Europe Invents the Gypsies: The Dark Side of Modernity

Bogdal_468wKlaus-Michael Bogdal in Eurozine:

Is Europe anything more than the remnants of a grand political delusion? Is there a cultural bond that unites the nations and peoples of this fragmented continent? From Max Weber to Norbert Elias, the greats of European intellectual history have described and re-described Europe as the birthplace of modernity; not, like the other continents, as the “heart of darkness”, but as the energetic centre of civilizing progress. Their attention has focused on the “grand narratives”: industrialization and economic productivity, state and nation building, science and art. Yet might not an examination from the other side – through an investigation of the marginal – provide essential insights into Europe's development over the longue dureé? Might not the history of the Roma, a group marginalized like none other, reveal a less auspicious aspect of Europe's grand narrative of modernity?

The tendency of existing research to treat the Roma as having first entered European political history with the Nazi genocide disregards a unique six-hundred-year history. It is indeed the case that the Roma, who over long periods of time lived nomadically and possessed no written culture of their own, have left almost no historical accounts of themselves. The heritage and documents therefore do not permit a history of the Roma comparable to that, for example, of the persecuted and expelled French Huguenots. What is available to us, however, is evidence – in the form of literature and art – of the way in which the settled, feudally organized European population experienced a way of life that it perceived as threatening. Despite consisting solely of stories and images that are defensive “distortions”, this evidence provides a far from unfavourable basis for an examination of the six-hundred-year history of the European Roma, insofar as it is a history of cultural appropriation characterized by segregation. We encounter the traces of the reality experienced by the Roma almost exclusively through depictions by outsiders, and must use these to imagine those parts considered impossible to represent. The extraneous cultural depictions of the Roma – variously referred to as gypsies, zigeuner, tatern, cigány, çingeneler, and so on – have created heterogeneous units of “erased” identity and cultural attributes. The “invention” of the Gypsy is the underside of the European cultural subject's invention of itself as the agent of civilising progress in the world.

The Roma occupied a unique position from the outset. They belonged to those who were not there from the beginning, who were not expected and who therefore had to disappear again. They were seen as sinister because they “lurked everywhere” and “came and went” according to inscrutable rules. This gave rise to a uniform moment of perception and encounter: the ambivalence of contempt and fascination. A repository of stereotypes, images, motifs, behavioural patterns and legends developed early on, at the transition from the Middle Ages to the modern period. Repeatedly, exterminatory fantasies turned into exterminatory practices.

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