Romanian Gypsies and the the Secret to Nazism

Romanian Gypsy WomenAs I was looking for something to write about for today’s anniversary post, I came upon a mention of a massive one day murder of Gypsies at Auschwitz. I didn’t write about it, because it turned out that the date was wrong. It turned out that on 1 August 1944, the entire population of the “gypsy camp” was murdered — some 4,000 adults and children. It’s staggering to think about, although looking at some of the pictures of the victims, it was probably the most humane thing the camp personnel ever did to them.

I don’t bring this up to point out yet again just how awful the Nazis were. But after all these years, I find myself still trying to understand the Nazis. I don’t think the Germans are different than any other people. Certainly there are problems with its culture, but it isn’t any different in this way than any other culture. And I largely think that the vast majority of the German people were also victims of Nazism — even while they were culpable. So what makes people respond to a call for genocide with a shrug as they pick up a pitchfork?

Several years ago, I had a really uncomfortable experience. I was head of software development at this startup. And we had hired five Romanian programmers. They worked in Romanian, and I set up our system in such a way that they could work with the hardware remotely. I was totally against hiring them, but it was forced on me. Still, I found that it worked remarkably well. For one thing, the programmers were fantastic. But a couple of times we flew the Romanian team leader here to work directly with me.

“Do you think Americans wouldn’t think so lowly of Romania if it weren’t for the Gypsies?”

He was a brilliant young man — and very nice. You absolutely couldn’t ask for a better person to work with. But one day, he asked me the most peculiar question, “Do you think Americans wouldn’t think so lowly of Romania if it weren’t for the Gypsies?” I was shocked by this blatantly racist question. But despite how I appear online, in real life, I’m very much a placater. I might be different today, but then, I was not interested in finding out why this young man thought so lowly of this particular ethnic group. So I gently told him that the only thing any Americans were likely to know about Romania were Nadia Comăneci and Dracula. And that was the end of that conversation.

I assume that my Romanian colleague had about as much direct direct experience with the Gypsies as I did. Even at the time, I immediately thought of African Americans: an underclass deprived of opportunities and then shamed for their lack of success compared to the “white” class that is given every advantage. In fact, not long before that, I had had a conversation with some young immigrants to America who were asking me the same kinds of questions with regard to blacks. They are valid questions that deserved answers, and I think I did a decent job with them.

The problem we have is not with the questions, but with the assumptions that many if not most people have: those who are struggling in our society are simply worse people. The specifics of who “those people” are don’t matter. I’m sure that few Americans could tell the difference between Gypsies and the non-Gypsies in Romania. We humans create more or less random groups that we put great significance into. It is the source of our greatest strength in that it is what binds us together. But the dark side is that we become exclusive, and it really isn’t necessary; there are more than enough non-human things that might kill us.

In the end, I suppose I’m not that surprised that the Nazis happened. It’s more surprising that we don’t see more of it. But I do think that we are getting better; we are more inclusive than we have ever been. But looking around at America, it is clear that we have a very long way to go.

Photo by Adam Jones

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

23 thoughts on “Romanian Gypsies and the the Secret to Nazism

  1. The victors in WW I were specifically warned that the Germans were likely to come back with an authoritarian nationalist government if Germany was made to take the entire blame for the war. Look to the allied leaders to get the proximate cause of Nazism. The Germans felt, with justification, that they had been singled out and oppressed; they found a scapegoat. That’s not just how Germans operate, it’s how people operate.

    Many years later, American and English leaders were warned, specifically, that attacking Iraq would lead to new, more virulent, more anti-Western paramilitary groups. Look to Bush and Blair for the proximate cause of ISIS’s rise.

    • I still don’t really understand that. It’s not like people change. We know how they act. But the drive to war or to take vengeance is so strong. Although I do think there is something special about the dysfunction of the Germans and Americans. It’s probably the history of power.

    • That does not explain how the Germans allowed their leaders to exterminate millions of people in gas chambers. It absolutely explains why Hitler came to power but it does not explain how they were okay with taking the steps that lead to the death camps like Treblinka.

      • It is “steps,” I think. First you permit ghettoization. Then you ban people from certain professions. Tolerate beatings, even widespread mob activity. Each step desensitizes people a bit more. And all the while media is screaming how all we’ve done for “those people” and pointing out stories (almost always false) of atrocities they commit against everything we hold dear. (You also make sure opposing viewpoints are silenced, violently if necessary.)

        • The way people talk about Muslims is frightening. There was nothing even remotely close to it during the hostage crisis in 1979. And the network news beat that drum every day. This has been manufactured by Fox and talk radio.

          • I think part of it is scapegoat-shifting. In 1979 the rage was all “gay teachers corrupting our kids!” As time moves on and some group becomes more accepted, or blaming them loses its effectiveness, you fearmonger some other group. Of course in America we have some perennial targets of hate that never get changed . . .

          • It’s also easier. Taking over the embassy fit nicely into the narrative of revolutions. 911 didn’t because it was outside the normal business of the rise and fall of nations. Also: we got the same thing — it’s just focused on Iran and not Muslims. I’m constantly amazed at Iran’s status as the One True Evil™ in the region. The problem is actually much worse in terms of how many people believe it. But I don’t disagree with you. If Fox News had been around in 1979, there might have been a revolution here.

      • I always think of the Manson family. My understanding is that before he had them kill anyone, he had them break into houses and move objects around. I’m not sure he knew what he was doing, but he was desensitizing them. Certainly the Germans knew what Hitler was all about. But he never got a majority of the votes from them anyway. And even the mistreatment of the Jews and other “undesirables” was a gradual process. I don’t mean to let the German people off the hook, but I think it is easy to see how it happens. Certainly Donald Trump appeals to that same kind of instinct.

        • That is the most terrifying thing about him. His policies wouldn’t be much different from the other candidates. But his political capital, as Bush called it, would be. So what happens if there’s an economic crash during a Trump presidency? He’d have to double down on the hate speech. That sort of spiral gets ugly fast.

          • Excellent point. The sad thing is, that’s what I would expect from any Republican currently running.

            • True. It’s like many have observed about Germany and Hitler. He rose to power but the seeds of Fascism were already there. If it hadn’t been him, it would have been someone else — maybe someone with the good sense not to scare away half the best nuclear scientists.

              • That brings it a little closer to my problems with trying to figure out how it got from reparations to the death camps. It is a very weird progression if you think about it even if you understand the steps that it takes.

                Antisemitism was a problem in Europe but it never erupted into a systematic death machine until the Nazis.

                • These things are tough to understand and I don’t get them either. Although I worry someday we’ll know firsthand . . .

                    • I keep meaning to. I like Lewis a lot. “Main Street” is really bitter about Small Town Minnesota (Sauk Centre, although the name’s changed), and not about the farmers — about the town leader/business community.

                      I read so much nonfiction now I’ve kinda lost my habit of reading old fiction; one of these days I’ll get back on it!

                    • You really are not missing much as a novel itself, it was a rushed job and it shows. The ideas are sound though even if hard to believe that anyone would act like that AND get elected.

        • I suppose but I don’t quite think that was it. The steps part yes-but the public knew about extreme anti-semitism before Hitler rose to power. So it is hard to see how it goes from reparations to death machines even over a twenty year period of time.

          • I’m no expert, but I think a lot of it had to do with German self mythologizing. Remember they’d only really become a united country under Bismarck. There was this sense that the Germanic people all shared certain commonalities; they were more refined in the arts & culture, they were strong and never defeated even after centuries of being screwed over by the big European powers. So they were already very focused on “the other” and looking for traitors in their midst, the same ones who always brought Germany down before.

            They probably had other national myths which weren’t as destructive, but that’s the one which took over. It’s like we have good myths (melting pot) and bad ones (true American genius comes from self-reliance.) These things can rise, fall, change over time.

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