The Struggles of Czech Roma in Historical Context

Romani people have cohabited Europe with all its other ethnic groups for nearly a millennium, but are still treated like foreigners by their neighbors and by governing authorities. While life for the rest of Central and Eastern Europe’s people has improved dramatically, many Roma people in those areas still live as they did in the medieval times when they first arrived. An argument could even be made that Roma in one country lived best during the fourteenth century, prior to the emergence there of incredibly destructive racism against them. In what is now the Czech Republic, it is because of this centuries-old culture of discrimination that so many Czech Roma still lack upward social mobility.

The Czech Republic itself is estimated to now have a Romani population of at least 250,000 but less than 300,000, according to information provided by the European Roma Rights Centre (<errc.org>). This gap in numerical confidence is due to the failure of citizen cataloging systems applied to Romani people, or that of the Czech government to catalog its Romani citizens.

As they are often accused of illegality and pressed to show papers they don’t possess at typical institutions of healthcare, the Roma often avoid hospitals, as Maja Saitovic reported in a piece entitled “To Achieve Roma Equality, Europe Must Address Health Disparities.” These legal issues extend to Romani people’s actions at other public institutions, including banks and schools, directly reducing their upward social mobility at the former and indirectly (but perhaps most significantly) at the latter.

Segregation of Czech primary education to exclude Roma from normal public schools is one of the biggest factors in their lack of upward social mobility that is itself caused by a potpourri of culturally engrained prejudices with bases in history. This segregation is often perpetuated by concerned teachers and politicians who claim to “mean well,” as Bartoloměj Oláh put it, but is really driven by fear and discrimination. The Czech Republic is a country where 84% of respondents to a public opinion poll consider coexistence between Roma and non-Roma populations “bad,” as a survey conducted during the course of April 2014 reports. Oláh’s essay explains how that pro-segregation mentality held by the majority population haunts the Romani children sent to segregated schools or misdiagnosed as having special needs (and then sent to segregated schools, if not “special schools” with disproportionately high Roma enrollment). At these schools, the students receive an inferior education which further separated them mentally from non-Roma, despite the misdiagnosed children’s being of normal intelligence and the entire situation’s being unnecessary. The highly contested court case “D.H. and Others v the Czech Republic” first brought this issue to the government’s notice in 1996, but as the final Grand Chamber decision at the European Court of Human Rights was made in February of 2006, many Romani victims of racial targeting for unnecessary special education remain uneducated.

Violence against the Czech Roma is also a major issue with historical roots. And like the case of urged “special education” for minority children, it is too often perpetrated by authorities egged on by a xenophobic majority population. Dezideriu Gergely, Executive Director of the European Roma Rights Centre, said in a 2014 interview “We are concerned that the security and safety of Roma is not being safeguarded, particularly as some of the most recent events have involved law enforcement officials. . . . And in the Czech Republic, violent anti-Roma riots take place on a regular basis.” He went on to repeatedly mention that even when not involved in the violence themselves, officials do little to stop it: “We are concerned that Europe continues to backtrack in ensuring the most basic of fundamental rights for Roma — the right to life.” This description of a negligent government is highly disturbing given the Hobbesian principles taken for granted by most other Europeans, which state that government exists to protect humans from more beastly humans (whom a government should never resemble or include). The beasts in the Czech Republic’s case are various groups of neo-Nazis, whose blinding racism is destructive and fatal as their riotous marches. In the Czech Republic, the marches are so common and normalized that they now run on schedules and have their own sections and tags on some Czech news websites.

Prior to the past decade, Nazism has never been so popular or accepted in the Czech Republic since 1945.

Like the people of other groups massacred in the Holocaust, Romani people have faced discrimination for many centuries. The German National Socialists’ movement thrived on the worst fear and hatred buried by its participants, so while Jews were familiar scapegoats in Germany, the Nazis’ game changed with their 1939 destruction of Czechoslovakia. The establishment of German control in Bohemia and Moravia impacted international relations by angering the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and causing Great Britain and France to abandon their policy of appeasement (Viault 476), starting in place a sequence of events leading to the outbreak of World War Two. This war and the Holocaust which played out alongside it changed the Czech Roma forever. In a few short years, Romani people in the Czech Republic went from being a plurality to a minority as ninety percent of the population was exterminated.

The Czech lands were actually one of the first areas in Europe in which Romani people arrived, and for a few short centuries, they flourished there. The Roma’s earliest days in what is now the Czech Republic witnessed incredibly complicated exploits (in the fourteenth century, they were protected as the perceived messengers of God; in the fifteenth, persecuted as Turkish spies and as an entire race excommunicated from the Church). But their situation improved steadily with their population growth so that after Maria Theresa ended their persecution by royal decree, the Roma became equals to their neighbors.

But that equality came at a cost: the Romani culture, which by the seventeenth century had already spurred harmful “bohemian” and “gypsy” stereotypes, caricatures, and clichés. Romove Radio Prague describes the decree: “The intent of her decree was the assimilation of the Roma ethnic group. The Empress realized that the differences in living standards between the Roma and the other inhabitants were enormous, and for this reason she tried to tie them to the soil. She forbade the nomadic life and the use of the Romani language. Only official marriages were permitted, they were forced to wear different clothes, and children were taken away and placed witn [sic] non-Roma families for re-education. An interesting document of the period by Ab Hortis was preserved which relates everything about the situation of the Roma community in the Hungary at the government of Maria Theresa in great detail. Maria Theresa’s decree may seem inhumane by today’s standards, but she established the recognition of the Roma as an existing element of the population of the country.”

The historians at Radio Prague believe that the Industrial Revolution (which struck Czechoslovakia late in the nineteenth century) accounts for much of the reversion by Roma to the standards of living they held in medieval times. If this is true, ever since the Second Industrial Revolution, the “Roma question” is essentially a question of how to govern a population as effectively Maria Theresa did.

A twentieth-century attempt at the Empress’s famous decree was the Law on Wandering Gypsies, issued in 1927 by the Czech First Republic. Radio Prague describes this law as such: “The aim was to “civilize” their way of life, but the law so restricted and deprived the Roma of their civil liberties, that it became an expression of the slanderous, defamatory, and villifying [sic] attitude of society at the time towards the ethnic group as a whole. This law remained in effect for the entire pre-Munich period and for a rather long time afterward.” The law only required all Roma people to apply for identification and permission to stay the night, which probably failed because it simply didn’t change enough; while Maria Theresa’s version robbed Roma of their tradition, it at least left no painful remnants. But as this law magnified the demonizing attitude of Czech society toward the Roma, it did set the stage for Czech passiveness and acceptance of the Holocaust during the Second World War, which allowed the unnecessary and devastating loss of two million Romani lives.

Works Cited

“The History and Origin of the Roma.” Roma in the Czech Republic. Czech Radio, 26 Feb. 2000. Web. 27 May 2014. ‹romove.radio.cz›.

Saitovik, Maja. “To Achieve Roma Equality, Europe Must Address Health Disparities.” Open Society Foundations. n.p., 28 March 2014. Web. 29 May 2014. ‹opsensocietyfoundations.org›

Oláh, Bartoloměj. “We can’t have educated Roma running around here.” Romea. ROMEA, 7 May 2014. Web. 28 May 2014. ‹romea.cz›

“84% say coexistence between Roma and others is ‘bad.’” Romea. ROMEA, 15 May 2014. Web. 29 May 2014.

European Court of Human Rights. “Grand Chamber Judgement (in English).” Case of D.H. and Others v. the Czech Republic. 13 Nov. 2007. PDF file.

Gergely, Dezideriu. Interview by Sinan Gokçen. European Roma Rights Centre. European Roma Rights Centre, 21 Sep. 2012. Web. 29 May 2014. ‹errc.org›

“Czech town, home to Romani arson victims, bans neo-Nazi march there.” Romea. ROMEA, 15 May 2014. Web. 29 May 2014.

Viault, Birdsall S. Modern European History. New York: McGraw-Hill Inc., 1990. Print.

“The History of the Roma Minority in the Czech Republic.” Roma in the Czech Republic. Czech Radio, 3 Jun. 2000.

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