Roma Civil Rights movement


Roma in the Czech Lands

Jana Horváthová


It was in Moravia in 1538 that the first demands were made for ‘Gypsies’ to be ‘eradicated and banished’ and just a few years later, in 1545, Ferdinand I, who was not only king of Bohemia, Croatia and Hungary but also the Holy Roman Emperor, forbade their very presence.

After the Thirty Years’ War, hard times befell the Roma, and they were declared outcasts. Members of Roma communities thus learned to survive underground, to protect themselves and to distrust the ruling classes.

During the reign of Charles VI, the terror against the Roma reached its climax. Helping Roma became a reason enough for punishment. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, other Roma from Slovakia followed the Kounic (known as Kaunitz in German) family of nobles, relying on their protection. Although the Roma in Moravia had not been encouraged to settle, they persisted in their efforts to find a permanent home. Unlike the Moravian Roma, those in Bohemia remained mobile.

The First Czechoslovak Republic issued a law applying to ‘itinerant Gypsies’. The emerging democracy followed the French and Bavarian examples and tried to shield itself from what was known as the ‘Gypsy plague’.

Following the Munich Agreement in 1938, Roma and German Sinti moved away from the newly-incorporated Nazi territories. Even before the German occupation, regulations concerning ‘disciplinary labour camps’ had been issued. Massive deportations of Roma took place from the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia to Auschwitz on the basis of Heinrich Himmler’s Auschwitz Decree. The entire community of Czech and Moravian Roma, as well as German Sinti, were slaughtered.

After 1945, Roma from Slovakia started coming to the Czech lands (a term encompassing Moravia, Bohemia and Czech Silesia). The communist regime granted the Roma de facto equal rights. Following the Soviet example, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia adopted a model of state-directed Roma assimilation.

After 1989, the Roma were initially accepted as a part of the regeneration process in society, but then the former Czechoslovakian entity was divided into two states. At that point everything started to take a turn for the worse and the first cases of violence against Roma occurred. Neither the executive nor the judiciary had the political will to acknowledge the racial motivation of such crimes.

Between 1992 and 1997, the already dire conditions endured by the Roma and their unequal position in society were further exacerbated.

The Roma Holocaust in the Czech Republic remained unknown until fairly recently. A sad fact is that it would have probably remained so if protests, which were originally part of the commemorative events at one of the two concentration camps in the former Protectorate, had not spoken against the long-lasting presence of a pig farm on the site of the camp.

Roma in Slovakia

The oldest records of Roma in Slovakia date back to the second half of the fourteenth century. The Roma, who presented themselves as penitents from ‘Little Egypt’, first came from Budín, before passing through Košice and heading towards Bratislava. The locals initially behaved in a hospitable manner. Noblemen, monarchs and even the Pope issued protective decrees and letters of safe conduct.

The Ottoman Empire extended its border in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to include the southern part of Slovakia. In wartime, both sides used the services of the local inhabitants. It provided an opportunity for Roma blacksmiths to supply weapon parts. The Roma at noble courts acted as musicians and soldiers as well. The oldest records regarding the first Roma settlements in the territory of present-day Slovakia also date from the sixteenth century.

Recurrent attempts to regulate the life of the Roma started to appear at the end of the nineteenth century. As a preparatory measure, a census was carried out. In 1893, there were almost 245,000 Roma living in Hungary, and up to 90 per cent of them were settled.

After the birth of Czechoslovakia, whose Slovakian territories included many Roma, there were major efforts to take control of the nomadic Roma. The saddest chapter of modern Roma history is the Second World War period. The military Slovak state followed the discriminatory and racist laws of Nazi Germany. In line with military law, Roma and Jews were stripped of the option of enlisting in the armed forces, and were instead compelled to work in labour camps as building and construction workers.

The persecution of Roma reached its climax in November 1944, when a Roma detention camp was built and entire families were deported there. After the end of the Second World War, Roma from Slovakia started to immigrate to the Czech lands, where they could find better employment and housing. In the post-war period, state bodies refused to see the Roma as an ethnic group. They even rejected the term Roma or ‘Gypsy’, preferring instead ‘people of Gypsy origin’.

The political changes after 1989 meant the right to self-determination for the Roma. In 1991, the newly approved ‘Principles of Governmental Policy with Respect to Roma’ gave them the status of a national minority in Slovakia. However, socio-economic transformation has led to most Slovak Roma facing social exclusion. To coordinate the policies aimed at achieving integration, the Slovak Government Plenipotentiary for Roma Communities was established in 2001. The democratisation of society enabled the creation of Roma political representation. Several Roma political parties were created, but none of them received enough votes to secure seats in Parliament.