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The Nazi Genocide of the Roma: Activism or Scholarship?

The Nazi Genocide of the Roma: Reassessment and Commemoration, to be published this month, gives voice to the plight of the lesser-studied but still widely persecuted population of the Roma in Nazi-occupied Europe. Below, editor Anton Weiss-Wendt addresses the reception of the collection, which he says begs the question: “Is this scholarship or is it activism?” 

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Weiss-WendtThe mass murder of Jews and the mass murder of Roma during the Second World War are closely interrelated.

This is not a rhetorical statement, not even a thesis, but an observation superimposed by archival records. Many historians who work on the Nazi persecution of Roma originally come from the field of Holocaust studies, and I am not an exception.

When conducting archival research for my dissertation on local collaboration in the Holocaust in Estonia over a decade ago, I came across records documenting the demise of the local Romani community (my findings, specifically the analysis of central and local policies vis-à-vis Baltic Roma, appeared as an article in the 2003 volume of Holocaust and Genocide Studies).

Whether it was security police files, reports on the population’s mood, or postwar war crimes investigation records—insofar as the German-occupied Soviet territories are concerned—Jews and Roma shared the same tragic destiny. Although the rationale for and the pace of mass murder might be different, the end result was the same—the intentional destruction of a group.

Policy variations were manifest throughout occupied Europe, with more conventional forms of forced assimilation attempted, say, in Vichy France, and systematic extermination carried out, for example, in Ustaša Croatia. One thing is clear, though: the Nazis intended to complete the “Final Solution of the Gypsy Question” had they won the war.

Hence, the application of the term genocide to mass destruction of the Roma in 1941-45 is neither sociological nor emotive, but purely legalistic.

Yet an emotional issue it remains, mainly because of the marginal status of the Roma, who constitute the largest stateless minority in contemporary Europe. From the definition of a crime to the name of a victim group (Roma, Sinti & Roma, or Gypsies)—authors writing on the subject tend to have strong opinions.

Even though I was aware of the acrimonious debates surrounding the treatment of the Roma before, during, and after the Second World War, I did not anticipate the collection of essays about to be published might be regarded as controversial by some. The usual travails of an editor—whose task is to assemble into a coherent whole a group of scholars who come from different academic traditions, speak different languages, have different writing styles, and have different expectations of an edited volume—have in this case been complicated by subjective matters.

I have difficulties comprehending why one prospective contributor to the volume or another would make his or her participation in the book project conditional upon someone else, who has already agreed to submit a chapter, been eased out. To my knowledge, the genocide of the Roma is the only element of Nazi mass crimes that evokes such uncompromising positions.

This observation made me think of the issue of activism vs. scholarship in general. Indeed, can we really talk of activist historian (à la activist judge)? Are the two constituent words mutually exclusive or do they actually project the sense of equilibrium?

All in all, working on this volume was challenging, yet gratifying, pondering over questions going far beyond the immediate subject of the book.

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Anton Weiss-Wendt heads the research department at the Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Religious Minorities in Oslo, Norway. He is the author of Murder Without Hatred: Estonians and the Holocaust (2009) and Small-Town Russia: Childhood Memories of the Final Soviet Decade (2010), and the editor of Eradicating Differences: The Treatment of Minorities in Nazi-Dominated Europe (2010) and Racial Science in Hitler’s New Europe, 1939-1945 (with Rory Yeomans, 2013).