Robert Ritter

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Ritter (far right) in 1936, talking to a Romani woman

Robert Ritter (14 May 1901 – 15 April 1951) was a "racial scientist" doctor of psychology and medicine, with a background in child psychiatry and the biology of criminality. In Berlin in 1936, Ritter was appointed head of the Racial Hygiene and Demographic Biology Research Unit of Nazi Germany's Criminal Police, to establish the genealogical histories of the German "Gypsies", both Roma and Sinti. His work in classifying these populations of Germany aided the Nazi government in the systematic persecution of them, toward a goal of "racial purity".

Early life[edit]

Ritter was born in 1901 in Aachen, Germany. He attended an exclusive secondary school, as well as a Prussian military academy. After a stint in the German Freikorps, Ritter began his formal education studying at various universities.

Robert Ritter in 1936

In 1927, Ritter received his doctorate in educational psychology at the University of Munich. Post-doctorate, Ritter continued his education and received a medical degree from Heidelberg University in 1930, and was medically licensed the same year. In 1934, two years before being appointed as head of the German police's racial hygiene research unit, Ritter received his specialist certification in child psychology, studying the inheritability of criminality. He completed part of his residence in the University of Tübingen, where he would later be hired as a professor again, post-WWII.

Ritter and the Sterilization Law of 1933[edit]

Nazi seizure of power in 1933 allowed the party to transform their ideology of racial purity into policy. The Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring was put into effect New Year’s Day, 1934, and included compulsory sterilization of individuals who, according to medical knowledge, were likely to pass on to their offspring a serious physical or mental disorder. Besides a diagnosed medical disorder, citizens would also be sterilized for being classified as asocial. An asocial diagnosis was often associated with having “moral” or “disguised mental retardation”, despite showing no deficit in intelligence. Of the two terms, Ritter was responsible for the invention "disguised mental retardation" in which, according to Ritter, individuals, especially children, would display a certain independence and cunning and were quick talkers. The alleged disorder supposedly carried a mask of cleverness, which the pseudo-scientific medical specialists characterized as disguised mental retardation: if they couldn't actually observe and demonstrate a mental problem, they simply insisted it was present anyway, and that evidence of its opposite was some kind of trick. For the Roma and Sinti population, this meant that with the aid of Ritter, an estimated five hundred Roma and Sinti were sterilized from 1933 to 1939.

Methods of research[edit]

The task of the Rassenhygienische und Bevolkerungsbiologische Forschungsstelle (English: Racial Hygiene and Demographic Biology Research Unit), a division of the Kriminalpolizei (Criminal Police), was to identify and categorize all Roma and Sinti people in Germany according to racial standards. Ritter, heading this organization, had a team of other racial scientists including Eva Justin, Adolf Wurth, Sophie Ehrhardt, and Ruth Kellermann.

Robert Ritter (right) taking blood from a woman. (1936)

By 1937, the Research Unit was working with the Central Office of Reich Security, and the Reich Ministry of Interior, to travel the country in units to register "full-blooded" and "mixed-race" Roma or Sinti. The units referenced church records which contained centuries of baptisms, marriages, and deaths to track individuals' genealogies. As some of his assistants spoke Romani, Roma individuals who could not provide paper proof of their racial identity were interrogated under threat of being incarcerated. Along with tracking genealogies, the units photographed their subjects, took blood samples, and made anthropometric measurements, as data for the attempt to prove that the Roma and Sinti populations were genetically pre-disposed to crime as a "lesser race".

Ritter's racial hypotheses[edit]

Ritter desired to classify the Roma and Sinti populations for legislative precedent. In Germany, he considered there to be three groups: Jenische, part-Gypsies, and pure Gypsies.

  • Jenische referred to "white gypsies", the mobile, marginalized poor of Central Europe, a population not thought to have non-European origins.
  • Pure Gypsies meant the itinerant people of a non-European race. While originally from India and with a language related to Sanskrit, and thus possessing true Aryan origins, Ritter rejected this argument for all but approximately ten percent of the Roma and Sinti population.
  • Part-Gypsies were classified by Ritter as persons who had one or two Gypsies among their grandparents. Further, a person was classed as part-Gypsy if two or more of his grandparents are part-Gypsy. Often it meant mixed-race individuals of Gypsy plus Jenische lineage.

Ritter felt the racially pure gypsies of Germany were not as large a threat to the German population as those of mixed-race identity. He argued that the best way to deal with them was to allow them to live a traditional life, sectioned off from the rest of the population. His study of criminality and "race-threat" focused on Jenische and mixed-race gypsies instead.

Ritter in post-Nazi Germany[edit]

Despite the de-Nazification of Germany after World War II, Ritter was not required to take responsibility for his actions towards the Roma and Sinti population during Nazi rule. Ritter was hired to teach criminal biology at the University of Tübingen from 1944 to 1946, and was later brought in by the Frankfurt Health Office as a pediatrician. He hired his old assistant, Eva Justin, to work as a psychologist alongside him. All investigations against Ritter were discontinued.


  • Crowe, David M. (1994). A History of the Gypsies of Eastern Europe and Russia. New York: St. Martin's Press.
  • Kenrick, Donald; Puxon, Grattan (2009). Gypsies Under the Swastika. University of Hertfordshire Press.
  • Friedlander, Henry (1989). The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina.
  • Lewy, Guenter (1999). "Himmler and the 'Racially Pure Gypsies'". Journal of Contemporary History vol. 34, no. 2, pp. 201–214.
  • Lewy, Guenter (2000). Nazi Persecution of the Gypsies. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Milton, Sybil (1994). "Holocaust: The Gypsies", pp. 209–265. Genocide in the Twentieth Century, eds. William S. Parsons, Israel W. Charny, Samuel Totten. Garland Publishing.
  • Schmidt-Degenhard, Tobias Joachim (2008). Robert Ritter 1901–1951: Zu Leben und Werk des NS-"Zigeunerforschers". University of Tübingen.
  • Tebbutt, Susan (1998). Sinti and Roma: Gypsies in German-Speaking Society and Literature. Berghahn Books.

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