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The Holocaustís forgotten victims still under attack

By Helen Pringle - posted Wednesday, 13 April 2005


Towards the end of her political career Pauline Hanson complained loudly that John Howard and the Liberal Party had stolen her ideas on race and immigration. No doubt Hanson now feels entitled to make the same complaint against Michael Howard, the Conservative Party leader in the UK. Perhaps Hanson’s ideas migrated via Lynton Crosby, Howard’s political advisor and former Australian Liberal Party director. But if so, the Conservative Party has given Hanson’s ideas on race a distinctive European spin.

Michael Howard used the phrase “one nation” in reference to his beliefs most recently on March 24, in a speech entitled The Britain I Believe In. Under a sign reading “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?” (who comes up with these banalities?), Howard argued, “I believe fair play matters. The same rules should apply whatever your background, whatever your religion, whatever your sex. We are all British. We are one nation.” Howard also took the opportunity to note that he was “intensely grateful” not to have been born in France.

The argument that “the same rules” should apply to everyone certainly has a seductive ring. But when I hear talk of “the same rules”, I always wonder whom the speaker has in his sights. When Pauline Hanson called for “the same rules”, she told us pretty damn quick who she was gunning for: she would fight for everyone, she said, apart from Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders.

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When Michael Howard calls for “the same rules”, he makes sure we know exactly what he is thinking: how to deal with the Gypsy “menace”. Given Howard’s form when he was Home Secretary in John Major’s Government, his talk now of “the same rules” would scare the living daylights out of Gypsies, Travellers and Roma in England. As Home Secretary, Howard got rid of the regulations requiring local councils to provide legal campsites for these groups.

Howard now plans to repeal or amend what he refers to as the “so-called Human Rights Act”. The Act, he says, “has allowed arsonists to escape expulsion from school, killers to win the right to pornography in prison and Travellers to set up illegal encampments in defiance of planning laws”.

Howard’s changes would preclude Gypsies from challenging refusals to give planning consent for campsites on land they have themselves bought. Howard would allow councils to compulsorily acquire land where Travellers have bought land, give councils new powers to move caravans from sites and require police to order Travellers and Gypsies to move on. On March 20, Howard published a newspaper advertisement in the “I believe” series, calling for “fair play” for all. He said that “too many people today seem to think that they don’t have to play by the rules” and are using the Human Rights Act to “get away with doing the wrong thing”.

Howard’s proposed measures against Gypsies have been cheered on by tabloids like The Sun, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express. On March 9, The Sun launched a campaign entitled “Stamp on the Camps”, designed to mobilise its ten million readers who are fed up to the back teeth with Gypsies. As part of the “Sun Campaign to Stop the Gipsy Invasion”, the newspaper asked its readers to “tell us your gipsy stories”.

Readers and columnists duly responded that their lives had been made a misery by Gypsies and Travellers. The Sun was swamped by stories of “animals” descending on “peaceful villages”. Gypsies had even had the temerity to invade the picturesque site in Pangbourne that inspired Wind in the Willows (no doubt the place where Toad, disguised as a washerwoman, is treated by a Gypsy to a glorious meal of hot stew). One reader reported that she was “forced” to pay a higher price for land she wanted in order to stave off a bidding war with Gypsies. And The Sun proceeded to set up a mock Gypsy camp outside the home of the Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott.

The Labour MP Kevin McNamara is the chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Traveller Law Reform. McNamara has accused Michael Howard of inciting racial hatred against Gypsies, claiming that his policies have about them “the whiff of the gas chambers”. Especially in light of Howard’s own Jewish background, McNamara’s remarks have been criticised as drawing an inappropriate analogy between the hounding of Roma from caravan sites and the Nazi extermination of Jews. Trouble is, the correct analogy is to the Nazi extermination of the Roma.

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Apart from the Jews, the Gypsies of Europe were the only other group who were targeted for complete extermination by the Nazi state, the only other group defined for these purposes by the identity of their ancestors. Nazi measures against Gypsies were often executed under the same regulations as applied to the Jews, such as those of the 1935 Nuremberg Law for the Protection of Blood and Honour (although the criteria of Gypsy-ness used by the Reich made it harder for Roma to escape their targeted identity as Gypsies). Himmler’s Decree for the Struggle against the Gypsy Plague  aimed “once and for all to ensure the racial separation of Gypsies from our own people to prevent the mixing of the two races”. Himmler put into effect the segregation of pure from impure (Mischlinge) Gypsies, the latter of whom were to be sterilised, interned and subject to forced labour. In 1942 Himmler ordered German Gypsies to be removed to Auschwitz. Some ended up in a special Gypsy camp in Auschwitz, having the luxury of being used as guineapigs in Mengele’s medical experiments.

It is unclear exactly how many Roma and Sinti were exterminated throughout Europe, estimates range from 250,000 to 1.5 million. In a letter of December 1984 to the US Holocaust Memorial Council protesting the omission of Gypsies from its program, Simon Wiesenthal wrote, “The Gypsies had been murdered in a proportion similar to the Jews, about 80 per cent of them in the area of the countries which were occupied by the Nazis” In some areas however, the proportion was far greater. Of the Gypsies in pre-war Croatia for example, apparently only 1 per cent survived, with many interned in the infamous Jasenovac camp.

There is still little recognition in Europe or the US of what many Roma now call the Porraimós, or great devouring of the people. The memory of the extermination of the Roma has been tainted by the libel that they died not as Roma but as anti-socials or criminals. In 1950 for example, the Württemberg Ministry of the Interior in Germany put out a circular saying that judges hearing Holocaust restitution claims should bear in mind that “Gypsies had been persecuted under the National Socialist regime not for any racial reason, but because of an asocial and criminal record”. In 1956 the West German Supreme Court declared the Sinti Gypsies to be a criminal organisation rather than an ethnic minority. Such rulings have served to exclude almost all Roma and Sinti from compensation for the asocial and criminal record of the Reich.

The Nazi campaign against the Gypsies was continuous with a long history of persecution in Germany and in other parts of Europe. Michael Howard should know this history. His family fled from Nazi persecution. He should also know the history of the country in which he now lives, an England that has exercised punitive powers against Gypsies since at least 1530, when the first law expelling Gypsies from England was introduced, right through to Howard’s own Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994.

The March edition of UK Vogue presents a feature entitled “A gypsy skirt”, in which the merits of wearing such skirts is hotly debated. For Anna-Marie Solowij, gypsy dress “represents freedom through fashion”. It is unlikely that too many Gypsies and Travellers in England subscribe to this view at present, not when politicians and the media are dancing to a Hansonite tune.

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About the Author

Helen Pringle is in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales. Her research has been widely recognised by awards from Princeton University, the Fulbright Foundation, the Australian Federation of University Women, and the Universities of Adelaide, Wollongong and NSW. Her main fields of expertise are human rights, ethics in public life, and political theory.

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