On Aug. 2, the Roma genocide will be commemorated in ceremonies across Europe. As in years past, after that day, we will witness anti-Roma riots by neo-Nazis in the Czech Republic, violent protests against Roma by mobs in Bulgaria, evictions by state-paid bulldozers in Serbia, involuntary sterilization by doctors in Slovakia, housing segregation by mayors in Italy, school segregation by pedagogues in Hungary and police brutality in France.
Time and time again, politicians and civil servants across Europe have given in to popular backlash and tolerated organized violence and racism against the Roma. They often fault the Roma for their problems or scapegoat the Roma for public policy failures. For example, European leaders blame Roma for the European Union’s reluctance to extend the Schengen Area — a group of 26 European countries that have eliminated passports and border controls at their common borders — to Romania or to grant visa liberalization to Serbs and Macedonians.
How did we come to the paradox of a politics that commemorates a tragedy for one day and does nothing the rest of the year?
First, racism against Roma is still socially and politically acceptable. And Roma Genocide Remembrance Day alone does not prevent it. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that anti-Gypsyism is the most widespread form of racism in Europe. A national average of more than 55 percent of respondents in seven countries said they had negative views of Roma. (At the high end of the range, 85 percent of Italians and 66 percent of French did.)
Germany has invested a lot in memory and responsibility for its role in the World War II. In 2005 at a commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz, amid a resurgence of far-right extremism, German then-Chancellor Gerard Schröder proclaimed that his country “bore a special responsibility” for the Holocaust and that the memory of it is part of the German “national identity.”
But for the Roma, the quest for such recognition has been long and arduous. In the decades after World War II, the Roma genocide, sometimes referred to as the forgotten Holocaust, was excluded from the war’s history. It has been argued that the murders of Roma under the Nazi regime were carried out not on racial grounds but because of their asocial nature and criminal records. Not a single Roma witness was called to testify at the Nuremberg trials, and the mass murders of Sinti and Roma received only passing references.
German authorities did not recognize that the Roma were victims of the Holocaust until 1982 and that the sterilization of Roma was part of the “final solution.” A memorial for the Roma genocide was unveiled in Berlin nearly 30 years later.
By contrast, the Jewish genocide has become everyone’s responsibility, not least because of persistent efforts by historians, artists, judges, public intellectuals and witnesses. There is an ecosystem of knowledge around the Jewish experience in the Holocaust, along with legal, educational and cultural tools and organizations to combat anti-Semitism. True, Jews are still being insulted, humiliated and killed, but anti-Semitism is publicly unacceptable. The same cannot be said about anti-Roma hate speech, including in Germany, where the work of collective memory has been conducted for decades. This is why the continuum of anti-Roma racism in other countries that have done little or nothing to recognize and acknowledge the Roma genocide is not surprising.
The lack of universal recognition for the genocide of Roma in World War II and the slow response to it is bad enough. But this has been followed by a perverse attempt to mask the political responsibility for current anti-Roma racism under the pretext that Roma enjoy some kind of special status. “The problems of the Roma are mainly social-economic,” Bulgarian officials told the United Nations in 2005. “One could even state — with all the measures undertaken by the government — that Bulgarian Roma are not discriminated but rather privileged, having the opportunity to access special care and advantages available only to them.”
French authorities ignored Roma’s catastrophic housing conditions, fearing an electoral backlash from the general population, which they believed would view a housing offer for Roma as conferring privileges on the group. The evasion of responsibility does more than hide the obligation of national governments for anti-Gypsyism. It reinforces anti-Roma sentiments by fueling the prejudice that they take advantage of the system, and it fortifies collective amnesia, leading to scapegoating of and attacks against the Roma.
The documentation and memorialization of the Roma genocide is important but is not the endpoint. We need commemorations to take place in every city and village of every country, but remembering the dead for a day is not sufficient to change the everyday humiliation of the Roma.
The choices are simple: The European Commission and national governments can continue to wear their masks and continue to succumb to the dominant ignorance, forgetfulness and backlash. This would demonstrate that those we commemorate died in vain and that we have not learned from the past. Or they can take responsibility and commit to public education programs in schools, televisions, online media, sport arenas, cinemas, art galleries, theaters and other social and cultural spaces. The legacy of anti-Gypsyism requires collective responsibility and calls on each of us to eradicate it. In this way, our societies can learn and move on to a brighter future, far from the genocidal and racist tradition that brought us to the commemoration.