The experiences by minority ethnic and national groups
in Europe after World War II, and contributing factors.



Peter Engholm

Monash University, 1997





This paper examines the experiences of ethnic and national minority groups in Europe after World War II and factors that have determined their treatment. The paper also looks at conflicts that are of certain interest today and what factors that has determined their treatment.


Europe, minorities, European Union, Basques, Ethnic Germans, Romani, Macedonians




This paper examines the experiences of ethnic and national minority groups in Europe after World War II and factors that have determined their treatment. As many different minority groups are present in Europe today, each with their own experiences, it is not possible to cover all aspects in order to obtain a complete view of their treatment. Thus, a general view over the issue is presented with more detailed information about one national minority group: the German speaking people in East Europe, and one ethnic minority group: the Romani people (Gypsies). The paper also looks at conflicts that are of certain interest today and what factors that has determined their treatment, such as the Basque struggle in Spain and the relationship between the Macedonian minority in Greece and the Greek nation.

The minority group

It is difficult to determine what groups are to be regarded as minorities as most countries in Europe today offer a mix of different nationalities and cultures among their populations. Some minority groups fight for a geographical homeland while other only want to be recognized as indigenous groups to be able to practice their ways of living without interference. Some groups have been present since centuries ago, while other have developed throughout time due to, for example, the changing of nation borders as was the case after World War II. A general description of a minority ethnic and national group may be a group of people sharing the same culture, language, religion and origin, living in one or more countries where the majority population does not identify itself with this group. Thus, Hungarians living in Slovakia and Germans living in the Czech Republic are examples of national minority groups while the Jews, Romani people and Basques are examples of ethnic minority groups.

Europe after World War II

World War II left Europe in confusion in many ways. Lots of people had to leave their homelands and settle down in remote and foreign areas and the issue about minority rights and treatment could not be escaped. About 40 major international legal agreements produced in the post-war era, such as the Genocide Convention in 1948 and the Racial Discrimination Convention of 1965, spelled out the rights of minority and national groups to be protected against unequal and discriminatory treatment. But none of these had an intention to protect the minorities against cultural decay, disintegration or assimilation. This was totally absent in the post-war period.[1] But did these agreements have a positive effect on how the various minority groups were treated?

Ethnic Germans

As mentioned, the experiences by minority groups differed after World War II. The immediate aftermath saw the expelling of Germans as well as confiscating their property and denying them citizenship in countries such as Poland, Romania, Yugoslavia, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. The reason was to punish those who had collaborated with the Nazis during the war, but this affected innocent Germans as well.[2] They were treated as second-class citizens for many years to come in most of these countries and a feeling of entrapment later began to develop among them due to a strong pressure to assimilate. The only exception is Hungary, where the remaining German minority after the initial deportation had equal rights of citizenship restored to them. Things began to brighten during the 1970’s due to political factors, which took form of an emigration to West Germany. Today, not many Germans are left in these countries, but those who are have a much stronger relationship with the majority population than anytime before.[3] This is an example of how a minority group has been able to improve their status and lose the connection to the Nazis, which must be seen as a major factor for how they have been treated in Eastern Europe since World War II.

The Romani people

Among all minority groups in Europe, the Romani people, or Gypsies as they more commonly are known as, have probably had the most total negative experience in Europe before, during and after World War. There are today more than 6 million Romanis scattered all over the European continent, and their number is increasing rapidly due to an exceptionally high birth rate.[4] Evidence suggests that they originally came from India, reaching Europe by ca. 1250 A.D. Anti-Gypsyism became established from the very time of their arrival and they have had few untroubled periods during these centuries, mainly because of their lack of a homeland and their different language and culture.[5]

As with the Jews, the Romani people were also subjects of the Nazi persecution during World War II. During the years following it, they were numb - political activity was minimal, and they were reluctant to draw attention to their ethnicity through group efforts. The reasons for that might have been the effects of the war and the continuing of pre-war anti-Gypsy legislation throughout the European countries. But in 1959 the Romani people began to organize, which in 1971 led to the first World Romani Congress near London. At this congress, the use of ethnic labels for the Romani people such as Gypsy and Zigeuner was condemned, and the organization itself changed name to the International Rom Committee.[6] Thus, an awakening of national consciousness and the need for unity of action has been seen among the Romani people in recent years. The new Romani movement also includes two kinds of pressure groups founded to combat discrimination and hasten the pace of development.[7]

Although the Romani people have come to an understanding that they have to get their demands and issues through via group efforts, not much has been done for them by the different Governments during the years since World War II. Racial tensions still exist in Europe, and many people see the Romanis as ‘wandering Gypsies’ associated with stealing and practicing magic. Following the war, some states in Western Europe tried to resolve their problems with the Romani people by deporting those who lacked citizenship, and then concentrating on harassing their Romani citizens in the belief that they would be forced to settle down into new urban slums. Not until 1968, this received an international airing when the Council of Europe investigated the situation and rejected the beliefs of the Romani people as a wandering people trying to benefit on the society. Instead, the Romanis were mentioned as strongly cultural, much valuing the family and mostly changing locations when they were forced to or for economical reasons.[8]

Since 1981, several attacks on the Romanis have occurred in Poland, for example in Konin where a number of caravans were set on fire wounding men, women and children. In one instance in Hungary, a head teacher refused to admit Romani children because, she claimed, they were dirty and would bring disease to the other children. In 1976 a Czech newspaper announced the plan by the government for compulsory sterilization of Romani
people as an act of ‘socialistic humanity’, and in 1985 a Romani family in Sweden were attacked with stones and a fire-bomb while the local police allegedly watched from a patrol car without intervening.[9]  These are only a few examples of the treatment of the Romani people since World War II.

Clearly, much of the negative experiences the Romani people have had after World War II are results of people’s fear and uncertainty of the ‘unknown’. There are no other factors that can be said have determined the treatment of the Romanis but the lack of human knowledge, insight and understanding. Thus, it is easier to see a more promising future for the Romani people as the more the truth about them is revealed, the more understanding and recognition as a people they will get.

The Basque struggle

On big factor for the conflict between the Basques and the local population in Spain, has been the attempt by the Spanish nation to transform the country into a modernized and unified nation-state with a single language and homogeneous political culture during the last two decades. Thus, the elite has suppressed the several distinctive ethnic groups such as the Basques, especially during the reign of General Franco. This conflict has shown a violent development, culminated in several killings and attacks.[10]  Although many Basques are pleased with the autonomy they have gained since General Franco’s death and want peace, political Basque organizations as the ETA still demand more from the Spanish Government and continues to clash with it.[11]  This is an example of how a minority group is not united in its aims and goals for the future. It is also an example of how some people see terrorism and violence as a solution to problems.

Macedonians in Greece

In northern Greece, an ethnic Macedonian minority with its own language and culture exists and experiences problems with the Greek government. For example, the Government denies their ethnic identity and Macedonian language and recently refused to permit the performance of Macedonian songs and dances. Macedonians that fled Greece after the Greek Civil War in 1949 also are denied permission to regain their citizenship, to resettle and even visit their families in northern Greece.[12]  This attitude towards the Macedonian minority by the Government stems from its official position that the Greek State is ethnically homogeneous with the presence of a Muslim minority as the only exception. But it is hard to understand why it can accept the Muslims but deny the existence of a Macedonian minority. One Greek official said in 1993 that “there is no minority here; everyone in the Macedonian region is Greek”. [13]  This violates international human rights agreements as minority identity is a matter to be determined by an individual and not by the state.[14]


It is clear that many minority groups feel they have been treated more or less bad since World War II. Some groups, such as the Romani people and the Macedonians in Greece, struggle for recognition and for having the same rights as the local population. Other groups, such as the Basques, try to take matters in their own hands using violence and strong pressure on the governments. The last decades have seen a development towards organization within many of these minority groups to be able to get their means through. It is difficult to determine any main factors that have been crucial to their treatment since the war, but maybe much stems from a general wish among the European countries to build up a strong, homogeneous state as Greece and Spain are two examples of. A minority group can be seen as a threat to a country’s cultural, economical and national development, and thus a reluctance to solve minority problems is understandable (but not defensible). But minority and national groups in Europe have shown that they are not willing to give up their demands and aims, and disputes and clashes will continue to evolve alongside discussions and, hopefully, improved relationships.


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Books and reports:

Clark, R. P., ‘Spain and the Basques’ in Shiels, F. L., Ethnic Separatism and World Politics, (Lanham, 1984)

Denying ethnic identity: The Macedonians of Greece, (Human Rights Watch, New York, 1994)

Hancock, I., ‘The East European Roots of Romany Nationalism’ in Crowe, D. and Kolsti, J., The Gypsies of Eastern Europe, (New York, 1991)

King, R. R., ‘Eastern Europe’ in Wirsing, R. G., Protection of Ethnic Minorities, (New York, 1982)

Muhs, R., ‘Ethnic Germans in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary’ in Minority Rights Group and TWEEC, Minorities in Central and Eastern Europe, (London, 1993)

Puxon, G., Roma: Europe’s Gypsies, (London, 1987)

Wirsing, R. G., Protection of Ethnic Minorities, (New York, 1982)



‘Basque bind’ in The Economist, February 22nd, 1997, p.61



[1] R. G. Wirsing, Protection of Ethnic Minorities, (New York, 1982), p.9

[2] R. R. King, ‘Eastern Europe’ in R. G. Wirsing, Protection of Ethnic Minorities, (New York, 1982), p.83

[3] R. Muhs, ‘Ethnic Germans in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary’ in Minority Rights Group and TWEEC, Minorities in Central and Eastern Europe, (London, 1993), pp.37-39

[4] G. Puxon, Roma: Europe’s Gypsies, (London, 1987), p.4

[5] I. Hancock, ‘The East European Roots of Romany Nationalism’ in D. Crowe and J. Kolsti, The Gypsies of Eastern Europe, (New York, 1991), pp.134-136

[6] Ibid., pp.143-145

[7] Puxon, Roma: Europe’s Gypsies, p.3

[8] Ibid., p.4

[9] Puxon, Roma: Europe’s Gypsies, pp.7-10

[10] R. P. Clark, ‘Spain and the Basques’ in F. L. Shiels, Ethnic Separatism and World Politics, (Lanham, 1984), p.71

[11] ‘Basque bind’ in The Economist, February 22nd, 1997, p.61

[12] The Macedonians of Greece, (Human Rights Watch, New York, 1994), pp.2-3

[13] Ibid., pp.11-12

[14] Ibid., p.18