Argentina sends Nazi to stand trial in Italy

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The Independent Online
Erich Priebke lived for almost half a century as a respected hotelier in the Andean ski resort of San Carlos de Bariloche, welcoming American tourists with his German-accented Spanish and going to Mass on Sundays. He travelled regularly, including to Germany and Italy, using a passport in his own name renewed several times by the West German embassy in Buenos Aires.

His fellow Germans in the local community, some Argentines and even a few local Jews knew he had been a Nazi SS officer, but he was by no means the only one in Argentina. They even got together in Bariloche to celebrate Hitler's birthday.

When a team from ABC television of the US tracked him down in 1993, he had no qualms about admitting that as a 31-year-old SS captain, he had taken part in the massacre of 335 Italian men and boys, including more than 70 Jews, in the Ardeatine caves outside Rome on 24 March 1944. After all, it was a long time ago, he was "small fry" and was only following orders, he said.

The US broadcast, however, outraged Jews and led to his house arrest in May last year in the resort more than 1,000 miles south-west of Buenos Aires, where locals described him as a good neighbour and a pillar of the community. After a series of court rulings and appeals, Argentina's Supreme Court on Thursday ordered his extradition to Italy to stand trial for crimes against humanity. It could be the most emotional war crimes trial in decades; elderly Italians still remember the day their relatives were rounded up and led away to the caves.

A group of Italian resistance fighters had blown up a German army lorry the night before, killing 33 soldiers. Adhering to Hitler's ruling on reprisals, Lieutenant-Colonel Herbert Kappler and Captain Priebke, his aide, rounded up 10 Italian men or boys for every German soldier killed. By the time they reached 330, they were not sure of their count. So they added five more to be on the safe side.

In interviews since, and in a book, Priebke admitted killing at least one of the victims himself as an incentive to his men. Kneeling in the damp caves, with their hands bound behind their backs, each was killed with a single shot to the neck.

"We wanted to oppose it but we had to obey or we would join the list of those who were shot," Priebke said during his house arrest. "It was horrendous. We couldn't understand how a German could do something like that, but Kappler was inflexible.''

Kappler was convicted after the war and spent more than 30 years in Italian prisons until he escaped from a military hospital in 1977, fled to Austria and died there.

The Priebke case had shone an unwelcome spotlight on Argentina as something of a retirement home for former Nazis, initially aided by the then dictator Juan Peron, in a lucrative trade in false visas and identity documents, and later protected by Argentine military officers. The infamous "Angel of Death", Joseph Mengele, lived for more than a decade in Argentina. So did Adolf Eichmann, architect of the "Final Solution", until Israeli commandos kidnapped him in 1960 and smuggled him to Israel, where he was tried, convicted and hanged.

Priebke himself confirmed what many historians had written: that the Vatican and the International Red Cross were key links in a chain that helped ex-Nazis flee and settle in South America. After he escaped from a British prison camp at Rimini in 1946 and lived in a German-speaking area of northern Italy until 1948, the Red Cross had provided him, his wife and two children with passports, he said.

Priebke is expected to be sent to Italy within a few weeks.