Italian war crime trial points to 'new Odessa'

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The Independent Online

Military prosecutors in Italy believe Waffen SS troops who committed atrocities against Italian civilians in the last phase of the Second World War have been shielded from justice for decades by a secretive, Odessa-style organisation.

Military prosecutors in Italy believe Waffen SS troops who committed atrocities against Italian civilians in the last phase of the Second World War have been shielded from justice for decades by a secretive, Odessa-style organisation.

The prosecutors in the trial of seven former officers in Hitler's Waffen SS in the north Italian city of La Spezia, accused of the 1944 murder of 560 villagers in the Tuscan village of Sant'Anna di Stazzema, refused to put their suspicions on the record, declining to confirm or deny the stories that have surfaced in the Italian press this week.

But privately they are said to be convinced that only a meticulously organised secret conspiracy explains the success of the soldiers responsible for this and other mass murders in evading justice for six decades - a conspiracy similar to the alleged Odessa network of former SS officers which reputedly helped Nazi war criminals to find refuge in Latin America.

Whatever its eventual verdict, expected in the next few months, the extraordinarily belated trial in La Spezia can only deliver symbolic justice: the seven accused, all in their eighties and living in Germany, have refused to travel to Italy. They are being tried in absentia. There are no plans to seek their extradition.

Nevertheless, the trial has excited enormous interest among the survivors of Sant'Anna and their descendants. In the trial's early days, the village emptied as practically everyone, including the extremely old, made the long journey down the mountain in chartered buses. On the 60th anniversary of the massacre earlier this month, Germany's Interior Minister, Otto Schily, visited the village and participated in an emotional ceremony.

After the liberation of Rome in June 1944, German forces were slowly rolled back up the Italian peninsula, but they fought every inch of ground. Now they were fighting not only the British and Americans, but also the Italian partigiani, partisan groups who had sprung up after the fall of Mussolini to resist the Nazis. To deny the partisans friendly cover, the Waffen SS repeatedly wiped out civilian populations.

Early on the morning of 12 August 1944, four columns of Hitler's 16th Panzer Grenadier division poured into the mountain village of Sant'Anna di Stazzema, high in the Appenines, and set about killing everyone they could find. In the course of the day, 560 men, women and children died.

Despite the scale of the atrocity, and the fact that the identity of the killers was known - a single division of the Panzer Grenadiers is believed to have committed this and all the other massacres - justice has not been done. The identity of the commanding officer, Anton Galler, was discovered as recently as 1999. He had died six years before.

Various explanations have been offered for this failure, such as the post-war political need to stop hating Germans and start hating Communists. But the prosecutors at the military tribunal in La Spezia believe they have hit on the real reason: the guilty soldiers have been protected for 60 years by a secretive organisation known as HIAG, an acronym for Hilfsgemeinschaft auf Gegenseitigkeit, or "Mutual Aid Association".HIAG, it is said, has been protecting ex-members of the Waffen SS from justice ever since the end of the war. It reportedly includes younger neo-Nazis, Nazi skinheads and "ordinary" citizens.

¿ The German government will try next month to auction off part of a 10,000-room hotel complex built by the Nazis on the Baltic island of Ruegen as a holiday resort for soldiers and workers.

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