Ethnic cleansing in Scandinavia
From Sven Johansen, Monitor

As the Third Reich went under in a Götterdämmerung of blood and fire, racism and eugenics were to remain official policies of the Scandinavian governments for the next three decades. Racism was not born with Hitler's Germany, and certainly did not die with it. And the Norwegian group that suffered most from the state's programme for "racial hygiene" was the Roma minority.

Escaping from the Indian subcontinent about 1,000 years ago, Roma appeared in western and northern Europe at the beginning of the 16th century. Roma* were first observed in Sweden in 1512; they had probably migrated from Scotland.

As in other European countries the local population wondered where these people had come from. Popular superstition and prejudices soon made the travelling people victims of persecution.

In 1536 King Christian III of Denmark-Norway announced an edict that prohibited any Roma access to the kingdoms and required any Roma residing in the kingdoms to leave within three months. A later amendment to this law directed that any leader of a Roma band found within the frontiers of the kingdoms should be executed. In 1589 a new edict commanded the capture or killing of Roma.

From 1643 Roma were hunted in Denmark-Norway. In Norway this hunting, with various degrees of intensity, lasted until the 1920s.

In the 18th century the state started to build chastisement houses, where Roma and others who did not fit into society were confined.

In 1893 the Norwegian Church Council estimated the number of Roma in Norway at 4,000. From 1896 a law allowed the state to remove children from their parents and keep them in state custody until they were 21 years old.

In 1897 the Reverend Jacob Valnum founded the Association to Counteract Vagabondism. Three years later the first children's home was opened. From then on Romani children were taken away from their parents and placed in these homes. The Association to Counteract Vagabondism was transformed into the Vagabond Mission, a Christian organisation, which from 1907 was given responsibility for the settlement of Roma.

The "Mission", as it is still remembered among old travellers, went on to build two work camps for travellers. The goal was to assimilate the travellers into Norway's agricultural society.

The first half of the 20th century was a golden era for racial biology. In Oslo Dr Jon Alfred Hansen Mjøen built his race biology laboratory and wrote several books and articles on the subject. According to Dr Mjøen, and several others, travellers were inferior and defective human beings who should be interned and if possible sterilised.

More important than Dr Mjøen was the renowned psychiatrist Johan Scharffenberg. A republican when Norway gained independence from Sweden in 1905, Dr Scharffenberg belonged to Norway's radical political tradition. Others on the Scandinavian left agreed with him, including Alva Myrdal, who later won the Nobel peace price.

During the early 1930s Dr Scharffenberg wrote several articles demanding legislation to permit the forced sterilisation of "the inferior". While working as a prison doctor, Scharffenberg measured the skulls of inmates. His conclusions were clear: Roma belonged to an inferior race and should be interned or prevented from having children in order to protect the Norwegian people from racial degeneration.

In 1932 the government's "Vagabond Commission" concluded its work. It had tested the IQs of Romani children at the Mission's children's homes and found that their average IQ was 78. According to the commission this was the same as among "Negroes, Indians and Mexicans". The commission therefore recommended a law "that gives access to the unfertilisation of low and inferior individuals".

In 1934 the law passed through parliament, with one vote against. Sterilisation became permissible on both social and eugenic indication. Social indication was defined as "persons who could not nourish themselves or their offspring through their own labour". Eugenic indication was defined as "insanity or major physical defect that could be transferred to the offspring".

From the mid 1930s state conducted what today is called ethnic cleansing. Using, not soldiers armed with guns, but doctors with knives and priests running children's homes, the state tried to annihilate the Roma through an attack on their fertility. The Vagabond Mission cosmetically changed its name into the Norwegian Mission among the Homeless, a name it continued to use until it was finally closed down in 1986.

Norway, and the rest of Scandinavia, were not the only places where racist ideas were transformed into practical politics. From 1911 to 1930 similar laws were passed in 33 states in the USA. From 1911 to 1950, 60,000 people were sterilised on eugenic grounds in the USA.

Hitler's Germany went one step further in launching its euthanasia programme. While German bishops were protesting, many European and American psychiatrists were applauding.

The German occupation brought no noticeable change in Norwegian policy towards the Roma. It is known that the Mission offered the authorities its traveller archives. Quisling's Minister of Police, Jonas Lie, urged that Roma should be given the same treatment as the Jews, but the war ended before this was implemented.

When the war ended, and the horrors of the Holocaust were revealed to the public, the whole world said "never again". But for Roma in Norway, it was about to become worse.

Postwar Norwegian society was blooming with optimism. The ruling Labour Party was building a welfare state and wanted to change society and its inhabitants. Unluckily for the Roma they did not fit into this project and the state reinforced its efforts to assimilate them. From 1934 until the mid-1970s an unknown number of people were sterilised or even forcibly castrated.

The violations against the travellers committed by the state did not stop at the sterilisation campaign. Those who opposed the assimilation process could risk being victims of one of the newer methods of modern psychiatry: lobotomy.

The first lobotomy in Norway was conducted in 1941. The patient died. From 1941 to 1950, 24 per cent of lobotomy victims at one hospital in Oslo died. Many were buried in a mass grave, marked with a stone with no names.

One lobotomist, travelling from hospital to hospital, boasted that he could conduct 14 lobotomies before lunch and 350 in a year. Other methods, such as overdoses with insulin or cardiazol, which caused terrible spasms, were also used to calm or "cure" those who ended up within the walls of Norwegian mental institutions.

At the same time special laws targeting travellers were passed through parliament in order to force them into settled lives. In 1953 travellers were forbidden from owning horses.

While their parents suffered the horrors of surgery and police persecution, the children were literally abducted from their families and placed in the children's homes run by the Mission. Several of these children were abused physically and sexually.

In the 1970s the state's policy towards travellers came under attack. In 1980 a government report evaluated all the state's measures towards the Roma. In 1986 the last work camp for travellers, Svanviken, was closed down, and in 1988 all special legislation concerning travellers was removed from the Statute books.

In 1998 the Romani people in Norway were given the status of a national minority. Yet they are still experiencing racism and discrimination. Travellers are commonly denied entrance to campsites and the police apprehend those who place their caravans outside campsites.

Social democratic Norway did not have much room for diversity and travellers suffered as a result. The attempt to annihilate the Roma of Norway has never been publicly admitted by the church or by the state. A very small number of victims of lobotomy and sterilisation have been awarded compensation.

While some observers do not understand the growth of the populist Progress Party, part of the explanation could be the country's racist history and Norwegian institutions' lack of will to denounce it.

*There are at least three different groups of Roma in Norway. The biggest is the so called tatere or, as they prefer to call themselves, travellers.


This article is written as Monitors contribution to a Searchlight special feature on Roma. The rest of this Searchlight special can be found at searchlights website, at the following adress:

For more information on Roma, we reccomend a visit to The Patrin, a website that provides excellent information on Romani culture and history, or the European Roma Right Centre, who monitors the human rights situation for roma.


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