Genocide of European Roma (Gypsies), 1939–1945
The Nazis viewed Romani peoples as racially inferior and as social outsiders. During World War II, the Nazis and their allies and collaborators perpetrated a genocide of European Roma. They shot tens of thousands of Romani people in occupied eastern Poland, the Soviet Union, and Serbia. They also murdered thousands more Roma from western and central Europe in killing centers.
The Nazis discriminated against and murdered Roma and other people they pejoratively labeled “Gypsies.”
Beginning in 1933, Nazi German authorities persecuted Sinti (a subgroup of Roma) and other Romani peoples in Germany. They subjected this group to a variety of discriminatory measures. These measures included internment in “gypsy camps” and forced sterilization.
The exact number of Romani people that the Nazi regime and their allies murdered is unknown. It is estimated that at least 250,000 European Roma were killed during World War II. But the number may be as high as 500,000.
Genocide of European Roma (Gypsies) Roma were among the groups that the Nazi regime (1933–1945) and its partner regimes singled out for persecution and murder before and during World War II. Roma are pejoratively referred to as Zigeuner in German and as “Gypsies” in English.
Drawing support from many non-Nazi Germans who harbored social prejudice towards Roma, the Nazis judged Roma to be "racially inferior." Under the Nazi regime, German authorities subjected Roma to arbitrary internment, sterilization, forced labor in concentration camps, deportation, and mass murder. German authorities murdered tens of thousands of Roma in the German-occupied territories of the Soviet Union and Serbia and thousands more in the killing centers at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka. In Germany and German-occupied territories, the SS and police incarcerated Roma in the Bergen-Belsen, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, Dachau, Mauthausen, Mittelbau-Dora, Natzweiler-Struthof, Gross-Rosen, and Ravensbrück concentration camps. Both in the so-called Greater German Reich and in the so-called General Government (Generalgouvernement), German civilian authorities managed several forced-labor camps in which they incarcerated Roma. The crimes committed against Roma remained unacknowledged all over Europe in the first decades after World War II.
Fate of Roma from Greater Germany
On September 21, 1939, Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Reich Security Main Office, met with Security Police (Sipo) and Security Service (SD) officials in Berlin. With German victory in the invasion of Poland assured, he intended to deport 30,000 German and Austrian Roma (many of whom were Sinti or Lalleri) to the General Government. Governor General Hans Frank, the top civilian occupation official in the General Government, foiled this plan when he refused to accept large numbers of Roma and Jews into the General Government in the spring of 1940.
German authorities did deport some Roma from the Greater German Reich to occupied Poland in 1940 and 1941. In May 1940, the SS and police deported approximately 2,500 Roma from the Rhineland and Württemberg in western Germany, as well as from Hamburg, Bremen, and the surrounding northwestern regions, to the Lublin District in the General Government. SS and police authorities incarcerated them in forced-labor camps. The conditions under which they had to live and work proved to be lethal to many of them. The fate of the survivors is unknown. It is likely that the SS murdered those who were still alive in the gas chamber of Belzec, Sobibor, or Treblinka.
In the autumn of 1941, German police authorities deported 5,007 Roma from Austria to the ghetto for Jews in Lodz, where they were housed in an apartment block in a segregated section. Hundreds of Roma died in a typhus epidemic within the first months of their arrival, due to lack of adequate food, fuel, shelter, and medicines. German SS and police officials sent those who survived these dreadful conditions to the killing center at Chelmno in the first months of 1942. There, the SS and police murdered the Roma in gas vans using carbon monoxide.
Intending to deport Roma from the so-called Greater German Reich in the near future, German authorities confined all Roma in so-called Gypsy camps (Zigeunerlager). With the suspension of deportations of Roma in 1940, these facilities became long-term holding pens. Marzahn in Berlin along with Lackenbach and Salzburg in Austria were among the worst of these camps. Hundreds of Roma died as a result of the horrendous conditions. Local Germans repeatedly complained about the camps, demanding the deportation of the Roma interned there in order to "safeguard” public morals, public health, and security. Local police used these complaints to appeal officially to Reichsführer-SS (SS chief) Heinrich Himmler for the resumption of deportations of Roma to the east.
In December 1942, Himmler ordered the deportation of all Roma from the so-called Greater German Reich. There were exceptions for certain categories, including people of “pure Gypsy blood,” those of Gypsy descent who were considered integrated into German society and therefore did not “behave like Gypsies,” serving soldiers and decorated veterans, people engaged in necessary war work, and individuals married to non-Roma. Local authorities, however, often ignored these distinctions during roundups. Police authorities even seized and deported Roma soldiers serving in the German armed forces (Wehrmacht), while they were home on leave.
In general, the German police deported Roma in the Greater German Reich to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where the camp authorities housed them in a special compound called the "Gypsy family camp." In the so-called Gypsy compound, entire families lived together. In total, some 23,000 Roma and Sinti were deported to Auschwitz.
SS medical researchers assigned to the Auschwitz complex, such as SS Captain Dr. Josef Mengele, received authorization to choose human subjects for pseudoscientific medical experiments from among the prisoners. Mengele chose twins and dwarves, some of them from the Gypsy family camp, as subjects of his experiments. Approximately 3,500 adult and adolescent Roma were prisoners in other German concentration camps; medical researchers selected subjects from among the Roma incarcerated in Ravensbrück, Natzweiler-Struthof, and Sachsenhausen concentration camps for their experiments, either on site in the camps or at nearby institutes.
Conditions in the Gypsy compound at Auschwitz-Birkenau contributed to the spread of infectious disease and epidemics—typhus, smallpox, and dysentery—which severely reduced the camp population. In late March, the SS murdered approximately 1,700 Roma from the Bialystok region in the gas chambers; they had arrived a few days earlier and many, though by no means all, were ill. In May 1944, the camp leadership decided to murder the inhabitants of the Gypsy compound. The SS guards surrounded and sealed off the compound. When ordered to come out, the Roma refused, having been warned and having armed themselves with iron pipes, shovels, and other tools used for labor.
The SS leaders chose not to confront the Roma directly and withdrew. After transferring as many as 3,000 Roma to Auschwitz I and other concentration camps in Germany by mid-summer of 1944, the SS moved against the inmates on August 2 and killed between 4,200 and 4,300. Most of the victims were ill, elderly men, women, and children. The camp staff killed virtually all in the gas chambers of Birkenau. A handful of children who had hidden during the operation were captured and killed in the following days. Approximately 21,000 of the 23,000 Roma and Sinti sent to Auschwitz died there.
Fate of Roma in German-Occupied Areas of Europe
In German-occupied areas of Europe, the fate of Roma varied from country to country, depending on local circumstances. The German authorities generally interned Roma and deployed them as forced laborers in Germany or transported them to Poland to be deployed as forced labor or to be killed. In contrast to German policy towards German and Austrian Jews, in which people of so-called mixed blood were exempted from deportation measures (though not from forced labor), the SS and police, after much waffling and confusion, decided that “Gypsies” of “pure blood” were harmless and that the “half-breeds,” regardless of the percentage of “mixture” of blood, were dangerous and hence deportable.
German military and SS-police units also shot at least 30,000 Roma in the Baltic States and elsewhere in the occupied Soviet Union, where Einsatzgruppen and other mobile killing units killed Roma at the same time that they killed Jews and Communists. In occupied Serbia, the German authorities killed male Roma in shooting operations during 1941 and early 1942. The total number of Roma killed in Serbia will never be known. Estimates range between 1,000 and 12,000.
In France, Vichy French authorities intensified restrictive measures against and harassment of Roma after the establishment of the collaborationist regime in 1940. In 1941 and 1942, French police interned at least 3,000 and possibly as many as 6,000 Roma, residents of both occupied France and unoccupied France. French authorities shipped relatively few of them to camps in Germany, such as Buchenwald, Dachau, and Ravensbrück.
While the authorities in Romania, one of Germany's Axis partners, did not systematically annihilate the Roma population living on Romanian territory, Romanian military and police officials deported around 26,000 Roma in 1941 and 1942. They deported Roma primarily from Bukovina and Bessarabia, but also from Moldavia and Bucharest (the capital) to Transnistria, a section of south western Ukraine placed under Romanian administration. Thousands of those deported died from disease, starvation, and brutal treatment.
The authorities of the so-called Independent State of Croatia, another Axis partner of Germany and run by the militant separatist and terrorist Ustasa organization, physically annihilated virtually the entire Roma population of the country, around 25,000 people. The concentration camp system of Jasenovac, run by the Ustasa militia and the Croat political police, claimed the lives of between 15,000 and 20,000 Roma.
Number of Victims
It is still not known precisely how many Roma were killed during the period of the Holocaust. This reflects the fact that we cannot know for certain how many Roma lived in Europe before World War II; one estimate puts the prewar Romani population at between 1 and 1.5 million. Another reason why the number of victims is uncertain is the late recognition and recording of the genocide. Survivor testimony and forensic evidence are still emerging to testify to local events. On the basis of the evidence available to date, historians estimate that the Germans and their allies killed at least 250,000 European Roma during World War II. Some scholars estimate that the full death toll may well reach around 500,000.
In addition to lives lost, numerous European Roma communities were destroyed. Romani people suffered from the psychological and physical traumas of deprivation, abuse, and the shattering of family. This made it extremely difficult to reconstruct Roma cultural and social networks after the war.
After the war, discrimination against Roma continued all over Europe. The courts in the Federal Republic of Germany determined that all measures taken against Roma before 1943 were legitimate official measures against persons committing criminal acts, not the result of policy driven by racial prejudice. This decision effectively closed the door to restitution for thousands of Roma victims, who had been incarcerated, forcibly sterilized, and deported out of Germany for no specific crime. The postwar police authorities took over the research files of the Nazi regime, including the registry of Roma who had resided in the Greater German Reich, and police harassment and discrimination continued.
Only in late 1965 did the West German compensation law explicitly acknowledge that the acts of persecution that took place before 1943 were racially motivated, creating eligibility for most Roma to apply for compensation for their suffering and loss under the Nazi regime. By this time, many of those who became eligible had already died. In March 1982 Federal Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, formally stated that German Roma had been victims of genocide.
Series: Roma (Gypsies)
Critical Thinking Questions
- Before the Nazis came to power, how were Roma treated by the government and by individual citizens? Was this similar or different to how the Nazis treated this group?
- How was the treatment of Roma by the Nazis similar to the campaign against the Jews, and how was it different?
- Investigate the continuing discrimination and persecution of the Roma in Europe currently.