Italy convicts Nazis for civilian massacre

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The Independent Online

Ten former Nazi SS soldiers have been symbolically sentenced to life imprisonment for carrying out the worst civilian massacre committed in Italy during the Second World War.

The Germans, all now in their late 80s and living in retirement homes in Germany, were found guilty of slaughtering some 770 men, women and children in the hills around Marzabotto, a village in the Appenine hills above Bologna in September and October 1944. Ninety-five of the victims were babies and children under 16.

The villagers were supporters of the Red Star partisans who were harassing the German line. The Nazi high command ordered the villages to be wiped out in reprisal - and to teach a lesson to other potential allies of their enemies

The sentences of the court were greeted by tears and hugs between survivors, their relatives and their lawyers. The justice they have obtained after a trial lasting four years is strictly symbolic: none of the Germans appeared in the court in La Spezia, a city on the Ligurian coast; only one of them appointed a defence lawyer, and he, controversially, was among the seven to be acquitted.

There is not the slightest likelihood any of the culprits will serve time , or that anyone will pay the €100m (£66m) in compensation demanded by the court.

This is fantasy justice, at a distance of 62 years from the events. And for some in Italy, it is not justice at all. Prime Minister Romano Prodi lamented that the sentences were no more than symbolic. "It was one of the most savage crimes of the last war, a real massacre. If the convictions had been possible 40 years earlier, it would have had real value."

Nicola Caracciolo, a historian and director of historical documentaries for Italian television, said: "The Italian penal system has adopted two different weights and measures for dealing with war crimes. There are well-documented Italian atrocities committed in Libya, Abyssinia [Ethiopia] and the former Yugoslavia. Certainly, we committed far fewer than the Germans. But after the war, we chose to look the other way, not to inquire who did what at home."

It is only in the past few years that Italy's courts have been persuaded to sit in judgement on massacres committed by the Germans on Italian soil. Soon after the war, the SS officer who ordered the Marzabotto massacre, Major Walter Reder, was tried and jailed but he was subsequently pardoned and set free after an appeal by the Austrian government.

Detailed reports on the Marzabotto and other massacres compiled by British and American forces were locked away in a cabinet in the military prosecutor's office in Rome and only discovered in 1994 by an inquisitive journalist. When the contents became known, they called it "the cabinet of shame."

The slaughter in the hills was carried out by soldiers of Hitler's crack 16th SS Panzer Grenadier Division. Defending the so-called "Gothic Line" that ran across the peninsula from advancing British and American forces, they were also being harassed by partisan guerrillas. By killing the communities that supported them, in more than a dozen atrocities between July and October the Germans hoped to eliminate one of their problems.

"I would have preferred to see all of them convicted, but at least a little justice has been done," said Ferruccio Laffia, who lost 14 relatives in the slaughter. "It is at least a signal, a trace of culpability recognised."