GYPSIES may be the lowest ethnic group on Europe's social totem pole. Even after Nazis attempted to exterminate them, the Gypsies were regarded as irritating, if not despicable, by the mainstream of affluent Europeans. The group lives by a separate code; Gypsies are ``different,'' and this differentness leads all too easily to stereotyping.
Yet as the Feb. 5 murder of four Gypsies in Austria attests, attacks on the group are early indicators of ugly sentiments bubbling in Europe. If a society may be judged by its treatment of its weakest members, all Europeans should be alarmed at the pattern of anti-Gypsy and antiforeigner violence since 1990. As in Austria, so in Europe, the killings and violence against ethnic minorities by right-wing extremists can no longer be excused as merely a short-term ``phase.''
In Austria, the gypsies were killed by a pipe bomb set out as a trap near the village of Oberwart, south of Vienna. The bomb, like other such bombs in recent years, was accompanied by a note telling the Gypsies (who have lived there since the 19th century) to leave. Neo-Nazis have claimed responsibility for the act.
The recent killings should spur the Austrian government, which until now has tried to play down the problem of nationalism, to systematically denounce these acts. European politicians and officials have been all too slow to speak out. Czech President Vaclav Havel, who has eloquently denounced incidents of anti-Gypsy behavior, is an exception. German neo-Nazi violence against foreigners continues today, particularly in eastern Germany. The story, after an initial phase of shock and outrage, is often buried. But the violence continues.
One reason government leaders do not say more is that, beneath the surface, antiforeigner sentiment happens to be getting more popular. Xenophobia is, sadly, one of Europe's all-too-open secrets. Of course, standards of civility and decency mediate against hate and violence. But in post-cold-war Europe, ethnic identity - nationalism - is claiming more popularpower than liberal sentiments.
With uncertainty, problems of unemployment, and fewer social strictures in the East, it is not surprising that racist groups attack the weak in Europe. What ought to be surprising is silence by Europe's leaders.