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The Gypsies during the Holocaust

A group of gypsies waiting for instructions from the Nazis in Belzec, USHMM #74705.

Not only Jews were systematically persecuted and murdered during World War II. Gypsies too, from Germany and other parts of Europe, were persecuted and murdered by the Nazis.

More about:
Who are the gypsies?
Traditional gypsy policies
Race hygiene
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Who are the gypsies?

The gypsies can be defined both culturally and ethnically. In other words, ‘gypsy’ is a compound name.

Culturally, the gypsies are defined as a group of people of strange origin, who live as nomads.

The ethnical definition speaks of the gypsies as a distinctive people, a ‘race’. This race can be defined culturally or biologically. While the cultural race is characterized by a certain way of life and culture, the biological race is characterized by consanguinity”, i.e. family relations.

Today, the official name for the gypsies is ‘Roma’, in German-speaking areas ‘Roma and Sinti’.

Traditional gypsy policies

The original German gypsy policy, as it was laid out in the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, focused on integrating the gypsies into the “ordinary” German society. The gypsies had to seize wandering about, they should settle down, should farm the land – and basically behave as good and sensible citizens. They were generally conceived by the state as backward individuals, who with the right amount of luck and sensible legislation could be transformed into “ordinary people”. Using a modern concept, they had to undergo ‘socialisation’.

The problem with these political goals was that no area wished to become the one, where the gypsies would eventually settle down. This paradox was “solved” by the local authorities in Germany and Austria by trying to pass on the problem from their area to the neighbouring area. The method was expulsion. In theory, then, the gypsies should settle down, but in practise they were driven from place to place. The effort against the gypsies – who were often seen as a nuisance that needed to be fought – was thus unsystematic and from a government point of view not very effective.

Race hygiene

During the Nazi regime, this traditional gypsy policy was replaced by a much more radical set of beliefs. Modern theories about the fight for supremacy among the races meant a complete revaluation of the gypsies. Those were the same theories that were behind the Nazi idea of the Jews as an anti-race. According to such theories, the gypsies were an inferior race that basically was a danger to the survival of the German people and the purity of the German ‘blood’.

The front-runner in this kind of gypsy research was a certain Dr Robert Ritter, who in the mid-1930’s founded a ‘Research Institute for Racial Hygiene’. Ritter was a supporter of a radical solution of the ‘Gypsy Question’ or the ‘Gypsy Problem’ as it was now known. Now thoughts of the exact opposite as integration surfaced: the gypsies neither could nor should be a part of the German people’s community (Volksgemeinschaft). On the contrary, the were to be sterilised in order to disappear as a race.

Examination of racial characteristics on a young German boy at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, USHMM #78570

Practically speaking not much was done in relation to the gypsies – to start with. Hitler was not particularly interested in the gypsies, but with time they became increasingly covered by those Nazi race laws that were mainly directed against the Jews. An example was the Nuremberg Laws.

The main target for Dr Ritter’s research was not the “pure” gypsy. He was much more interested in the so-called Mischlinge (bastards), that is to say people of partially gypsy heritage. Just as the half- and quarter-Jews, the half- and quarter-gypsies were seen as a pollution of the pure Aryan/German race. This pollution could, according to the race theories of the day, lead to a degeneration of the German people. The German people thus had to be strengthened by removing these Mischlinge from the nation. It was this principle of racial hygiene that also hit the Jews and the mentally ill (the last group of victims as part of the infamous ‘Euthanasia Programme’).


> Dr Robert Ritter about the purpose of the 'Research Institute for Racial Hygiene'


French gypsies in the Dachau concentration camp.

As far as the gypsies were concerned, the regime’s wish to carry out measures of racial hygiene first of all resulted in a higher state of police surveillance. The gypsies were viewed as “anti-socials” and “work-shy”, and in order not to infect the hard-working German people they were gathered in special gypsy camps, beginning in 1935. The first “prototype” was the gypsy camp in Cologne.

In December 1938 the head of the police and SS,
Heinrich Himmler , issued a ‘Decree concerning the fight against the gypsy plague’. Following this decree, around 2,000 gypsies were placed in the concentration camps at Buchenwald, Dachau, Mauthausen, Ravensbrück and Sachsenhausen. The criteria for transfer to a concentration camp was basically lack of work. If without work, or if the work was not “steady enough”, the result could well be a stay in a concentration camp.


After the start of the war in 1939 the Nazi regime’s anti-gypsy measures were intensified. Increasingly the official view was that the gypsies, like the Jews, had to ‘disappear from the Reich’. As a result of this radicalisation, around 2,300 gypsies were deported to the General Government in May of 1940. They were far from welcome there, and the gypsies were placed in special sections of the already over-crowded ghettos.

In the autumn of 1941 approximately 5,000 Austrian gypsies were deported to the Jewish ghetto in Lodz, where they were given their own section. The conditions for the gypsies were extremely harsh, and in many ways worse than those of the Jews.. Many fell victim to epidemics, or died of hunger. Those gypsies that survived the stay in the ghetto were gassed to death, together with the Jewish residents, in the extermination camp Chelmno.

Gypsies and Serbs have been captured by the Ustasha and are marched to deportation from the Jasenovac concentration camp, Yugoslavia, USHMM #85799

On the eastern front and in the General Government the gypsies were frequently executed (shot) as “spies”, “thieves”, “alien elements” or “partisans”. There was no systematic hunt for the gypsies (unlike the Jews). The German security detachments “only” shot the gypsies, when they encountered any.

In Eastern Europe the gypsies were generally viewed as spies and untrustworthy. Within the German Reich, however, the view was much more shaped by Nazi racial ideas. Here, the gypsies were perceived as dangerous to the people.

The gypsies were deported from Western Europe to Auschwitz in the spring of 1943. This took place following
Heinrich Himmler ’s so-called ‘Auschwitz Order’. The order involved gypsies from Germany (including Austria and the occupied Czech territories), the Netherlands, Belgium, and the German-controlled parts of northern France. During the deportations, the Nazi authorities made good use of the extensive archives, which had been assembled by Dr Robert Ritter at his ‘Research Institute for Racial Hygiene’.

Around 23,000 gypsies were deported to Auschwitz – meaning a death sentence. Approximately 3,000 survived their sty in Auschwitz, in the first run, but many then died in other camps. Others perished during the death marches to the West, when the Nazis evacuated the camps in Poland in the last months of the war.

Parallel to the deportations, forced sterilisation was systematised in Germany. This terrible method to prevent future increase in the number gypsies was obviously doubly traumatising for a people, where many children is traditionally seen as a blessing.

It is difficult to say anything precise about how many gypsies perished during World War II. This is mainly due to the fact that no one has a clear picture of how many gypsies lived in Europe before the war. However, historians now believe that at least 200,000 gypsies fell victim to the Nazi persecution.


> Elisabeth Guttenberger describes her arrival in Auschwitz
> Filip Müller describes the liquidation of the gypsy camp in Auschwitz, August 1944
> Reich Health Fuehrer, Dr Leonardo Conti about the importance of sterilisations

Want to know more?

> The Nazi ideology
> The Nuremberg Laws
> Euthanasia - 'mercy killings'


Not too much has been written about the nazi persecution of the gypsies. For the best available (English-language) introduction see Guenter Lewy, The Nazi persecution of the gypsies (Oxford & New York, 2000). The ground-breaking work on this subject has been done by a German historian, Michael Zimmermann. Unfortunately, his works are only available in German, but for those able to read German, much use can be made of Michael Zimmermann, Verfolgt, vertrieben, vernichtet : die nationalsozialistische Vernichtungspolitik gegen Sinti und Roma (Essen, 1989) and especially his Rassenutopie und Genozid: Die nationalsozialistische “Lösung der Zigeunerfrage” (Hamburg, 1996).

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