On 30 January 1933, Adolf Hitler was a ‘National Socialist Workers’ Party (NSDAP), colloquially known as Nazis. For the estimated 20,000 German Sinti and Roma, this marked the beginning of years of systematic exclusion from all areas of society. The Sinti had lived in German-speaking countries since the fifteenth century, while the German Roma had begun emigrating from eastern Europe in the nineteenth century. Both groups had been subjected to frequent discrimination in the past, but now the scale of racist persecution by the Nazis reached unprecedented dimensions.
Sinti and Roma as an ‘Alien Race’
Racially-motivated political agitation in the German Reich initially targeted the Jewish population, who represented the largest minority by far with around 500,000 people. However, according to the Nuremberg Laws promulgated in September 1935, Sinti and Roma were also classified as a Fremdrasse, or ‘alien race’. From its headquarters in Berlin, the Rassenhygienische und bevölkerungsbiologische Forschungsstelle, which conducted research into ‘racial hygiene’ and the ‘biology of population groups’, began collecting detailed data in 1936. Cooperating with the Reichszentrale zur Bekämpfung des Zigeunerunwesens (the central office tasked with combating the ‘Gypsy menace’), which was attached to the Reichssicherheitshauptamt, the entire minority, from infants to the elderly, was registered on the basis of racial and biological classification. Anyone now recorded in the files as a ‘Gypsy’ had very little chance of evading persecution.
Thousands of Sinti and Roma had been held in local internment camps since 1935. In the summer of 1938, several hundred men were deported to concentration camps. In this first phase of the persecution, emphasis was placed on implementing employment bans, and on enforcing spatial isolation and exclusion, for example by preventing children from attending school.
When the Germans invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, the Nazi ‘Gypsy policy’ turned to complete deportation. In May 1940, around 2,500 men, women and children were deported to occupied Poland. On 16 December 1942, the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, ordered the deportation of Sinti and Roma to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camp. The order applied to the Reich and several occupied countries. From the end of February 1943 onwards, around 22,700 Sinti and Roma were deported to Auschwitz; 63 per cent of them came from the German Reich (around 14 per cent from Austria), 21 per cent from occupied Bohemia and Moravia, 6 per cent from occupied Poland, while the remaining 10 per cent were of other nationalities or considered stateless. Within just a few months the horrific conditions in Auschwitz-Birkenau had led to the deaths of thousands. Around 3,000 Sinti and Roma were transferred to other concentration camps to perform forced labour. On the night of 2–3 August 1944, the last inmates, mostly older and ill men and women along with children, were murdered in the gas chambers of Birkenau.
Those not deported were destined to be forcibly sterilised. Some 2,000 Sinti and Roma fell victim to this ‘gradual genocide’. It is estimated that between two thirds and three quarters of all German Sinti and Roma were murdered during the years of Nazi rule.
Moreover, the German Reich bore responsibility for the murder of thousands of Roma in the European countries it occupied or annexed, and exercised various kinds of influence over measures taken against Roma in the collaborating states.
After 1945, the genocide was not recognised for decades and the crimes largely went unpunished. Many survivors were denied compensation. Research was also slow to turn its attention to the topic. A change in perspective came about when the civil rights movement protested against ongoing discrimination and shed light on the genocide. Yet it was only in 2012, when a memorial was unveiled in Berlin to the Sinti and Roma murdered under National Socialism, that the issue of remembering the genocide came into the public eye and was permanently anchored in the political culture of the Federal Republic of Germany.