Europe and the Roma: A History of Fascination and Fear 
by Klaus-Michael Bogdal, translated by Jefferson Chase.
Allen Lane, 588 pp., £40, July, 978 0 241 51902 8
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In August​ 1992, violent riots in the former East German port city of Rostock culminated in arson attacks on a tower block housing Roma and Vietnamese asylum seekers. Neo-Nazis threw Molotov cocktails while local residents looked on. The surrounding estate of Lichtenhagen had been built by the East German authorities in the 1970s, and the bright yellow sunflowers painted on the walls of the building couldn’t disguise the fact that it was overcrowded and dilapidated. The riots stoked fears about the resurgence of xenophobia and racially motivated violence in a newly reunified Germany. Stern reported on a 16-year-old girl who justified her part in the riots by saying: ‘If Gypsies had been burned to death, it wouldn’t have bothered me.’

Casual racism against Roma after reunification was accompanied by a widespread fascination with ‘Gypsies’ in popular culture. Klaus-Michael Bogdal, a professor of German literature at the University of Bielefeld at the time of the riots, was struck by the contradiction. In the early 1990s, Germans were taking up flamenco lessons. The French-Gitano band Gipsy Kings was hitting the top of the charts with tracks such as ‘Bamboléo’. It was plausible, Bogdal writes, that their ‘lively, upbeat songs might have been playing at festive barbeques in Rostock’ while the asylum reception centre was being torched.

The Roma are often described as Europe’s largest minority, numbering some ten to twelve million people. As an umbrella term, ‘Roma’ is commonly understood to refer to numerous sub-groups, from Kalderash to Romanichals and Kale, many but not all of whom speak dialects of the Romani language, while Sinti (and in France, Manouche) is the preferred self-designation in Germany and neighbouring countries. Official census figures are unreliable: Roma often don’t want to identify themselves for fear of discrimination. Some of the largest Romani minorities live in Central and Eastern Europe, among them survivors of genocidal persecution by the Nazis and their allies. After 1945, only a small proportion of Roma in this part of Europe practised itinerant professions, and peripatetic lifestyles were stamped out altogether by the communist regimes of the 1950s. The stereotype of the ‘nomadic Gypsy’ doesn’t explain the experiences of the Romanian Roma migrants who ended up camping outside the asylum reception centre in Rostock in 1992.

Racism against Roma remains widespread in Europe. Last year, Jimmy Carr joked that the Nazi extermination of the Gypsies was rarely mentioned because no one liked to talk about the ‘positives’ of the Holocaust. Less extreme forms of ‘anti-Gypsyism’ are far more common. According to the EU’s Agency for Fundamental Rights, four out of five Roma are at risk of poverty. Romani children in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia are frequently segregated in separate classrooms or schools for children with learning disabilities. Roma report discrimination in housing, health and employment. In public opinion surveys, around 45 per cent of people claim they would be uncomfortable having Romani neighbours. Europe and the Roma sets out to explain why. Bogdal isn’t convinced that European prejudice against Roma can be explained by ‘knee-jerk analogies with antisemitism’. He argues that the increase in violence against Roma in post-communist Europe demands a new account of Europe’s troubled relationship with its biggest minority.

First published in German in 2011, the book’s original title was Europa erfindet die Zigeuner – ‘Europe Invents the Gypsies’. This isn’t a history of the Roma in Europe, but an ambitious, if ultimately flawed, attempt to interpret Europeans’ ideas and images of Roma from their arrival in the late Middle Ages up to the end of the 20th century. Medieval chronicles, decrees and laws, picaresque novels, philological tracts, travelogues, ethnographies, racist pamphlets, criminological treatises, Romantic poetry and Marxist periodicals all feature in the story. Bogdal argues that a range of sources is necessary to understand the 20th-century genocide of Roma and Sinti by the Nazis and their allies. It’s a well-trodden argument in scholarship on Roma, which has often stressed the way in which forms of knowledge have been used to exclude, oppress or discipline these linguistically, socially and ethnically diverse peoples. But unlike many writers, who concentrate on local or national histories, Bogdal works with a broad canvas, arguing that the invention of Gypsies was integral to European modernity. The disadvantage of his approach is that he falls into the very trap he wishes to avoid. Only at the end of the book, in the chapters on post-Holocaust memory, do we encounter texts written by Roma themselves. On the question of Roma as subjects or authors, Bogdal is dismissive: ‘What did Roma think and feel? Here, we look back upon an impenetrable fog that will likely never lift. There are no reliable sources.’ This is not only untrue but perpetuates the myth that a book like this should dispense with: that the Roma are a people without history.

In the 15th century, reports of people who would soon become known as Gypsies in English, bohémiens in French, heathens in Dutch, tatarer in Swedish, gitanos in Spanish and Zigeuner in German began to appear in city chronicles. ‘Gypsies’ were believed to be aristocratic heathens who had converted to Christianity – perhaps wealthy Saracens from the Ottoman Empire. This is reflected in the etymology of the word ‘Gypsy’, from ‘Egyptian’. In his chronicle of 1538, the Swiss historian Johannes Stumpf reported that Gypsies claimed to have been ‘expelled from Egypt and forced to do miserable penance’. Foreign pilgrims and penitents were deemed worthy of assistance by late medieval Christendom, especially when they could provide letters of protection from the Holy Roman Emperor or the pope. However, Bogdal explains, medieval texts didn’t distinguish sharply between metaphor and reality, and chroniclers weren’t eyewitnesses: they wrote down what others told them and were content to speculate as to the Gypsies’ origins.

The question of origins became more significant as the medieval social order gave way to modernising, territorially defined states. Individuals were no longer simply assigned a place in a feudal hierarchy. Instead, legal status was increasingly dependent on proving one’s origins, both in terms of genealogy and geography. It was the Roma’s misfortune, Bogdal suggests, to arrive in Europe at this moment of change. Peripatetic ‘Gypsies’ of unknown origin were no longer revered as pilgrims but singled out for exclusion, punishment and deportation. In 1499 an edict in Spain ordered the expulsion of the Gypsies and banned the use of the Romani language. Imperial declarations, mandates and other legal documents would shape cultural representations of Roma for centuries to come. Between the 16th and the 18th centuries, ‘Gypsies’ were lumped into the amorphous category of ‘masterless men’, along with vagabonds, tricksters, rogues, beggars and the poor.

The persecution of the Roma in early modern Europe also produced the enduring literary tropes of Gypsies as criminals, kidnappers of children and seductresses. In 1613, at the height of the persecution of ‘egypcianos’ and ‘Moors’ in Spain under Philip III, Miguel de Cervantes published his story ‘La Gitanella’ (‘The Little Gypsy Girl’). One of his ‘Exemplary Novels’, it traced the adventures of a beautiful Gypsy called Preciosa. The orientalised, seductive child-woman with a ‘swarthy complexion’ and ‘little foot’ would reappear as the character of Esmeralda in Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831), where she was conflated with the temptresses of the Parisian underworld. A few decades later, in Prosper Mérimée’s Carmen, the character of Carmen is described as a ‘pretty witch’; she is a thief and a liar, a fantasy of animalistic female desire untrammelled by bourgeois norms. The point is made even more starkly in Bizet’s opera of 1875, in which Carmen sings: ‘Love is a Bohemian child,/It never, never knew a law,/If you do not love me, I love you,/If I love you, Beware!’

The popularity of imagined Gypsies marched in step with discrimination against actual Roma. A craze for ‘Gypsy masquerades’ swept across the courts of 17th-century Europe, yet the aristocratic women who dressed up as Gypsies at the Elector’s Palace in Dresden in 1678, Bogdal tells us, ‘didn’t have to fear being expelled from Saxony or hanged to death’, unlike the Romani women who at the same time were facing execution at ‘hastily erected gallows’. ‘“Gypsies” represent the Other in a society that considers itself to have been organised along principles of reason,’ he adds, in case the point wasn’t clear. Early Enlightenment scholars regularly classified Gypsies among the ‘lowliest forms of humanity’, along with Africans, Laplanders and Eskimos. Dark skin was one of the markers of these racial hierarchies, which from the first half of the 19th century were increasingly used to compare Gypsies and Jews.

In the 18th century, the discovery that the Romani language could be traced back to Hindi and Urdu discredited speculation about the Gypsies’ mythical origins in North Africa. In 1782, the philologist Johann Rüdiger published ‘On the Language and Origin of the Gypsies from India’, which argued that Roma should be given the same rights as other European peoples. Rüdiger and other philologists also contrasted the fully-fledged language used by Roma with the secret lexicons or ‘criminal cants’ used by peripatetic groups in France, England, Spain and Germany. But their efforts to promote Romani as an offshoot of Sanskrit came to nothing: it was dismissed as a corrupted popular dialect, much in the way that Yiddish was viewed before 1800.

Another scholar, a professor in the emerging discipline of statistics at Göttingen, exerted far more influence over popular opinion of Roma than Rüdiger. Heinrich Grellmann’s Dissertation on the Gypsies (1783) was full of stories about ‘Gypsies devouring carrion, kidnapping children and even engaging in cannibalism’. Grellmann distinguished sharply between Gypsies and Jews, who were in the early stages of legal emancipation and assimilation. While he employed a crude cost-benefit analysis regarding the value of integrating ‘harmful’ elements into society, Bogdal suggests, Grellmann essentially saw Gypsies as unredeemable. Similar views influenced the policies of European monarchs, including the Austrian empress Maria Theresa and her son Joseph II, as well as Carlos III of Spain, who tried forcibly to assimilate Roma in the 18th century as a means of disciplining and controlling them. While many states in German-speaking Central Europe continued to expel Roma across municipal borders, the Habsburg court in Vienna obliged them to settle, banning the use of Romani and calling them ‘new Hungarians’. The Habsburgs’ revocation of ‘Gypsy slavery’ in Bukovina caused years of conflict with local landowners. (In the Romanian principalities of Moldova and Wallachia, where slavery existed as a legal institution until 1856, most slaves were Roma, to the extent that the Romanian word for Gypsy – ţigan – became synonymous with the term ‘slave’.)

During the 19th century, Bogdal suggests, three different approaches to Gypsies emerged in Europe. The first was universalistic: the forced integration of Gypsies into modern societies. The second was emancipatory: Gypsies were encouraged to change their way of life in a manner similar to Jews. The third was cultural: Gypsies represented ‘paradise lost to modern industrial society’. In 1857, George Borrow published The Romany Rye, a novel about someone who was ‘not a Gypsy, who loves the race and has mastered the tongue’. As a young man, Borrow had travelled across Spain on behalf of the Bible Society, hawking his translations of the Gospel of Luke into Romani and Basque. He failed to sell many copies, but on his return to England he published two bestselling accounts of his experiences, one of which was called The Zincali, or an Account of Gypsies in Spain (1841). Borrow was well acquainted with the Anglo-Spanish tradition of the picaresque novel, but he also incorporated observations about Gypsy customs, food and music. While still ambivalent, this late Romantic fondness for the Roma was far less hostile than earlier representations. Bogdal traces similar patterns in Hungary and Russia, where Gypsy characters found their way into expressions of patriotism and national identity.

By the turn of the 20th century, popular stereotypes were assuming a more derogatory form, supported by criminology and race theory. Pseudo-scientific ideas about racial difference were gaining ground over ethnography, which was increasingly viewed as an inadequate tool for categorising populations in an era of industrialisation and mass migration. In 1899, a special police unit was set up to monitor Gypsies in Bavaria; by 1925, its registry contained more than fourteen thousand names. A year later, Bavaria adopted a law combatting ‘Gypsies, vagrants and the work-shy’, laying the foundations for further state repression. Five years later, a new Reich Centre for Gypsy Affairs began a large-scale ‘racial-biological research project’ on Germany’s ‘second most significant alien racial group’. After the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, Roma from Austria were deported to their deaths in occupied Poland; from 1943, Roma were systematically deported from across occupied Europe to Auschwitz. They were persecuted in every country occupied by the Nazis and their allies.

There were alternative attitudes. The Soviet Union supported the emancipation of Roma in the 1920s as part of its broader project of nation-building in the service of socialist revolution. In the Weimar Republic, the socialist Workers’ Illustrated Newspaper ran pieces depicting Gypsies as victims of capitalism, while the proletarian children’s novel Ede and Unku (1931) by the Jewish communist Grete Weiskopf told the story of a Sinti girl who supported striking workers. The character of Unku was based on a girl called Erna Lauenburger, who was later killed at Auschwitz. The novel became part of the school curriculum in the GDR. Other East European socialist countries pursued similar schemes for the emancipation of Roma, but they were limited and often short-lived, much like the appeal of the socialist realist Bildungsroman and didactic children’s literature.

Romani writers finally appear in Bogdal’s closing chapter, titled ‘A Voice of Their Own: Sinti and Roma Remembrance Literature’. But they are mostly witnesses, not authors. He describes the memoirs of Romani Holocaust survivors such as Philomena Franz, who wrote Between Love and Hate: A Gypsy Life (1985) while being treated for depression at a psychiatric clinic, and Lily Franz, whose 1997 autobiography recalled her experiences of sexual violence in both Nazi and Allied displaced persons camps. Troublingly, Bogdal presents these testimonies as part of a purported Gypsy oral tradition. Literature, he suggests, is a different matter. The final pages of Europe and the Roma touch on the novels of Matéo Maximoff, who was of Kalderash and Basque descent, and the poetry of the Polish-Romani writer Bronisława Wajs, known by her Romani name, Papusza. This might have been a starting point for a completely different book, one which discussed the way Romani writers have played with genre and form in prose, poetry, lyric and theatre. Instead, Bogdal repeats the assertion that literature is a foreign domain for Roma: ‘Why should Roma share anything of themselves in aesthetic forms that are foreign to their own culture?’

The histories of Romani civil rights movements, of Romani Holocaust survivors’ pursuit of compensation or recognition through the courts, of Romani women’s campaigns against coercive sterilisation receive little attention in Europe and the Roma. Bogdal is openly sceptical about the existence of a Romani national consciousness. While many people of Romani descent might see their identity as multilayered, this isn’t the point he wants to make. The ‘ethnically based myth of equality and community’ emerging in the Romani ghettos of Košice, Bucharest and Sofia is, he declares, ‘nothing but a by-product of old clan traditions’. Bogdal briefly acknowledges the Central Council of Sinti and Roma in Germany, which since the 1970s has challenged the long-standing view in postwar West Germany that Nazi persecution of Roma was not racially motivated. But he doubts that Roma elsewhere in Europe are capable of this sort of ‘history-making’. Roma remain, in his view, exactly as he thinks they have been portrayed by other European writers over the last six hundred years: ‘a people without a future or a past’.

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Vol. 45 No. 24 · 14 December 2023

Celia Donert writes that Gypsies were monitored in imperial and Weimar Germany, some years before the Nazi extermination programme began (LRB, 2 November). Some public authorities in 21st-century Europe continue to see Roma people as requiring special attention merely because of their background: in 2013 it was revealed that the Swedish police were keeping illegal registers containing the details of more than four thousand Roma people, many of them unsuspected of any crime, many of them children.

Ned Hercock

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