Skip to content
Review October 2023

Interwar Czechoslovakia’s “Gypsy question”

Review by Celia Donert
Pavel Baloun, 2022
ISBN 9788076490413
408 Pages
Published by: Scriptorium
Postcard from 1925 entitled "Patrol in a Gypsy camp"

In this important, meticulously researched book, Pavel Baloun makes a major contribution to the history of Roma in interwar Czechoslovakia, carefully demonstrating, based on rich archival evidence, how the criminalization of “Gypsies” in the liberal democratic Czechoslovak Republic created the conditions for the genocidal persecution of Roma and Sinti in the Nazi Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia during the Second World War. The Czechoslovak state redefined “Gypsies” as racialised, second-class citizens, whose presumed criminality justified their differential treatment within the constitutional legal order. As the historian Jennifer Illuzzi has shown, liberal states such as nineteenth-century Italy and imperial Germany typically pushed Gypsies into a “state of exception” outside the law.1 Ultimately, Baloun argues, the criminalization of Roma in the first Czechoslovak Republic should not be seen as fundamentally “illiberal”, but rather as a “characteristic manifestation of interwar liberalism” (p. 355), caught between universal liberal principles such as equality before the law on the one hand and a commitment to a collective political subject – the nation – on the other.

“Metla našeho venkova!” begins in the last decades of the Habsburg Empire, when the imperial Austrian authorities promulgated a new anti-vagrancy law following the economic crisis precipitated by the 1873 Vienna stock exchange crash. Industrialisation, mass migration, and liberal reforms that increased the powers of the centralised state all led to conflicts at the municipal level over where individuals had the right of domicile (domovské právo), which in turn provided the basis for citizenship. At the same time, increasingly racialised perceptions of Roma towards the turn of the century led to the creation of the “Gypsy” as a specific legal and administrative category based on supposedly immutable characteristics. As Tara Zahra has shown, the Habsburg authorities were also influenced by colonial practices of internment, and during the First World War, special “Gypsy camps” were set up in border areas, for example in the small Lower Austrian town of Hainburg an der Donau.2 These “fantasies of internment”, Baloun suggests, continued to influence policies towards Roma in the democratic Czechoslovak Republic, as well as in the Nazi Protectorate.

By 1939, when a Nazi Protectorate was established in Bohemia and Moravia, the Czechoslovak police was equipped with registers of “Gypsies” that enabled gendarmes to locate, imprison, and deport Roma and Sinti with ease.

After the collapse of the empire, Czechoslovak officials saw the “Gypsy Question” (cikánská otázka) as a space for demonstrating the advanced civilizational and cultural values of the new state. Prevention and assimilation were to triumph over the crude repression of the old monarchy. In 1927, Czechoslovakia adopted a law on “nomadic Gypsies and persons living like Gypsies” that created identification cards and an entire bureaucratic and police apparatus for monitoring, prosecuting, and interning such people. The following year, Roma in the western Slovak town of Pobedim were brutally attacked in a violent pogrom. Another group of Roma were accused of cannibalism in a high-profile court case in the eastern Slovak town of Košice. In the Carpathian city of Uzhhorod (today in western Ukraine) a special “Gypsy school” was set up to “re-educate” Romani children as good citizens. By 1939, when a Nazi Protectorate was established in Bohemia and Moravia, the Czechoslovak police was equipped with registers of “Gypsies” that enabled gendarmes to locate, imprison, and deport Roma and Sinti with ease. Only a few Roma and Sinti survived the genocide in the Protectorate. 

One of the great strengths of Baloun’s book is the exceptionally wide range of sources that he uses to reconstruct this complex history of criminalization, identification, surveillance and internment. He has drawn on the archives of the ministries of social welfare, education, internal affairs and foreign affairs in Prague, Bratislava and Uzhhorod, as well as other central institutions such as the Office of the President, and all four provincial state administrations. These are complemented by research in district archives for particular case studies, such as the 1928 anti-Roma pogrom in the western Slovak town of Pobedim or the “Gypsy school” in Uzhhorod, or local case studies of Písek, Nové Mesto nad Váhom in western Slovakia, and Košice. Baloun also uses the archives of regional courts in Košice, Levoča, Trenčín and Uherské Hradiště. Finally, he draws on testimonies and memoirs written by Roma and Sinti, as well as another neglected source: the publications of professional associations of fairground operators and travelling salesmen. This allows Baloun to chart how the popular perceptions about Gypsies as “the scourge of our countryside” were transformed through the application of “scientific” theories of race, criminality, and education. 

His argument that Czechoslovakia’s approach to the so-called “Gypsy Question” is best seen not as an illiberal measure, but as a manifestation of the tensions at the heart of the liberal democratic national state, is compelling.

This is far from a one-dimensional history of state practices, however, and Baloun also delves into local archives to discover how Roma navigated, avoided, and resisted these attempts to discipline and criminalize them. Through the story of the Růžička family of Čížová, for example, we learn how the rules around rights of domicile impacted those inhabitants of interwar Czechoslovakia who were labelled as “Gypsies” and thus prohibited from settling in a locality (p. 195). To prove that they were not “nomadic Gypsies” who should be expelled from the municipality, members of the Růžičká family had to negotiate with a bewildering number of authorities: from the municipality (in charge of poor relief) to the gendarmerie and the district and provincial councils. Baloun draws on letters and petitions from Vincenie Růžičková to show how a Romani woman defended herself against criminal charges of theft in the mid-1930s on the grounds of material need – desperation to feed her four hungry children – against preconceptions about Gypsies as “habitual” criminals (p. 199). Baloun’s reconstruction of cases like this – along with his careful analysis of the Pobedim pogrom and the “Gypsy school” in Uzhhorod – are among the most rewarding sections of the book.

“Metla našeho venkova!” is also essential reading for anyone wishing to understand broader histories of race, citizenship, and liberal democracy in interwar Czechoslovakia and beyond. One of the starting points for Baloun’s investigation is an awareness of the “inadequacy of contemporary categories and simplistic notions of racism” (p. 10) in Czechia today. But Baloun does not project present-day notions of race back onto the past. Rather, he aims to analyse the complexity of the so-called “Gypsy Question” (cikánská otázka) and tease out the ambivalent relationship between this discursive formation and the polyvalent category of race, in order to rethink the place of the interwar Czechoslovak Republic within both European modernity and the global history of colonialism. He draws judiciously on theories of biopolitics, moral panics, and Orientalism in order to make sense of his rich archival research. His argument that Czechoslovakia’s approach to the so-called “Gypsy Question” – illustrated by the 1927 law on nomadic Gypsies – is best seen not as an illiberal measure, but as a manifestation of the tensions at the heart of the liberal democratic national state, is compelling. For this reason, Baloun’s research has implications for our understanding of Romani history far beyond the period of the First Republic, while also showing that the institutionalised discrimination against Roma which persists today in education, welfare and policing has roots not only in the Nazi or socialist dictatorships, but in the era of building a modern, democratic, liberal Czechoslovak state.

Celia Donert is Professor of Contemporary European History at the University of Cambridge. She is the author of The Rights of the Roma: The Struggle for Citizenship in Postwar Czechoslovakia (Cambridge University Press, 2017) and editor of several collected volumes, including The Legacies of the Romani Genocide in Europe since 1945 (Routledge, 2021).


1 Illuzzi, Jennifer. Gypsies in Germany and Italy, 1861-1914: Lives Outside the Law. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

2 Zahra, Tara. ‘“Condemned to Rootlessness and Unable to Budge”: Roma, Migration Panics, and Internment in the Habsburg Empire’. The American Historical Review 122, no. 3 (1 June 2017): 702–26.