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• The massacre
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On March 23, 1944 a powerful bomb placed by the Italian Communist anti-Nazi underground exploded on the Via Rasella in Rome as an SS-police unit walked by killing 33 German recruits. On the next day, the German High Command in Berlin issued an order in Hitler’s name for the execution of ten Italians for every one of the dead German policemen and entrusted the task to SS Obersturmbannfuhrer (Lt. Col.) Herbert Kappler, head of the Gestapo in Rome. Kappler, together with Pietro Caruso, the chief of the Italian police, rounded up three hundred and thirty five Italians, (an additional five hostages were taken) who were brought to the Ardeatine caves on the outskirts of Rome, where they were executed by shooting in groups of five and buried on the spot. Those carrying out the murders were seventy-three German SS officers, each of whom had to kill at least one Italian. Among the victims were seventy-five Jews, who had been imprisoned and were being held prior to their deportation to Auschwitz. (The deportation of Jews from Rome to the death camps had begun on October 16, 1943 with mass arrests of local Jews.)
At the end of World War II, Kappler was arrested by the British and was turned over to the Italians in 1947. A year later he was sentenced by a military tribunal to life imprisonment, not for the massacre in the Ardeatine caves but rather for the murder of the five “additional” victims over and above his original orders. Several of his cohorts, including his deputy SS Sturmbannfuhrer Durant Domizlakk, were acquitted on the grounds that they had merely followed the orders of their superiors. Kappler was hospitalized in 1977 in Rome but he escaped from the hospital back to Germany, where he died a year later.
While the few SS-officers under Kappler who were prosecuted shortly after the war were acquitted in Italy, most of those who had personally participated in the murders were never put on trial and were able to escape justice. Two of them, however, were finally apprehended and convicted many years later, long after anyone thought that they would ever be forced to pay for their crimes. This is their story and how a project to investigate German neo-Nazis led to the conviction in the 1990’s of two of the Nazis who murdered Italian civilians – Jews and non-Jews – in the Ardeatine Caves on March 24, 1944.
In early1993 Yaron Svoray, an Israeli investigator, went undercover in Germany on behalf of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in order to investigate the German neo-Nazi movement and its ties with right-wing extremists elsewhere. Posing as “Ron Furey,” a journalist for The Right Way, a non-existent Australian extreme right-wing publication, Svoray was able to gain access to numerous right-wing leaders and gain their confidence. It was in this manner that he learned that Juan Maler, the Argentinean publisher of anti-Semitic literature was in reality Reinhard Kops, a former Nazi Abwehr (military intelligence) officer who served in Bulgaria, Serbia and Macedonia, where his unit played an active role in the fight against local partisans. He later escaped to Argentina via the infamous “rat line,” the escape route to South America which was operated by former Nazis and Catholic priests. (Other Nazis who escaped to Argentina in this manner were Adolf Eichmann and Dr. Josef Mengele.)
A year later, American reporter Sam Donaldson of the ABC television show “Prime Time Live” approached the Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles for assistance on a program he was planning on Nazi war criminals who had escaped to Argentina. The Center named Kops as one of the escaped Nazis and in early May 1994 Donaldson’s crew traveled to the Andean ski resort of San Carlos de Bariloche, a town with a significant German community, some 1,100 miles southwest of Buenos Aires to interview him.
When confronted by Donaldson, Kops claimed that there were more important Nazis than he in Bariloche such as, for example, his neighbor Erich Priebke who had served with the Gestapo in Rome. It did not take Donaldson long to find Priebke and to learn that he had been among the SS officers who carried out the murder in the Ardeatine caves. In fact, when Donaldson questioned him regarding his World War II activities, the former SS Hauptsturmfuhrer (Captain) openly admitted that he had been present at the executions, although he initially claimed that he personally had not shot anyone and justified the executions by claiming that all those executed were “Communist terrorists…[who] had killed German soldiers.”
Like Kappler, Priebke was captured by the British at the end of the war, but in 1946 he escaped from a prison camp, and by 1952 had settled in Bariloche with his wife and two sons. Unlike other escaped Nazi war criminals, Priebeke never changed his name nor did he attempt to conceal his past. For many years he owned a Viennese delicatessen, which specialized in the sale of smoked meat and cheeses and which was often referred to as “The Nazi Deli.” He also served as president of the local German-Argentinean Cultural Association.
In the wake of the discovery of Priebke’s whereabouts, an Italian military prosecutor issued a warrant for his arrest and the Italian government began formal proceedings for his extradition. In Argentina, a judge in Bariloche ordered his detention and he was placed under house arrest. While Priebke awaited the decision of the Argentinean government whether or not to extradite him to stand trial in Italy, additional details regarding his role in the murders came to light, including his own statement made in 1946 in which he admitted that he had assisted in rounding up the persons to be executed and that he had personally shot two of the victims. Witnesses interviewed by Italian radio claimed that he had tortured several of the hostages prior to their execution.
On May 4, 1995 Priebke’s extradition was initially approved by an Argentinean judge, but three months later an appeals court overturned the decision ruling that the statute of limitations had gone into effect. At that point, Germany asked for his extradition to face murder charges (a step which Priebke did not intend to contest), but he was ultimately extradited shortly thereafter to Italy, where his trial began on May 8, 1996 in Rome.
The trial provided several surprises. The first was the testimony of SS Sturmbannfuehrer(Major) Karl Hass, who served in the German Embassy in Rome in March 1944 and following Priebke’s arrest gave several newspaper interviews in which he suggested that Priebke could have refused to participate in the executions. After he came to Rome to testify at the trial and underwent a preliminary interrogation, Hass attempted to escape from his hotel room, breaking his hip after jumping from a second story balcony. By the time he was deposed by the Italian prosecutors in Rome’s Celio Military hospital, Hass claimed that Priebke had no choice but to obey orders but clearly implicated him in the implementation of the executions. Even more important, he admitted (in contradiction to his previous press interviews) that he too had murdered two of the hostages. This meant that he too could be prosecuted for the murders in the Ardeatine caves and Italian prosecutors eventually indicted him.(The second surprise was the discovery by Italian radio of an interview from 1974 in which Kappler himself said that Priebke could have refused to take part in the killings.)
In 1996 Priebke was convicted for his crimes, but was freed by the court due to a statute of limitations and other extenuating circumstances. The decision shocked the friends and relatives of the victims who had come to hear the verdict and who responded with dismay and anger. Scores of protesters, primarily young Roman Jews, prevented Priebke and the judges from leaving the courtroom for eight hours and the ensuing public outcry led to the cancellation of the verdict and Priebke’s rearrest.
A year later, in 1997, Priebke was tried again, this time together with Hass. Both were convicted, with Priebke sentenced to fifteen years and Hass to ten years and eight months in jail. Even though the latter was freed due to extenuating circumstances and the former’s sentence was reduced to five years imprisonment, both appealed their verdicts. In response, Italian prosecutors sought more severe punishments for both defendants and on March 28, 1998 both Priebke and Hass were sentenced to life imprisonment in a stunning reversal of the previous judgments.