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Belonging and Exclusion: Reshaping Society under Nazi Rule


Roma and Sinti in Nazi Germany

This collection explores how the persecution of Roma and Sinti became increasingly radical and deadly as the Nazi regime transformed Germany to fit Nazi ideas of race and national unity. These sources give a glimpse into the range of Romani people’s experiences under Nazi rule and their responses to genocide.

 

When the Nazi Party rose to power in 1933, the new regime began excluding different groups of people from its so-called "national community" ("Volksgemeinschaft") as social, political, or racial outsiders. Roma and Sinti were among the groups targeted on racial grounds by the Nazis and their supporters. Nazi persecution of Romani people built upon patterns of discrimination and persecution experienced by Roma and Sinti for generations. German forces, their allies, and collaborators killed hundreds of thousands of Romani people during the Nazi-led genocide of Roma and Sinti.

Roma are a diverse European ethnic group who can trace their ancestry to modern-day India and Pakistan many hundreds of years ago. There are many groups of Romani people with their own distinct cultural identities, such as Sinti, Lovari, Kalderashi, or Lalleri.1 Romani peoples have a wide range of different lifestyles, speak many languages, and practice different religions. Sinti are a large, culturally distinct Romani group that has lived in Central Europe since the Middle Ages. Most Romani people living in Germany in the early 20th century were Sinti. 

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By the early 1900s, many Roma and Sinti in Germany were fully integrated members of their communities. Many German Sinti men served in the German military. Some Romani families lived permanently in one location, and some traveled regularly for part of the year to earn their living. Despite widespread stereotypes that Romani people who traveled were rootless or nomadic, they typically returned to the same towns or cities every winter. Romani people supported themselves in many different ways, including metalworking, horse trading, and performing. Romani musicians and musical traditions influenced culture throughout Europe for centuries. Some Roma and Sinti lived private lives, while others achieved celebrity status through their professions—such as the successful German Sinti boxer Johann Rukeli Trollmann.

Labeled by some Germans with the negative term “Zigeuner,”2 Roma and Sinti experienced persecution long before the Nazi Party rose to power. Official anti-Romani discrimination began to increase in the late 19th century as authorities’ abilities to monitor their citizens grew. Romani people were often stereotyped as criminals and targeted by police. Many Roma and Sinti experienced increasing harassment by German authorities—especially if they traveled regularly. Laws passed during the years of the Weimar Republic placed many restrictions on travelers.3 German police often arrested Romani people on minor charges.4

Under Nazi rule, German authorities began more strictly enforcing anti-Romani laws that were already in place. Nazi officials also developed radical new anti-Romani policies. While earlier laws had targeted Roma and Sinti as “travelers” who supposedly threatened public order, Nazi racial laws classified them as racially different from so-called “Aryan” Germans. The negative term “Zigeuner” became an official racial designation in Nazi Germany. This meant that Roma and Sinti could never become members of the Nazis’ so-called “national community” (“Volksgemeinschaft”) even if they served in the German military or supported the Nazi Party.

Nazi leaders wanted to exclude Romani people from the “national community,” but they did not have clear ideas about whom exactly they would classify as “Zigeuner.” Authorities tasked a German doctor named Robert Ritter with developing guidelines for the regime’s racial classification of Roma and Sinti.5 He and his staff gathered Romani people’s personal information and experimented on Romani children. A film of a Catholic children’s home in Mulfingen, Germany shows some of the children studied by Ritter’s deputy, Eva Justin. Ritter and his staff presented their work as scientific, but their methods were deeply flawed and their conclusions reflected their own prejudices.

Roma and Sinti were also targeted under a Nazi law that legalized forced sterilizations—medical procedures designed to make it biologically impossible to reproduce.6 German medical professionals and judges often made decisions that reflected Nazi racial theories. Many Romani people were misdiagnosed and sterilized because of anti-Romani prejudices that claimed that Romani people inherited low intelligence and criminal tendencies. Romani people responded to this persecution in a number of different ways. A photo of Theresia Winterstein and Gabriel Reinhardt shows a Sinti couple who chose to defy Nazi sterilization policies. An oral history with their daughter Rita Prigmore describes some of the long-lasting traumatic effects of Nazi forced sterilizations and medical experiments

Persecution of Roma and Sinti in the Third Reich did not only come from Nazi authorities—local officials and private citizens often pushed for harsher measures. A criminal complaint against Douglas Bamberger shows how private citizens sometimes pressed police to do more against Roma and Sinti accused of committing crimes. In the mid-1930s, local officials in German cities began adopting new restrictions on Roma and Sinti that forced them into designated camps known as “Zigeunerlager” (“Gypsy camps”).7 Local officials also pushed to isolate and expel thousands of Roma after Nazi Germany annexed Austria in March 1938.8 

Nazi anti-Romani policies became more extreme after German forces invaded Poland in September 1939 and started World War II in Europe. Mass expulsions of Jewish and Romani people from Nazi Germany occurred. An oral history with Karl Stojka describes how he and his family were deported from Vienna. A photograph of Sinti people marching through Asperg, Germany shows how German police supervised mass deportations.9 A photograph of the Romani section of the Lodz ghetto—where both Jewish and Romani people faced deadly conditions—shows that these targeted groups had different but connected experiences of persecution under Nazi rule.10

Nazi anti-Romani policies became increasingly radical and deadly in the early 1940s. In December 1942, Nazi SS leader Heinrich Himmler ordered that nearly all Roma and Sinti in Nazi Germany be deported to Auschwitz. Nazi officials and German police arrested and deported thousands of Roma and Sinti. Camp authorities confined the Romani prisoners together with their family members in a separate section of Auschwitz-Birkenau.11 Thousands died from malnutrition, disease, or abuse. In early August 1944, Nazi authorities closed the Romani section of the camp and killed its inhabitants by gassing.12 Perhaps as a means of commemorating his experience as a prisoner there, a German Sinti man named Hans Braun kept this electrical component from the camp.

Hundreds of thousands of Romani people were murdered during the years of Nazi-led genocide.13 After the war, continued anti-Romani prejudices made it difficult for survivors to get justice. Many people did not recognize the genocidal extent of Nazi anti-Romani policies for decades. Germans who had supported harsh Nazi-era anti-Romani policies often continued to believe that these measures had been necessary police actions taken to prevent crime. Testimonies from the Hodoschi family demonstrate that Romani survivors often gave detailed descriptions of the brutal conditions they endured. But postwar German court officials often dismissed the testimonies of Romani survivors because they believed that Roma and Sinti could not be trusted. A postwar letter from Otto Rosenberg gives a glimpse into Romani survivors’ struggles to get compensation for their persecution.14

The Nazi regime’s attempts to reshape German society excluded many groups of people—Roma and Sinti were among those targeted on the basis of Nazi racial ideology. Roma and Sinti in Nazi Germany faced increasingly radical and deadly forms of persecution that culminated in mass murder. The genocidal anti-Romani policies of the Nazi regime ended with Germany’s defeat in 1945, but Roma and Sinti have continued to face discrimination in the decades since World War II.

Romani peoples are extremely diverse. Some Romani groups define themselves according to shared ancestral roots, cultural traditions, languages, or family connections. Other Romani identities are based on shared occupations and trades. Some Roma and Sinti strictly observe Romani traditions, while some have adopted many of the cultural practices of their neighbors.

Romani people have often been referred to by negative labels. In German, this word is “Zigeuner.” In English, the word is “Gypsy.” Most Romani people have long considered such terms insulting, and today these words are generally considered racial or ethnic slurs. These labels have also been used at times to include non-Romani people with trades or lifestyles typically associated with Roma.

A 1926 Bavarian law targeting travelers specifically included non-Romani people so that it would not violate the clause of the German constitution that banned discrimination according to race or national origins. 

Under the laws passed during the Weimar Republic, Romani people were targeted by police for things such as traveling without permits, traveling in large groups, or traveling with children. Romani people who could not prove regular work could be imprisoned in workhouses for two-year-long terms. To learn more about the history of German police monitoring Romani people, see Leo Lucassen, "'Harmful Tramps': Police Professionalization and Gypsies in Germany, 1700-1945," Crime, Histoire & Societes 1, no. 1 (1997): 29–50.

Ritter established his reputation in the field of eugenics by trying to prove his theory that criminal behaviors were caused by inherited traits. To learn more about Nazi theories of eugenics, see the related Experiencing History collection, Targets of Eugenics.

For more on forced sterilizations in Nazi Germany, see the related Experiencing History items, Sign Language Testimony of Helga Gross, Sterilization Order for August Alzen, Leaflet Advertising Nazi Magazine Neues Volk, and Letter to SS Doctor Gregor Ebner

These camps were typically located on the outskirts of cities. German police monitored these sites, but at first people were able to come and go at will. To learn more, see the Holocaust Encyclopedia article on the Marzahn camp on the outskirts of Berlin.

To learn more about Austrian Roma under Nazi rule, see Erika Thurner, National Socialism and Gypsies in Austria, edited and translated by Gilya Gerda Schmidt (Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama Press, 1998).

To learn more about the roles played by German police during the Nazi era, see the Experiencing History collection, German Police and the Nazi Regime.

To learn more about how Jewish and Romani experiences of Nazi persecution were entangled, see Ari Joskowicz, "Roma and Jews in Nazi Europe," in Rain of Ash: Roma, Jews, and the Holocaust (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2023): 22-48.

For primary sources from people confined to the Romani camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, see the related Experiencing History items, Oral History with Karl Stojka and Postwar Letter of Otto Rosenberg.

To learn more, see Yisrael Gutman and Michael Berenbaum, eds., Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994), 444–50.

The total numbers are difficult to calculate, but scholars agree that German forces, their allies, and collaborators killed between 250,000 and 500,000 Romani people. This includes those murdered at Auschwitz and other killing centers as well as those killed by mass shootings on the eastern front. For primary sources on the persecution and genocide of Roma and Sinti outside of the territory of Nazi Germany, see the related Experiencing History items, Oral History with Marie Ondrášová and Werner Breslauer, Westerbork Deportation Footage

To learn more about the postwar Romani struggles for recognition and justice, see Ari Joskowicz, Rain of Ash: Roma, Jews, and the Holocaust (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2023).

All 11 Items in the Roma and Sinti in Nazi Germany Collection

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