A woman holding a Roma flag, at a protest in Lety, Czech Republic, the site of World War II Romani genocide. Martin Divisek/EPA
Czech president Miloš Zeman faces a tough run-off against rival Jiří Drahoš in the second round of the presidential election on January 26-27. Voters will deliver their verdict on Zeman’s open hostility to refugees, Muslims, and the European Union, and his support for Russia.
While the vote can be seen as a choice between the country leaning east or west in the future, Zeman’s controversial remarks about Roma demonstrate that many of the questions dividing Czechs are also rooted in the nation’s past.
In late 2017, Zeman provocatively claimed in a television interview that 90% of his country’s “unadaptable” citizens are probably Roma. He was responding to a UN human rights reportthat called for better integration of Roma in the Czech Republic. Zeman repeated his criticism of “unadaptable” citizens in his Christmas speech.
Members of the Czech government council for Roma community affairs reacted angrily to Zeman’s allegations. Meanwhile, Roma citizens eloquently pointed out that the Czech Republic is their homeland, too.
Zeman’s remarks sparked anger in the Romani community. Martin Divisek/EPA
Racist stigmatisation of Roma as socially “unadaptable” has a long history across Europe. As a result, many people prefer not to declare their Romani identity. Just over 13,000 Czech citizens claimed Romani nationality in the 2011 census. Yet the Council of Europe estimatesthat some 250,000 Roma are living in the Czech Republic, a little less than 2% of the population.
Widespread ignorance about the history of Europe’s Roma fuels damaging stereotypes and persistent discrimination. But far from being perennial outsiders or aliens, Roma have been intimately integrated into European societies for centuries. As I argue in my recent book, Roma were not simply victims of human rights violations in postwar Europe, but citizens claiming equal rights for themselves.
The genocide of European Roma during World War II casts a long shadow over postwar Romani history. The “Gypsy camp” at Auschwitz-Birkenau has become an important symbol for commemoration of the Roma Holocaust. But persecution and discrimination took many forms.
Years before the Nazis came to power, many states across Europe, including Czechoslovakia as well as France and Germany, introduced laws requiring “gypsies” to carry special passports, or regulating their freedom of movement. During the war, Roma across Europe faced incarceration, deportation, and forcible sterilisation.