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  • Germany and Its Gypsies: A Post-Auschwitz Ordeal
  • Peter Widmann
Germany and Its Gypsies: A Post-Auschwitz Ordeal. By Gilad Margalit ( Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2002. xviii plus 285 pp.).

The Israeli historian Gilad Margalit's study breaks new ground. In recent years, several books and essays have been published in both German and English concerning genocide perpetrated by the National Socialists against the Sinti and Roma, the German gypsies. In contrast, scant academic attention has been paid to the post war history of those who survived, and to the way in which the majority of the German populace dealt with this historical legacy.

The author shows how German Federal State governments and authorities discriminated against Sinti and Roma after 1945 in various ways. For example, the parliament of the State of Bavaria passed a law in 1953, which forced vagrants to carry special passes and report regularly to the authorities. The interior ministry of the State of North Rhine Westphalia attempted to strip gypsies of their German nationality in the mid fifties.

In general, after the Second World War, officials attempted to reintroduce the "fight against the gypsy plague", as they termed it, a policy which had become established in the days of the Imperial German Empire and the Weimar Republic. These officials intended to criminalize the gypsy way of life and deny a group of people their civil rights. Given the political atmosphere after the collapse of the National Socialist State, such policies could only be partly carried out. The Bavarian prime minister had to declare the "Gypsy and workshy law", dating from the Weimar Republic, invalid in 1947.

Margalit throws light on the role of allied occupation forces, who had little interest in the situation of the surviving Sinti and Roma, and on the way the German authorities were treating this minority. Whilst the US military government considered the treatment of the Jews after 1945 as a measure of the level of democratization, Sinti and Roma were a blind spot.

Post 1945, the policy towards this minority was based on stereotypes, which the populace had been spreading over generations. "Gypsies" were considered to be criminals, outside of society. The story of their persecution under the National Socialists was also interpreted in this distorted way. In the agencies dealing with justice and compensation, officials disputed the claim that Sinti and [End Page 1157] Roma had been the victims of race persecution. The National Socialist authorities had, as was claimed, only prosecuted "gypsies" as criminals, just as democratic and legal states would have done. Hence many Sinti and Roma failed in their attempts to claim compensation.

Margalit focuses on West Germany, and only a few passages deal with developments in East Germany, where Sinti and Roma also had to fight similar prejudice in the post war years. In contrast to other groups, they had to provide evidence of being democratic and anti fascist, in order to be recognized as victims of National Socialism in the GDR.

Because the persecution by the National Socialists was interpreted in a distorted way, those responsible escaped punishment. Margalit describes how in 1950 the public prosecutor in Frankfurt Main stopped legal proceedings against Robert Ritter, who was the most significant "gypsy specialist" in the National Socialist State. During the Second World War, the police, using race reports from Ritter's "Research Unit for Racial hygiene and Population Biology" (Rassenhygienische und Bevölkerungsbiologische Forschungsstelle) in the German Public Health Ministry, had thousands of Sinti and Roma deported to Auschwitz and other camps. The statements of those who survived counted for little in the proceedings initiated against Ritter in 1948. The public prosecutor followed Ritter's argument that "gypsies" often confused fantasy and reality, and as such that their evidence could be disregarded.

Margalit portrays the post war history of the German policy towards gypsies from the late 1940s until the early 1960s on the basis of comprehensive official records. Due to the 30 year waiting period before official documents can be made public, he refers to other sources for the following period—in particular to documents reflecting public opinion of this minority group, such as press reports, fiction, academic and political...


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