romea - logo
August 16, 2022



Who is Germany really afraid of?

Prague, 24.6.2014 18:21, (ROMANO VOĎI)
A scene from the film
A scene from the film "Das falsche Wort" (PHOTO: Katrin Seybold)

The first double issue of the monthly journal Romano voďi featured a three-part series on the topic of foreigners and minorities in film and television. In the three segments from various countries - the Czech Republic, Germany, and the USA - our authors have discussed film and television productions and touched on the depiction of Romani people in literature as well.

Part Three:  Who is Germany really afraid of?

This segment is about how Romani people are depicted in film and literature in Germany, about the unbelievably deep roots of today's prejudice against them, and about how to make this better. It has turned out to be rather more complicated than it initially seemed to find examples of positive depictions of the Romani minority in art or the media in Germany.

While Romani people do turn up from time to time in films, literature, and on television screens, it is definitely not often in a positive light. In order to reach a consistent understanding of the role played by Romani people in German literature and in art generally, it is very instructive to look at the historical roots of today's stereotypes. 

As literature professor Michael Bogdal illustrates in his book Europa erfindet die Zigeuner (Europe Invents the Gypsies), the first mentions of Romani people are to be found in local chronicles in the 15th century, the time when they first arrived on German territory. Bogdal convincingly demonstrates that we can see the process of marginalization obviously at work in those descriptions.   

One of many examples is the following description by the chronicler Aventinus from the year 1439:  "At that time that very criminal nation (or human breed) began to grind away through our territory under the leadership of King Zindelo[ne], a mixture of the garbage of various nations who live on the border between Hungary and Turkey (we call them "Zigeni"), [and] who attempt to make their entire living through fortune-telling, robbery and theft with impunity." (Europa erfindet die Zigeuner, pg. 36).

It is necessary to keep historical context in mind - for example, the fact that during the first third of the 16th century social conditions were tangibly deteriorating in Europe. Along with growing numbers of the poor, the political will to persecute Romani people grew as well and hit its target.  

Literature served as one tool for justifying the cruelty perpetrated against these people, who had been at the mercy of majority societies and the nobility ever since their arrival in Europe. What is interesting is that in mid-16th century Germany the same prejudices, with the same kind of absurdity, arose then as are now often heard in the Czech Republic - including for example, the notion that Romani people lead dissolute, idle lives that somehow lead to their enjoying better economic conditions than those enjoyed by hardworking people.   

Another favorite prejudice was the notion that Romani people were either pagans or direct servants of the Devil. In 1598, for example, Thomas Birck wrote in his work Ehespiegel (The Marriage Mirror) that Romani people are a "raunchy, wild nation/ if not half pure devil/ half human", who "hold weddings and baptisms / everywhere they go / so the girls are brides ten times over /  and the children are baptized ten times as well". (Europa erfindet die Zigeuner, page 77).

A slight change of course occurred during the time of Romanticism, when new ways were discovered to present Romani people in literature. However, as Michael Bogdal points out, even at that time a truthful depiction of Romani people was not the point.

Literary characters attributed to this minority were used for various purposes, often acting as a means of liberation from a society bound by convention. Romani people have therefore been reduced in this literature to a few ciphers, according to which the reader can immediately identify them.

This reductive version of Romani people has been inscribed into Germany's cultural memory even as the complex issue of their actual life and social position remained ignored. The interest of Romantic authors was turned toward the ever-mysterious, ever-present world of nature, creating a depiction of the Roma as wild, living in societies large and small in the forests of Germany that represented both a possible threat and a potential source of protection for persecuted persons. 

This is the case, for example, in Goethe's first successful drama, Götz of Belichingen. The main character of the play arrives in a "gypsy camp" while fleeing the royal army.

Even though the Roma in this drama are not shown as posing any kind of threat to their visitor, they are still depicted as primitives living at the level of hunters and gathers by catching mice, and the forest, their home, is (at least at night) portrayed as dangerous, foreign, uncivilized territory. The image of the beautiful, passionate Gypsy woman also came into currency at this time in Germany, first created by the Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes in his character Preciosa, the main heroine of his novella La Gitanilla (The Gypsy Girl).

This character was also used by Goethe in his novel Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship. That work features the beautiful, mysterious, and spontaneous character of Mignon.  

Goethe introduces her with these words:  "For now, however, he fell more and more in love with Mignon's appearance and entire being. In all of her actions and behavior she was a special child. She wouldn't walk up staircases, but simply leaped up and down them. She walked on top of the railings that ran along the corridors, and before one knew it, she was sitting on the wardrobe, where she would remain for a moment in silence. Wilhelm also noticed that she greeted everyone differently. For some time she greeted him with her arms folded across her breast. Sometimes she would not speak for days, sometimes she gave a little more or answer to different questions, always a weird answer, but in such a way that it was impossible to tell whether she was joking or just unfamiliar with the language, as she spoke a broken German intertwined with French and her own tongue. When she opened her mouth to sing, or when she played the lute, then and only then was it as if she were using the only organ through which she could reveal and communicate what was inside her."

The relationship between the Romanes language and the ancient Indian language of Sanskirt had been discovered in the 18th century, and in the 19th century the West came to the conclusion that Romani people were descended from the Indian caste of untouchables. However, instead of "raising" the Roma to the level of an independent nation, this new knowledge was rapidly integrated into older structures of prejudice without helping to improve the position of Romani people at all. 

Moreover, both the aesthetic and the anthropological conclusions about the Roma mutually reinforced one another, resulting in an collective, effective, predetermined image of Romani people that primarily served the aim of sparking disgust and revulsion among readers. Even Lessing, the leading poet of the Enlightenment, who otherwise promoted the equality of all faiths and nations in his works, did not hold back on revulsion when it came to the Roma:  "Crushed nasal cartilage, sagging breasts hanging to the navel, the whole body sun-tanned with decorations of goat fat and soot, the hair oozing oil, the arms and legs wrapped in fresh viscera [...]!" (Europa erfindet die Zigeuner, page 154).

One of the few German theoreticians to avoid the tendencies of his day was Johann Rüdiger (1751 - 1822). He stood up for precisely the opposite opinion of Romani people. 

Rüdiger claimed that Romani people were deprived of all rights not because of their "wildness", but that it was the loss of their rights that was in fact the cause of their "wildness". He also reminded society that it was the obligation of "the leaders" to make sure everyone else attained a state of civilization, but he was all but completely isolated in this opinion.

The author Achim von Arnim, in his novella Isabella the Egyptian, created a rather positive, if utopian, image of Roma. Isabella is described as a chaste, respected, wise queen who leads her nation back to the land of their origin, to the promised land of Egypt.

While at first blush this sounds quite idyllic, we must not forget, as Bogdal reminds us, that this drastic rewriting of the history of Romani people in Europe simply ignored both their past and the social reality of that time. Von Arnim was well aware that Romani people were the only nation in the 19th century whose history could be so arbitrarily treated with impunity.

Another eminent poet who created Romani characters was Nikolaus Lenau. The music of Mischka, the main character of his cycle of poems of the same name, serves as a "bridge" connecting dead heroes to those who live, awakening their patriotic feelings.

Even though Mischka is a favorite of society, the poems criminalize Romani people all the same, irrespective of the behavior of the individual Romani characters. Mischka's daughter Mira is ultimately betrayed by her aristocratic fiancé, with society making their planned wedding impossible.

Along with the rise of the science of anthropology, such depictions of Romani people headed on an ever-stronger course toward racist tracts calling for the total extermination of Romani people as creatures dangerous to society due to their inadaptability and depraved lifestyle, which was considered inborn. Thus began a very dark chapter in the history of the Roma in Germany, which continued even after 1945. 

As Bogdal has written, many German authors, from Günter Grass to Christa Wolf, made use of simplified Romani characters in the 1970s to arouse the emotions of astonishment, fear, or repulsion. The fact that Romani people were actually victims of the Holocaust is rarely ever mentioned. 

A mere three works constitute the exception. One is a book for youth called Amschel das Zigeunermädchen (The Gypsy Girl Amschel) from 1971, in which the author instructs readers to understand children living on the outskirts of society. The second book is a crime novel called Dein Blut fließt auch nicht anders (Your Blood Doesn't Flow Any Differently) from 1984 about a Sinti family running a scrapyard who are charged with shooting a police officer during a physical altercation with a filmmaker to whom they have leased their place; the main protagonist of the planned film gets to know the family better while they are on the run. The third book is the thriller Blavatskys Kinder (Blavatsky's Children) from 1995, which describes trafficking in children against the background of pogroms against Romani people after the fall of socialism in Romania.

All of these examples are inferior works in terms of literary quality and have not attracted much attention. In the light of this history of the depiction of Romani people in German literature, it does not surprise us that Romani people are not depicted positively today, whether in literature or in the general media.

German politicians contribute nothing to improving this image - at best they are silent or, in the worst-case scenario, like that of Horst Seehofer, the Prime Minister of Bavaria and chair of the Bavarian Christian Democratic Party (CSU), they pepper their statements with remarks about Roma labor from Bulgaria or Romania, to whom Seehofer sent the following message:  "Whoever cheats, will fly home." This was a reference to alleged abuse of the welfare system by Romani people, which actually does not occur - the most recent study by the Institute for the Labor Market and Research in Education has proven that only 9.6 % of the immigrants from Bulgaria and Romani living in Germany are unemployed.  

This rhetoric is nothing but a loose continuation of the statements once made by Carl von Heister, who said that "The Gypsy knows no worse enemy than work." What is even more absurd, however, is that Heister published his Ethnographic and Historical Notes on Gypsies in 1842.

However, Germany wouldn't be Germany without an alternative direction being created outside of mainstream culture. In the 1980s, the documentary filmmaker Katrin Seybold drew attention with her films "Don't Call us Gypsies", "We Are Sinti Children and Not Gypsies", "It Went On Day and Night, Dear Child:  Gypsies (Sinti) in Auschwitz" and "The False Word", about redress for the crimes against Gypsies (Sinti) in Germany.

Her most recent film on a Romani topic, which was made in 1987 and is still freely available on YouTube, points out in especially blunt terms the racism that the surviving Roma and Sinti have had to grapple with in postwar Germany and the fact that they have essentially never been compensated for it. Thanks to her sensitively-conducted interviews with those who remember those times, the director achieves authentic insight into the minds of her protagonists and offers the German public a rare opportunity to familiarize themselves with the perspective "of the other side".    

That same year, 1987, a book by Luise Rinser, Who Will Throw the First Stone? Gypsies in Germany, an Indictment, came out which also throws more light on the actual history of Romani people in Germany. Her book begins with these questions:

"Why does there even exist a gypsy problem in Germany? How is it possible that an ethnic minority exists in the Federal Republic of Germany that can be blamed for not integrating into society? Was their integration ever facilitated? Didn't people, on the contrary, do everything they could to prevent their integration through discrimination - not just during Nazism, but long before then and even after then, to this very day? How can anyone blame the Roma and Sinti for allegedly not being integrated, when no one has ever wanted and still doesn't what their integration?" (in Rajko Djurić, Roma und Sinti im Spiegel der deutschen Literatur / Roma and Sinti in the Mirror of German Literature, page 245).

Today we can observe a constantly-growing wave of interest among young people in Germany, primarily students, in the Romani topic. For example, last year the Festival of Eastern European Film in Cottbus drew great attention when it was dedicated to the topic of Roma.

Many Czech and Slovak films were successfully presented on these issues in Germany, such as the documentaries "Life and Death in Tanvald" (Život a smrt v Tanvaldu) by Vít Klusák and Filip Remunda, "Vojta Lavička:  Up and Down" (Vojta Lavička: Nahoru a dolů) by Helena Třeštíková, or "Gypsies Go to Elections" (Cigáni idú do volieb) by Jaroslav Vojtka. It is also interesting that the introductory trailer for the whole festival was inspired by the Czech artist Josef Koudelka, who documented the lives of Romani people all over Europe during the 1960s and 1970s through his photographs.

When one focuses on these positive tendencies, there is nothing left to do but to shake one's head in disbelief at the centuries of prejudice against Romani people that continue to dominate mainstream depictions of them. An enormous role is played by fear - of fraud, of theft, of the unknown.

Here we may be coming to the heart of the matter. Rajko Djurić, whose work is mentioned above, ends his book with the quote below from Jean Paul Sartre which, while it primarily concerns anti-Semitism, not antigypsyism, nevertheless offers us a convincing explanation of both these ideologies of hatred.

This article will not solve the problem of the persistently negative depiction of Romani people, but it can at least offer Sartre's brief reflection on its cause:  "It is people who are afraid. Not of the Jews, naturally:  They are afraid of themselves, of their own consciousness, of their own freedom, of their own instincts, of their own responsibilities, of their own loneliness, of change, of society, of the world; they are afraid of everything but the Jews. It is a coward who doesn't want to admit his own cowardice; ... In other words, anti-Semitism is fear of humanity. An anti-Semite is a person who wants to be the inexorable cliff, the raging waters, a devastating flash of lighting:  Anything at all, except a human being."

Veronika Patočková, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
Views: 938x

Related articles:


RV 1-2/2014, Sintové, společenská atmosféra, zobrazování


More articles from category

romea - logo