Germany to pay homage at Italian atrocity site

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The Independent Online

In an unprecedented gesture, Johannes Rau, the German President, will pay homage tomorrow to the victims and survivors of the worst Nazi massacre in Italy.

Mr Rau, accompanied by Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, the Italian President, will visit the village of Marzabotto in the hills near Bologna, where 770 people were slaughtered in the autumn of 1944, more than half of them women and children.

Yet the first public recognition of the massacre from Berlin is likely to fuel further controversy about why so little has been done to bring those responsible to justice.

Priorities after the war meant there was little desire from either side to pursue the case. A German television network, ARD, has recently found some of the former SS officials who took part in the massacre living in comfortable retirement in Bavaria.

Mr Rau's predecessor, Richard von Weizsäcker, laid a wreath at the Ardeatine caves near Rome where 330 civilians were killed in reprisal for a bomb attack on a Nazi commando, although he made no official apology.

Mr Rau will make his speech at the site of the tiny chapel of Santa Maria Assunta, where 80 people, including 38 children and the priest, were killed. There are still bullet marks on the walls.

The massacre was triggered by a clash between resistance fighters and SS troops. The German response was to raze nearby villages and round up the inhabitants, executing them at random.

For Dante Cruicchi, an 81-year-old survivor, the visit is the culmination of long efforts to ensure the victims were not forgotten. He was deported to a concentration camp in Germany and on his release was Mayor of Marzabotto for many years. "For all my life I have worked and fought for this to happen," he said.

The Italian media is already comparing Mr Rau's speech to the gesture by the German leader Willy Brandt, who knelt in front of the Warsaw ghetto during a visit in 1970.

The German recognition comes in a period in which Italy, which has a post-fascist party in government, is re-evaluating, and some critics say rewriting, its recent past.

The constitutional ban on the re-entry of Italy's former royal family, the Savoys, is being lifted, and after half a century they will soon be able to return. Some academics are now suggesting that the youngsters who fought for the fascist rump republic of Salo be treated the same as those who took up arms to overthrow the Nazi-fascist oppressors.

However, a recent survey shows that general knowledge of Second World War history among Italians, especially youngsters, is hazy. Nearly half of them answered wrongly when asked what year Italy entered the war, and a third thought Benito Mussolini's March on Rome in 1924 occurred in 1945.

Leading Nazi officers who took part in the Marzabotto killings have appeared in court and one commander, Walter Reder, was condemned to life imprisonment by a military court in Bologna in 1951. He was released in 1985.

But while Germany has pushed ahead with investigations of former Nazi soldiers, the age of any suspects and witnesses makes it unlikely many more will be charged.

Last month, state prosecutors brought murder charges against Friedrich Engel, now 93, for the murder of 59 Italians in May 1944 in revenge for an attack on a cinema for German soldiers.

An Italian court sentenced Engel, dubbed the Butcher of Genoa by the Italian media, to life imprisonment for killing at least 246 Italians in Liguria in the last two years of the war. But as he lives in Hamburg and German law bars the extradition of citizens for crimes committed abroad, he is unlikely to serve any sentence.

¿ Hundreds of mourners lit candles and read out the names of Hungarian Jewish and Gypsy victims of the Nazis yesterday in a ceremony in Budapest, outside the new House of Terror museum, on the eve of the Holocaust Memorial Day.