History at a Standstill

Germany and the Roma

One of The Battleground’s strongest areas of coverage is Germany. Not just any German topic, but that of the country’s continuing problems with racism.

Original crowdfunder. Karl-Marx-Straße, Neukölln.

Seventy-six years after Hitler’s defeat, Antisemitism remains rampant, even amongst supporters of Israel and Jewish immigration. Our writers have excelled at explaining why that’s the case and what should be done about it.

As important as the topic is, the issue is also a highly sensitive one, for all the obvious reasons. Most foreign platforms don’t touch the issue critically, with the exception of Israeli publications such as Haaretz, and 972 Magazine. Unfortunately, that’s not the case with European Jewish media, At least the way we do it, as a platform with a heavily Jewish, antiracist focus.

That’s why we thought it would be good to publish something about Antiziganism in Germany. Though we’ve done it before, we’ve never published something quite like this. A historic reprint, adapted from a 1989 translation in the Canadian autonomist magazine Arm The Spirit, the article provides a helpful history of racism against Roma and Sinti in the 20th century, from 1919 to the crisis of the Soviet bloc.

It’s not hard to see the parallels between Antiziganism and Antisemitism, particularly in Germany. Not just because of the shared Jewish-Roma experience of the Holocaust. The persistence of Antisemitism, despite de-Nazification, is part and parcel of the persistence of other racisms, old and new, but most significantly, discrimination against the Roma, given the communities’ historic co-presence in Central and Eastern Europe.

Hence, how refreshing it is to read a piece of solidarity literature like this. There’s nothing ambiguous about the empathy and rage of its analysis. Telling of the persistence of fascist Antiziganism into 1980s Cologne, the antiracism of the essay is profound and testifies to the better Germany that draws so many minorities to the country today.

Though the article ends on the same note as it began, with the burning of a police station, it’s best to read that metaphorically. We see it as a testament to Germany’s need to do a better job tackling racism. Though thirty-two years ago, it’s still a sign of how mismanaged the crisis remains, today. There’s nothing particularly extraordinary about it, except that this came from the left.


In April 1919, when armed workers from the councilist republic in Munich stormed the police headquarters, not only were files on political prisoners tossed out the windows, but also personal files being kept on “Gypsies”. Afterwards, everything was set on fire. 

The revolutionary workers destroyed the files which were kept in the so-called “Gypsy Centre” established in 1889 in Bayern, which used the most modern police techniques of that time period, in cooperation with state agencies throughout the whole country, to achieve its goal of drawing up a complete and centralised listing of all Roma and Sinti living in Germany. 

This episode says something about the same tradition which is being carried out some seventy years later by social and judicial institutions in Cologne, which have set up a Gypsy database for all Roma peoples.

Since 1986, with the help of this so-called “Cologne model”, a large amount of data has been collected regarding all the places where Roma peoples live in the areas surrounding Cologne.

Through the police, this material is not only used to carry out a small, day by day war of controls, discrimination, and terror, to make survival for the Roma as difficult as it can possibly be. It is also used to provide a foundation for the social institutions to threaten Roma families with expulsion.

The scandal, in our eyes, is not simply in the violations of privacy, but in the normality and continuity of the racist registration that Roma are still subjected to.

Anyone who examines the history of Germany’s persecution of the Roma and Sinti would be surprised at the unbroken continuity of how the persecuting institutions have continually repackaged their social war against Gypsies, for example through forced assimilation, criminalisation, expulsion, and finally outright destruction during the period of National Socialism.

The instruments of total information collection, observation, and social control were always the basis and precondition for all subsequent regulatory measures which were developed for a torment that reached its climax in the genocide of more than half a million Roma and Sinti. 

The files of Munich’s Gypsy Centre, which fell into the hands of revolutionary workers, were quickly recollected after the defeat of the councilist republic.

The activities of this centre continued until the time of National Socialism when they were handed over by Heinrich Himmler to the State Center for the Eradication of the Gypsy Plague, which was a part of the Center for State Research and the Headquarters for State Security. This modernised and restructured government office carried out the same tasks.

The changes brought by National Socialism were a wave of institutional repression, culminating in a wave of destruction, one that landed the Roma and Sinti in the gas chambers and in the gunsights of the mobile commandos which stormed through the occupied territories. 

At the same time, National Socialist race research provided an allegedly scientific basis for racist persecution. 

The Racial Hygiene Research Centre, which, under Dr Robert Ritter carried out and accelerated race research on selected Roma and Sinti on behalf of the Headquarters for State Security starting in 1937, grew to be one of the most important instruments for the persecution of Gypsies under National Socialism. 

The results of this research determined, to a large degree, all administrative regulations for the marginalisation, forced housing, deportations, impoverishment, sterilizations, and, finally, the genocide against the Roma and Sinti.

The eventual result was Himmler’s Auschwitz Decree, which gave the go-ahead for the systematic deportation of German and European Sinti and Roma to the death camps.

The instruments and personnel of the genocide survived the period of National Socialism virtually unscathed. The push towards annihilation also dictated policy regarding the Roma and Sinti in Germany even after 1945.

This agency functioned on the legal basis of “regulating vagrants”, which allowed special treatment and registration procedures to be applied to Roma and Sinti once again. The allies put an end to this regulation between 1945 and 1953. 

Already in 1953, the Centre for Vagrants was established in Bayern as part of the LKA (State Criminal Police) and was headed by Joseph Eichberger, who had been in charge of the deportation of Roma at the Headquarters for State Security. 

But some of their files, which outlined the plans and execution of genocide against the Roma and Sinti, came into the hands of the recently-established Centre for Vagrants. These were used for the reorganisation of the system of control based on the results of Nazi race research. 

At the same time, the LKA in Munich allowed National Socialist files to be used in schools for dissertations on the ‘Gypsy problem’. From these people, the ministries of internal affairs and health recruited their advisors for Roma and Sinti questions in the 1970s.

Officially, the Centre for Vagrants in Bayern was closed down in 1970. But the political observation and persecution of Roma of the present day still make use of the material and methods of the Nazi specialists of that time. 

Their knowledge will be even more useful to the ruling powers when, as a result of the social and political changes in Europe, the presence of Roma and Sinti in Germany becomes a heated contemporary issue. 

Over the past few years, they have mostly migrated from Southeastern Europe, fleeing from poverty, persecution, discrimination, and expulsion, which were either caused or at least tolerated, by the state. 

For the next few years, social and population planners expect an increasing number of Roma and Sinti to migrate from the southern regions of the European Community as one result of European unification. 

These so-called planners believe that in the Gypsies they have discovered the one European population group that will most increase its numbers here, due to its high degree of mobility. Fleeing from poverty and unemployment, they will be the first to penetrate the wealthy regions of the North. 

That’s why the policies for deporting southeastern European Roma and Sinti are so clear, based on the fear of the arrival of thousands of others, who would come if residency permits were granted to those already living here. 

And no matter how racist the treatment of Roma and Sinti was in the countries of real socialism, here in the so-called free West, there is no end in sight to the vicious circle of poverty and flight. 

Very few of these people have actually been able to obtain a legal residency permit. For the overwhelming majority, the reality is as follows: A life in camps guarded by police, or camping in a parking lot beside the road, miserable living conditions, continued harassment from authorities and the population, and persistent uncertainty about the future. 

Away from the gaze of public opinion, the state agencies that deal with foreigners have been trying for years now to get rid of the Roma and Sinti that have made it here. 

The deportations, for example, of those in Hamburg and North Rhine-Westphalia, have only ever been delayed for short periods of time, thanks to the pressure and resistance applied by supporters, whereas the deportations would otherwise have gone through as normal.

Caught between a rock and hard place, having to choose between forced assimilation or deportation, the state enacts special regulations to deal with Roma and Sinti, which usually consists of police assistance in carrying out deportation orders. 

It’s already assumed from the beginning that only a few will be granted residency permits. The granting of a permit is based on certain preconditions which hardly anyone can satisfy and which are determined by the state agencies themselves and whose criteria are based on forced assimilation and integration. 

It is superfluous to point out that the right to asylum functions as a part of the arsenal of instruments used to marginalise and exclude the Roma and Sinti. Without concern for the effects and ignorance of the real reasons that forced them to flee from their countries of origin, the Roma and Sinti are denied the status of being a persecuted people. 

Their right to stay here is entirely in the hands of the administrative agencies concerned. If the deportations of Roma and Sinti resume in the coming weeks, then an eerie scenario will become reality: The “trains of freedom”, which took citizens of the DDR to West Germany, will return to Eastern Europe, carrying the deported Roma and Sinti.

The restrictive right to asylum and the ethnic criteria for residency permits based on citizenship seem once again to be a selection instrument in the hands of the ruling powers for the control of immigrants, an instrument which divides refugees along racist and nationalist lines, and which decides who will be granted the blessings of “freedom and democracy” and who will not. 

That’s why we decided to take up the matter of the existence of National Socialist-era files at the Ethnic Minorities Drop-In and Advice Center in Cologne. We took up the demand of the Roma and their supporters, that the Cologne model project be closed down, by burning the offices and all of the files contained therein.

This article was originally published in Arm The Spirit. Adapted under a Creative Commons license. Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.