The Czech deputy prime minister Andrej Babiš has caused a storm of outrage after making appalling Holocaust denial remarks. He said:
There were times when all Roma worked. What these morons write in newspapers, that Lety was a concentration camp, is a lie, it was a work camp. Whoever did not work, whoosh and he was there.
Babiš, who is also the country’s finance minister, is the second wealthiest man in the Czech Republic, owner of agriculture, food and chemical company Agrofert and media publishing firm MAFRA. He is the founder and leader of the populist party ANO 2011, a junior partner in the coalition government led by the Czech Social Democartic Party.
Babiš made this speech in the northern Czech town of Varnsdorf. This was no coincidence, in 2011 Varnsdorf was the centre of anti Roma riots organised by the Nazi Workers’ Party of Social Justice (DSSS).
Babiš was not only engaging in anti-Roma racism, he was denying the Porajmos – the term Roma people use for the Holocaust, in which around 500,000 Roma people were murdered.
Lety was a concentration camp that held Roma prisoners. Built in 1939 by the Czechoslovakian government, it was a labour camp for “criminals”. In 1942 the Nazis turned Lety into a Roma concentration camp – a second camp was built in Hodonín. Over 1,300 Roma were interned at Lety, more than 300 died there in inhumane conditions and 500 were transported to Auschwitz.
During the course of the war, a total of 4,831 Roma from Czechoslovakia were sent to Auschwitz. Of those, few survived. Estimates vary, but well over 4,000 Roma died there. It is estimated that in total, 90% of the Czech Roma population was murdered by the Nazis.
Babiš’s comments provoked a wave of indignation among Czech politicians. Social democrat prime minister Bohuslav Sobotka condemned Babiš, saying:
There is a very thin line between populism and Nazism. I am afraid the finance minister has now crossed it by these comments.
Minister for social affairs Michaela Marksova said Babiš should visit the memorial at the Lety camp.
Babiš hastily apologised for his comments, saying he had not meant to deny the Holocaust and had been quoted out of context.
Last week he visited Lety, there he spoke to the press. There was no self-reflection and no apology. Instead at the site of the mass burial ground where Roma victims of the Porajmos are interred, he said:
I am disgusted by the present-day living conditions I have seen among Romani people… bedbugs on the walls of their homes, filth.
He also called Roma parents “parasites on their own children”. Babiš’s latest vile racist comments have been virtually ignored by politicians and the media.
But the marginalisation of the Porajmos is nothing new.
Ever since the end of the Second World War, the existence of concentration camps holding Roma people in the Czech Republic was practically ignored outside the Roma community. During the 1970s, the state gave permission for a pig farm to be constructed on the site of the Lety camp while a tourist hotel has been built on the site of the Hodonín camp. Contempt for the Roma knows no bounds.
But for Babiš, this anti-Roma racism can be used to serve a purpose.
The Czech parliamentary elections will take place in October 2017 and ANO 2011 is currently leading in the opinion polls. Babiš believes his time has come. He thinks he is set to become the next prime minister, and to get there he is prepared to trample on the graves of thousands of Roma.