Gypsies Are Exterminated in Nazi Death Camps Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Gypsies were transported from Nazi-occupied Europe to the Nazis’ death camps, where they were exterminated along with Jews and other ethnic groups in an effort to “purify” the Aryan race.

Summary of Event

On May 16, 1940, German police rounded up almost three thousand Gypsies living in western and northwestern Germany and put them on trains bound for German-occupied Poland. These deportations initiated a more radical phase of the attempt by the German government to solve what they called the “Gypsy problem.” The solution to the “problem” resulted in tens of thousands of Gypsy deaths over the next five years. Although the total number of Gypsies who died during what Gypsies call the Porajmos (the Gypsy holocaust) remains unknown, some estimates range as high as one-half million. Four distinct but related factors in European history contributed to this massive destruction of human lives: the lifestyle of the Gypsies and their reputation in European folklore, the eugenics movement, the euthanasia movement, and the Nazi seizure of power in Germany. [kw]Gypsies Are Exterminated in Nazi Death Camps (May 16, 1940-1944) [kw]Exterminated in Nazi Death Camps, Gypsies Are (May 16, 1940-1944) [kw]Nazi Death Camps, Gypsies Are Exterminated in (May 16, 1940-1944) [kw]Death Camps, Gypsies Are Exterminated in Nazi (May 16, 1940-1944) [kw]Camps, Gypsies Are Exterminated in Nazi Death (May 16, 1940-1944) Gypsies, extermination by Nazis Porajmos Nazi death camps Death camps, Nazi [g]Germany;May 16, 1940-1944: Gypsies Are Exterminated in Nazi Death Camps[10200] [g]Poland;May 16, 1940-1944: Gypsies Are Exterminated in Nazi Death Camps[10200] [c]Atrocities and war crimes;May 16, 1940-1944: Gypsies Are Exterminated in Nazi Death Camps[10200] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;May 16, 1940-1944: Gypsies Are Exterminated in Nazi Death Camps[10200] [c]World War II;May 16, 1940-1944: Gypsies Are Exterminated in Nazi Death Camps[10200] Heydrich, Reinhard Himmler, Heinrich Zindel, Ernst Hitler, Adolf [p]Hitler, Adolf;Nazi death camps Ritter, Robert Fischer, Eugen

According to ethnologists, ancestors of the modern Gypsies began emigrating from northwestern India around 1000 c.e. They developed a nomadic lifestyle, never staying in one area for long. They retained their own distinct language. They earned money by fortune-telling, entertaining audiences with their unique music and dancing, and by theft and chicanery. Arriving in Europe sometime during the fourteenth century, they were often viewed as criminals and pests. Many European monarchs decreed laws limiting their mobility and contact with their own settled populations. By the twentieth century, many Europeans viewed the Gypsies as nomadic criminals who were a danger to the public welfare. Even the European scientific community began to denounce the Gypsies in the late nineteenth century with the advent of the “science” of eugenics. Eugenics

Sir Francis Galton, a first cousin to Charles Darwin, founded eugenics in the 1870’s. In several influential books, Galton argued that governments should encourage the genetically well-endowed members of their countries to reproduce in order to improve the human race. He also maintained that persons with congenital diseases and deformities should not be allowed to pass on their flawed genes to future generations. A number of scientists and laypersons around the world took up Galton’s cause and began to push their lawmakers to implement eugenics laws. The eugenics societies that soon emerged in most of the European nations and in the United States began to demand that their governments adopt laws for the mandatory sterilization of people they identified as genetically deficient.

Some, if not all, of these eugenics societies adopted distinctly racist agendas, identifying blacks, Jews, Gypsies, and other “people of color” as being genetically inferior to the “white” races. In Germany, Eugen Fischer and Ernst Ruedin Ruedin, Ernst emerged as the most outspoken advocates of eugenics. Both were professors and both warned of an impending “biological crisis” that could irreparably damage the German race. Adolf Hitler, leader of the Nazi Party, read one of Fischer’s books while imprisoned after his failed attempt to overthrow the German government in 1923. Hitler was so impressed by Fischer’s arguments that he incorporated many of them into his own semiautobiographical book Mein Kampf (1925-1927; partial English translation, 1933).

When Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933, the eugenicists realized they had a powerful ally in the highest position of the German government. Although many of the leading eugenicists never joined the Nazi Party, they worked closely with Nazis in the German government to develop a racial policy for the German people. The Nazis created a number of government agencies such as the Reich Office for Research on Race Hygiene and Population Biology to identify and solve the racial problems of Germany. They also established university chairs of Racial Hygiene in many of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning to study the racial problem.

By 1935, the racial experts proposed that allegedly undesirable elements (homosexuals, carriers of hereditary diseases, the terminally insane, and others) be excluded from German society through incarceration. The eugenicists also proposed that “alien” minorities in Germany (particularly the Jews and the Gypsies) be excluded as well and forbidden to intermarry with Germans. The German parliament responded by passing the infamous Nuremberg laws that deprived Jews and Gypsies of German citizenship and provided stiff penalties for sexual relations between Germans and non-Germans. The government also established bureaus to deal with the several racially undesirable elements in Germany. To deal with the Gypsies, the government established the Zentralstelle zur Bekaempfung des Ziguenerunwesen Zentralstelle zur Bekaempfung des Ziguenerunwesen (ZBZ; the Central Office to Combat the Gypsy Pest).

One career bureaucrat of the ZBZ, Senior Council Ernst Zindel, recommended in 1935 that the Gypsies be identified and placed on reservations under close supervision. Accordingly, Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Sicherheitdienst (SD; the secret service) and the ZBZ, commissioned a young scientist named Robert Ritter to study and identify all Gypsies living in Germany. Ritter performed a number of tests on more than twenty thousand German Gypsies over the next ten years, including blood types, cranial and skeletal measurements, and eye, hair, and skin pigmentation. As Ritter’s work progressed, Heydrich adopted ever more restrictive legislation concerning the Gypsies.

In 1935, Heydrich ordered that all municipal governments establish Gypsy camps. By law, nomadic Gypsies could stay only in these camps. After 1937, Gypsies could leave these camps only during the day. Also in 1937, Heydrich adopted a regulation that permitted “preventive arrest” of anyone his police deemed likely to commit a crime. The police in German cities often used this law to arrest Gypsies and send them to concentration camps. In 1938, Heydrich ordered that all Gypsies must register with the local police whenever they entered a new district. In January of 1940, Ritter issued a report to Heydrich recommending that all pure and “mixed-blood” Gypsies be sent to work camps and completely isolated from German society. The May, 1940, deportations represented Heydrich’s first step in implementing Ritter’s recommendation. The mass deportation of Gypsies from the rest of occupied Europe did not begin until November of 1941, when members of the German government apparently decided on an even more radical solution to the Gypsy problem.

The so-called final solution to the racial problems as defined by the Nazis owed much to a movement in the German medical profession related to but distinct from the eugenics movement. Beginning shortly after World War I, some German doctors advocated the medical termination of “lives unworthy to be lived.” These doctors, including many eugenicists, argued that the terminally ill, the hopelessly insane, and persons incapable of thought, be granted mercy deaths—euthanasia. A number of doctors began to practice euthanasia illegally and without authorization. After the outbreak of World War II, Hitler personally authorized the implementation of euthanasia under the strict surveillance of competent doctors. Between 1939 and 1945, German doctors killed many thousands of their own citizens without the consent of the patients or their relatives. Some estimates put the number of “mercy deaths” as high as seventy thousand. A special group of German medical personnel called T-4 usually carried out the actual killing of patients.

The T-4 group worked out several methods for killing large numbers of people at one time, including the use of carbon monoxide gas. Sometime in 1940 or 1941 (the exact date is uncertain, given that no written order exists), Hitler apparently made the decision to apply the methods of mass euthanasia to solve the Jewish and Gypsy problems. Heydrich and Himmler entrusted the deportation of Jews and Gypsies living in the German-occupied territories to Adolf Eichmann. In 1942, Eichmann began the mass transport of Jews and Gypsies to concentration camps and ghettos in Poland, where the T-4 group had set up mass extermination centers in January, 1942. In camps such as Auschwitz, Chełmno, Sobibór, Belżec, Majdanek, and Treblinka, Schutzstaffel (SS) SS (Schutzstaffel) personnel began the systematic murder of millions of Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, and other racially undesirable or asocial persons. According to some Polish sources, the SS also began to murder Gypsies wherever they found them in the occupied territories without bothering to ship them to the camps in Poland. According to witnesses, at least twenty thousand Gypsies perished in Auschwitz Auschwitz death camp alone, many dying from malnutrition or typhus.


By the time the death camps halted operations in late 1944, tens of thousands of Gypsies had died from various causes directly related to their incarceration. One historian puts the Gypsy death toll at 500,000, although the actual number may be significantly higher or lower. Like the Jews, the Gypsies were a people long used by Europeans to stand for the “Other” and thereby to define themselves. The extermination of the Gypsies, then, like that of the Jews, merely took to a horrific extreme a racist logic that was at the heart of European history and of the self-understanding of many European races. Moreover, like the larger Holocaust of which it is a part, the Gypsy extermination had effects on both European and Gypsy history that are impossible to describe or measure adequately. Gypsies, extermination by Nazis Porajmos Nazi death camps Death camps, Nazi

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crowe, David M. A History of the Gypsies of Eastern Europe and Russia. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994. Surveys the Gypsy communities of all the Eastern European and Russian areas during the Holocaust.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Editors of Time-Life Books. The Apparatus of Death. Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1991. A brief account of the Gypsy holocaust, along with a number of rare photographs of the deportation of Gypsies from occupied Europe and the death camps.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Friedlander, Henry. The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995. Incorporates accounts of Nazi policies toward the Gypsies throughout the book.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Milton, Sybil. “Holocaust: The Gypsies.” In Century of Genocide: Critical Essays and Eyewitness Accounts, edited by Samuel Totten, William S. Parsons, and Israel W. Charny. 2d ed. New York: Routledge, 2004. An account of the Gypsy Holocaust, appearing in a collection that also discusses the Nazi exterminations of the Jews and the disabled. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mueller-Hill, Benno. Murderous Science: Elimination by Scientific Selection of Jews, Gypsies, and Others—Germany, 1933-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. Shows the complicity of the non-Nazi German scientific community in the “final solution.”

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