Uncovering the Roma Genocide: The Hidden History of Nazi Persecution

  • Craig Miller
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  • March 23, 2023
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  • 6 minute read
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The Roma community faced genocide at the hands of the Nazis during the Second World War, but their suffering didn’t end with the war.

From 1933, the Nazis enforced policies that specifically targeted “Gypsies” for sterilization and exclusion from German citizenship.

The persecution of Europe’s Roma and Sinti communities continued for decades afterward, with hundreds of thousands affected by discriminatory policies across the continent.

Post-War Discrimination

Václav R., a survivor of the Terezín concentration camp, petitioned the Prague authorities in 1948 to have his name removed from the Gypsy register, but discrimination against the Roma persisted.

The pervasive stereotypes of “Gypsies” as criminals and “asocials” prevented them from receiving compensation or recognition as victims of genocide.

This discrimination was perpetuated by authorities, educators, and social workers alike.

A Legacy of Suffering

As many as half a million people fell victim to the Roma Holocaust, though exact figures may never be known.

The persecution of Roma and Sinti during the Third Reich was built on long-standing European legal, political, and social practices.

From 1933, the Nazis enforced policies that specifically targeted “Gypsies” for sterilization and exclusion from German citizenship.

Misunderstanding Roma Identity

The diverse Roma and Sinti communities in Europe were often inaccurately classified by outsiders as “Gypsies.”

Throughout history, these communities have been intimately connected with the societies they lived in, despite being falsely perceived as isolated.

European states frequently sought to solve the so-called “Gypsy problem” through assimilation or expulsion, often defining them as inherently criminal and dangerous.

The Road to Genocide

The escalation of the Second World War intensified the persecution of Roma and Sinti communities.

As the conflict became a genocidal war, the Nazis sought to completely annihilate both Jewish and Roma populations.

Thousands of Austrian Roma were deported to ghettos and concentration camps, while in Yugoslavia, Croatia, and Romania, local regimes persecuted Roma communities with extreme cruelty.

Challenges in Determining the Number of Roma Victims

In December 1942, Heinrich Himmler ordered the deportation of 10,000 Roma from Germany to Auschwitz.

At Auschwitz-Birkenau’s Zigeunerlager (Gypsy camp), nearly 21,000 Roma lost their lives.

The camp was ultimately liquidated in August 1944, with surviving Roma either sent to Buchenwald or killed by gas.

Estimating the precise number of Roma victims from the Holocaust remains difficult due to several factors.

The uncertainty of the pre-war Roma population in Europe, with estimates ranging between 1 and 1.5 million, complicates the matter.

Additionally, the late recognition and documentation of the genocide mean that testimonies and forensic evidence continue to emerge.

Based on existing evidence, historians estimate that the Germans and their allies killed between 250,000 and 500,000 European Roma during World War II.

To commemorate the Roma genocide, the European Parliament recognized August 2 as European Roma Holocaust Memorial Day in 2015.

Postwar Challenges for Europe’s Roma Population

Even after World War II, the Roma faced ongoing persecution and discrimination throughout Europe.

In France, for instance, nomades were subjected to violent reprisals, including execution, by local communities that accused them of collaborating with the Germans.

Similarly, in Romania and Czechoslovakia, returning Roma found their properties occupied by neighbors or their possessions stolen.

In many cases, the persecution of the Roma continued or even intensified after the end of the war.

Postwar Bureaucracy and Struggles for Citizenship

The aftermath of the war saw Europe grappling with a massive refugee and stateless population crisis.

Initially, organizations like the International Refugee Organization (IRO) seemed willing to assist Romani refugees.

However, this support quickly waned as authorities in countries like France, Germany, and Czechoslovakia reinstated pre-war rules and practices.

The authorities often employed the same “experts” who had previously discriminated against the Roma, perpetuating their mistreatment.

In both Western and Eastern Europe, the Roma struggled to gain citizenship, which was essential for their survival.

Communist regimes removed racially discriminatory language from their legislation, but authorities continued to monitor and discriminate against the Roma population.

Challenges in Securing Compensation for Romani Survivors

Romani survivors faced substantial hurdles in obtaining compensation for the horrors they endured during the war.

Both Western and Eastern European governments were slow to recognize Roma as victims of racial persecution, impeding their ability to seek reparations.

In West Germany, Roma had to engage in decades of legal battles to secure the government’s acknowledgment of the racial motivations behind their persecution.

It wasn’t until late 1965 that West Germany’s compensation law recognized the racially driven nature of pre-1943 persecution, finally enabling most Roma to seek compensation for their suffering and losses under the Nazi regime.

Regrettably, by this time, many eligible individuals had already died. In March 1982, Federal Chancellor Helmut Schmidt officially declared that German Roma had been victims of genocide.

On the other hand, Roma survivors in Eastern Europe had to navigate the communist welfare system, which emphasized anti-fascism over racial persecution.

It was not until the late 1960s that the situation began to improve, as some Eastern European countries started offering compensation to Holocaust victims.

This shift created opportunities for Roma survivors in these countries to finally receive the recognition and reparations they deserved.

The Legacy of Genocide

The fall of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989 presented new opportunities for the Roma to create social and political movements focused on Holocaust commemoration and education.

However, the migration of the Roma across Europe has also revived longstanding prejudices against them, leading to ongoing discrimination and violence.

Today, the legacies of the Romani genocide are being slowly uncovered by historians, who are working to document and understand the experiences of the Roma during the Holocaust.

Despite these efforts, the prejudices that led to the persecution of the Roma continue to persist in Europe, and the fight for recognition, justice, and equality remains ongoing.

Article In a Snapshot

  • The Roma genocide during World War II remains a hidden history, with an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 European Roma killed by the Germans and their allies.

  • Post-war discrimination continued across Europe, making it difficult for Roma survivors to obtain compensation or recognition as victims of genocide.

  • The pre-war Roma population in Europe is uncertain, complicating efforts to determine the exact number of victims during the Holocaust.

  • The European Parliament recognized August 2 as European Roma Holocaust Memorial Day in 2015 to commemorate the Roma genocide.

  • Despite efforts by historians to uncover the legacies of the Romani genocide, prejudices against the Roma community persist in Europe.

Craig Miller

Craig Miller

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