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The Forgotten Victims: The Persecution of the German Gypsy Population during the Nazi Regime (1938-1940)

The Nazi regime‘s systematic brutality is widely known for its devastating impact on Jewish communities across Europe during World War II. Yet, another group also bore the brunt of this inhumane onslaught: the Roma and Sinti people, also known as ‘Gypsies’. Often overlooked in historical discourse, their plight was equally harrowing, marked by exclusion, persecution, and systematic extermination. Let’s delve into this dark period from 1938 to 1940 and explore the oppression of German Gypsies under the Nazi regime.

The Rise of Anti-Gypsyism

Even before the Nazis ascended to power, widespread prejudices and discrimination against the Roma and Sinti existed in Germany. These communities, who had a distinct culture and often led nomadic lifestyles, were seen as outsiders and faced marginalization. However, it was under the Nazi regime that this discrimination escalated to systemic and institutionalized persecution.

The Nazi Racial Policies and the Gypsies

When the Nazis took control of Germany in 1933, they were guided by a distorted view of racial purity, which considered the ‘Aryan’ race superior and sought to cleanse German society of groups they viewed as racially or genetically inferior. The Roma and Sinti, much like the Jews, fell into this category.

Beginning in 1938, the Nazis took steps to isolate and eventually exterminate these communities. They enacted a series of repressive laws and decrees, effectively pushing the Gypsies to the fringes of society. These measures included restrictions on their movement, forcible sterilization, and the requirement to register their racial status.

One key element in the Nazi persecution was the ‘racial hygiene and demographic biology research unit’. This department, led by Dr. Robert Ritter, aimed to ‘scientifically’ prove the inferiority of Gypsies. Ritter’s research, which categorized Gypsies into racial groups, played a critical role in the Nazis’ extermination policy.

From Isolation to Extermination

The year 1938 saw the further escalation of Gypsy persecution. A decree on ‘crime prevention’ provided the legal basis for the mass arrest of Gypsies, leading to thousands being rounded up and interned in concentration camps. The infamous ‘Decree for the Struggle against the Gypsy Plague’ in 1939 marked a grim turning point, escalating the isolation to systematic extermination.

The Nazis started widespread deportations of the Roma and Sinti to concentration camps across Europe, the most notorious being Auschwitz-Birkenau. The conditions were harsh, and many succumbed to starvation, disease, and brutal treatment.

By 1940, the German Gypsy population was effectively decimated. Men, women, and children were methodically exterminated in what the Roma and Sinti refer to as the ‘Porajmos’, or ‘the devouring’. It is estimated that between 220,000 to 500,000 Roma and Sinti were killed during the Holocaust, wiping out nearly 25% of their total European population.

#1 French prisoner commander Bellon chats with American soldiers in front of a pile of weapons belonging to the SS at Buchenwald Nazi camp, April 12, 1945.

French prisoner commander Bellon chats with American soldiers in front of a pile of weapons belonging to the SS at Buchenwald Nazi camp, April 12, 1945.

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The Forgotten Victims: The Persecution of the German Gypsy Population during the Nazi Regime (1938-1940)

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#2 Gypsy (Sinti and Roma) deportation, a young woman with a child in a camp during an investigation conducted by the Racial Hygiene Research Center in 1938.

Gypsy (Sinti and Roma) deportation, a young woman with a child in a camp during an investigation conducted by the Racial Hygiene Research Center in 1938.

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The Forgotten Victims: The Persecution of the German Gypsy Population during the Nazi Regime (1938-1940)

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#3 Eva Justin of the Racial Hygiene Research Center conducting an interview with an old woman during the Gypsy (Sinti and Roma) deportation in 1938.

Eva Justin of the Racial Hygiene Research Center conducting an interview with an old woman during the Gypsy (Sinti and Roma) deportation in 1938.

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The Forgotten Victims: The Persecution of the German Gypsy Population during the Nazi Regime (1938-1940)

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#4 Sophie Ehrhardt of the Racial Hygiene Research Center conducting an interview with an old woman during the Gypsy (Sinti and Roma) deportation in 1938.

Sophie Ehrhardt of the Racial Hygiene Research Center conducting an interview with an old woman during the Gypsy (Sinti and Roma) deportation in 1938.

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The Forgotten Victims: The Persecution of the German Gypsy Population during the Nazi Regime (1938-1940)

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#5 Dr. Robert Ritter, head of the Racial Hygiene Research Center, conducting an interview with an old woman during the Gypsy (Sinti and Roma) deportation in 1938.

Dr. Robert Ritter, head of the Racial Hygiene Research Center, conducting an interview with an old woman during the Gypsy (Sinti and Roma) deportation in 1938.

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The Forgotten Victims: The Persecution of the German Gypsy Population during the Nazi Regime (1938-1940)

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#6 Dr. Robert Ritter, head of the Racial Hygiene Research Center, taking a blood sample as part of research during the Gypsy (Sinti and Roma) deportation in 1938.

Dr. Robert Ritter, head of the Racial Hygiene Research Center, taking a blood sample as part of research during the Gypsy (Sinti and Roma) deportation in 1938.

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The Forgotten Victims: The Persecution of the German Gypsy Population during the Nazi Regime (1938-1940)

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#7 Sinti camp targeted by the Racial Hygiene Research Center, which provided the pseudo-scientific basis for the extermination and forced sterilization of thousands of Sinti and Roma in 1940.

Sinti camp targeted by the Racial Hygiene Research Center, which provided the pseudo-scientific basis for the extermination and forced sterilization of thousands of Sinti and Roma in 1940.

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The Forgotten Victims: The Persecution of the German Gypsy Population during the Nazi Regime (1938-1940)

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#8 An old man in Asperg prior to deportation to a camp in Poland, May 1940.

An old man in Asperg prior to deportation to a camp in Poland, May 1940.

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The Forgotten Victims: The Persecution of the German Gypsy Population during the Nazi Regime (1938-1940)

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#9 Sinti under police surveillance marching in Asperg before being locked up at Hohenasperg prison prior to deportation to camps in Poland, May 22, 1940.

Sinti under police surveillance marching in Asperg before being locked up at Hohenasperg prison prior to deportation to camps in Poland, May 22, 1940.

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The Forgotten Victims: The Persecution of the German Gypsy Population during the Nazi Regime (1938-1940)

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#10 Sinti in the courtyard of Hohenasperg prison prior to deportation to a camp in Poland, May 22, 1940.

Sinti in the courtyard of Hohenasperg prison prior to deportation to a camp in Poland, May 22, 1940.

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The Forgotten Victims: The Persecution of the German Gypsy Population during the Nazi Regime (1938-1940)

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#11 Sinti under police surveillance on Königstraße in Asperg before being locked up at Hohenasperg prison prior to deportation to camps in Poland, May 22, 1940.

Sinti under police surveillance on Königstraße in Asperg before being locked up at Hohenasperg prison prior to deportation to camps in Poland, May 22, 1940.

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The Forgotten Victims: The Persecution of the German Gypsy Population during the Nazi Regime (1938-1940)

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#12 Sinti in the train that will take them to a camp in Poland, May 22, 1940.

Sinti in the train that will take them to a camp in Poland, May 22, 1940.

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The Forgotten Victims: The Persecution of the German Gypsy Population during the Nazi Regime (1938-1940)

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#13 Gypsy woman suffering from typhus at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp waits for medical treatment, April 1945.

Gypsy woman suffering from typhus at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp waits for medical treatment, April 1945.

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The Forgotten Victims: The Persecution of the German Gypsy Population during the Nazi Regime (1938-1940)

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#14 Prisoner’s dead bodies stacked in a train near Dachau concentration camp after its liberation by the US Army in late April or early May 1945.

Prisoner's dead bodies stacked in a train near Dachau concentration camp after its liberation by the US Army in late April or early May 1945.

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The Forgotten Victims: The Persecution of the German Gypsy Population during the Nazi Regime (1938-1940)

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#15 Prisoners and US army soldiers stand behind the gate of Buchenwald concentration camp with the inscription “Jedem das seine” (to each his own), April 1945.

Prisoners and US army soldiers stand behind the gate of Buchenwald concentration camp with the inscription "Jedem das seine" (to each his own), April 1945.

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The Forgotten Victims: The Persecution of the German Gypsy Population during the Nazi Regime (1938-1940)

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#16 Picture taken in April 1945 at Buchenwald concentration camp featuring former French prisoners Maurice Hewitt, Charles Sander, and Tex.

Picture taken in April 1945 at Buchenwald concentration camp featuring former French prisoners Maurice Hewitt, Charles Sander, and Tex.

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The Forgotten Victims: The Persecution of the German Gypsy Population during the Nazi Regime (1938-1940)

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#17 French prisoners Camille Sautereau and commander Bellon joke together in the courtyard of Buchenwald camp after its liberation in April 1945.

French prisoners Camille Sautereau and commander Bellon joke together in the courtyard of Buchenwald camp after its liberation in April 1945.

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The Forgotten Victims: The Persecution of the German Gypsy Population during the Nazi Regime (1938-1940)

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#18 Prisoners dressed in wooden shirts and clogs given upon arrival at Buchenwald concentration camp, April 1945.

Prisoners dressed in wooden shirts and clogs given upon arrival at Buchenwald concentration camp, April 1945.

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The Forgotten Victims: The Persecution of the German Gypsy Population during the Nazi Regime (1938-1940)

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#19 Corpses of prisoners piled up at Buchenwald concentration camp upon its liberation by Allied troops in April 1945.

Corpses of prisoners piled up at Buchenwald concentration camp upon its liberation by Allied troops in April 1945.

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The Forgotten Victims: The Persecution of the German Gypsy Population during the Nazi Regime (1938-1940)

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#20 Survivors of Buchenwald concentration camp sitting on a latrine after its liberation by Allied troops in April 1945.

Survivors of Buchenwald concentration camp sitting on a latrine after its liberation by Allied troops in April 1945.

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The Forgotten Victims: The Persecution of the German Gypsy Population during the Nazi Regime (1938-1940)

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#21 A tortured prisoner seen in Buchenwald concentration camp in April 1945.

A tortured prisoner seen in Buchenwald concentration camp in April 1945.

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The Forgotten Victims: The Persecution of the German Gypsy Population during the Nazi Regime (1938-1940)

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#22 A man shows a noose used for hanging in Buchenwald concentration camp in April 1945.

A man shows a noose used for hanging in Buchenwald concentration camp in April 1945.

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The Forgotten Victims: The Persecution of the German Gypsy Population during the Nazi Regime (1938-1940)

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#23 Gypsies cooking in the open, photographed by Eduard Schlochauer, published in ‘Sieben Tage’ in 1931.

Gypsies cooking in the open, photographed by Eduard Schlochauer, published in 'Sieben Tage' in 1931.

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The Forgotten Victims: The Persecution of the German Gypsy Population during the Nazi Regime (1938-1940)

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#24 Romani (Gypsy) prisoners at Belzec labor camp in 1940.

Romani (Gypsy) prisoners at Belzec labor camp in 1940.

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The Forgotten Victims: The Persecution of the German Gypsy Population during the Nazi Regime (1938-1940)

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Written by Andrew Thompson

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