For centuries Europeans regarded Gypsies as social outcasts, a people of foreign appearance, language, and customs. In modern Germany, persecution of the Sinti and Roma preceded the Nazi regime. Even though Gypsies enjoyed full and equal rights of citizenship under Article 109 of the Weimar Constitution, they were subject to special, discriminatory laws. A Bavarian law of July 16, 1926, outlined measures for "Combatting Gypsies, Vagabonds, and the Work Shy" and required the systematic registration of all Sinti and Roma. The law prohibited Gypsies from "roam[ing] about or camp[ing] in bands," and those "[Gypsies] unable to prove regular employment" risked being sent to forced labor for up to two years. This law became the national norm in 1929. When Hitler took power in 1933, anti-Gypsy laws remained in effect. Soon the regime introduced other laws affecting Germany's Sinti and Roma, as the Nazis immediately began to implement their vision of a new Germany, one that placed "Aryans" at the top of the hierarchy of races and ranked Jews, Gypsies, and blacks as racial inferiors. Under the July 1933 "Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Defects," physicians sterilized against their will an unknown number of Gypsies, part-Gypsies, and Gypsies in mixed marriages. Similarly, under the "Law against Dangerous Habitual Criminals" of November 1933, the police arrested many Gypsies along with others the Nazis viewed as "asocials"—prostitutes, beggars, chronic alcoholics, and homeless vagrants—and imprisoned them in concentration camps.
The Nuremberg racial laws of September 15, 1935, ("Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor" and "Reich Citizenship Law") did not explicitly mention Gypsies, but in commentaries interpreting these laws, Gypsies were included, along with Jews and "Negroes," as "racially distinctive" minorities with "alien blood." As such, their marriage to "Aryans" was prohibited. Like Jews, Gypsies were also deprived of their civil rights.
In June 1936, a Central Office to "Combat the Gypsy Nuisance" opened in Munich. This office became the headquarters of a national data bank on Gypsies. Also in June, part of the Ministry of Interior directives for "Combating the Gypsy Nuisance" authorized the Berlin police to conduct raids against Gypsies so that they would not mar the image of the city, host of the summer Olympic games. That July, the police arrested 600 Gypsies and brought them, in 130 caravans, to a new, special Gypsy internment camp (Zigeunerlager) established near a sewage dump and cemetery in the Berlin suburb of Marzahn. The camp had only three water pumps and two toilets; in such overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, contagious diseases flourished. Police and their dogs guarded the camp. Similar Zigeunerlager also appeared in the 1930s, at the initiative of municipal governments and coordinated by the quarters of a national data Council of Cities (reporting to the Ministry of Interior), in Cologne, Düsseldorf, Essen, Frankfurt, Hamburg, and other German cities.
After Germany incorporated Austria into the Reich in March 1938, the regime applied the Nuremberg laws to Austria's Gypsies. Two special internment camps opened, one for 80 to 400 Gypsies, in Salzburg, in October 1939, and a second, in November 1940 for 4,000 Gypsies at Lackenbach, in the Burgenland, the eastern Austrian state bordering Hungary. Conditions at Lackenbach, which existed until the end of the war, were particularly atrocious, and many individuals perished there. Both camps concentrated Gypsies for police registration and forced labor and served as assembly centers for deportations to Nazi extermination and concentration camps.
A December 1937 decree on "crime prevention" provided the pretext for major police roundups of Gypsies. In June 1938, 1,000 German and Austrian Gypsies were deported to concentration camps at Buchenwald, Dachau, Sachsenhausen, and Lichtenburg (a camp for women). A year later, several thousand other Austrian and German Gypsies became inmates at Mauthausen, Ravensbrück, Dachau, and Buchenwald concentration camps. In the camps, all prisoners wore markings of various shapes and colors, which allowed guards and camp officers to identify them by category. Gypsies wore the black triangular patches, the symbol for "asocials," or green ones, the symbol for professional criminals, and sometimes the letter "Z."
Dr. Robert Ritter, a psychiatrist who directed genealogical and genetic research on Gypsies, played a key role in the identification of Sinti and Roma prior to their arrest by the police. In 1936 Ritter became head of a research unit located within the Ministry of Health and later in the Central Police Office. Ritter and his assistants, in cooperation with the Criminal Police (detective forces) and their sub-office to "Combat the Gypsy Nuisance," moved to Berlin in May 1938, worked to locate and classify by race all Gypsies in Germany and Austria.
It was probably Ritter's "race-biological research" that SS chief Heinrich Himmler invoked in his circular on "Combating the Gypsy Nuisance" of December 8, 1938, recommending "the resolution of the Gypsy question based on its essentially racial nature." He ordered the registration of all Gypsies in the Reich above the age of six and their classification into three racial groups: Gypsies, Gypsy Mischlinge [part-Gypsies], and nomadic persons behaving as Gypsies. Himmler, who oversaw the vast security empire that included the Criminal Police, stated that the "aim of measures taken by the State to defend the homogeneity of the German nation" included the "physical separation of Gypsydom from the German nation."
The children of Sinti and Roma were also victims, interned with their families in the municipal camps and studied and classified by racial scientists. Between 1933 and 1939, authorities took many Sinti and Roma children from their families and brought them to special homes for children as wards of the state. Gypsy school-children who were truant were deemed delinquent and sent to special juvenile schools; those unable to speak German were deemed feebleminded and sent to "special schools" for the mentally handicapped. Like Jewish children, Gypsy boys and girls also commonly endured the taunts and insults of their classmates, until March 1941 when the regime excluded Gypsies from the public schools.
As was the case for Jews, the outbreak of war in September 1939 radicalized the Nazi regime's policies towards Gypsies. On September 21, 1939, a conference on racial policy chaired by Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Reich Security Main Office in Berlin, discussed the removal of 30,000 German and Austrian Gypsies to occupied Poland, along with the deportation of Jews. The "resettlement to the East" followed by the mass murder of Sinti and Roma in reality closely paralleled the systematic deportations and killings of Jews. The deportations of German Gypsies, including men, women, and children, began in May 1940 when 2,800 Gypsies were transported to Lublin, in occupied Poland. In early November 1941, 5,000 Austrian Gypsies were deported to the Lódi ghetto and from there to Chelmno, where they were among the first to be killed by gassing in mobile vans beginning in late December 1941 and January 1942. Similarly, in the summer of 1942, German and Polish Gypsies imprisoned in the Warsaw ghetto were deported to Treblinka, where they were gassed. German Gypsies were also deported to ghettos in Bialystok, Cracow, and Radom.
During the war, some minor differences of opinion arose at the highest levels of government regarding the "final solution to the Gypsy question." Himmler toyed with the idea of keeping a small group of "pure" Gypsies alive on a reservation for the ethnic study of these racial "enemies of the state," but the regime rejected this idea. In a decree dated December 16, 1942, Himmler ordered the deportation of Gypsies and part-Gypsies to Auschwitz-Birkenau. At least 23,000 Gypsies were brought there, the first group arriving from Germany in February 1943. Most of the Gypsies at Auschwitz-Birkenau came from Germany or territories annexed to the Reich, including Bohemia and Moravia. Police also deported small numbers of Gypsies from Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Norway.
At Auschwitz-Birkenau, officials set up a separate "Gypsy family camp" for Gypsies in Section BIIe of Birkenau. From the wooden barracks, the gas chambers and crematoria were clearly visible. During the seventeen months of the camp's existence, most of the Gypsies brought there perished. They were killed by gassing or died from starvation, exhaustion from hard labor, and disease (including typhus, smallpox, and the rare, leprosy-like condition called Noma.) Others, including many children, died as the result of cruel medical experiments performed by Dr. Josef Mengele and other SS physicians. The Gypsy camp was liquidated on the night of August 2-3, 1944, when 2,897 Sinti and Roma men, women, and children were killed in the gas chamber. Some 1,400 surviving men and women were transferred to Buchenwald and Ravensbrück concentration camps for forced labor.
After Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, special SS squads (Einsatzgruppen) and units of the regular army and police began shooting Gypsies in Russia, Poland, and the Balkans, at the same time they were killing Jews and Communist leaders. Thousands of Sinti and Roma men, women, and children are believed to have been killed in these actions, often carried out under the pretext that the victims were "spies."
In western and southern Europe, the fate of Sinti and Roma varied from country to country, depending on local circumstances. Across German-occupied Europe, Gypsies, like Jews, were interned, killed, or deported to camps in Germany or eastern Europe. The collaborationist regime of Vichy France interned 30,000 Gypsies, many of whom were later deported to Dachau, Ravensbrück, Buchenwald, and other camps. In Croatia, members of the local fascist Ustasha movement killed tens of thousands of Gypsies, along with Serbs and Jews. In Romania in 1941 and 1942, thousands of Gypsies were expelled, alongside Jews, to Transnistria (western Ukraine) where most of the deportees died from disease, starvation, and brutal treatment. In Serbia, in the fall of 1941, German army firing squads killed almost the entire adult male Gypsy population, alongside most adult male Jews, in retaliation for German soldiers killed by Serbian resistance fighters. In Hungary, Germans and Hungarian collaborators began deporting Gypsies in October 1944.
The unreliability of pre-Holocaust population figures for Sinti and Roma and the paucity of research, especially on their fate outside Germany during the Holocaust, make it difficult to estimate the number and percentage who perished. Scholarly estimates of deaths in the Sinti and Roma genocide range from 220,000 to 500,000.
After the war, discrimination against Sinti and Roma in Europe continued. In the Federal Republic (West Germany) the courts agreed to compensate Sinti and Roma for racial persecution only for deportations that occurred in 1943 and later. They did not push the date back to 1938 until the early 1960s. Today, with the rise of strident nationalism in many of the eastern European nations and unemployment throughout Europe, Sinti and Roma continue to face widespread public prejudices and official discrimination.