Such provisions were issued repeatedly, indicating that the law was not effectively implemented at the local level. After the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), hard times befell the Roma. In 1697, the Emperor Leopold I, King of Bohemia, declared ‘Gypsies’ outcasts (vogelfrei); Romani men could be killed like animals. Bohemian criminal law sentenced men to death by hanging at public executions, whilst punishments for women and older children included whipping, a part of their ear or the entire ear being cut off and branding. Children could be taken away for forced labour, or a ‘Christian re-education’. With the help of the army, Romani people were rounded up and brought to the border, then left to their fates. The Roma would, nevertheless, come back into the Czech lands, as ‘Gypsies’ were banished across the entirety of Christian Europe.
Their presence on any given territory was possible only until they were caught. The Roma were seen as beyond the rule of law; when sentenced to death, their only right was to beg for mercy. Members of Roma communities, therefore, learnt to survive underground, to protect their own lives and to distrust the ruling classes. At the time of the promulgation of the many anti-Gypsy decrees, something remarkable happened in a fertile part of southern Moravia, near Uherský Brod, on the land of the Kounic family. Before 1698, the nobility had permitted the exemption the family of the blacksmith Štěpán Daniel (also known as Vajda), from the proscriptions. The Daniel family (originally from Slovakia and the north of Hungary), was allowed to settle and sell complementary blacksmith services (not to compete with the locals), in return for actual assimilation and cutting all ties with their extended family.
During the reign of Charles VI (1711-1740), the terror against the Roma in the Czech lands reaches its climax. Helping ‘Gypsies’ became a reason enough for punishment; Romani women were executed as well as men and warning signs, depicting various kinds of punishment for ‘sneaking Gypsies’, could be seen at the border. Empress Maria Theresa (1740-1780) began, in the 1760s in Hungary and Transylvania, a progressive and economically motivated project with some humanistic benefits. Forced settlement and assimilation made Roma, for the first-time, legal citizens and subjects. Joseph II (1780-1790) continued in the work of his mother, particularly in Moravia, where he established Roma settlements in eighteen villages and in two villages in Silesia. Important personalities in the Romani movement during the entire post-1945 period in Czechoslovakia, originally came from a large and historic Romani settlement in Oslavany u Brna. After Joseph II, no ruler continued with these pragmatically motivated settlement programmes.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, other Roma from Slovakia followed the Daniel family, living under the protection of the Kounic nobility, as rumours about a better life travelled quickly amongst the Roma. Nobody was encouraging them to settle, yet they persisted in their effort to find a permanent home. In between the wars, there were about thirty large Romani settlements in south Moravia, whose inhabitants slowly integrated into the local society. The differences between them, however, grew. Romani settlements would often be built behind villages, should the locals allow it, frequently on infertile or disputed lands. To escape from the isolation of the Romani settlements and to move to the local villages was not easy; individuals or small families were more likely to succeed. Their children, however, already had the possibility to attend local schools. The co-existence with the locals would bring natural changes in the behaviour of previously nomadic families. Now settled, they would leave parasitism behind and form functional relationships with neighbours on whom they could count if need be. The Roma in Bohemia, as opposed to Moravia, remained mobile, even though the nomadic circles of blacksmiths, knife-grinders, horse-traders, musicians, merry-go-round owners, door-to-door salesmen and others were limited only to several villages. Even these Roma gradually integrated into the countryside life.
The first Czechoslovak Republic (1918-1938) issued Law no.114/1927, applying to ‘itinerant Gypsies’. The developing democracy followed the French and Bavarian examples and tried to shield itself from the so-called, ‘Gypsy plague’. Nomadism, as a source of uncontrollable crime, was subjected to a bureaucratic and police control. ‘Gypsy identity cards’ were issued, and group leaders were given documentation permitting travelling. It specified territory where nomadic ‘Gypsies’ were not allowed to enter, and it allowed the state to take children away from their families if these regulations were contravened. The new regulation did not, however, define the term ‘Gypsy’; this allowed the prosecution of non-Romani homeless people, as well as settled ethnic Roma.
Following the Munich Agreement (29th September 1938) and the detachment of the Sudeten borderland, the Roma and German Sinti moved away from the newly-incorporated Nazi territories. The number of unemployed and homeless people grew, whilst the already negative attitudes of the Czech public towards the Roma, became acute. The developments in the neighbouring Nazi racial state, in Germany only contributed further to this. The Czech state was encouraged to follow the German example, in terms of dealing with the Jews and ‘Gypsies’. Even before the occupation on the 2nd March 1939, a regulation on Disciplinary Labour Camps (DLC, see below) was issued, in the second Czechoslovak Republic.
During the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia (March 16, 1939), the discrimination against Roma was at first disguised as an initiative against people with asocial behaviour. It became obligatory for people described as ‘Gypsies’, to settle by the end of January 1940. Those who did not comply, together with healthy men unable to demonstrate the source of their income, were placed in the newly opened DLCs (10th August 1940) either in Bohemia, near the village of Lety close to the city of Písek, or in Moravia, near the village of Hodonín close to the city of Kunštát. Those ‘in need of discipline [were] re-educated’ for periods, through forced labour. Only ten to twenty-five percent were of Romani origin. The Law on Itinerant Gypsies was still in effect, but ‘Gypsy identity cards’ were newly issued for all Roma, for reasons of ‘race and biology’, regardless of their way of life.
In 1942, the incorporation of Protectorate offices into the apparatus of the Nazi occupation was completed and followed by a fight against Roma on an openly racist platform. Based on the order to eradicate ‘the Gypsy vice’ (from July 1942, the imperial template copy from December 1938), a thorough registration of ‘Gypsies and people of Gypsy origin’ took place on the 2nd August 1942. A smaller group was immediately sent to Lety and to Hodonín, which had been turned into the so-called ‘Gypsy Camps’ (GC). What is crucial here is that the GCs were designed for entire families, including children, whose members had committed an offence at some time in the past, or who fell into the wide category of ‘asocial people’, in which case it was deemed desirable to put them into ‘preventive police confinement’.
The life conditions in the GCs were horrifying; the camps were not suitable for child prisoners. Overcrowded barracks, hard work, lack of nutrition and clean drinking water, together with appalling hygienic conditions (no water pipes and drainage), resulted in the outbreak of a typhus epidemic with a high death rate in both camps. The staff were exclusively Czech, many wardens behaved towards the inmates in an unnecessarily cruel way and the governors constantly cut food portions. Even if the GCs were a part of the Nazi occupation machinery, the share of guilt of the Czech wardens, in the tragic destiny of Romani inmates, remains unclear to this day. The GCs became the place from which many Roma were transferred to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.
Based on Heinrich Himmler’s order from the 16th December 1942 (the so-called, Auschwitz Decree ), related to the deportation of ‘Gypsies and people of Gypsy origin’ from the Third Reich and its territories, massive deportations of almost all Roma from the Protectorate to Auschwitz-Birkenau II took place from March 1943 to January 1944. Free Roma who had jobs were deported first, followed by the inmates from the GCs that had, in the meantime been closed or quarantined, because of the outbreak of typhus. It was the criminal police that managed the liquidation of the ‘Gypsies’, who were considered to be hereditarily asocial. The choice of deportation lists was made by the Nazis based on subjective, anthropological features. Only one-tenth of the original 6,500 documented Roma, from the death camps of the Protectorate, survived after the war; the entire community of Czech and Moravian Roma, as well as German Sinti, were slaughtered.
After 1945, Roma from the agricultural east of Slovakia, often from very poor settlements, start coming to the industrial parts of the Czech lands. They settled in the border areas where the Germans and Jews used to live, where they were given housing and employment. In the cities with a high concentration of Roma, ghettos came into existence – problematic and socially excluded localities, many of which remain. The Communist regime (from February 1948) annulled the Law on Itinerant Gypsies and the Roma were de facto granted equal rights in 1950. The regime focused on eradicating illiteracy, but a particular approach that considered the history of exclusion of the Romani pupils was missing. Often unsuccessful Romani pupils were transferred to special schools, even though they did not have special needs. Following the Soviet example, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (CPC) adopted a model of state-directed ‘Gypsy assimilation’, in 1958. The Roma and their culture, as well as their confidence, suffered substantially from such a measure. It entailed an insensitive effort to integrate ‘Gypsies’ into the mainstream society. At this stage, however, the Roma were guaranteed jobs, even though unqualified due to their poor education, as labourers, maids, and other unskilled workers.
Thanks to the relaxation of the political situation in 1968, the very first Romani organization was established, the National Association of Gypsies-Roma (AGR, 1969-1973). The AGR of the CR had its headquarters in the capital of Moravia, Brno, where the descendants of the Roma that had integrated before the war lived. They were at the head of the AGR. The political, social and educational activities included the efforts to elevate Romani culture. Collections for a planned museum were being assembled and efforts were being made to compensate and commemorate the victims of the war-time racist persecution. During the process of ‘normalization’, the Association was dissolved in 1973, under the pretext of errors in accounting and economy. The Communist regime did not return to the strict assimilation measures, but until the fall of the regime in 1989, the Roma in CSSR did not have the possibility to manifest their ethno-emancipatory aspirations.