Thomas Acton

The Roma have been feared and shunned for centuries – but who exactly are they?

In the absence of their own written records, they have been ‘invented’ and misrepresented in Europe ever since their arrival in the Middle Ages, says Klaus-Michael Bogdal

Gypsies kidnap a child, in an illustration from Le Petit Journal, 1902. [Getty Images]

Published in German in 2011, this book was the high point of a 20-year-old tradition of ‘Anti-Gypsyism Studies’, which suggested that all previous histories of Roma by non-Roma represented a self-serving, defensive ideology of oppressors demonising the oppressed. Anti-racist scholars should therefore stand aside from such colonialist impertinence and leave the actual history of Roma to be written one day by Roma themselves. They should concentrate on chronicling the racism of their own people – Europeans, and especially the Germans.

The book is not, therefore, a history of Roma, and was not intended as such. The original title was Europa erfindet die Zigeuner, which means ‘Europe invents the Roma’. It is a little disingenuous of the publisher to market it as general history. It has no reference to Ottoman, Armenian or Byzantine literature. The story begins when western Europeans started making up stories about mysterious, threatening oriental aliens in about 1450, and ends with the failure of the story of the Holocaust to dethrone this racism in the way anti-Semitism was discredited.

This story, of misguided fiction or historiography about Roma, Gypsies and Travellers from the past 600 years, especially in German, is very well-referenced. Klaus-Michael Bogdal summarises many tedious books, one after another. He has read them, so that we don’t have to. ‘Anti-Gypsyism studies,’ he tells us, stem from a radically relativistic critique made by the Dutch historians Leo Lucassen and Wim Willems in the 1980s of conventional histories of Roma. They held that all historical narratives are back-projections of the present world view of the narrators, and so are ideological constructions, reflecting their socio-economic interests. They argued that the concept of ‘Gypsies’ was invented in 1783 by an ‘Enlightenment’-style policy wonk named Heinrich Grellmann, who, like policy wonks down the ages, sought advancement by speaking comforting fictions to power.

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