Erich Priebke was a former German SS officer behind one of the worst massacres in Italy during the Second World War and an important figure in Italy’s struggle to reckon with its wartime past.
In Rome, two sites have come to represent the battles and brutality that wracked the city and country during the war: Via Rasella, near the Trevi Fountain, and the Ardeatine Caves on the outskirts of the capital. Their significance in Priebke’s life became public five decades after the war, when ABC’s Sam Donaldson confronted him on camera.
Priebke was second-in-command at the Gestapo headquarters in Rome on 23 March 1944 when a bomb exploded in Via Rasella and killed as many as 33 Germans marching along the street. That incident – a spectacular attack in the campaign waged by anti-Fascist Italian partisans – enraged the highest ranks of the Nazi leadership. Years later, Priebke said that Adolf Hitler personally responded with the order to execute 10 Italians for every German killed.
Nazi troops in Rome, whose commanding officers included Priebke, exceeded that demand. Over the next 24 hours they took 335 Italian men and boys out of the city and called them five at a time into the Ardeatine Caves where, by candlelight, they shot them in the back of the head.
Other atrocities claimed more Italian lives. More than 500 died in the massacre in the Tuscan town of Sant’Anna di Stazzema, an incident that received renewed attention thanks to James McBride’s 2002 novel Miracle at St Anna and the subsequent Spike Lee film with the same title.
But no mass killing in Italy was as methodical as the slaughter at the Ardeatine Caves, according to Alessandro Portelli, author of The Order Has Been Carried Out, a definitive account of the massacre and its transformative effect on Rome. Priebke admitted to killing two of the victims and checking off the others’ names as the troops led them in, along with Karl Haas, another SS officer. “It really is the symbol of the violence of the Nazi occupation,” Portelli said.
After the war, he escaped from a British prison camp in northern Italy and made his way to the Vatican City. There, Bishop Alois Hudal, who ran the Vatican’s “ratlines” - escape routes for former Nazis - gave him false papers to travel to Argentina, where he lived freely for 50 years, running a delicatessen and leading a German-Argentine cultural association. He did not attempt to disguise his identity. When the ABC television crew approached him in the early 1990s Priebke did not appear surprised. Yes, he had been in the Gestapo in Rome in 1944, he told Donaldson, and, yes, he was present when the executions began.
“I feel very bad. Nobody from us wanted to do that,” he told Donaldson. “At that time an order was an order... I was a Nazi and young man... Many young men do things when they are old men like me, now they are very sorry about it.”
With that report, Priebke’s private life in his idyllic Andean town came to an end. Days later, when Italy moved for his extradition, he was placed under house arrest. In November 1995, after the Argentine Supreme Court rejected his bid to remain in that country, Priebke found himself back in Rome. So began years of legal wrangling.
The first complaint about the trial was that it took place in a military court. That rankled many Italians because they considered Priebke’s alleged offences worse than violations of a military code. Then came a series of interruptions, including charges by the prosecution that judges were biased in favour of Priebke and an apparent escape attempt by Haas.
Rancour surrounding the trial climaxed with a confusing verdict. In August 1996, the military court found Priebke guilty of complicity in the killings but not guilty of “cruelty and premeditation,” and the case was thrown out on the grounds that the statute of limitations had expired. At the courthouse, the victims’ family members erupted in shouts. Demonstrators blocked Priebke inside the building. The then-Prime Minister Romano Prodi laid flowers at the site of the Ardeatine massacre in a display of his disapproval of the court’s decision. “Italy had a date with history, and it has blown it,” said Shimon Samuels, an official with the Simon Wiesenthal Centre.
Priebke’s freedom lasted only a few hours. He was rearrested, facing possible extradition to Germany, and taken to the Regina Coeli prison — the same prison from which several of the men killed at the Ardeatine Caves had been selected. During his incarceration, Priebke told a journalist that his opponents had pursued him because he was a symbol – “like the last of the Mohicans” – and that Jews were “playing a dirty game” on him.
After months of legal manoeuvring, the Italian Supreme Court denied his extradition to Germany and ordered a retrial for Priebke and Haas. In July 1997, a military court convicted them both and sentenced Priebke to 15 years, suspending all but five. Priebke’s appeal was a tactical mistake: The conviction was upheld, and he was sentenced to life, but Priebke profited from an Italian law stating that criminals over 80 should suffer house arrest rather than prison.
There were protests in 2007 at the fact that he was given a work permit and was working in the offices of his lawyer, Paolo Giachini; the permit was revoked. He served most of his sentence at Giachini’s home, but on his 100th birthday in July demonstrators staged a protest outside the house, calling for the conditions of his arrest to be toughened and for authorities to force him to show remorse; a video had been circulating showing him taking one of his daily strolls.
Erich Priebke was born near Berlin in 1913. Orphaned at seven, he went into the hospitality business at 14 and was working at a hotel on the Italian Riviera in 1933, the year Hitler came to power and Priebke joined the Nazi Party. He moved up the ranks as a translator for the political police and accompanied Nazi and Fascist leaders — even Hitler and Benito Mussolini — on visits abroad before being transferred to Rome.
Throughout his life, Priebke maintained that he was ultimately powerless over the events of March 1944. “If I could have stopped that horror, I would have,” he told the court. “But I knew, like all of you, that my refusal of that order, my death, and the persecution of my relatives would not have saved those men.”
Erich Preibke, SS officer and war criminal: born near Berlin 29 July 1913; married Alice Stoll (died 2004); died Rome 11 October 2013.