Sinti & Roma

"Gypsies" come to Bern in 1414 (miniature from the Spiezer Chronicles of the 15th century, source: Burgerbibliothek Bern)

Sinti and Roma have lived in Europe for centuries. They form historically established minorities in their respective countries of nationality and call themselves Sinti or Roma, whereby Sinti refers to members of the minority living in Western and Central Europe and Roma to those of eastern and southeast European origin. Roma is used as a name for the complete minority outside German-speaking areas.

On the other hand, the term "Gypsy" is an exonym of the majority population whose origins date back to the Middle Ages and which is rejected by the minority as discriminatory. When it is used in the context of historical sources, the clichés and prejudices behind this term must always be borne in mind. The term cannot be clearly derived etymologically. It comprises both negative and romanticized imagery and stereotypes which are attributed to extant people. The term is therefore first and foremost a construct.

Sinti and Roma have been living in Germany for 600 years. The German Sinti and Roma number around 70,000 and are a national minority and citizens of this state. Apart from German, they speak the minority language of Romani as a second mother tongue.

Linguistic studies in the 18th century proved that the Sinti and Roma originated from India, because Romani is related to the ancient Indian high language, Sanskrit. However, different Romani languages developed in the respective native countries of the Sinti and Roma over the centuries, as was also the case with the German Sinti.

By the end of the 15th century, Sinti and Roma had been mentioned in records in almost every European country; the first mention in Germany was in the bishop's seat of Hildesheim in 1407. The council of the city of Frankfurt bestowed citizenship on one "Heincz von Mulhusen zyguner (gypsy)" as early as 1446.

"Gypsies or pagans" from Sebastian Münster's "Cosmography" (woodcut, 1550)

Initially, the members of the minority were protected by the authorities, who issued them with "letters of protection". Around the end of the 15th century, however, when late medieval society stood at the threshold of the Early Modern period and was going through a phase of profound political and social change, the Sinti and Roma began to suffer from increasing oppression and persecution. The guilds prohibited them from practicing trades and they were expelled from numerous areas.

It is important to note that Antiziganism and Anti-Semitism contained religious aspects from the very beginning; "gypsies" were often stigmatized as "pagans" or even accused of being in league with the devil. Like the Jews, the Sinti and Roma have repeatedly been made scapegoats for all kinds of ills ever since. Nevertheless, the surviving documents, in which the Sinti and Roma only appear as objects of state measures, convey a one-sided and distorted picture, because in parallel to the policy of marginalization, there were many forms of normal and peaceful coexistence among the minority and the majority population, as illustrated by the following examples from southern Germany:

In the second half of the 18th century, the names of so-called "Gypsy soldiers", including members of the oldest Sinti families in the Palatinate, can be found in the muster rolls of the Pirmasens Grenadier Regiments of Landgrave Ludwig IX.

Letter of safe conduct from King Friedrich III for Count Michel dated 15th April 1442

"If the here present Michel, Count of the Gypsies, should come to Our lands and the lands of the Holy Roman Empire and of Our other principalities together with his other men, and present this letter, We ask you, the subjects of our realms, amicably and earnestly demanding obedience, to allow the said Michel and his company to pass safely and freely through your and Our lands, and also permit them to buy and procure all their needs for money and not to accuse them without good reason nor allow anybody else to do so."

These and many other examples show that the reality of the lives of Sinti and Roma was fundamentally different from Anti-Ziganistic stereotypes which have been deeply rooted in the collective consciousness of the society of the majority for centuries and which the National Socialists also used for propaganda purposes.