational needs and other benefits, even though the German people felt nothing but enmity for this group of drifters. A 1936 Prussian Ministry of Interior administrative decree used the term Gypsy “plague” and charged them with being swindlers, thieves and beggars. [15]  

Footnotes  

[1] Michael Burleigh and Wolfgang Wippermann, The Racial State: Germany, 1933-1945 (New York:‎ Cambridge University Press, 1991), 3, 23-24,27,39; George L. Mosse, The Crisis of German Ideology: Intellectual Origins of the Third Reich (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1964),315. 

[2] George L. Mosse, Toward the Final Solution: A History of European Racism (New York: Howard Fertig, 1978), xii-xiii. 

[3] George L. Mosse, The Crisis of German Ideology, op.cit.316; Michael Wildt, Hitler’s Volksgemeinschaft & Dynamics of Racial Exclusion: Violence against Jews in Provincial Germany, 1919–1939 (New York: Berghahn Books, 2012). 

[4] Sybil Milton “Gypsies and the Holocaust,” The History Teacher 25 (1992):516. 

[5] Guenter Lewy, The Nazi Persecution of the Gypsies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 227-228. 

[5] Yehuda Bauer, “Gypsies,” in Yisrael Gutman and Michael Berenbaum, Eds. Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1994), 441; Yehuda Bauer, Rethinking the Holocaust (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2001), 60; Lewy, op.cit. 1-23. 

[6] Lewy, op.cit. 2-10. 

[7] Ibid.3-4. 

[8] Lewy, op.cit. 3-4. 

[9] Henry Friedlander, The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 1995), 247-248; Lewy, op.cit.3-4; Wolfgang Benz, The Holocaust: A German Historian Examines the Genocide (‎New York: Columbia University Press, 1999),119-120. 

[10] Friedlander, The Origins of Nazi Genocide, op.cit. 248. 

[11] Friedlander, op.cit. xii-xiii, 248; Götz Aly and Peter Chroust and Christian Pross, Cleansing the Fatherland: Nazi Medicine and Racial Hygiene (Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994); Robert. N. Proctor, “Nazi Health and Social Policy,” Simon Wiesenthal Annual 7, 1990): 145– 67. 

[12] Friedlander, op. cit. 248. 

[13] Ibid. 248-249. 

[14] Bauer, Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp, op.cit. 442. 

[15] Ibid. 

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Dr. Alex Grobman is the senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. He has an MA and PhD in contemporary Jewish history from The Hebrew university of Jerusalem. He lives in Jerusalem.