Given that more than 9,000 innocent Italian civilians, many of them women and children, died in Nazi massacres during the dreadful last 18 months of the second world war, it is amazing how few of the perpetrators have been brought to justice. Only five members of the German occupying forces were ever imprisoned in Italy for war crimes; and with the death last week, aged 100, of Erich Priebke, the former SS captain who in 1944 helped organise the execution of 335 men and boys at the Ardeatine Caves south of Rome, none of them is now still alive. Hundreds of others were, of course, involved in these crimes, but none of these has ever been punished. And now, it seems certain that none will be.
Of the 11 men remaining on the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s list of ‘most wanted Nazi War Criminals’, only one, Gerhard Sommer, has been accused of an Italian war crime; and he, though condemned in absentia to life imprisonment by an Italian military court in 2005 for participating in the especially brutal massacre of 560 people in a Tuscan hill village in August 1944, is living, aged 92, peacefully in Germany, free of any German charge against him.
These Nazi atrocities were mostly inspired by Hitler’s efforts to repress Italian resistance during the frantic last months of German occupation by ordering that ten Italians should be killed for every German murdered by partisans. This order was sometimes overenthusiastically carried out, as in the case of the Ardeatine Cave massacre in which five more people died than the 330 required by the Führer’s decree; for the 335 deaths were in reprisal for the killing of only 33 Germans in a partisan ambush in Rome. The man held principally responsible for this crime, in which the innocent victims were shepherded in groups into the caves and shot in the neck as they stood on the bodies of the already fallen, was Herbert Kappler, the head of the German police and security forces in Rome. He was sentenced in 1947 to life imprisonment, largely on account of the superfluous five killed, for the Italian military tribunal that condemned him seemed to find the strict implementation of Hitler’s decree to be not unreasonable. At any rate, it acquitted the other Germans tried with him on the grounds that they were only obeying orders, and would surely have acquitted Priebke for the same reason if he had not already fled to start a new life in Argentina, only to be given a life sentence nearly 50 years later when eventually extradited to Italy.
Except for the families of those murdered, who continue to cry for justice and compensation, there is a rather puzzling lack of rage among Italians over these Nazi massacres. In the hill village of Civitella near Arezzo, a few miles from the Tuscan farmhouse we bought more than 40 years ago, there was a massacre of 203 people on a Sunday morning in June 1944, after two German soldiers were shot by partisans as they played cards in the village social club. But the old peasant who was our nearest neighbour greeted us on our arrival with words of condemnation of the English during the war, saying how much nicer the Germans had been. It turned out that the Allied ‘liberators’ of the area, whom he had assumed to be English, had in fact been French Moroccan troops, who had raped most of the women in the village. Nevertheless, even the Moroccans hadn’t done any massacring, and it wasn’t obvious why the Germans should be more popular.
Italian forgiveness of their atrocities may be because the Italians suffered so much during the war, and from so many sources, that they didn’t hold the Germans especially responsible for their misery. It was certainly believed in Civitella, for example, that certain Italian fascists had participated with the Germans in the massacre of their countrymen. The villagers were a little surprised, however, when a German who had been stationed there at the time of the massacre returned years later with his family on holiday. This, curiously enough, was what the unrepentant Priebke also did, holidaying in Italy under his own name while living as a butcher in Argentina.
On the German side there has been so little guilt about these events that the German authorities repeatedly refused Italian requests for the extradition of suspected culprits and often asked unsuccessfully for the release from prison of Herbert Kappler. The Italians, meanwhile, have been less than energetic in their pursuit of the guilty, perhaps because they want to forget a war in which they themselves were not covered with glory, and also because they don’t want anything to disturb their good relations with Germany. Now that Priebke is dead, they may not need to worry any more.