"Gypsy Policies" in Germany

From the 19th Century to the Foundation of the Third Reich (1933)

In the German Reich the citizenship of the Roma became the most important criterion for their treatment by the authorities. As early as in 1870 Chancellor Otto von Bismarck asked the counties Prussia, Bavaria and Saxony to prevent the immigration of "foreign gypsies". By the same token, "gypsies belonging to the Reich" – that is "native gypsies" – were to be treated extremely restrictively. "Bands endangering public law and order" were to be disintegrated and their "members were to be directed to settle down".

In yet another document written on July 1, 1886 the Chancellor made this distinction, which had already been in force before that time as an official policy. All governments of the Empire were instructed to deport foreign Roma, and to take administrative measures against Roma citizens or put them under surveillance respectively. In the following decades, Bavaria and Prussia in particular issued a number of decrees that were "specifically targeted at gypsies" and deprived the Roma of their means of existence step by step. Rigorous trade regulations and formal requirements (identification cards, passports, certificates by the sanitary police and veterinary attestations) forced the Roma into economic misery and illegality. In 1906 the German Department of the Interior issued the "decree for the control of the gypsy plight" that was later adopted by other countries. The directives included in this decree represented a repetition and continuation of the resolutions of 1886: "foreign gypsies" — including those who could not prove their German citizenship beyond all doubt — were to be deported on principle. For this purpose, bilateral treaties had already been made with Switzerland, the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, Russia, France, Italy, Denmark, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. If "gypsies" returned illegally after their deportation, they were to be prosecuted for violating their deportation orders.

The directives concerning the "native gypsies" once again tightened the grip on the anyhow narrow basis of their economic existence and social structure. These were divided into "preventative" and "suppressive" measures: additional impediments on the issue of identification papers or the handing over of "neglected gypsy children" to the welfare service were among the "preventive" measures, for example. The merciless punishment of all "delinquent gypsies" that had committed an offence against one of the many decrees and directives, as well as an intensified surveillance of the Roma by the police, ranked among the "suppressive" measures.

After some towns had already opened "files on gypsies" in the middle of the 19th century, centralised agencies for the surveillance of the Roma, the so called gypsy intelligence services, were established. Founded in Munich in 1899, the first intelligence service with regard to the gypsies already had 3350 files at its disposal in 1904 and became the center of the German "fight against gypsies" in the Weimar Republic. In 1905 its chief, superintendent Alfred Dillmann, published a "gypsy book" that contained the results of the recordings of his agency and was handed out to all authorities "for the purpose of fighting the gypsy plight energetically".

In 1926 the Bavarian government passed the "law for the fight against gypsies, vagabonds and those unwilling to work", a law designed for exceptional cases and prevention. Under the term "preventive fight against crime", it legitimised the authorities to take measures against people that had not committed a criminal offence. In following ordinances "gypsies" were increasingly seen as potential criminals and they were treated by the authorities accordingly.

Starting as early as the 1920s, one of the most important "measures to prevent crimes" was the complete recording of all "gypsies" by the criminal identification department. By the order of the Prussian Secretary of the Interior, the registration of the Roma was carried out in the same way as that of persons who were under a warrant of arrest (obtaining the particulars of a person, taking pictures and fingerprints), and even included small children and babies. The existence of such "gypsy files" enabled the authorities to seize all Roma at any time, and became the basis of information for deportation, internment and extermination after 1933.

The restrictive directives of the German Empire and the Weimar Republic, that contributed tremendously to the emergence of the so-called "gypsy problem", created an ideal point of departure for the Nazi ideology. In a climate of general hostility against the Roma the Nazi propaganda fell on fertile ground. Their racist teachings offered a new explanation for already existing accusations. They taught that Roma were "alien parasites", anti-social and racially inferior characters by birthright and, therefore, useless creatures.

The measures for the "preventative fight against crime" developed by the authorities of the Weimar Republic, provided the Nazis with an important instrument for the systematic extermination of the Roma.


Fraser, Angus (1992) The Gypsies. Oxford.
Mayerhofer, Claudia (1999) Dorfzigeuner. Kultur und Geschichte der Burgenland-Roma von der Ersten Republik bis zur Gegenwart, Wien.
Reemtsma, Katrin (1996) Sinti und Roma. Geschichte, Kultur, Gegenwart, München.
Vossen, Rüdiger (1983) Zigeuner. Roma, Sinti, Gitanos, Gypsies zwischen Verfolgung und Romantisierung, Hamburg.
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Image Arrested Roma (Deutschland)