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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2000, Vol. 3 No. 2 .

The Nazi Persecution Of The Gypsies
Guenter Lewy

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999
306 pp. Index. Bibl. NPI. ISBN 0-19-512556-8.

This fine piece of historiography fills an important lacuna in the documentation of the other Nazi genocide, that of the Rom and Sindi, variously known as Gypsies in English, Gitans in French, and Zigeuner in German. The central thesis of the author is that the atrocities perpetrated against the Gypsies by the Nazi regime, while unspeakable, did not amount to a concerted policy to exterminate them, were riddled with inconsistencies, and, thus, were not commensurate with the Jewish Shoah. In defence of his thesis, Lewy advances the following facts: many directives differentiated between the treatment of "pure" Gypsies (whom Himmler "favored" as possible "Aryans", an eccentricity which did not endear him to other Nazi satraps) and "Mischlinge" ("mixed-race" Gypsies); sedentary Gypsies were sometimes exempted from deportations and killings; Gypsies were sometimes given the choice of "voluntary" sterilization as an alternative to the concentration camp; at Auschwitz, there was a special Gypsy sub-camp where families were kept together and exempted from work; and, on one occasion, Gypsy men were let out of camps by "volunteering " in an SS suicide unit on the Russian front. All these facts, and a few more, lead Lewy to conclude that the Nazis regarded the Gypsies as a nuisance rather than a threat, and lacked a master plan to annihilate them. The following additional facts, also noted by Lewy, but differently interpreted, lead me to conclude that the Nazi policy and practice toward Gypsies was indeed fully genocidal by UN Convention standards. 1) An institute charged with establishing a complete roster and genealogy of German Gypsies was established as early as 1936, headed by Dr. Robert Ritter, who repeatedly advocated sterilization as the final solution of the Gypsy problem. 2) Sterilization of Gypsies was, indeed, widely practiced, sometimes with barbaric methods such as injecting the uterus with corrosive liquids. 3) Countless Gypsy men, women and children were sent to numerous concentration camps where many thousands died, including all the remaining inmates of the famous Auschwitz "family" camp who were gassed in 1944 to make room for Hungarian Jews. 4) Thousands of Gypsy men, women and children were indiscriminately shot or gassed by several of the infamous "Einzatzkommandos" on the Eastern Front, generally under orders to liquidate all Jews, Gypsies and Communists. 5) Gypsies were favourite subjects for "medical" experiments in camps, especially twin children, who were routinely killed by lethal injection if they survived the experiment itself. 6) Male hostages were shot by the thousands in occupied Yugoslavia (at the rate of 100 per German soldier killed), with, again, Jews, Gypsies and Communists being the consistently favored categories of hostage taking. In all, some 200,000 Gypsies were killed by the Nazis, including some 85% of the Austrian Gypsies, and between 50% and 75% of the German ones, depending on which figures one accepts. These percentages are equal to, or even greater than the losses suffered by Jews in these countries. That said, there WERE some significant differences between the two genocides. The Gypsy genocide was low-priority compared to the Jewish one, and it was conducted less thoroughly, systematically and single-mindedly. Nonetheless, the intent to rid the Reich of "race-defiling", "thieving", "work-shy" "parasites" was clear. Another difference makes the Gypsy genocide even more disturbing than the Jewish one. The Gypsy genocide was more "from the bottom up", while the Shoah was more "from the top down". In my view, Goldhagen overstates the case for nearly unanimous complicity of the entire German population in the Shoah, but the "Goldhagen thesis" for the Gypsies is quite persuasive. Gypsy deportations were frequently done, or, at least, accelerated, in response to urgent requests by local authorities or the general public to be rid of the "Gypsy nuisance". The Gypsy genocide was clearly by popular demand. Most troubling of all, these anti-Gypsy sentiments are neither a thing of the past, nor a German monopoly. The Rom are still Europe's pariahs. The persecution is currently dormant, but who can confidently predict that it will not raise its ugly head again?

Pierre L. van den Berghe, University of Washington

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