Europe’s ‘Gypsy Question’

Romanian village
Many Roma live in remote, self-contained villages, like this one in Romania.
Romanian family walking
Europe's 12 million Roma people are spread across the Continent, and most lead lives largely outside each country's mainstream society.
By Cameron Hewitt

Europe is home to a largely overlooked population of 12 million people who speak a unique language and follow a culture quite distinct from the European norm. While spread out across Europe (primarily in Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Slovakia), the Roma people constitute a bigger European nation than the Czechs, Hungarians, or the Dutch — and yet have little political voice or cultural presence in the wider society.

The once-common term "Gypsy" (derived from "Egypt," from where they were thought to have originated) is now considered not just inaccurate but derogatory. The Roma now thought to be descended from several low north-Indian castes. (The language still spoken by about two-thirds of today's European Roma — called "Romany" — is related to contemporary Indian languages.) A thousand years ago, the Roma began to migrate through Persia and Armenia into the Ottoman Empire, which later stretched across much of southeastern Europe. Known for their itinerant lifestyle, expertise in horse trading, skilled artisanship, and flexibility regarding private property, the Roma were both sought out and suspected in medieval Europe. Similarly, the gadjos (non-Roma) and their customs came to be distrusted by the Roma.

The Industrial Revolution removed the Roma's few traditional means of earning a livelihood, making their wandering lifestyle difficult to sustain. Roma became entertainers (fortune telling, music and dancing, horse shows, dancing bears), outlaws, and metalworkers.

Roma were initially not allowed to enter Austrian territory, but as the Habsburgs recaptured lands once controlled by the Ottomans (including Slovakia and Hungary), they permitted the Roma already living there to stay. In the 18th and 19th centuries, as "Gypsy music" funneled into the theaters of Vienna and Budapest, a romantic image of the Roma emerged: a happy-go-lucky nomadic lifestyle; intoxicating music, with dancers swirling around a campfire; and mystical powers over white Europeans.

But white Europe's image of the Roma also had a sinister side. Even today, people might warn their children, "If you don't behave, I'll sell you to the Gypsies!" And when someone is cheated, many English speakers say they've been "gypped" — an ethnic slur so deeply ingrained most don't even realize its origin. The widespread bigotry had long been encoded in many legal restrictions that kept the Roma from enjoying full citizenship. In the 1930s they were stripped of all citizenship in Nazi Germany, and in the 1940s, Hitler addressed what the Nazis called the "Gypsy question" (how to deal with the Roma population) with full-on genocide, sending hundreds of thousands of Roma to the gas chambers purely on the basis of ethnicity.

After the war, communist governments in central and eastern Europe implemented a policy of forced assimilation: Roma were required to speak the country's major language, settle in towns, and work in new industrial jobs. Rather than producing well-adjusted citizens, the policy eroded time-honored Roma values and shattered the cohesiveness of their traditional communities. It left the new Roma generation prone to sexual, alcohol, and drug abuse, and filled state-run orphanages with deprived Roma toddlers. When the obligation and right to work disappeared with the communist regimes in 1989, rampant unemployment and dependence on welfare joined the list of Roma afflictions.

As people all over formerly communist Europe found it difficult to adjust to the new economic realities, they again turned on the Roma as scapegoats, and state-sanctioned persecution continued in many areas. For example, obstetricians in the Czech Republic were accused of sterilizing their female Roma patients without their informed consent. One small Czech town tried to build a wall between its wealthy neighborhood and the Roma ghetto.

Many Roma resist assimilation and live in segregated ghettos, such as in the Spiš Region of Slovakia, where many Roma live in small, remote, self-contained villages — a long walk up a dirt road away from the mainstream "civilization." Polygamy is not uncommon, and both girls and boys marry and begin having children at a very early age. Most children start attending school, but a high percentage drop out. Those who make it against the odds and succeed in mainstream society typically do so by turning their backs on their Roma heritage.

The large Roma population also puts an enormous strain on the already overtaxed social-welfare networks. Unemployment in the Spiš Region among Roma is about 50 percent in the summer (when some seasonal work is available) to 80 percent in the winter. To many white Slovaks struggling to succeed, Roma people are seen as freeloaders. After Romania (with Europe's highest concentration of Roma) joined the EU, various other member nations implemented strict entry requirements for "Romanians" — a thinly veiled measure designed to keep out Roma.

It's easy to criticize these seemingly closed-minded attitudes. But, in the eyes of many non-Roma Europeans, the Roma's poor reputation is at least partly deserved. While many Roma are upstanding citizens, others do turn to thievery for survival. The tour-guide refrain, "Watch out for gypsy thieves!" may indeed carry a tinge of racism — but it's not necessarily bad advice.

What emerges is a seemingly unsolvable problem — a fundamental cultural misunderstanding, tinged with racist undertones, that separates the Roma people with those they live among. But some areas have seen success stories: In the Czech town of Český Krumlov, for instance, the large Roma community of 1,000 people — about 5 percent of the town's population — are well-integrated in the life of the town while remaining proud of their cultural identity. Across Europe, many are hopeful that with the EU's increased focus on cooperation and human rights, the Roma will find a place in the new, united Europe.

Cameron Hewitt is the co-author of the Rick Steves Eastern Europe guidebook.