- Sinti und Roma. Geschichte einer Minderheit by Karola Fings
This is a brief introduction to the history of Sinti and Roma in Europe, addressed to a non-Romani readership. Not only the fact of its publication in German, but the terms in which the narrative and analysis are framed, mark it as an appeal specifically to the German public for awareness of the history of discrimination and reflection on the power and dangers of antigypsyism. At the same time, though, it is a serious work of historical synthesis, remarkable in its combination of concision, breadth and balance. The author’s declared aim is ‘to contribute to a more nuanced view of the past and future of the [Romani] minority’ (p. 10) than that provided by a long history of othering discourses and narratives. She acknowledges the necessity of navigating between negative stereotypes (on the one hand) and visions of permanent disempowerment and victimhood (on the other), to find an account that instates Sinti and Roma as subjects of their own history, and also the difficulty of writing such an account from a Gadjo perspective. By and large, she has succeeded in delivering on that promise, and if the project proves difficult at some points, that is a reminder of how much empirical research remains to be done in recovering the normality of daily lives in families and communities.
The least satisfactory aspect of the book is that the whole of the first chapter (of four) is devoted to recapitulating those very stereotypes (with a view to explaining or debunking them). In writing in this field the ‘brief history of antigypsyism’ has acquired a virtue-signalling function, not to say a ritualistic one, and I am inclined to doubt that this is necessary for any readers, however ignorant. In heuristic terms, it invites continued generalisation (through counter-generalisations) rather than promoting the attention to specificity and materiality that its human subjects deserve. Here, it actually tends to subvert the purpose of the book, preparing the reader for a narrative more polemical and less nuanced than the story that is actually told in the chapters that follow.
The second chapter, ‘History’, does a good job of tracing the rhythms and variations in the situation of Sinti and Roma between their arrival in central Europe in the fifteenth century and the early nineteenth century. It draws effectively [End Page 211] on the limited but illuminating recent scholarship about the early modern period to show that the marginalisation and criminalisation of ‘Gypsies’ was an uneven process that can be explained by circumstances that generated social anxieties (like plagues, wars and religious conflicts in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) and by state-building projects that called for the policing of social order in the face of widespread poverty and vagrancy in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Without underplaying their impact, Fings rightly points out that the disciplining measures employed by European states against Sinti and Roma, from expulsion to compulsory sedentarisation, were of a piece with those that were directed at other outsider groups in the project of creating an ordered and homogeneous society. And she makes a good effort to complement what constantly threatens to become a ‘perpetrator narrative’ with evidence for normality and resilience in the everyday life of Sinti and Roma – their representation among ordinary skilled tradesmen, soldiers and other servants of the state, their articulate if rarely recorded claims to be human beings and Christians like anybody else, or (signalling their actual integration) to be ‘former Gypsies’. The wide variation in the circumstances of Sinti and Roma in this period is illustrated by the contrast between enslavement in Wallachia on the one hand, and the relatively high degree of personal and occupational freedom and social integration that Sinti and Roma enjoyed in Tsarist Russia on the other.
The shorter section of the ‘History’ chapter (ten pages) devoted to the era of the nation states tends to fall back into a negative narrative, with a neat if telescoped account...