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The History Lesson Europe Needs Right Now

As the controversy raged over the ethnic targeting and mass expulsions of Roma from France, it was European Commissioner Viviane Reding’s allusion to World War II in an acrimonious exchanges with French president Nicolas Sarkozy that drew the most fire. There followed much mock outrage and a torrent of denunciations from Paris, but there was scarcely a mention of Roma as victims of the Holocaust.

As the memory of the spat between Reding and Sarkozy recedes, and media attention moves away from the Roma, the European Parliament must intervene to ensure that Europeans never forget, and pass a resolution to inaugurate an official day of solemn remembrance for the estimated half million Roma who perished in the Nazi-orchestrated Holocaust.

The ignorance and indifference of the majority concerning this dark chapter of Europe’s past reinforces ambivalence and prejudice against Roma in the present. As activist Romani Rose put it, there is a need to embed this crime of genocide in the collective memory of our nations and "to raise awareness among political decision-makers of the particular historical responsibility they bear towards the Roma and Sinti minority."

The fate of the Roma at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators in the Baro Porrajmos ("Great Devouring") has been neglected for too long. Elie Wiesel never forgot:

I remember what happened in the "night of the gypsies"...  That night will remain with me as long as I live. Throughout the kingdom of the night a whisper of fire ran through from man to man, from child to child. We heard just one word—they are burning the Gypsies.

Almost 3,000 men, women, and children perished in the gas chamber during the night of August 2-3, 1944, as the Germans liquidated the so-called Gypsy family camp (Zigeunerfamilienlager) in Auschwitz II-Birkenau.

In an obscene affront to survivors of the genocide, compensation claims were denied in Germany in the 1950s on grounds that "Gypsies were persecuted under the National Socialistic Regime not for any racial reason, but because of an asocial and criminal record." It is chilling to hear similar rhetoric today. Leading politicians from EU member states would have us believe that Roma are not discriminated against because of their ethnicity, but because they pose a threat to "public order"; because they are genetically predisposed to wrongdoing; because Roma communities function as incubators of crime; and because Roma refuse to assimilate and abide by societal norms. Racist anti-Roma rhetoric, previously confined to the neo-Nazis of the far right, is increasingly seeping into mainstream populist agendas. And those who propagate it do so with seeming impunity.

An awareness of the past is essential to combat anti-Roma prejudice in the present. As Yehuda Bauer has written:

In sheer demonic cold-blooded brutality the tragedy of the Romanies is one of the most terrible indictments of the Nazis. The fact that their fate is hardly ever mentioned and that the mutilated Romany nation continues to be vilified and persecuted to this day should put all their host nations to shame.

There seems to be little shame among EU member states when it comes to treatment of their Roma citizens. There is even less awareness of the dark times endured by the Roma in their history. In a climate of rising anti-Gypsyism, ignorance reproduces prejudice. To break this toxic cycle, the European Parliament should, as a first step, inaugurate an official day of solemn remembrance for Roma victims and survivors of the Porrajmos.

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