Gypsies in Europe

In spite of what the public thinks, Gypsies have never really been a uniform group. What is more, they are not even likely to have been one people in the past – states Szilveszter Póczik, a historian-criminologist and the senior scientific representative of the Hungarian National Institute of Crimonology (OKRI). In the following interview Mr Póczik attempts to throw light on the differences and similarities between Gypsies living in Eastern and Western Europe. He will also summarize the history of Gypsies on the European continent, looking at the previous centuries. Szilveszter Póczik does not believe that the Gypsy issue can be solved during a single government cycle. On the contrary, it might take about 50-100 years to find a lasting solution.

The general public takes it for granted that Gypsies originally come from North-West India. What can we know about the origin of this people? How did they find their way to Europe?

We know almost nothing about the history of Gypsies prior to their migration to Europe. Of course, certain theories do exist. The idea of their Indian origin I would rather call a commonplace than a fact. Only their language seems to justify this assumption. Gypsy dialects, such as Lovari stand close to the North-West Indian Hindi dialect group, as was discovered in the 18th century by István Váli, a Calvinist minister from Dunaalmás, Hungary. This discovery by itself would not suggest that Gypsies indeed started their migration from North-West India. For one thing, a close relationship between any two languages never justifies biological connection, and the similarity of Lovari and North-West Indian Hindi does not necessarily refer to the geographical origin of Gypsies. Furthermore, in the case of Gypsy dialects and North-West-Indian languages we can only detect certain similarities, but they are not identical.

For a long time Gypsies were believed to have arrived in Europe from Egypt. They themselves have been known to refer to their own Egyptian origin. What could have been the foundation of this belief?

They never referred to the Egypt of today. “Egypt Minor”, or Syria was what they meant. Actually, one of the first Gypsy immigrant groups was led by a Gáspár Miklós of “Egypt Minor”, as he introduced himself on arriving in Genova, Italy.

Another very common (and politically correct) term used for Gypsies is Roma. Where does this phrase come from?

Since Gypsies started their migration from the Byzantine Empire (present day Turkey and Syria) to Europe in the 15th century, the term Roma is very likely to refer to the Byzantine Empire. The Eastern heir of the Roman Empire was generally called Rum from Persia all the way to Eastern Europe. Since Gypsies came from the territory of this Empire, they were partly right to call themselves Roman. But there are other possible etimological explanations. It is also important to know that not every Gypsy is Roma, some belong in other groups.

In addition to the assumption of their Indian origin, the other belief related to Gypsies seems to be their being one people. Those who know them well try their best to clarify that they are not uniform at all.

We are talking about a very complicated group. I would even say that Gypsies are not one people as such, and from the ethnic aspect they are not even homogenic. On the contrary, they are extremely fragmented and are divided into various subgroups, such as the Sinti, the Kali, the Roma and the Romungro (also known as Hungarian or Carpathian Gypsies). Their linguistic identity is non-existent; the languages belong into at least three major groups: the mother tongue of Hungarian Gypsies is Hungarian, the Olah originally speak Lovari and its dialects, and the Baias Gypsies speak a version of old Romanian. Of course, an outsider would see many similar features between the groups, but they are not uniform in their languages or cultural heritage. These tribes have been bound together by an ancient peripathetic, wandering lifestyle, especially in the eyes of the outsiders. They are not homogenic from the antropological point of view, either. Some of them are red or blond-haired, or blue-eyed, but of course, the Southern-Asian features still dominate.

It is true that from movies we can recall the Gypsies of Britain, who, according to most of their depictions, do not resemble the Gypsies of our area at all. Does this indicate superficial knowledge, or are Gypsies really so fragmented?

We can detect certain antropological features in their case as well, but the British public does not call this group Gypsies. Legally speaking, they are the so-called travellers, and this term does not refer to an ethnic group, as the travellers would be extremely hard to put into a specific category. An important point to make here is that assimilation in the case of Gypsies is a two-way process: some Gypsies become integrated with society, and, on the other hand, a small part of society becomes Gypsy too. Needless to say, to be assimilated with the majority is always a more advantageous alternative, but in some special cases certain members of society become assimilated with a minority group for various social, cultural or other reasons. An example would be from earlier times the case of outlaws, who wanted to hide themselves from the eyes of authorities, and could do so when joining a Gypsy community.

As we mentioned before, Gypsies first made their appearance in Europe in the mid-15th century. What was the reason for their migration?

Presumably, the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453 caused them to leave Asia Minor or Syria. Some of them arrived in Europe from the South through the Balkans, and another group came from the territories beyond the Carpathians, which is present day Ukraine. They first appeared in Eastern Europe, but they very quickly reached the West aftewards.

What factors shaped the Gypsies’ history in the later centuries in Western Europe?

About two hundred years after their emergence in Europe, by the 16th-17th century they had become persecuted everywhere. It was decreed by the Diet of Augsburg in 1551 that due to their espionage services for the Turks, Gypsies had to leave the territory of the Holy Roman Empire, and letters of safe conduct could not be issued for them. The German provinces forbade their trade activities and their camping on the territories of cities and settlements. During and after the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) – which was nevertheless a time period full of social difficulties – another wave of Gypsy persecution started, and lasted for several decades. Certain landlords in reference to a decree issued by Ferdinand I, Holy Roman Emperor in 1556 ordered Gypsy men to be shot dead. Their women were humiliated and a sign was burnt on their forehead. The children, often together with their mothers were sold as domestic slaves or placed with peasants’ families for Christian education. Occasionally the peasants took the initiative to chase the Gypsy groups away, or under the banner of their feudal lord they went in search of the Gypsy caravans, which they mercilessly did away with. Most of the information about this time period comes from German documents, but all in all, the same treatment of Gypsies was typical of all Western Europe. We even know of incidents in the 18th century when soldiers were sent in search of Gypsy camps. In 1724, Charles VI, father of Maria Theresia ordered that any ramblers or criminals – among them, Gypsies – were to be captivated and killed. They had to face quartering, breaking on a wheel or dismemberment. If they were lucky enough, they were forced to join the army or became galley slaves.

What triggered this on-going process of persecution?

This was a typical situation of fear and jealousy. One reason for the persecution was a not groundless fear of Gypsies committing crime. German chronicles give account of Gypsy caravans plundering the supplies of peasants who worked on the fields by day, taking away their valuables and occasionally setting their villages on fire. Gypsies seemed to have made a name for themselves as doers of despised, illegal or fearful deeds. Wherever they settled temporarily, they began to integrate and pursue complementary professions which others looked down on. These professions did not support their lasting integration into society, so the opportunity was always there for them to move on. Even the tightly woven feudalistic communities needed human labour power, but only the kind that finds its own category in the structure of society. Gypsies, however, did not want condescension. It would be a mistake to think that they were incapable of adaptation. It is more likely that they lacked the will to integrate, so they insisted on a peripheric and liberal form of existence. On many occasions, however, they were settled somewhere, and as a consequence, they gradually lost their Gypsy characteristics, the outsider’s attitude and became assimilated.

Is it possible to know how the population of Western European Gypsies changed through the centuries?

To our knowledge, no statistical analysis has been made so far relating to the Gypsy presence in Western Europe. However, one thing is for sure: their number on the Western side of the continent has always remained less than in Eastern Europe. This is partly due to the fact that another wave of migration started among Western-European Gypsies as their persecution there became more and more frequent. Some of them ran to North-Africa taking a route through Italy, others left for North-America. The vast majority, however, started moving back to Eastern Europe. Society here did not have such a strict structure. Moreover, between and after the Turkish wars more labour power was required, more citizens were needed.

This process by all means involved Hungary as well. Was the situation of Gypsies different here?

From the beginning of the 18th century, Hungary became the target of a two-way Gypsy immigration. Firstly, Gypsies wandered from West to East (hence the reason some Gypsies have German names), and secondly, a great number of them came via Transylvania from Old-Romanian areas. The latter tried to escape bad circumstances of slavery, or they came in hope of finding better living conditions in this country. At the time Hungary had a large number of unintegrated Gypsies. Later, in the mid-18th century, during the reign of Maria Theresia and afterwards her son, Joseph II (1761-83) in the age of enlightened absolutism the main task was to reorganize society via economic reforms. This resulted in a collection of decrees known as the Regulatio Zingarorum. The first attempt to integrate Gypsies was supported by strict orders and close inspection from above. Unfortunately, though, the counties, which were in charge of executing these decrees, were not granted sufficient funds to provide children with education, to place them with foster parents if necessary or simply to control Gypsy groups. They also had to make sure the ban on horse-keeping was kept, and they were obliged to distribute allotment to Gypsies too.

Was this attempt for integration successful? Did this “integration controlled from above” have an afterlife?

We have to admit that from the age of Maria Theresia onwards some great steps have been taken towards integration. By the end of the 19th century, that is, in the course of 150 years all Hungarian Gypsy groups had settled. At the turn of the century it would have been hard to find wandering Gypsies. In retrospect it looks like some kind of human labour market integration had started, and to some extent the small professions and seasonal jobs provided the Gypsies with a suitable living standard. Even if they lived on the outskirts of a village, in a hut, they had settled for good. What is more, those Gypsies who excelled in their own profession even moved into the village, although that was rare. Most of them changed their peripherical, wandering situation to a peripherically settled situation. During the census in 1893 about 300 thousand Gypsies were counted in Hungary. A vast majority of them was illiterate and unskilled. They could only offer their labour power, as they had no experience in farming. Seasonal work did not mean permanent employment, their every day existence was at stake, and they always had to face hard winter periods. The integrational attempts controlled from above continued even between the World Wars. The concept of a reduced-price flat, which is now a fading memory from the Kádár era (the mid-1900s), became official at his time. For example, in the town of Debrecen blocks of reduced-price flats were built by Józsán for the Gypsies. These were small huts comfortable enough to live in and reminiscent of tenant farmers’ properties of this era. After World War II, as tenant farmers became integrated into industrial society, Gypsies took over the settlements they used to live in. The Kádár regime also made some remarkable – all be it, not completely selfless – attempts to support Gypsy integration, but these achievements were later done away with by the economic transition.

Having looked at Gypsies’ history in Hungary, now we have reached the most recent past. The question still remains: what happened to Gypsies in Western Europe after they were victimized?

The last third of the 18th century brought them some ease. But as I mentioned earlier, the number of Western European Gypsies was by far less. When creating their own laws, Western European countries considered the Gypsies’ small number and their relevant social problems. For example, where Gypsies were allowed to settle, children were obliged to attend school. Medical, administrational and criminal controlling mechanisms were established. This meant that the problem had become isolated, and although it was not solved, these societies managed to keep it under control. In Germany and Austria, however, Gypsies fell victim to systematic destruction by the Nazis. A vast majority of them were killed in death camps.

Are Gypsies still facing problems of integration in the West? If yes, do these problems differ in their nature and intensity from the difficulties Gypsies have to deal with on the rest of the continent?

An important difference is that although Gypsies are very much present in Western Europe, their ethnic identity is not an important issue. They are still considered travellers, and they are much fewer in number. Many of them are always on the move involved with buying and selling, some of them pursue one of the so-called small professions. The source of their income is not always obvious. The nature of their problems is technically speaking the same, but due to their smaller population these problems are less intense. On the other hand in Spain, where a greater number of Gypsies live, difficulties are also more present. For example, just like in Hungary, Gypsy children do not attend school, or if they do, not regularly. Western European Gypsy children’s performance at school – based on statistics from Germany in the 1970s and 80s – does not even reach the level of children coming from homeless families. A Spanish author tackles in a 400-page-long survey the issue of Gypsy children not participating in school education, but he cannot find the explanation. Obviously, Gypsy parents do not ascribe importance to cooperation with the social majority’s institutions and education as such. Even so, it can be stated that the presence of Gypsies in Western Europe has not been a major problem up until the end of the 20th century, mostly because Gypsies have become modernized.

Has anything changed in the Western part of the continent since the great Eastern expension of the European Union?

Problems related to Gypsies have reappeared in Western Europe at the time of European unification with such intensity and brutality as we saw in France, the Netherlands, Italy and Switzerland. With some of the Eastern countries joining the EU, Gypsies have become EU citizens, and they hav begun to utilize one of the fundamental European rights, which is free movement of individuals. The laws of immigration, however, have to be kept. Free movement does not mean ignoring certain orders and thus utilizing social services of foreign countries. The problem did not originate from the large number of Gypsies appearing in these countries, but from the fact that through their arrival they exported the whole range of their home countries’ social, medical and general safety problems. The target countries were not ready for this. The treatment of Gypsies migrating from Bulgaria and Romania to Italy and France stirred up a lot of objection in terms of human rights. Unfortunately, in many cases Gypsies were not identified as immigrants but as an ethnic group, since the French Home Secretary did not talk about the explusion of illegal immigrants, but the removal of Gypsies. These problems are unfortunately still present. As a consequence of the French situation it can be stated that it is both in the interest of the West and the East that Gypsies stay where they lived before and become integrated there. This several-century-old problem of integration will mostly have to be solved in the Eastern-European countries. How unsuccessful the East has been so far was manifested very well in the Eastern-Slovakian Gypsy hunger strike in 2004. It also has to be said that in Hungary we have been very bad stewards of the bulk of experience we have accumulated in connection with Gypsy integration.

It has become clear from the historical review that the reason why so many Gypsies live in Eastern European states is that Western societies kept chasing them away for so many centuries. Is it not slightly hypocritical of these societies to hold the opinion that the problem should be solved in the countries where these Gypsies are currently citizens?

In the ethic sense there is some truth to this opinion. But pointing back to past centuries and indicating that certain mistakes were made by Eastern Europe, so now it’s their task to make them all good is not exactly fair. On some level, our historical background can still provide some kind of a starting point. Based on it, it can be announced that some specific problems of the Eastern side within the EU will also affect the Western member states, therefore a shared solution and contribution will be necessary. The decade of Roma integration should also be about putting remarkable sums of European money towards the solution of Roma integration in the Eastern European member states.

Is there a chance that Western politicians will understand the necessity of solving this problem, if not in their own countries then in the Eastern member states? If they do not see this, they will have to face the same kind of Gypsy immigration time and time again, as in the previous years. Or would they stick to the same idea of pushing Gypsies back to where they come from?

Western countries seem to be awakening from the ideological dream of multiculturalism. Just recently, Thilo Sarrazin’s book, “Germany does away with itself” burst into the public just like a sociological bomb. The book does not tackle the Gypsy problem as such, but it proves the instability of multicultural society. It analyses the cultural drawbacks of immigrants, which, according to the author, will even endanger the future of German economy and society. The book at first kicked up a scandal, but after the initial distrust for it, more and more people, even Angela Merkel had the courage to say that the time of multicultural society, at least, as we know it today, is up. Of course, this model of society also had its positive aspects, but now we can see its failure and risks. Hopefully this reality-oriented thinking will become a norm, but it’s really hard to tell what this would mean in terms of understanding and solving the problems of Gypsies, and considering the latter, sharing the burdens.

Is it possible to see which path should be taken in order to solve these problems?

The guiding principle of the Decade of Roma Inclusion (2005-2015) is to provide surfaces for Gypsy integration. This idea, however, so far has remained a theory. We lack the operative programmes which could help its realization. Hungary has a lot of experience in the field of integration, so during its time of EU presidency in the first half of 2011, there is a chance for a thorough, European-level strategy to be created. Although this effort is worthy to be encouraged, many questions arise in connection with its realization. The new Hungarian government has also recognized that the solution of the Gyspy problem requires a national policy, so the social development programme for Gypsies has been raised to Head Office level. However, both Hungary and Europe recognized the high-priority of the issue in a difficult financial situation. When under pressure, there is a tendency to deal with important problems in the style of fire fighting. In this case, however, fire fighting is not enough. What we need is very accurate, long-term planning and organizing. This political issue is too complicated to be handled in the course of a four-year government cycle, even if an effective tool is developed during this time period. We are not talking about four years, but forty, fifty or perhaps a hundred. That’s why it is not possible to depend on the networks of current institutions or traditional political thinking. A centrally organized survey is required, which tackles the problem down to the smallest detail. We have to develop a separate and centralized institutional network which reaches the end points, the smallest settlements, the most underprivileged Gypsy families.

Interview by Botond Csepregi
Originally published in Hungarian in the periodical Confessio (No. 4, 2010)