Magazine article The Spectator

Long Life

Magazine article The Spectator

Long Life

Article excerpt

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 Fuhrer'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. …

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