Former Nazis on trial for massacre of 560 Italians

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The Independent Online

An Italian military court has begun trying three former German SS officers for the massacre of 560 civilians in the northern village of Sant'Anna di Stazzema, the second largest slaughter of non-combatants by the Nazis in wartime Italy.

An Italian military court has begun trying three former German SS officers for the massacre of 560 civilians in the northern village of Sant'Anna di Stazzema, the second largest slaughter of non-combatants by the Nazis in wartime Italy.

The Sant'Anna massacre was one of 83 collective reprisals that cost the lives of more than 15,000 Italian civilians during the last two years of the Second World War, many of which were not properly investigated to avoid upsetting diplomatic relations with post-war Germany.

Some 50 relatives of the victims were present yesterday in the La Spezia court. The three defendants, Gerhard Sommer, 82, Alfred Schöneberg, 82, and Ludwig Sonntag, 79, did not attend. They live in Germany and are currently the subject of a parallel German investigation into the atrocity.

A detachment of 300 soldiers from the 16th SS Panzer Grenadier Divisionconverged on the Tuscan hill village of Sant'Anna di Stazzema at dawn on 12 August 1944, rounding up the inhabitants of neighbouring villages as they went.

Most of the victims were women, children and the elderly, as the men had fled believing that the most vulnerable members of their community would not be at risk. Many villagers were shot and their bodies were then piled together and burnt in the village square. Others were herded into basements and killed with grenades.

Some of the few children to survive owed their lives to the fact that they had been well hidden by their parents or had been shielded from death by the bodies of their relatives. Father Giuseppe Vangelisti, a local parish priest, described finding the charred bodies in the square when he arrived in the village on the following day. The number of dead was estimated by counting the skulls. "We could only make out the corpses of 24 women and the skulls of 32 children," Father Vangelisti said.

A further three former German soldiers are currently under investigation and may be tried later. At least one German appears to have resisted orders to participate in the massacre: his body was found among those of the victims.

Historians say there was no single motive for the slaughter, other than a desire to terrorise the civilian population.

Details of the atrocity were among 695 files discovered in a filing cabinet at the Rome military prosecutor's office in 1994. The cases were marked "temporarily closed" and stored in a filing cabinet which had been turned around so that its drawers faced the wall. Active investigation of such cases was considered politically inexpedient at a time when West Germany was a Cold War ally.

The position has changed since then, and yesterday police appealed to the public to help with inquiries into another wartime atrocity. They have photographs of civilians who have been hanged in front of a town hall and are attempting to identify where the executions took place.

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