Erich Priebke, born July 29, 1913, at Hennigsdorf, Brandenburg, Germany is a former SS Hauptsturmführer of Nazi Germany. He participated in the massacres at the Ardeatine caves in Rome in Italy on March 24, 1944. 335 Italian civilians were killed there as revenge after a partisan Communist group had killed 33 German soldiers. Priebke was one of those who stood responsible for this mass execution. After Germany's capitulation, he got help from ODESSA to flee to Argentina where he lived for more than 50 years.
In 1994, 50 years after the massacre, Priebke felt it was safe to talk about the incident and was interviewed by an ABC News reporter. This caused great harm from people who had far from forgotten the incident, and this was the start of a trial which would last more than four years.
Italy and Germany were allied during WWII. Hitler had to, among other things, try to fix things after Benito Mussolini's failed invasion of Albania in the spring of 1941. In 1943 the luck changed for the fascists. Mussolini was arrested and king Victor Emmanuel III appointed a new government. When allied forces went into mainland Italy, the government ordered their soldiers to lay down their weapons. Italy had capitulated.
Mussolini was soon freed by German parachute troops and set to lead a fascist Italian Social Republic in the German-occupied north. There were confusion among the Italian troops. Some were disarmed by the Germans, while others joined the Allies, some just went home.
Hitler did not trust the new government and moved large forces into Italy, to prevent invasion by the allies, in Operation Axis.
The Ardeatine massacre
In March 1944, 33 German soldiers were killed when a group of Italian Communist partisans set off a bomb close to a column of German soldiers which were marching on Via Rasella. Hitler soon made the order that within 24 hours, ten Italians were to be shot for each dead German. Nazi authorities in Rome quickly compiled a list of 330 civilians which were to be killed, many of them prisoners for petty offenses or anti-fascism, many Jews and some other people also got arrested.
The victims were soon transported to the Ardeatine caves in groups of five people. They were led into the cave with their hands tied behind their back and then shot in the neck. Many were forced to kneel down over the bodies of those who had been killed before them because the cave had become filled with dead bodies. During the killings, it was found that by a mistake five more people than were supposed to had been taken, but they were killed anyway since they were already there.
Since there were 75 Jews among the victims, this massacre is the largest single episode of the Holocaust in Italy. This is the reason that many Jewish organizations have worked hard to bring those responsible to trial.
In the spotlight
In 1994, reporter Sam Donaldson did a story about Priebke for ABC. Priebke told about his role in the massacre. He also excused his actions by saying that he only followed orders from the Gestapo chief of Rome, Lieutenant Oberst Herbert Kappler. When testifying after the war, Kappler explained that Priebke had been ordered to make sure that all the victims were brought to the caves and executed and to check the list of people which were to be killed. In 1948, Kappler was sentenced to life in prison by a military court. His wife got him smuggled out from a military hospital in 1977, but he died of cancer six months later.
A free man
In post-WWII trials, Priebke was also set to be tried for his role in the massacre, but he managed to escape from a British prison camp in northeastern Italy in 1946. Two years later he came to Argentina were he lived as a free man for 50 years.
Priebke told Donaldson that the victims - from 14 year old boys to 75 year old men - were nothing but terrorists. He admitted that it was he who compiled the lists over those who were going to be executed. In addition to the massacre, Priebke is thought to have participated in the deportation of 6,000-7,000 Jews from Italy to Auschwitz concentration camp, and to have tortured political prisoners.
The extradition of Priebke
Donaldson's news report showed how openly Priebke could live in Argentina, and how little remorse he felt for his actions. Argentinian authorities arrested Priebke. Because of his old age and poor health, he was at first not imprisoned, but rather held in house arrest at his home in Bariloche, the ski resort are where he had lived since 1949.
After 17 months of delays, the Argentinian supreme court decided that Priebke was to be extradited to Italy. He was put on a direct flight from Bariloche to Ciampino, a military airport close to the Ardeatine caves where the executions had been carried out many years earlier.
Priebke in court
In court, Priebke declared himself not guilty. He did not deny what he had done, but he denied any responsibility. He blamed the massacre on the Italian civilians who were behind the attack in which 33 German soldiers were killed. The order came directly from Hitler, and he thought it was a legitimate punishment.
During the trial it became clear that Priebke had personally shot two Italians. This was also in his testimony from 1946 before he managed to escape.
Around noon on March 24, 1944, between 80 and 90 men went to the Ardeatine Caves, Rome. All were tied with their hands behind their backs and their names were read out loud. Five and five went into the caves. Priebke went inside together with the second or third group and shot a man with an Italian machine pistol. Toward the end, he shot another man with the same machine pistol. The executions ended when it got dark that night. After the shootings, explosives were used to shut the caves.
Priebke was ruled not guilty, because the case was judged to be expired.
On August 1, 1996, orders were given for the immediate release of Priebke. The Italian minister of justice later said that Priebke might be arrested again, depending on whether or not he was going to be extradited to Germany, where he was charged with murder.
The judges voted 2 against and 1 for sentencing the 83 year old Priebke for taking part of the massacres, which he himself had admitted, but he was released because he was following orders.
The case was appealed by the prosecutors. The day after, Germany asked Italy to keep Priebke imprisoned until their demand to have him extradited was processed; they wanted him put to trial for the two people that Priebke personally had shot.
The Italian supreme court decided that the court that had freed Priebke was incompetent. In March 1997, it was decided that Priebke could not be extradited to Germany. The reason for this was that he was now going through a trial for the same crimes that Germany wanted him tried for. He was not to be tried for the same crime twice.
On April 14, 1997, the new trial began. Priebke was sentenced to 15 years in prison, while another man who also was part of the massacre, Karl Hass, was sentenced to 10 years. Because of an amnesty which was given a few years earlier, Priebke had to do 5 years, while Hass was released. Additionally, Priebke got some time subtracted because of the time he had spent under house arrest and in custody in Italy. The sentence thus was to be 2-3 years.
Priebke denied any responsibility, and therefore appealed the case. The appellate court decided that Hass and Priebke had committed cruel murders of the first degree and that they should be put away for life.
Priebke himself claimed that he was the victim of intense hatred, and that he was blamed for all atrocities done during WWII. "I gave Argentina 50 years of my life, and they don't want me. (...) I fought for Germany during the war, now they want me put to trial for obeying orders."
Priebke appealed the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, where he claimed he had no choice but to obey Hitler's orders.
On March 20, 2004, Priebke was 91 years old, the oldest prisoner in Europe.
Source: What-Means.Com. This article is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.