Who are the Roma

Sinti and Roma in Europe

Udo Engbring-Romang

Dr. Udo Engbring-Romang is a historian and political scientist. He lives in Marburg and works as a scientific author as well as in adult education and teacher training. His specialty is research on antiziganism and the persecution of Sinti and Roma during National Socialism, with a focus on regional history in Hesse. He is a freelancer at the Association of German Sinti and Roma State Association Baden-Württemberg and the Association of German Sinti and Roma State Association Hesse and has been a board member of the Society for Antiziganism Research e.V. in Marburg since 1998.

On the past and present of the Sinti and Roma in Europe

Where do Sinti and Roma come from? How long have you been living in Europe? What religion do you have? What kind of language is Romani? Our knowledge of the life of the Sinti and Roma in the past is very limited. There are almost no separate written sources, facts, data and figures that explain clichés and prejudices.

(& copy Paula Bulling)


Our knowledge of life, including details of the history of the Sinti and Roma in the past, is very limited, as there are almost no written sources of our own. Almost all information has been collected and passed on by non-Sinti and Roma for centuries, but some of it has only been copied. Much is in the dark here.

Since the late 18th and early 19th centuries, based on linguistic studies, the origin can be regarded as certain. The ancestors of the Roma and Sinti living in Europe today originally come from India or today's Pakistan. They migrated from the 8th to 10th centuries via Persia, Asia Minor or the Caucasus (Armenia), and finally in the 13th and 14th centuries via Greece and the Balkans to Central, Western and Northern Europe; and from there to America. Possibly there was another migration route via North Africa to Spain. However, the sources are very poor here.

The background was not an urge to migrate - which was subordinate to them for a long time - but they were or were forced to emigrate due to wars, persecution, displacement or economic hardship, which lasted over 500 years in relation to Central Europe.

Arrival in Europe

In Europe, Roma were "new strangers". They differed from the locals in appearance, in their cultural traditions and in their own language, through Romani. They were referred to as "Tartars" (Northern Germany, Scandinavia), "Egyptians" (England, France), "Bohemians" (France) or very often as "pagans". From 14./15. Century they are called "Cingari" or "People of the Pharaoh" or "Athinganoi" (= untouchables), translated into German as "Gypsies". This terminology exists in Hungarian, Romanian, Slavic languages, but also in Romance languages.

The history of the Roma varies greatly from region to region in Europe. In Eastern Europe they were often made serfs or even slaves, in Central Europe, on the other hand, the Sinti, as a subgroup of the Roma, were declared outlaws at the end of the 15th century, who had to join the group of travelers and soon gave them the name: " Gypsies ".


Roma is the general collective term for groups living outside the German-speaking area; in Germany it is mainly used for groups in south-east Europe. For a long time the term "gypsy" was used, which is a foreign name and is perceived by many Sinti and Roma as insulting or degrading.

Sinti (singular, male: Sinto; singular, female: Sintez (z) a) and Roma (singular, male: Rome, also husband or human; singular, female: Romni) are the names of minority groups living throughout Europe. The term Sinti for the Central European groups is possibly derived from the Sindh (Indus) region.

Romanes - the language of the Roma and Sinti

Romani, the language of the Roma and Sinti, is related to Indian Sanskrit. Romani has developed different dialects over the centuries and due to the hiking trails or the respective home regions today, so that one speaks of a "German Romani" or a "Hungarian Romani", for example. Some Roma groups have lost their language over the course of their long history, particularly through marginalization and attempted forced assimilation.

First and foremost, Romany is an oral language. In various regions of Europe there were and are projects to write or standardize Romani, not always with the participation of those affected. There were larger projects in the early Soviet Union, in Poland and also in Germany.


There is a lot of information about the culture of the Roma and Sinti from ethnologists and sociologists who have often contributed to the consolidation of "Gypsy" images or even prepared persecution, be it in the age of Renaissance and humanism (Sebastian Münster), during the time of Enlightenment (Moritz Grellmann) or be it during National Socialism by self-appointed "Gypsy experts". [1]

The Roma and Sinti are therefore very mistrustful of the sciences, to reveal something about themselves and their groups.

Own statements testify above all a great cultural heterogeneity or diversity between Roma groups in Russia, Sinti in Germany or Roma in Spain. What they have in common is the appreciation of the family and relatives beyond the core families, the respect for the elderly, the use of their own language and, last but not least, the awareness of the long discrimination and knowledge of the National Socialist genocide. If culture describes more than traditions and attitudes towards life, Roma and Sinti have appeared in public for centuries, among other things through an independent music that has found its own expression in classical music, for example with Franz Liszt, or in jazz , so with Django Reinhardt, who shaped a new style of jazz, and with his many successors.

The art of storytelling, which has an impact both in the communities and outwardly, is of particular importance. [2] There has been literature for some time, but mostly written in the respective national language and not in Romani, and examples in the visual arts. This shows a more strongly developing self-confidence, not least of the young Sinti and Roma.


Roma and Sinti do not have their own religion. They are members of different religions or denominations, in many cases they are Muslims or Orthodox in southeastern Europe, Catholics and Protestants in Central Europe and also members of free churches all over the world.

For centuries the Roma and Sinti had been called "pagans", although - as the sources say since the 16th century - they had their children baptized among the Christians, because Christians were independent of the respective denomination. As a rule, Roma and Sinti played no role in community life; in many cases they were not noticed at all by the churches and if so, then more as a disturbance factor.

Since the late 19th century there have been increasing attempts to look after the Roma and Sinti as independent groups in the churches and in pastoral care, for example in the pastoral care for Roma and Sinti of the German Bishops' Conference.

The churches and the Sinti and Roma

The story started with a misunderstanding. When Roma and Sinti arrived in Central Europe at the end of the 14th and beginning of the 15th centuries, they were considered pilgrims. Accordingly, kings and princes provided them with letters of passage that allowed them to move from landscape to landscape, relying on support, but always with the background that they would go back again. They stayed, benevolence waned and was replaced by rejection. The Roma and Sinti became "Gypsies", from the point of view of European Christianity "Gentiles". [3]

If they were viewed as pagans, it does not mean that massive efforts were made to bring them to the Christian faith. Martin Luther mentioned "Gypsies" in some places. His suggesting treating Jews "like the Gypsies" shows that he perceived them as a persecuted group, but also shows that he accepted the persecution and threatened similar treatment to Jews as non-Christians. He was followed by the Protestant princes in Central Europe. Around the same time, the Catholics decided at the Council of Trent that "Gypsies" should not be tolerated within the communities. What followed in Central Europe in the centuries up to the 20th century is largely a non-perception by the Christian churches. Sinti and Roma were either ignored by the churches or half-heartedly perceived as the target of missionary attempts.

In National Socialist Germany, the rulers gave the churches and their clergymen the task of scouring old church registers for "Gypsies". The "Gypsy" reports should supplement the genealogical tables of the racial researchers and provide information about the degree of so-called "Gypsy origin". This church information helped to compile the deportations to the extermination camps. There was hardly any resistance from the church. Only a few clergy refused to cooperate. [4]

Even during the deportations they knew about in 1943 to the Auschwitz extermination camp, the German bishops could not decide to attempt to save their Catholic members. [5] Nothing is known of a protest by Protestant clergy - perhaps also because around 90 percent of the Sinti and Roma were Catholics. A confession of guilt in view of the silence during National Socialism was formulated by church representatives both in the Protestant churches and in the Catholic Church only late.


Antigypsyism is the defensive attitude of the majority population against Roma and Sinti. Antigypsyism describes the policy of exclusion and persecution against Sinti and Roma since the 15th century. [6] In antiziganism, members of the Roma and Sinti groups are generalized as "foreign", "nomadic", "idle", "musical" and "free", "primitive", "archaic", "cultureless" or "criminal" and "resistant to modernization" "indicates. It is important that these are images that are transferred to people and groups of people.

Antigypsyism is a basic attitude of many people towards Sinti and Roma that is still accepted in society today. This attitude makes it impossible or difficult to recognize real people, and it leads to massive discrimination against the minority. Antigypsyism is directed against an ethnic minority to whom such behavior is often assumed to be an unchangeable nature. “Current antiziganism”, according to the Berlin historian Wolfgang Wippermann, “is more a product of the past than of the present. [… Prejudices can be compared to illnesses. If you know when and why they arose, you usually also know how to heal and eliminate them. "[7]