June in the UK marks Gypsy Roma Traveller History Month. It is used to celebrate Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller culture, and raise awareness and understanding of their history. Therefore it is a poignant time for us to remember and reflect on the targeting of Roma and Sinti people (Gypsies) by the Nazi regime.

Genocidal policies enacted against Gypsies are little talked about, despite systematic persecution by the Nazis and their collaborators. Under the Nazi regime Gypsies were subjected to deportation to concentration camps or ghettos, medical experimentation, forced sterilisation, and mass murder.

But why were these atrocities committed? And why were these people targeted?

Prejudice against Gypsy communities has a long history, predating the Nazis. However once Hitler became Chancellor of Germany and the Nazis rose to power in 1933, enforcement of pre-existing anti-Gypsy legislation was increased.

After selecting Roma people and Gypsies generally as an ‘undesirable’ group, the Nazis identified all people to which the label applied. To define ‘Roma’ and determine who was considered a Gypsy the Nazis used the pseudo-science of racial hygiene. This would determine who was considered a Gypsy based on physical features and heredity.

The Nazis considered their genocidal policies to be justified as they categorised Gypsies as ‘racially inferior’. A large part of their ‘justification’ came from the work of Doctor Robert Ritter, who became director of the Centre for Research on Racial Hygiene and Demographic Biology in 1936. Previous research conducted by Ritter and his colleagues focused on finding links between crime and genetics i.e. whether some people are born predisposed to criminal behaviour. Once in post, they used Gypsy communities as subjects for research.

This pseudo-science was used to argue that Gypsies were ‘primitive’ and had criminal characteristics, fuelling the Nazi regime’s belief that they were a danger to society. The results of this racist, unethical and inaccurate research were used both to facilitate and ‘justify’ the Nazi regime’s destruction of European Gypsy communities.

Persecution of Gypsies was systematic, and bureaucratic. Some of the first measures were racially motivated laws including the Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Progeny, as a result of these discriminatory acts many people were forcibly sterilised.

The first internment camp established for Gypsies was Marzahn, Berlin, which held Roma people rounded up prior to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. These camps would evolve into forced labour camps in which many people were murdered by the conditions. Local people living in the area around the camp made complaints and pushed for the removal of Gypsies. Their complaints were used to lobby Heinrich Himmler, leader of the SS, to resume deportations. 

This chain of events beginning with prejudice and ending in extermination, and denial, illustrates the stages of genocide. People were deported from Marzahn, and other ‘Gypsy camps’ to concentration camps, ghettos, and Killing Centres across the Nazi camp system.

Whilst the exact number of Roma and Sinti people murdered during the Holocaust will never be known, estimates hold that around a quarter of the Roma population of Europe were exterminated by the Nazis and their allies.

After the Second World War ended, prejudice against Roma people remained throughout Central and Eastern Europe. The Federal Republic of Germany declared that Nazi measures against Roma people from before 1943 were legitimate actions against criminals, not a result of racial prejudice. Therefore thousands of Roma people who were sterilized, deported, or incarcerated based on who they were, were denied compensation. In 1979 the West German Federal Parliament finally identified Nazi persecution of Roma people as racially motivated.

Our temporary exhibition The Nazi Regime Targeted Groups: Gypsies is currently on display at the museum.


Bowers, Jake (2015) ‘What is GRTHM?’, Gypsy Roma Traveller History Month [Online.] Available at: http://grthm.natt.org.uk/whatis.php (Accessed 8 June 2015).

Stanton, Gregory (1996) ‘The Eight Stages of Genocide’, Genocide Watch [Online.] Available at: http://www.genocidewatch.org/aboutgenocide/8stagesofgenocide.html (Accessed 8 April 2015).

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (2015) ‘Genocide of European Roma (Gypsies), 1939-1945’ (20 June 2014), USHMM [Online.] Available at: http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005219 (Accessed 8 June 2015).

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (2015) ‘Dr. Robert Ritter: Racial Science and “Gypsies” (20 June 2014), USHMM [Online.] Available at: http://www.ushmm.org/learn/students/learning-materials-and-resources/sinti-and-roma-victims-of-the-nazi-era/dr.-robert-ritter-racial-science-and-gypsies (Accessed 8 June 2015).

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (2015) ‘Persecution of Roma (Gypsies) in pre-war Germany 1933-1939 (20 June 2014), USHMM [Online.] Available at: http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005482 (Accessed 8 June 2015).