Roma Civil Rights movement


Jan Selling

The politics of historical justice and combatting antiziganism – narrative essay


As antiziganism (i.e. antigypsyism or anti-Gypsyis1 is once again on the rise across Europe2 it is increasingly important to improve our knowledge of the phenomenon and to place the topic at the top of the political agenda. A key element in striving to achieve this is to establish an awareness of the history of antiziganism and, in particular, the Roma and Sinti Holocaust or Porrajmos, which needs further research and inclusion in all school curricula, in addition to being recognised at the political level. These were some of the main points, voiced by Roma leaders and intellectuals at the 2016 OSCE/ODIHR high-level meeting in Berlin, ‘Confronting Anti-Gypsyism: The Role of Political Leaders in Countering Discrimination, Racism, Hate Crime and Violence against Roma and Sinti Communities.3

This section illustrates and provides material for a more thorough understanding of Romani and Sinti discourses around the topic of historical justice, the politics of collective memory and strategies to challenge antiziganism. The three topics are related, in the sense that collective identities in society function as normative national, or sometimes supra-national identities (such as the idea of a European identity across EU Member States); they are based on particular understandings and consciousness of history (or histories). This awareness of history is itself, a social construction that serves the purpose of providing a basis for individuals’ self–identifications and for strengthening group and national identities. Thus, these normative identities identify those who are considered to be outside the collective (those that are beyond the boundary of identification).4 These collective identities entail relations of power and are constantly being re-negotiated or contested, both reflecting and influencing societal change.

The notion of historical justice,5 is used here in a wide sense, reflecting discourses about, and examples of, material restitution, compensation and reparation as well as immaterial acts of historical rectification, such as government appointed commissions of inquiry and official statements of apology. Linked to this is commemoration politics: campaigns, actions and advocacy concerned with what Nora calls ‘lieux de mémoire’, sites of memory,6 where ‘milieux de mémoire’ or environments of memory, no longer exist. This is usually centred upon the erection of, or revision of, symbolic memorials or authentic, physical sites that serve the purpose of commemoration, and the establishing of days of commemoration of events, or national memorialisation.7

Finally, this sub-section also displays a variety of approaches to combatting antiziganism, Roma-advised nation-state and international policies, as well as Roma and Sinti cultural, academic and political discourses on antiziganism. This sub-section discusses examples from many of the countries covered by the Roma Civil Rights Movement section, but provides enhanced insight into the discourses in Finland, Germany, Norway and Sweden. The reason for this focus is mainly operational, since the author was curating and had full access to the material of these countries. It will not provide a continuous narrative of the topic, but serve as a resource for reflection and comparison, which may supplement the readings of other sections of the RomArchive.

Historical justice

In his keynote address to the Uppsala international conference ‘Antiziganism – What’s in a word’ (23rd to 25th October 2013), Ian Hancock addressed an aspect of the Romani historical experience that is often forgotten, namely,

...the psychological damage that persecution [of Romani people] has brought with it − not just the fear Roma live with daily in too many places, fear that affects both mental and physical health, but the deeper psychological damage that history has wrought. I don’t believe that any attention has been paid to this at all...8

Ian Hancock

Hancock particularly addressed the legacy of slavery, which for more than five hundred years denied Roma in the Wallachian and Moldavian principalities (now modern Romania), their human dignity and autonomy. Its effects still9 resonate in the collective memory today.10 In a parallel to Adorno’s famous conclusion, that the confrontation with the troublesome past must be linked to societal change,11 Hancock’s observation directs us to consider the process of vindication, as a necessary means for recognising the Roma as the subjects (agents) of their own history.

Jan Selling | An Interview with Romani Rose of the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma | Non Fiction | Germany | June 16, 2016 | rom_00011 Rights held by: Jan Selling | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: RomArchive

Since the Nazi persecution and genocide of Roma and Sinti, during the period 1936 to 1945, the demands for recognition and restitution have been formative in the development of the German Sinti and Roma civil rights movement. However, the quest for recognition of the Roma Holocaust and the pursuing of claims against Germany were also key topics for the circle of intellectuals who paved the way for the international Romani movement in the 1950s (see the essay on “The Beginnings and Growth of Transnational Movements of Roma [...]”).

In Hungary, recognition of the Nazi persecution of Roma became a cultural topic in the 1980s. [see the “Roma Civil rights movement Hungary” essay]. In Yugoslavia and in other parts of Eastern Europe, these discourses could evolve only after the end of state Socialism. In Poland, the first political Roma organization, Stowarzyszenie Romów w Polsce (Association of Roma in Poland) registered in Oświęcim (1991), engaged with discrimination and took active part in shaping Holocaust remembrance events at Auschwitz. [see the “The Roma Movement in Poland” essay].

In Czechoslovakia, the short period of relatively moderate and progressive politics towards Roma, enabled the establishing of the Brno Museum for Romani Culture, in 1991 [see: essay “Roma in the Czech Lands”]. In the same year, a law on compensation for some categories of persecuted Roma was launched. The Brno Museum tried to assist applicants seeking compensation, which in most cases proved impossible. The memory of the Holocaust of the Roma and Sinti had, since communist times, been officially suppressed. The most disgraceful example for this is that in the 1970s, a pig farm was built in vicinity of the former concentration camp Léty. After several years of political pressure by Romani activists and advocates in the Czech Republic and abroad, the government finally agreed to destroy the pig farm in 2017.

The international dimension of the Roma Holocaust means that recognition and commemoration has increasingly become acknowledged as a universal historical experience and reference point for Romani identity, which transcends the boundaries of sub-group identities and national borders. In 1985 and 1986, delegations of Roma from Canada, the U.K. and the U.S.A. protested in favour of Roma becoming represented by United States Holocaust Memorial Council in Washington, D.C. The protest was eventually successful. (see “The Roma Civil Rights Movement in USA and Canada” essay) Gradually, the commemoration of the Roma Holocaust is also becoming acknowledged as a historical responsibility to address for European nations and the European Union as a whole. In 2015, The European Parliament adopted a resolution which links the commemoration of the 2nd of August as the International Roma Day with the necessity of combatting antiziganism.12

The intention of this resolution still needs to be fulfilled by EU Member States: recognising the historical impact of antiziganism and condemning ‘...utterly and without equivocation all forms of racism and discrimination faced by the Roma, and ...the need for anti-Gypsyism to be effectively addressed’.13

However, examples from Finland, Norway and Sweden show that also the recognition of and compensation for historical non-Nazi state antiziganism (such as Nordic state’s sterilization programmes, forced child foster care, forced assimilation and ethnic profiling) play an important role in the re-negotiation of relationships between Roma and majority society, as well as in the construction of Roma identity.

Soraya Post comments on the Swedish government's 'White paper' on Romani and Travellers rights | Non Fiction | Sweden | March 25, 2014 | rom_00010 Licensed and provided by: Swedish Government — Cultural Department of the Government Office I Licensed under: Rights of Use

Commissions of inquiry etc.


The Central Council for German Sinti and Roma has suggested that the German Bundestag install an independent expert commission to the issue of antiziganism.14 It has not yet become answered. But at an ODIHR-meeting in September 2016 it was officially supported by Michael Roth, Minister of State for Europe, German Federal Foreign Office, the Vice- President of the German Bundestag, Claudia Roth, and by Gabriela Hrabaňová, Policy Coordinator, European Roma Grassroots. The Norwegian and Swedish commissions were pointed at as examples, which should be followed in other countries.15


In 1975, the Government appointed a committee to evaluate the still on-going forced assimilation policies, which had been outsourced by the state to the Christian organization Norwegian Mission for the Homeless. The committee delivered its report in 1980, which recommended that the policies that were conducted should be dismantled. At the end of the 2000s, many Romani activists felt that there were still unanswered questions about the period of ‘Norwegianisation’. Some felt that it was still a long way to go in order to achieve reconciliation. This was articulated in a statement, signed by several of the central actors in the movement and sent to the Norwegian Prime Minister. The statement called for a truth commission that could evaluate the abuses directed towards the Romani/Tatere. The government did not follow the suggestion of an independent truth commission but appointed a commission with a mandate to investigate policies from 1850 and up until today. The commission delivered its final report, with the conclusion that the policies had been “Failed and destructive”. The report was sent on a consultative hearing in 2015 to open up for a revision of the state`s policy towards the Romani.


Several Roma-adviced state-investigations have been carried out. The most comprehensive investigation, by the Delegation for Roma issues, stated that the still lasting discrimination of Roma had been caused by structural antiziganism and a deeply rooted prejudice. The Delegation concluded, following the Norwegian example, that the Swedish history of antiziganism must be further explored by an independent commission and consequently compensated for at a collective level, in terms of a foundation and a museum. Further, a program for Roma inclusion was demanded. The centre-right government decided only to follow the latter demand, whereas they rejected the idea of an independent commission and a collective compensation. Instead a government ‘white paper’ (Vitbok) on the Swedish discrimination of Roma in the 20th century was ordered. This decision was criticised especially by representatives of the Resande community and by members of the Delegation. As a response to the continued criticism and especially to the revealing of on-going ethnic registering of Roma by the Swedish police, a Commission against Antiziganism was installed. In its final report, both state of the art and possible measures ahead were launched. In 2014, the National Board of Health and Welfare published a report on its role in sterilization, forced child foster care and exclusion policies.16 The Living History Forum has launched several reports, exhibitions and teaching materials on antiziganism and the Roma Holocaust.17 The Swedish church in 2000 published a first self-critical report on its antiziganist history and the need for reconciliation.18 This was followed up by a more detailed report on its role in the Roma exclusion policy 1900-1950.19


In addition to these cases must be mentioned the extraordinary example of the Swiss independent expert commission on policies regarding Roma, Sinti and Jenische before, during and after WWII. It gives an historical account of the antiziganistic policies and praxis of the Swiss state, but also uncovered the antiziganism of Interpol predecessor “International Criminal Police Commission” in the years 1934-1945.20

Official apologies and recognition


In 1995 a representative of the Lutheran Church of Finland apologized for its part in historical discrimination of Finnish Roma. It gained official weight by the fact that the archbishop in a subsequent ceremony said the benediction in Romani.21


Sinti and Roma were recognized as a German national minority 1995.

In 1979, German Sinti and Roma civil rights activists started a systematic campaign to inform the media and the German public about the Nazi genocide of the minority, and of continuing antiziganism. In 1982, several Sinti and Roma associations founded the umbrella organisation “Central Council of German Sinti and Roma.” This was one of the main conditions for the West German government to officially recognise the genocide of Sinti and Roma. Since then, a process of institutionalisation has started and the Central Council became the main representational body of German Sinti and Roma, which receives state support for its civil rights work.


The Resande and the Roma were in 1998 recognized as separate national minorities.

The persistent political pressure from the Romani movement, led the Norwegian Government to issue an official apology for their former policies towards the Resande in 1998, and the Church to issue an apology, first in 1998 and then a revised apology in 2000.

Further, on the 8 of April 2015, the international Roma day, the Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg held a speech in which she apologised for the Norwegian policies and the ‘Gypsy paragraph’;

I apologise for the racist policy of exclusion that was pursued in the decades before and after the Second World War. I apologise also for the fatal consequences that this policy had for Norwegian Roma during the Holocaust.22

Erna Solberg

The Prime Minister`s speech can be seen as a recognition from the Government, that the Norwegian Roma were victims both of Nazi-Germany`s extermination policy but also of the Norwegian Government`s antiziganist legislation. This process of recognition has been spearheaded by Roma activist`s from what is a small ethnic minority of only a few hundred people in Norway. The recognition and the alternative Roma voices that it has brought out in the public sphere, has been an important contribution to the public debate in Norway, where both old and new forms of antiziganism has been expressed in recent years.23


In 1999, the Roma, including Resande, were recognized as national minority.24

In 2000 the Swedish government publicly apologised for the historical persecution and discrimination of the Resande group.25 In the same year, the Swedish archbishop officially stated that the church ́s historical relationship to Roma had made a reconciliation process necessary.26 In 2010, the Chairman of the Swedish Riksdag apologized27to the victims of abuse in state child foster care. However, he was subsequently critizised that he failed to mention the effect of the racist discourse, that Resande were over-represented.28

Shortly after the revelation of the police Roma registers in 2013, the minister of justice officially apologised.29 It took until 2015 for the head of Swedish police to apologise, however the apology failed to mention that the register was ethnic profiling.30

Restitutions, reparations, compensations


After the first protests of the German Sinti and Roma civil rights movement against the exclusion of many Sinti and Roma victims from compensation payments, the West German Parliament established an extraordinary compensation fund (Härtefonds) to compensate non-Jewish Nazi victims. But it required further demonstrations of the “Central Council of German Sinti and Roma” to achieve a fundamental change in discriminatory restitution practices. A documentation exposed in the 1980s more than 500 cases of minority members who had not yet received adequate compensation payments for their persecution by the National Socialists. After that the Central Council imposed new decisions in several thousand compensation cases. At the beginning of the 2000s, the Central Council reached compensation for Sinti and Roma who had been compelled to do forced labour from the foundation’s fund, Remembrance, Responsibility and Future, and the Swiss banking fund. For the first time, non-German Roma got the chance to claim for though small compensation.


In the 2000s, the symbolic apologies were in the 2000s followed by individual compensation to Romani/Tatere that suffered under these policies, a collective compensation in the form of funding for a museum department and exhibition about the Romani/Tatere at Glomdal Museum,31 and a fund for developing and making the Romani/Tatere culture visible.32

In 2015, the Stortinget as a material act of compensation to finance a permanent cultural and knowledge resource centre for Norwegian Roma.33 Representatives from the Roma community has in cooperation with the Church City Mission been working on the outline for the centre, with the aim that the centre will open during 2017.


Between 1998-2000, individual compensation could be applied for by victims of forced sterilisation.34 In the time frame 2013-2014, could be applied for by victims of for abuse during forced child foster care. Neither of these processes payed attention to the antiziganist dimension that Roma and Resande had been intentionally targeted and over-represented. There is no available statistics how many Roma benefitted from these compensations.35

After a decision in 2014 by the Chancellor for Justice almost 3,000 Roma, who had been illegally registered by the police received a compensation of 5000 SEK. However, he did not regard the register as ethnic discrimination.36As the decision was regarded as insufficient, he case was taken to court by 11 Roma, supported by the organization Civil Rights Defenders, who won the case in the District Court of Stockholm, who judged that the register was ethnic and that an individual compensation of 30 000 SEK should be paid. The case has been appealed against by the Chancellor of Justice.37

Commemoration politics

Physical memorial sites as well as commemoration days and rituals are core manifestations of collective memory. They refer to specific historical events, but also to the political history of their establishment.

Roma Holocaust remembrance

The 27th January, the date of the liberation of Auschwitz, was in Germany 1996 established as commemoration day for the victims of National Socialism and by the United Nations in 2005 as the Holocaust Remembrance Day. The 2nd August was in 2015 recognized as Roma Holocaust Day by the European parliament in memoriam of the liquidation of the Roma camp in Auschwitz 1944. Roma Resistance Day, 16th May, commemorates the revolt of Roma and Sinti in Auschwitz against the first attempt to liquidate the camp.

These three dates allow different manifestations of Holocaust memory and Roma identity at many places - most importantly at the Auschwitz memorial and the Berlin Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism, which was established in 2015. [See also RomArchive section, Voices of the Victims]

Other Roma commemoration sites Finland

A memorial for the Finnish Romani soldiers who died in WW2, was erected in 2003.38


Since 1996, TL has held an annual commemoration at the “Stone of shame” at Riis cemetery in Oslo. The stone is placed by the mass grave used by Gaustad psychiatric hospital.39 The annual event has both served as a memory ritual, tying the Romani community together through remembering a common historical experience, but it has also had a political function, reminding the Government and the Church of Norway that they needed to take responsibility for their actions.


The memory of the antiziganist riots of 1948 in Jönköping, as media support and police passivity let a racist mob attack Resande, was in 2015 marked with a memorial.

Combatting antiziganism

European level political intervention against antiziganism

Since the Millenium, several documents at the European level call for action against antiziganism.

An outstanding example is the before mentioned 2015 EU-resolution on “International Roma Day – anti-Gypsyism in Europe and EU recognition of the Memorial Day of the Roma genocide during World War II”.40

Bodil Andersson | Stone of Shame | photograph | Norway | 1996 - 0 | rom_96004 Rights held by: Bodil Andersson I Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: Bodil Andersson – Private Archive

National policies for Roma civil rights and to combat discrimination and persecution

National policies against antiziganism are linked to the implementation of international policy recommendations, but also to the agendas of Roma organizations in each country. This section provides a few examples of Roma-adviced national policies.


In 2009, the central actors in the Romani movement met at the annual Falstad seminar at the The Falstad Centre. The seminar resulted in a joint statement, addressed to the Norwegian Prime Minister.41 The statement pointed out four areas of central importance to the Reisende in Norway:

1) Schooling which is compatible with a traveling lifestyle.
2) The right to education in Norwegian Romani language.
3) A cultural center
4) A truth commission to investigate Norway`s abuses towards the Resande.

The statement did not lead to a truth commission, but the Norwegian government did establish a public committee, known as the Tater/Romaniutvalget which was assigned to investigate and document the policies from Norwegian government, institutions and organisations, towards the Reisande from 1850 up until today.42 The committee was also assigned to suggest new policies to further reconciliation and justice. The report was presented at a ceremony in 2015 but has had a mixed reception within the Resande community and it is still unclear if the Norwegian government will develop any policy based on the report.

In 2016 all the central actors from within the Norwegian Roma community, gathered at the Centre for Studies of Holocaust and Religious Minorities in Oslo, to establish The Roma council in Norway. The council created a forum for dialog between the different voices within the Roma minority and has as its overarching aim to secure Roma participation on questions concerning Roma in Norway, and to work towards unity within the minority.43


In 2014-2016 the Swedish state commission against antiziganism, was led by Thomas Hammarberg and consisted of a majority of Roma. A main conclusion was that Roma civil and social rights are restricted by a structural antziganism, which affects access to education, housing, labour market, social services and health care. Secondly, it concluded that there is still a wide spread acceptance for discrimination and abuse of Roma in Swedish society, which goes back on a long historical continuity, as exemplified by the police registering. Thus, the commission recommended political leadership in condemning all forms of antiziganism and to establish Roma memorials and commemoration days. It also urged the Prime Minister to convey an apology for the historical abuse. Further, the Equality Ombudsman was recommended to target cases of antiziganism and let them be examined by court. The commission also recommended the government to systematically monitor and evaluate the effect of measures against antiziganism. The commission also specifically recommended measures to strengthen Roma civil society, by supporting Roma NGOs and to lay the ground for state-financed national centre for Roma issues.

Roma interventions against antiziganism

This section lists examples of Roma interventions, which challenge(d) antiziganism and promote self-defined cultural identity.

Demonstrations and hungerstrikes

The Roma May Day-demonstration lead by Katarina Taikon in Stockholm 1965 and the first German Sinti-demonstrations in Heidelberg 1973 had different backgrounds and different mottos but were pro-active expressions of Roma civil rights-struggle, which literally brought the sake to the streets.

There are also numerous cases, where Roma have collectively mobilized against antiziganist violence and discriminating treatment. In Poland, the pogrom of Mława in 1991 became the spark to form a political Romani association. Also in Hungary of the 1990s, Roma activists and non-Roma sympathizers fought back against violent attacks of skinheads and political propaganda of racist polititians. One example is the demonstration in Eger, July 11, 1993. Another case is Toronto 1997 as the hate of skinheads was answered by welcoming street parties in favour of Czech Roma refugees. The Roma activists successfully pressed charges, so that the skinheads were eventually convicted for hate crime. [see Essay The Roma Civil Rights Movement in USA and Canada]. In Germany, since 1989, a number of spectacular protests, such as a hunger strike and protest camp on the grounds of the Neuengamme Concentration Camp Memorial Site, the occupation of churches, and holding so-called ‘pauper marches’, all of which sought to obtain an official stop to deportations. [see Essay on Germany] In the UK, campaigning against racism and state discrimination, such as the Dale Farm evictions has in the last decade turned out to become a unifying factor within for Gypsies, Travellers and Roma within the Gypsy Council. Since 2011 Roma Pride manifestations have been held in a series of European cities, with the explicit aim of promoting diversity and counteracting racism against Roma. Roma Pride was initiated by a coalition of non-Roma and Roma as a reaction to the antiziganist rhetoric of the French president at the time, Nicholas Sarkozy.44

Monitoring and legal advice

In Hungary, a number of legal advocacy organizations, have developed for challenging discrimination by means of information and the pursuing of court cases.45 The Central Council of German Sinti and Roma has since years been monitoring the press coverage of Sinti and Roma. In the UK, the Gypsy, Roma Traveller, Police Association was founded as a response to discrimination of the police against its own employees. Since 1996 The European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) has become a node for work against antiziganism, by means of research, policy development, advocacy and human rights education.46

Reclaiming history

Finally, the academic debates around the Gypsy Lore Society47 and cultural-political Roma initiative such as the European Institute for Arts and Culture have increasingly become arenas for a clash between traditionalist, gadje-dominated Romani Studies on the one hand and an emerging field of post-colonially oriented Romani scholars. Inspired by the success of the American Civil Rights movement, new generations of Romani scholars and intellectuals have started to ‘speak back’ and make use of academia for reclaiming history and combatting antiziganism. In the spirit of emancipatory scholarship, Ethel Brooks in 2017 stated:

We are Europe; we claim the persecution we have faced, the millennium of violence and exclusion, extraction and enslavement. We claim Europe. We claim the city. We claim the world. We claim our place, our history, our future. We claim Romanofuturo. Romanofuturo is everyone’s future. Freedom for us is freedom for all.48

Ethel Brooks

Rights held by: Jan Selling | Licensed by: Jan Selling | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC 3.0 Germany | Provided by: RomArchive