Six Centuries in Germany

The first Gypsies moved into the German language area at the turn from the 14th to the 15th century. According to different historical sources, they appeared in Bohemia for the first time in 1399, as early as 1407 they are supposed to have shown their papers to the town chronicler of Hildesheim, 1414 they moved into Hessia. 1416 to Meissen, 1417 to Zurich, Magedburg and Lübeck, their arrival in Saxony and the Alsace was recorded in 1418. The origin of the Gypsies in India is today equally undisputed as the Jewish in the Middle East, although their origin remained a mystery for many centuries and they were thought to have come from Egypt for a long time, supposedly expelled because of their Christian beliefs. Linguists and historians today assume that the Gypsies left their Northwestern Indian homeland in several migration waves around the first millennium, but possibly even as early as the 5th century.

Similar to the Jewish people, the Gypsies today live scattered all around the globe. Their language Romanes, which picked up numerous Greek and Armenic loan words on the way to Europe and which is spoken in many different dialects, is akin to Sanskrit. The Romanes adapted numerous words and expressions from the languages in which areas its speakers settled in. The Gypsies who almost six centuries ago immigrated to Germany, Austria and the adjacent regions (Northern Italy, Slowania, Bohemia, Alsace, Lorraine) call themselves Sinti. There are theories which lead this name back to the region Sindh in today’s Pakistan, so that for example one well-known German Sinti Union, the “Sindhi Union” from Freiburg, orients itself at this spelling today. Only in the previous century, during the Weimar Republic and since 1945 have Gypsies from Eastern and Soutern Europe, who call themselves Roma like the great majority of European Gypsies, immigrated or fled to Germany. The international civil rights movement of the Gypsies today uses the name Roma (Romanes, for human/man) for all Gypsies in general, while in the Federal Republic of Germany the term “Sinti and Roma” is established since 1979.

While major parts of the Roma civilization of Southeastern Europe, where about three quarters of the European Gypsies live, have been settled down for centuries, the Central European Sinti have mainly lived as travelers – often restricted to one specific region. Larger groups of them only settled in fixed living quarters in the cities due to the increasing restrictions and persecutions of the nomadic lifestyle by the “modern” state since the foundation of the Bismarck Reich. The first 80 years of the Sinti residence in Germany are considered their “Golden Age”. With protective letters from the German-Roman emperor Siegesmund, among others, they traveled mostly unharmed through the German countries; their exotic character creating astonishment and admiration. In many places they enjoyed the hospitality of the local citizenry. The prelude to the persecution of Sinti in Germany supposedly came from elector Achilles of Brandenburg, who banned residence of Sinti in his country in 1482. With the Reichstage of Lindau and Freiburg (1496, 1497 and 1498), the whole German empire followed this example, annulled the protective letter of Siegesmund and declared all Roma fair game. Everybody could hunt them, flog them, incarcerate or kill them. Emperor Ferdinand (1556-1564) “softened” the Gypsy Laws in so far as now at least women and children were not executed immediately. Thanks to German sectionalism, these general laws were not put into practice everywhere with the same consequence; Roma could survive in Germany by moving to another federal state. But many German states organized the fight against the so-called “Gypsy mob” individually. For the time between 1497 and 1774 alone, 146 Gypsy edicts have been proven. Only the confusion of the 30-year War distracted from the Gypsy persecution.

In the 17th and 18th century, the persecution was picked up again with unrestricted force. Roma were supposed to be branded, banned or punished by death. Friedrich Wilhelm I. of Prussia for example ordered them to be hanged without trial in 1725; the brown skin color alone would be proof enough. A regional assembly at the upper Rhine decreed 1709 the deportation or execution of every arrested Roma, and the city of Frankfurt allowed the removal of Roma children.

Plagues, famines, fires, mysterious murders, incurable diseases and so on were blamed on the foreigners, who were suspected of being Un-Christian. Thus, the Roma of the Middle Ages was marked as the guilty and severely persecuted; the dark complexion and an incomprehensible language turned them into foreigners and victims. The Roma allegedly brought the Plague and cholera, were responsible for the rat plague, were akin to the Jews, stole children and practiced cannibalism. They’d had a permissive and shabby morality and spied for the Turks and Tartars as enemies of the state. These were the usual prejudices of the time, which frighteningly enough have survived in roughly this form up until today.

Heads of church and police have blamed Jews and Roma since the Middle Ages with the same offenses: renunciation of Christianity, witchcraft, fraud and robbery were among their supposed crimes.

At least in the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century, the physical existence of the Sinti as “pariahs” was tolerated. During their usually short visits in villages and towns they earned their living with several odd jobs of manual labor or as musicians. In several German states, settlement projects were attempted, their failure though was predestined by the inhumanity of the particular approach. In Wuerttemberg, extended families were violently separated and scattered over the whole country in smaller groups.

When the separated families tried to move together, the local authorities usually forced them to move away again. The measures of Maria Theresia and Joseph II. affected in Austria-Hungary with the German-speaking Western Hungary (since 1918 “Burgenland”) only the border of the German language area. The Roma living in that area were “successfully” forced to settle with draconic punishments, among them the prohibition of Romanes, the enforcement of mixed marriages with non-Roma and the removal of children.

Only the foundation of the German Reich in 1871 allowed the long-running coordination of anti-Gypsian repressions, which were astonishingly enough perfected during the Weimar Republic, thus creating a platform for the registration of the German Sinti and Roma, which precluded the genocide during the Nazi regime. In 1871 already, the Interior Ministry of the Grand Duke of Hessia, in accordance with the chancellorship in Berlin, ordered its local authorities not to issue trade licenses to immigrating Roma and to handle Sinti citizens with the greatest care. In the adjacent Austria in 1885, forced labor is allowed as punishment for a sentence because of “vagabondage”. In 1896, the German chancellorship ordered that no licenses for moving trades should be issued to Roma or Sinti any longer; in the Prussian “Edict for the fight against the Gypsy menace” from February 12th, 1902, this measure is again restricted primarily to Roma immigrants; the forced transport to the state border for “Gypsies without German citizenship” had already been introduced in 1886. The federal law on “Forced education of juveniles”, introduced on January 1st, 1900, was especially used for children of Sinti and Roma families. As a preliminary stage to modern databases, Gypsy intelligence services were created in several German states in 1899, the most efficient of which in the kingdom Bavaria: As early as 1904, it already contained 3350 files on Roma families and singular persons. Commissioned by the Bavarian Interior Ministry, the criminal counsel Alfred Dillmann issued in 1905 guidelines for the so-called “removal of the Gypsy plague” as a summary of the respective directives from 1816 to 1903. His Central Office for Fighting the Gypsy Nuisance in Munich quickly advanced to become the centre or the German “Gypsy combat”, aggravated the criminalization of this ethnic group and was the predecessor of the later “Central Gypsy Police Station Munich” in the Weimar Republic and the following “Reich centre for the fight against the Gypsy nuisance” in the security headquarters of Himmler in Berlin (since 1938).

In the first three decades of the 20th century, a growing number of Sinti and Roma families thus settled in German major cities because of repressions and the deteriorating working conditions in trade and smaller businesses.

In April 1926, the “Federal agreement on the concerted and simultaneous combat against the Gypsies in the German Reich” came about; on July 16, the Bavarian "Law for Combating Gypsies, Vagabonds and Idlers" was passed in Munich, and in November 1927 the Prussian Interior Ministry ordered the taking of fingerprints of all Sinti and Roma. Therefore, already the first German republic issued exceptional ordinances against an ethnic group, measures which were not consistent with the Weimar constitution.


The word „Zigeuner“ (German for „Gypsy“) is based on the old Turkish word „tschigan“: „poor people“, “have-nots”. In European languages, this turned into “tsigan”, in German: “Zigeuner”.

The word „Gypsy“ was brought to Europe through the identification of the Roma with the Mameluks. Remember that the Mameluks ruled a slavery state in Egypt in the Middle Ages, and that Roma historically referred to themselves as “Egyptians”. An example for such a group are the Ashkalie Roma in Kosovo, who still today call themselves “Egyptians”.

The „Kelderascha“ were the boiler makers (from the Romanian word for „boiler“ – „celdera“), the „Tschurari“ were the knife grinders (from “tschuri” – in the language of the Roma “knife”), die “Lovara” were the horse leaders (from the Hungarian word for “horse” – “lov-“), and so on. Some of these terms exist up until today as tribal names, even though the tribes dismissed their traditional occupations long ago.