Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Roma

Popularly and pejoratively referred to as Gypsies, the Roma people had appeared in Europe by the fifteenth century and are believed to have originated from northern India. Although originally nomadic, many Roma populations settled in Europe, often on the outskirts of cities, before the twentieth century. Most Roma live in Eastern Europe and in the territory of the former Soviet Union, although several West European nations and the United States have small Roma populations. Soon after their arrival in Europe, Roma were subject to widespread persecution, based on Europeans' stereotype of them as lazy and underhanded. For centuries, Roma have endured harassment, state-orchestrated antivagabond campaigns, expulsion, murder, and—in the Nazi era—systematic genocide on a level second only to that perpetrated against Jews.

Early Soviet policy reversed the discrimination of the previousera, labeling the Roma a nationality, with all the attendant privileges (such as education in their own language and state sponsorship of cultural production, which sparked a brief renaissance in Roma art and literature in the 1920s). At the end of the 1920s, the Soviet government reclassified the Roma as a social rather than an ethnic group and declared them in need of proletarianization. The state offered nomadic Roma land as an incentive to settle. Many did so and prospered during the era of rapid industrialization, when unskilled laborers were in great demand. Soviet leader Josef Stalin's policy of collectivization in the 1930s forced still-itinerant Roma onto collective farms or into Siberian exile against their will.

After World War II, the communist states of Eastern Europe increasingly regarded the Roma as a parasitic population that made its living from commerce, especially in scarce goods, rather than participating in socialist production. To address the Gypsy problem, the Soviet Union in October 1956 promulgated a decree titled On Reconciling Vagrant Gypsies to Labor, which became a model for programs of forced Roma settlement throughout the Eastern bloc. Roma were denied the right to travel and were required to show proof of a domicile to work. This approach marked a shift in communist policy from working to integrate diverse minorities into the national community to the new goal of forcible assimilation.

East European assimilation policies regarding Roma generally involved revoking their status as a national minority, which eliminated constitutional protections as well as services available to minorities. Measures designed to eradicate minority groups' distinctive practices were also enacted, such as Bulgaria's 1984 ban on Romani language, music, and dance. In 1966, Czechoslovak officials began encouraging Roma women to undergo sterilization, offering them economic incentives to do so.

In Western Europe and the United States, nomadic Roma generally fared better at living their traditional way of life, although they remained socially marginalized and encountered popular racism based on the same stereotypes prevailing in the Soviet sphere. Exceptional among West European states, Great Britain's 1968 Caravan Sites Act sought to address the needs of Roma (and other nomads) by expanding and regulating access to caravan sites across the country. In much of Western Europe, however, even those Roma who had settled lived in urban slums, prone to neglect by the state or assimilationist policies resembling those in Eastern Europe.

The case of Germany illustrates the similarities in West and East European Roma policies. In postwar Germany, popular anti-Roma antipathy remained widespread, leading some local and state governments to try to revive laws against the so-called Gypsy plague, although these were largely blocked by the occupying Allies' invalidation of Nazi racist measures. In the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, West Germany), many Roma had difficulty gaining recognition as victims of Nazism eligible for compensation because the Nazis had frequently persecuted them as asocial or criminal offenders rather than as racial or political enemies. When the state did award compensation, it did so only for Roma with permanent jobs and addresses. In the German Democratic Republic (GDR, East Germany), the government explicitly acknowledged Roma as targets of Nazi genocide, but petitioners for compensation had to prove that their persecution had been on racial grounds. In 1953 the West German state of Bavaria passed a law on vagrant regulation that targeted Roma nomadism (although eschewing racial terminology), and police at all levels applied antivagrant measures to what they considered a persistent Roma threat to public order.

After the Cold War, anti-Roma hostility remained endemic in Europe, especially in postcommunist states, where Roma have been victims of far Right nationalist violence.

Elun Gabriel


Further Reading
Bamberg, James. British Petroleum and Global Oil, 1950-75: The Challenge to Nationalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.; Gilad, Margalit. Germany and Its Gypsies: A Post-Auschwitz Ordeal. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002.; Guy, Will, ed. Between Past and Future: The Roma of Central and Eastern Europe. Hertfordshire, UK: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2001.
 

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