Police, Experts and Race: Handling the “Gypsy Plague” in Denmark, Sweden and Latvia, 1930-1945

Field: Historia
Project leader: Madeleine Hurd
Starting year: 2016
Project type: Project

In September 2013, Dagens Nyheter ran the headline “The Police Register Thousands of Romanis”. This, of course, horrified its readers. But how foreign are such lists to the Baltic Sea region? Before the 1950s, state experts and police had often joined in identifying and suggesting measures to deal with the “Gypsy race”. In Scandinavia, enthusiasm for social engineering combined with social prejudices to define “Gypsies” and tattare as a threat. In the new Baltic states, state-making entailed ethno-nationalist efforts to guard the race’s “quality and quantity” against contamination. Throughout the Baltic Sea area, accordingly, states asked experts to help identify sigøjnere, ?ig?ni, and tattare; experts’ international networks, national institutions, and sub-state organizations (including the police) combined, in their turn, to issue recommendations as to what to do with “the Gypsy plague”.

These efforts culminated in the early 1940s, when German genocidal policies also reached their apogee. East of the Baltic, anti-minority sentiments combined with bitter experiences of Soviet occupation to condition responses to German demands for racial cleansing. In Scandinavia, meanwhile, both occupied and unoccupied nations undertook their own investigations into the “Gypsy problem”. Interest in “Gypsies” and tattare peaked on both sides of the Baltic in the early 1940s. How can we understand this simultaneous concern?

In this project, we will look at the persecution of “Gypsies” and tattare as a matter of expert knowledge-production. One sub-project will examine Baltic-region international eugenicist and criminologist networks, with attention to the 1940s. Did international discourses change; how were they reflected in Baltic region countries? The other three sub-projects are on actions concerning Gypsy in Latvia, Denmark and Sweden. There, we are interested in national experts’ relation to both international Baltic networks, and to the local adjuncts necessary to their work: schools, hospitals, social services, and, above all, the police. Without these local instances, experts would not have been able to find (or act against) the populations they often defined as a separate “race”. We write, thus, of three-tiered knowledge production: international, national, and local. This Foucauldian approach to the production of “Gypsies”, combined with our stringently comparative focus, will allow new understanding of Baltic-region antiziganism during a time of drastic geopolitical change.

Final report - Madeleine Hurd - Police, Experts and Race: Handling the ”Gypsy Plague” in Denmark, Sweden and Latvia, 1930-1945