Foreign, free, travelling and lazy – the people who are dismissed as "gypsies" have been stereotyped for centuries. Hundreds of thousands of them were killed by the Nazi regime, and segregation continued after 1945.
'Romani village to move to Berlin' ran one headline in Berlin daily BZ on April 2, and the Berliner Morgenpost followed up with 'Romani children too much to handle for Berlin teachers' the next day. Those were just two recent headlines in German newspapers.
Such articles go on to describe aggressive begging, welfare payments allegedly obtained under false pretences and mountains of garbage. This kind of reporting has strengthened the distorted picture of a minority group that has been disparaged in Europe for centuries.
According to polls conducted by conflict researcher Wilhelm Heitmeyer, some 44 percent of the German population believe that Sinti and Roma have a tendency to criminal conduct. Four out of 10 say it is a problem for them to have Sinti and Roma nearby. And yet, say Heitmeyer and other researchers, the respondents are not likely to know any members of the minority they dislike so much.
That's typical for what scientists call antiziganism, or anti-Romanyism. It is an attitude not based on individual experience, says Berlin political scientist Markus End, but on projections by the surrounding population. "You can have antiziganist beliefs without ever having had any personal contact with people who you perceive as being ‘gypsies.' " For centuries, Sinti and Roma have been stereotyped as homeless, lazy, or criminal, clichés repeated by the media today.
Stereotyping in literature
European literature has been full of these stereotypes ever since Romani groups first arrived on the continent some 600 years ago. For his book 'How Europe invented the Gypsies. A tale of fascination and contempt,' literary scholar Klaus-Michael Bogdal analyzed source reports and other literary evidence.
The book describes how, as nation states were forming, members of this minority group were segregated, persecuted, chased away or killed. Authors ranging from Cervantes, Shakespeare, and Goethe to modern writers like Günter Grass would equip them with criminal tendencies or unrestrained savageness.
The reactions ranged from irrational fear to secret admiration. Even seemingly positive attributes often attached to gypsies, such as the 'merry gypsy lifestyle,' sexual freedom, or lively singing and dancing, only stress how they differ from the surrounding population, says End.
And again, such characteristics bear little relation to reality. Positive attributes will only strengthen antiziganist beliefs, End says, "as long as nobody points out that Sinti can also be really good mathematicians."
'Don't tell them I'm a Romani'
"There are resentments in all sections of society, including public institutions and authorities," says Iris Biesewinkel, head of the social counselling service of Cologne-based organization Rom.
The club facilitates communication between Roma and the rest of society. Biesewinkel gives an example of how deep antiziganism in Germany is by quoting a young woman who told her: "Of course you can come and see how I'm doing in my internship, but please don't tell them I'm a Romani. That would be the end of me working with money there."
In order to be seen as a normal human being and to avoid discrimination, many Romanis and Sinti will simply conceal the fact that they are members of that minority group. This, says End, only strengthens stereotypes, because public opinion is formed without seeing success stories of well-established Sinti and Roma.
Rom offers advice to EU citizens who have come to Germany from countries like Romania or Bulgaria, and also former migrant workers and civil war refugees from the former Yugoslavia.
But the club also helps those Sinti and Roma who have lived in Germany as Germans for generations and who still feel they're subject to discrimination. Sinti and Roma are officially acknowledged as a minority group and are therefore legally protected by the state, but this does little to shield them from discrimination.
In a representative poll, three out of four Sinti and Roma stated they were subject to hostility on various occasions, either at work, in their neighborhood, in restaurants or in other places.
The German government's anti-discrimination agency admits that "racist slogans against Sinti and Roma are still common in Germany." Jugendschutz.net, an initiative lobbying for the protection of children's rights online, has analyzed antiziganism on the internet and found that often, platforms like Facebook and YouTube are used to spread racist rants and murder threats.
German rightwing extremists actively agitate against Romanis online. Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe's Human Rights Commissioner, says he is particularly worried about a neo-Nazi forum where members openly call for a "special treatment" for Romanis. This term was used by the Nazis to conceal their real intention of murdering minorities.
Nazi Germany paved the way for the systematic persecution of the Romani early on: "Gypsies," like Jews, were defined as being "of foreign race." In 1936, a "decree to fight the Gypsy plague" was issued, and more and more cities adopted a policy of interning entire families in "gypsy camps." The ‘Research Unit for Racial Hygiene' was commissioned to compile comprehensive data about all Sinti and Roma in the German Reich, with one goal: "the final solution of the Gypsy question."
On December 16, 1942, SS leader Heinrich Himmler issued the so-called "Auschwitz Decree," ordering the transportation of European Sinti and Roma to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp.
Hundreds of thousands of Sinti and Roma were killed during Nazi rule in Europe. They died in gas chambers; or they were shot dead, killed through forced labor, miserable living conditions or medical experiments.
"This is a holocaust that has been forgotten," said Zoni Weisz, representative of Dutch Sinti and Romani, in a speech delivered in January 2011 in the German parliament, the Bundestag, on the national Remembrance Day for the victims of Nazi rule. Weisz himself managed to escape transportation to Auschwitz, but he lost his entire family.
Persecution after 1945
After 1945, the survivors and families of those killed spent years vainly calling for the recognition of their persecution. German Sinti were liable to compensation in theory, says End, but many experienced a second persecution in post-war Germany.
German law assumed that until the issuance of the ‘Auschwitz Decree', persecution was not based on racist grounds. In some cases, former Nazi officials – who had worked in the ‘unit for the gypsy question' – became reviewers of their own acts of injustice.
They would then state that they had imprisoned somebody for their "antisocial and criminal attitude." And so the victims didn't receive compensation. In fact, they had to watch as the Nazi perpetrators continued to decide their fate. "A fair amount of German Sinti have reported that their medical check-up was carried out by their former tormentors," says End.
In 1980, Romani Rose was at the forefront of a group of German Sinti who went on hunger strike on the premises of former concentration camp Dachau, calling for official recognition of the genocide and for an end to the practice of using Nazi ‘gypsy race' files by German police and other public institutions.
It was not until March 1982 that then-Chancellor Helmut Schmidt officially recognised the racially motivated genocide of Sinti and Roma – too late for many survivors who had died in the meantime. The Central Council of German Sinti and Roma was founded just weeks before, and has since been fighting against antiziganism under the leadership of Romani Rose.
Dangerous polemics against a minority
In recent years, Romanis have largely appeared in the German media as so-called ‘tolerated' refugees from Kosovo, and immigrants from other EU member states.
Since 1945, no reliable data has been compiled in Germany about the number of Romani people living in the country, and yet, over and over again, there are reports of ‘thousands of Romanis' having moved to or moving to Germany.
Biesewinkel is appalled at the xenophobic propaganda. "We are talking about people and not about a faceless mob flocking here from Eastern Europe or the Balkans, crushing us and dumping all their rubbish here," she said.
End feels reminded of the situation in the early 1990s in the eastern German town of Rostock, when after weeks of debate and continuous reporting in the media, the town saw riots and brutal arson attacks on an asylum seekers' home.
A 16-year-old student, part of a group that had thrown petrol bombs into the house, said during police questioning, "I wouldn't have cared if gypsies got burnt alive. Vietnamese would have been different, but Sinti and Roma? – Who cares?"
Her statement shocked literature expert Bogdal so much that he began researching antiziganism in literature.
Police and the minority
Police reports play a major role in forming public opinion. In theory, German police are not allowed to point out in their press releases that a certain suspect or criminal belongs to a minority group.
But when End analyzed publicly available police reports, he found that in reality this rule is often ignored. In December 2011, state prosecuters in Stuttgart and the Ludwigsburg police wrote about the suspects in a case of serial pickpocketing: "The Romani families belong to the ‘Kalderashi' group… According to experts, the ‘Kalderashi' are regularly involved in thefts in times of economic crises."
The report continued, "Family members regard carrying out acts of theft of any kind as normal work that should even receive some form of recognition."
According to End, this is a particularly striking example of structural discrimination. He has found that German police use code words to describe Sinti and Roma.
"In the beginning, they used the term ‘traveller,' which became ‘mobile ethnic minority.' Then they used ‘frequently changing place of residence,' or they talk about ‘southeastern Europeans belonging to a minority group.' "
As early as 1983, the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma protested against ethnic stigmatization outside the federal police headquarters (BKA), but the problem hasn't been solved.
When a policewoman was killed in Heilbronn in 2007, "Sinti and Roma were being publicly stigmatized as potential culprits (‘from the Sinti-Roma milieu') by police and prosecution in a very general manner and without the slightest piece of evidence," criticized Herbert Heuss from the Central Council.
Investigation has since proven that the murder was carried out by members of the rightwing extremist group the NSU. Even the slightest case of insinuation, says Heuss, will immediately raise old stereotypes.
And yet, antiziganism is much less widespread in Germany than in many other European countries, says Heuss. Private initiatives give him some additional hope. In Berlin district of Neukölln, for instance, 300 people demonstrated against antiziganism and racism in early March after a rightwing party had used media reports about EU immigrants to agitate against Romanis. The slogans on their protest banners read 'Welcome to Neukölln!' and 'Everybody deserves to be respected.'
Author: Andrea Grunau / nh
Editor: Ben Knight