”As we usually treat tattare”: Collective violence against families labelled as ”tattare” or ”zigenare”, 1872–1955
Roma and Travellers (”resande”) have been present in Sweden for centuries. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, rural municipalities (kommuner) often adopted policies aimed to expel them from or to prevent them from entering the municipality. This is well established by previous research. What is less known is that another kind of territorial exclusion existed as well: that of collective violence against Roma and Travellers – or against ”zigenare” (”gypsies”) and ”tattare”, as they were pejoratively called. In these cases, groups of local men, often armed, came together to use physical force to drive off families. In this essay, 17 such cases in the period 1872–1955 are analysed.
The results show that collective violence occurred throughout the whole period, mainly in southern Sweden. Up until the first years of the 20th century, the perpetrators were often groups of farmers or farmhands. Some incidents were preceded by rumours claiming that a single Roma or Traveller had committed a crime. These rumours, true or false, were then used to mobilize collective action against whole families. In two cases, local political decisions were essential to the mobilization: in one incident, the municipality even paid the fines for a farmer who was sentenced for acting violently. Some patterns in the violence directed against Roma and Travellers occur throughout the period, especially the method to subject houses owned by families labelled as ”tattare” to systematic destruction. This method was used in the 1870’s as well as in the 1940’s.
With some exceptions the police often reacted late when collective violence was aimed at families labelled as ”tattare” or ”zigenare”, or treated the perpetrators in a lenient way, thereby more or less legitimizing the violence. To an even greater degree, this can be said of the local newspapers. The papers typically depicted the attacked families as dangerous people who had only themselves to blame. Some of the most striking examples of newspapers legitimizing collective violence are as recent as from the 1940’s.
The findings of this essay stress the importance of analysing not only the aims and means of participants in collective action, but also of analysing external agents such as politicians, the police and the press. These agents do not necessarily take active part in the physical violence, but play important roles in mobilizing, legitimizing and escalating racist, collective action – or, just as important, in delegitimizing and de-escalating it.