The persecution of Roma under National Socialism was a genocide. This statement is important because a genocide fundamentally differs from other forms of persecution. A genocide aims to obliterate an entire group that the majority society defines as an ‘enemy’. Under National Socialism, Roma, like Jews, were stigmatised as an ‘alien race’ and it was decided to eliminate them permanently from society. This was achieved initially through social, economic and spatial isolation. In the shadow of the Second World War, physical extermination ultimately became the priority. The victims were selected not because of their individual behaviour but solely because they belonged to the minority. Children, women and men were threatened in life and limb because they were classified as ‘Gypsies’. It did not matter whether they were poor or rich, assimilated or unassimilated, young or old, fair- or dark-skinned. Whole families were systematically registered, deported and murdered. There are differing views as to what term should be used to adequately describe this crime against humanity.
The Politics of Terminology
The genocide of Sinti and Roma was not recognised for decades. Civil rights movements of Sinti and Roma were the first to bring public attention to what had happened and demanded that crimes committed against the minority be recognised and compensated for in exactly the same way as the genocide of Europe’s Jewish population. To illustrate what was at stake, the term ‘Holocaust’ – which is derived from Ancient Greek and translated as ‘completely burnt’ – was often also used for the genocide of Sinti and Roma. This met with criticism in some quarters because some researchers and interest groups held the view that only Jews had been subjected to global and total persecution during the National Socialist period. Research has since disproved this view.
‘Holocaust’ to Signify a Historically Unique Persecution Process
Aware of the differences of opinion, various European institutions employ the term ‘Roma Holocaust’, among others. ‘Holocaust’ is no longer used to refer exclusively to the persecution and murder of European Jews but rather understood as an umbrella term for the genocidal politics of the National Socialist regime and its allies during the period 1933–1945. Sinti and Roma were targeted by the specific intention to exterminate described as the ‘Holocaust’ to an equal extent as Jews. It should be noted here that the term ‘Holocaust’ is in itself not uncontroversial since it was used in the ancient world to describe the ‘sacrifice by fire’ of an animal. By contrast, the term ‘Shoah’, used primarily in Israel, emphasizes the calamity (or the catastrophe or destruction) inflicted on the Jewish people by outside forces.
Convention on Genocide
The term ‘genocide’ is rejected, in turn, by some representatives of the minority who consider it too vague. The word is a compound of génos (Greek for origin, extraction, lineage, race) and caedere (Latin for murder, slaughter), attributed to the Jewish survivor Raphael Lemkin. It was due to him that in 1948 the intent ‘to destroy, in whole or part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group as such’ was anchored in international law as a criminal act. The murder of Herero and Nama by German colonial troops in Namibia (1904–07), of Armenians by Young Turk nationalists (1915–16) or in modern times, of Tutsis by the Hutu in Rwanda (1994) are seen as examples of genocide. To emphasize the specific persecution situation of Sinti and Roma under National Socialism, the term ‘National Socialist genocide’ or, in its abbreviated form, ‘NS genocide’ is often used.
Romani intellectuals have proposed several terms derived from Romani. In the 1990s, the activist Ian Hancock (United States) popularised the term Porajmos, a neologism translated as ‘devouring’ or ‘destruction’. The term has elicited strong criticism. The linguist Marcel Courthiade (France) has pointed out that the root verb, porravel (‘to open the mouth widely’), also has the colloquial meaning of opening other parts of the body. Due to this connotation, which is understood in all dialects, he has described the term as inappropriate.
Instead, Courthiade advocates using Samudaripen. The term was first used in the 1970s in Yugoslavia in the context of Auschwitz and Jasenovac. It is a neologism of sa (Romani for ‘all’) and mudaripen (murder) and can be translated as ‘murder of all’ or ‘mass murder’. Courthiade argues that Samudaripen is unambiguous, neutral and respectful as well as conveying grief. Indeed, compared with Porajmos, the term is much less emotionally charged and more precise because it emphasizes the intent to murder and the act of killing in the context of the NS genocide. International Romani Union now employs the term Samudaripen.