Anti-Roma violence draws strength from fascist ideas that linger on in mainstream European thought.
On 15 September, a Roma man from Romania, homeless in Sweden, died of injuries sustained on 31 August, when a fire broke out at a Roma temporary tent camp in Högdalen, southern Stockholm. We will probably never know whether the man, who has not been named, was the victim of a tragic accident, or whether his tent was deliberately set on fire by racists who, in months previous, had been very vocal on social media disseminating information on the location of Sweden’s temporary Roma encampments. The reason why the truth may prove elusive rests with police officers who, on arriving at the scene of the fire, assumed that it had been caused by the carelessness of the Roma themselves. The Roma had other views, but by the time they persuaded the police to act like investigators and keep an open mind, the damage had been done. As it took the police several hours to cordon off the charred campsite for a forensic examination, what might have been a murder scene was compromised, and vital forensic evidence lost.
The legacy of fascist ideas
Given all we know about far-right hated of the Roma, current and historical, why would the police be so quick to rule out a racial motive?
In order to understand the unexceptional tunnel-vision of the Swedish police, it is perhaps necessary to turn to mainstream culture, to consider the ways that Roma, Gypsies and Travellers are discussed on social media, in newspapers, TV, in educational materials and textbooks. (Consider the current protests in Madrid over the twenty-third edition of the dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy which defined a ‘gypsy’ as ‘one who lies and cheats’.) Not only is there widespread cultural ignorance of the lasting impact of the Holocaust on Roma communities, but also a lack of insight into the ways in which mainstream discourses today replicate, albeit (in most, but by no means all, cases) in muted form, the fascist thinking of the 1930s. At least half a million and perhaps as many as 1.5 million Roma died in the Porajmos, or the Great Devouring, as the Holocaust is known amongst the Roma. While the Nuremburg Laws of 1935 marked the Roma out, alongside the Jews, for the Final Solution, the Roma and Sinti had already been decimated through the Nazi’s social hygiene programmes. At the centre of Nazi ideology was eugenics (improvement of the genetic stock), the ideas surrounding which were not unique to fascism but grew out of Social Darwinism, a mainstream ‘science’ in Europe and the United States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Nazis were to drive the logic of eugenics forwards to its ultimate barbaric limits. Certain categories of people – the criminal, degenerate, homosexual, idle, feeble-minded, disabled and insane – were selected for forced labour or concentration camps. For the Nazis, they were ‘deviant’, ‘asocial’ and ‘workshy’, summed up in Hitler’s phrase ‘life unworthy of life’ (Lebensunwertes Leben). Under the 1933 Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring, Roma and Sinti were selected for compulsory sterilisation and, later, in 1939, for extermination under the Action T-4 forced euthanasia programme. In this way, Roma were treated by the Nazis, as both a social and genetic threat to the ‘master race’, and then, after the Nuremberg Laws, as a ‘racial threat’ . But given that in today’s post-Holocaust Europe, scientific racism is no longer acceptable, it is the social hygiene component of fascism that lingers in modern attitudes towards the Roma. The legacy of fascism is evidenced in our failure to hold to account those who, directly or indirectly, refer to the criminal culture and deviant lifestyle of the Roma.
It should also be remembered that sterilisation programmes persisted in many European countries, long after the end of the second world war. Even in the so-called egalitarian paradise of Sweden, from 1935-1976 the state forcibly sterilised some 60,000 women under a eugenics programme designed to rid the country of inferior racial stock. Meanwhile, the universal failure of European societies to recognise Roma suffering during the Holocaust, meant that textbooks and education materials were not readily scrutinised for anti-Roma content (witness the Spanish dictionary scandal, mentioned above). In fact, in Germany the Porajmos was only officially acknowledged in 1982 and only in 2011 was a Roma representative officially asked to speak at the German Holocaust Memorial Day.
Social fascism in eastern Europe
All these failures ensured that hostility and violence against the Roma continued in the post-war period, with barely a ripple of mainstream protest. There were pogroms against the Roma in Hungary and Romania in the 1990s, with the Romanian police actively participating in the most infamous of the attacks in Hãdãreni in 1993, during which three Romani men were killed and eighteen Romani houses were destroyed. During a 14-month period in 2009-10, Hungarian neo-Nazi serial killers murdered six Roma and engaged in countless other attacks, including arson, in nine small towns and villages in central and eastern Hungary. The social hygiene ideas of the Nazis, the equation of Roma lifestyles with social degeneracy, as well as the over-breeding that threatens the ‘racial stock’, linger on across much of eastern Europe, painfully affecting the marginalised and impoverished Roma. In the Slovakian town of Kosice, the Magnificent Seven Party (7 Statočných, and, yes, they actually wear cowboy hats), are calling for ‘gypsies’ to be rounded up and put on flights to Europe, and for sterilisation programmes (albeit voluntary, whatever that means in this context) for any Roma women who remain. Between 1971 and 1991, the sterilisation of Roma woman, often during a Caesarean section or an abortion, and without their knowledge, was state practice across Czechoslovakia.
Out of the mouths of respectable politicians, as well as judges, come the same social stereotypes, the same discriminatory words . In April 2014, a judge in a court in Gyula in Békés county, Southeast Hungary, rejecting a bid to dissolve the paramilitaries of the Szebb Jövõt Vigilante Association (closely linked to Jobbik and the previously dissolved Hungarian Guard), summed up by declaring that ‘Being a Roma should not be primarily interpreted as a racial category, rather as a way of life led by a group of people who stand apart from the traditional values of majority society, and whose lifestyle is characterized by the avoidance of work and the disrespect of private property and the norms of living together.’ Meanwhile, on 2 August in the Czech Republic , Tomio Okamura, previously an independent senator loosely aligned with Christian Democrats, but now leader of the breakaway far-right Dawn of Direct Democracy, chose the occasion of Roma Holocaust Day to describe the Lety concentration camp (where Roma were interned during the Nazi occupation, with many sent on to Auschwitz) as a ‘labour camp for persons who were avoiding proper work’, and where people died of old age and ‘diseases they brought with them as a result of their previous travelling lifestyle’. Now, Facebook pages are spring up across the Czech Republic with names and slogans such as ‘We demand impunity for shooting gypsies’, ‘We don’t want to feed the Romani population’ and ‘We Demand the Public Execution of the Executive Director of Romea’.
Western and northern Europe – it’s no joke
Anti-Roma hatred is reaching vile levels. But the most shocking aspect of the hate is the tacit support given by respectable politicians – across Europe, from South to North, from East to West – for views that may fall short of denouncing the Roma as a ‘racial threat’, but replicate the Nazi view of Roma as delinquent and workshy and a social threat to Europe.
It’s far too simplistic to label this an eastern European post-Communist problem, (with the snide undercurrent that you can’t expect more from the economically and socially backward East). Vile comments, most often passed off as humour, emanate from the mouths of our supposedly more enlightened western and northern European politicians on a daily basis. Witness the UK’s Maidenhead Conservative councillor’s recent comment (a misplaced joke he claims), at a council meeting, that one way to speed up the council’s evictions of Travellers, would be to ‘Execute them’. Or the comments of Gilles Bourdouleix, the deputy mayor of a constituency in the French Maine-et-Loire region, who remarked, during a confrontation with Roma at a camp in Cholet, that ‘maybe Hitler did not kill enough Gypsies’. (A misunderstanding, his comments aimed at no one in particular, he protests!)
It is in France, where Facebook pages call for the elimination of the Roma, that violence has, according to the League of Human Rights, reached ‘pathological’ levels. The League blames government policies and high-profile eviction programmes. One particularly horrendous incident occurred in June 2014, when a 16-year-old teenager from Romania, known as Gheorghe C, only narrowly escaped death after suffering life-threatening injuries, including a fractured skull, following an ‘attempted lynching’. The teenager was kidnapped from a Roma encampment in the Pierrefitte-sur-Seine area, north of Paris by a gang of hooded men and tortured in the basement of a housing estate in the Seine Sans Denis area, north of Paris. Finally, unconscious, his body was discovered dumped in a shopping trolley left on the side of the national motorway. His violent treatment was greeted with expressions of support on many online portals.
But this is only one in a catalogue of violent attacks across northern and western Europe which, like in Sweden, have centred on Roma living in tent-encampments and other easily-identifiable living spaces. Not a week goes by without the reporting of another disturbing incident. To take just a few of the most recent: in September 2014, in Germany, in the Silberhöhe neighbourhood of Halle, neo-Nazis took over an online rant against the Roma. It started out on Facebook but fascists upped the ante, infiltrating protests, and spraying swastikas and racist comments on buildings, roads and sidewalks. In October, in Ireland, multiple Facebook campaigns appeared around the theme of ‘Get Roma criminal gypsies out’, (Roma were described on posts as ‘cockroaches’ and ‘c***s’). Shortly after, Roma families had to be evacuated from their Waterford home, after around sixty people gathered outside their house, chanting ‘Roma, out, out, out’ and other obscenities. The Pavee Point Traveller and Roma centre is mobilising support for the families.
It’s the same story in France and the UK, where the National Federation of Gypsy Liaison Groups’ most recent report, on Gypsy, Traveller and Roma integration, highlights abusive media coverage and overtly racist statements from local and national politicians as cause for concern. The report carries a photo of the burnt out caravan of a Traveller family forced out of their home.
‘The Homeless Dead’
But to return to Sweden, and the death of the Romanian Roma man in Högdalen. The police, reporting themselves to their own ethics committee for their handling of the fire, have now admitted that they were unaware of the social media campaign to identify Roma encampments, as well as previous incidents, when Roma had had their tents cut with knives, for instance, or a caravan was set on fire. As one solidarity campaigner I spoke to said, ‘The Roma witnesses believe that the fire was an act of arson, though no one had seen the attacker or attackers, and we now find ourselves in the unfortunate situation that total clarity will probably never be reached on this.’ Meanwhile, the name of the Romanian Roma man who died has not been reported. This will most likely go down in the records as just another death amongst the ranks of the European homeless, a growing proportion of whom, according to the European Federation of National Associations Working with the Homeless, are migrants, and an unknown number Roma.
IRR Briefing Paper: From pillar to post: pan-European racism and the Roma