Photo Credit: Adi Japan Wiki
Flag_of_the_Romani People

Classification of Gypsies

Migrant Gypsies in particular (Asoziale) were viewed as a danger to Germany’s societal stability. The belief that their specific behavior was genetic, led the leadership to order scientific studies to establish which groups exhibited deviant behavior. They were convinced this asocial conduct was tied to race. Nazi scientists and police were certain that their foreign racial traits caused criminal behavior. A Gypsy was, therefore, classified as a criminal. Yet, they needed this classification to be scientifically based. [1]


The Nazis chose Robert Ritter, a physician with a specialization in child psychiatry and a doctorate in educational psychology, to direct the study on Gypsies, since his research had centered on antisocial behavior in youth. In 1936, he published a study analyzing the behavior of ten generations of families considered to be vagabonds and thieves. He and his staff concluded that the Gypsies were criminal, immoral and asozial, a condition which was hereditary, as was their need to travel. Ritter distinguished “pure” Gypsies, who were not asocial, but were simply following their traditional way of life, and the asocial hybrids, who intermingled with the general population. Ninety percent of all Gypsies were categorized as hybrids. [2]

Ritter’s “scientific” evidence concerning the criminal nature of Gypsies enabled the police to use asocial decrees to exclude them. Police required this information before classifying individuals or suspects as Gypsies. Although most dark-skinned Roma, the largest group in Europe were clearly identifiable, because they spoke the Romani language, many light-skinned Sinti were indistinguishable from average Germans. [3]

As the Nazis progressed toward identifying Gypsies as a race, they sought to justify their policy of exclusion by claiming they were engaged in a fight against criminality, just as they maintained the problem with the handicapped was a fight against degeneration. Most German and many Austrian Gypsies were ranked on a scale ranging from pure Gypsy to non-Gypsy. Gypsy hybrids were identified as ZK (Zigeunermischling) with either a plus for mostly Gypsy “blood” or a minus for mostly German “blood.” [4]

Decrees promulgated in 1934 empowering the police to deport eastern European Jews (Ostjuden), were also applied to Gypsies if they were unable to verify German citizenship. On July 14, 1933, the Nazis passed the Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases (Gesetz zur Verhütung erbkranken Nachwuchses), compelling mandatory sterilization of specific individuals with physical and mental disabilities. The law was used to justify the sterilization of Gypsies. Although the precise number of those affected is not known, the large numbers who were sterilized, indicate this was a premeditated policy. To adhere to the requirements of the statute, they were identified as “feebleminded.” [5]

When Gypsies were obviously too intelligent to pass as “feeble-minded,” two public health officials, Robert Ritter and Fred Dubitscher developed the theories of “moral” and “disguised mental retardation.” Apathy and failure or refusal to conform to a prevailing rule or practice on the one hand and cleverness and shrewdness on the other were proclaimed to be symptoms confirming genetic mental retardation warranting sterilization.[6]

Fear of Being Spies for Foreign Governments

The fear that they were being used for espionage and sabotage further alienated the Gypsies as a group. Their nomadic existence and their thorough familiarity with the countryside lent credence to this allegation. On October 17, 1939, the Gestapo in Düsseldorf reported that a Gypsy band playing in Halberstadt had been seen talking with soldiers. “Suspicion of espionage cannot be excluded,” the report warned. Not one of these accusations was ever substantiated, yet this did not preclude these charges from being continually circulated.

The first time the Gypsies were specifically targeted to be murdered, was when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. The Einsatzgruppen (Nazi death squads), which followed the German army were ordered to kill Jews, communist officials and Gypsies ostensibly because they posed a security risk to the troops. Euphemistic terms like ”spy” or “agent” were used by the army to explain the arbitrary shootings “for suspected espionage.” Indiscriminate killings became so common, orders were given to bring “suspects” to a proper officer to be integrated, instead of simply killing them on the spot. Einsatzgruppen, however, persisted in viewing any roaming Gypsies as partisans and shot them whenever they confronted them. [7]

An Interim Solution—Reminiscent of the Ghettos Established for Jews

Prevailing laws were not enough to placate local German authorities, who insisted on stricter restrictions. In 1935, municipal Gypsy camps were established at the urging of municipal governments to house an increasing number of itinerant German Gypsies. In early 1935, the first government camp was established, most likely in Cologne. Comparable camps were created in other German cities, where living conditions were severe and primitive. Before the 1936 Olympics, police arrested 600 Gypsies in Berlin and incarcerated them in a camp at a sewage dump adjacent to the municipal cemetery, in order not to tarnish the public façade of the host city. The camp reported 170 cases of communicable diseases in March 1938. [8]

Additional options included deportation, confinement to Gypsy camps, and incarceration in concentration camps. A decree issued on December 14, 1937, by Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, provided for the preventive arrest of individuals whose main offense was to endanger the community by their antisocial conduct. Gypsies were prohibited from engaging in their typical enterprises, and all Gypsy female fortune-tellers were to be sent to camps. [9]


[1] Henry Friedlander, The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 1995), 249.

[2] Ibid. 249-252.

[3] Ibid 252.

[4] Ibid. 253; Yehuda Bauer, Rethinking the Holocaust (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2001), 61.

[5] Friedlander, op.cit. 254; Peter Longerich, Holocaust: The Nazi Persecution and Murder of the Jews (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 47.

[6] Christopher Browning, The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939-1942 (Lincoln: Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press and Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 2004), 180.

[7] Guenter Lewy, The Nazi Persecution of the Gypsies (New Yok: Oxford University Press, 2000), 6, 117-119; “Document No 12 Kommissarbefehl,” Helmut Krausnick, Hans Buchheim, Martin Broszat and Hans-Adolf Jacobsen, Anatomy of the SS State (London: William Collins Sons and Company Limited, 1968), 532-533.

[8] Friedlander, op.cit. 254-255; Michael Burleigh and Wolfgang Wippermann, The Racial State: Germany 1933-1945 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 117-118.

[9] Friedlander, op.cit.258-259; Yehuda Bauer, “Gypsies,” in Yisrael Gutman and Michael Berenbaum, Eds. Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1994), 442;


Previous articleAs Knesset Prepares to Topple Bennett Government, Shaked May Have Readied a Lifeboat
Next articleElad Terrorists Captured Alive
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.