SS Massacre: A conspiracy of silence is broken

Almost every child in the village of Sant'Anna di Stazzema was killed when the SS massacred civilians high in the Tuscan hills. Finally, the trial of six accused SS officers has begun, reports Peter Popham

It's a long trek up from Tuscany's coastal plain to the village of Sant'Anna di Stazzema, a tortuously winding climb high up into the forested hills. The place is not even marked on a detailed Tuscany map; signs to it only appear when one is already close. Reaching this remote and tranquil cleft in the rocks feels like a pilgrimage. But its peacefulness today - a motor mower thrumming far away, birds twittering, not a soul around in the sleepy afternoon - only throws more brutally into relief the horror of what happened here on 12 August 1944.

It's a long trek up from Tuscany's coastal plain to the village of Sant'Anna di Stazzema, a tortuously winding climb high up into the forested hills. The place is not even marked on a detailed Tuscany map; signs to it only appear when one is already close. Reaching this remote and tranquil cleft in the rocks feels like a pilgrimage. But its peacefulness today - a motor mower thrumming far away, birds twittering, not a soul around in the sleepy afternoon - only throws more brutally into relief the horror of what happened here on 12 August 1944.

This week down on the Ligurian coast, in the city of La Spezia, the trial finally got underway of six German former SS officers charged with involvement in the Sant'Anna di Stazzema massacre.

On that day in 1944, four columns of Hitler's crack 16th SS Panzer Grenadier Division, noted for their ideological fervour, made the grinding journey up to Sant 'Anna from the plains. Rome had been liberated two months before; slowly and expensively the British and the Americans were forcing the Germans back up the Italian peninsula, down which they had come roaring earlier that year after Mussolini was sacked by the Italian king and Italy switched to the Allied side.

In August 1944 the Nazis were defending the "Gothic Line'' which ran from north of Viareggio on the Ligurian coast to the peaks of the Appenines. But they were fighting on another front, too, because on the fall of Mussolini, groups of anti-Nazi Partisans sprang up in towns and villages across northern Italy, waging guerrilla war on the Nazis from strongholds in the hills.

As four companies of the SS came up the hills before dawn, Sant'Anna slept the sleep of the innocent and the relatively secure. With war now raging up and down the Gothic Line, and thousands of Nazi troops encamped in the nearest town, Santa Pietra, terrorised civilians had fled for the hills in large numbers. "Men fled from the town because the Nazis were rounding them up for forced labour, either in Italy or in Germany,'' says Enio Mancini, curator of Sant'Anna's Historical Museum of the Resistance.

"Additionally the Allies had started bombarding the German frontline. So whole families fled from the towns and about 1,000 refugees arrived in Sant'Anna. They came because it was so isolated, there was no motorable road in those days so it seemed safe. There were families from the surrounding area but also from as far away as Genoa and Naples."

The normal population of the village was only 400. "The flood of people caused accommodation problems," says Mr Mancini. "But they were solved one way and another." None of the people in the village, he says, were Partisans because their hideouts were in much higher and more inaccessible spots.

The arrival of four companies of Nazi soldiers at first light was therefore highly unwelcome to the villagers and their guests. But they had no reason to believe it would be fatal. The Germans were notorious for exacting terrible reprisals when their comrades were killed - 10 civilians for one dead Nazi was the going rate - but no Nazis had been killed in the area, so no reprisals were expected. But reasonable caution was in order. So when villagers saw a flare fired by the Germans at about 6am, the signal for their operation to begin, practically all the able-bodied men in the village disappeared into the woods.

The columns of SS men scrambled down to the village and began shooting. They shot dead everyone they came across: old men and women, infants, children, pregnant women. "People were crammed into barns or stables and machine gunned," said Mario de Paolis, the military prosecutor behind the current trial. "In a small space, 50 or 60 people were put together and machine gunned. Some were lucky enough to be covered by the bodies of others."

The women and children of entire families were killed. Eight pregnant women were killed. One of them, Evelina Berretti, had gone into labour that morning. The soldiers shot her dead, pulled the baby from her womb and killed that too. Eight children of one family, the Tucci, died, from three months to 16 years. The youngest child to die, Anna Pardini, was only 20 days old. The other Pardini women who died that day, listed on the huge board of the victims inside the village church, were Gelsoma, 40, Orietta, 15, Sara, 12, Bruna, 36, and Maria, 15.

The soldiers also killed all the village's livestock. They set fire to all the village houses. And when they had finished shooting they burned the bodies, too. In all, 560 people died between the hours of 7am and 10am. When they had finished, the soldiers sat down and ate their lunch in view of the charred bodies.

Sant'Anna's massacre was the second worst in Italy in terms of the numbers killed. It was the beginning of a Nazi scorched-earth policy apparently designed to deprive the Partisans of friendly communities into which they could melt or from which they could launch surprise attacks.

In more than a dozen separate atrocities between 23 July and 16 September 1944 - when the Allies liberated Santa Pietra - 1,430 Italian civilians were killed. In all, across the country historians calculate that 7,500 civilians were slaughtered.

Sant'Anna has lived with the scars of the massacre ever since. "It's weighed on us very heavily," says Mr Mancini. Like many remote Italian villages there is a sad absence of young people here, because there is no work to hold them; the village has grown old with its bitter memories. In fact the massacre has become the theme of the village's life: it is now the epicentre of the "National Park of Peace". In the immediate aftermath of the massacre the survivors - the men who had hidden out in the woods, the wounded and those like Enio Mancini himself, whose family was fortunate enough to be in the path of the one SS column out of four which only burned the houses they came to and killed no one - the survivors came back to the site of the horror and buried the dead in a huge common grave in front of the church.

But in 1948 the remains were exhumed and re-buried near a new memorial monument high up on the hillside. The village is dotted with other monuments to the slaughter, from a kitschy circle of dancing children to a powerful statue dedicated to the Partisans. But if Sant'Anna has almost a superfluity of memorials, the Italian state seems to have suffered prolonged amnesia over the episode. As the Second World War drew to a close and details of what the retreating Nazis had done came to light, there was talk of an "Italian Nuremberg". But it never happened: the Iron Curtain and the Cold War intervened. Suddenly Nazi atrocities seemed a historical footnote compared with the importance of keeping Italy at one with America and the West, and keeping the Italian Communist Party, Western Europe's biggest, out of power. For nearly two generations it served the interests of successive Italian governments to draw a discreet veil over the bitter internecine fighting during the war between Partisans and Fascist remnants.

The successor to the Fascists, the Italian Social Movement, was never allowed to get a toehold in government, but it was not outlawed. And the crimes with which it was implicated, because of the Fascist-Nazi alliance, were not subject to close scrutiny, for fear of reopening old wounds.

Nor was it only the state which preferred not to delve into these terrible events. Antonio Tabucchi, one of Italy's best-known intellectuals, writing in Oliviero Toscani's book of portraits of Sant'Anna's survivors, says: "When I was a child, the grown-ups sometimes muttered among themselves about 'What happened at Sant'Anna di Stazzema'. They said it with the complicity of adults into which children were not admitted ... but what was it that happened? I asked the grown-ups, my parents, my uncle, my aunt. And they didn't reply. One day I asked my granddad, who had fought in the First World War and was not afraid of saying what others wouldn't say. They had already gone to bed, on some evenings it was he who put me to bed ... granddad stirred the flames with the poker. It was disgusting, he said, disgusting. And he wouldn't say anything more..."

Silence was all for the best. That was the consensus. Though it was a matter for consternation when, in 1994, a journalist rooting about in the basement of the military prosecutor's office in Rome came across a sealed cabinet with its door facing the wall which turned out to contain more than 600 files, documenting the horrors discovered by British and American troops as they advanced north through Italy in 1944. In village after village they found evidence of the massacre of civilians. They wrote reports on what they saw, and collected witness statements. But when the zeal for prosecuting war criminals from the Italian theatre went flat, the whole lot was locked away and quietly forgotten.

By 1994, however, Italy had entered a new phase: the end of the Cold War and the destruction of the old Italian political system in the corruption trials of 1992 signalled a new honesty and a desire, still imperfect but improved, to confront the demons of the past. The post-Fascists, on the one hand, have been brought in from the cold, their leader, Gianfranco Fini, becoming vice-Prime Minister. Conversely the evils committed by the Fascists' friends in the war are also now open to inspection. The "cabinet of shame", as it became called, was emptied and examined and at last the trial of six surviving SS officers involved in the massacre has begun in earnest.

It's a highly imperfect way of drawing a line under Sant'Anna's horror. The six men are all in their eighties, and none will be extradited from Germany. All were junior officers: the name of their commanding officer, Anton Galler, was discovered as recently as 1999, but Galler, it emerged, had died in 1993. Even if the court delivers a resounding guilty verdict, the SS men will live out the remainder of their lives undisturbed. One of the six, Gerhard Sommer, told German television in 2002 that he had been an SS officer but added: "I have an absolutely pure conscience."

But whatever its limitations the trial has been welcomed in Sant'Anna: practically the whole village has travelled down to La Spetzia for it. "We are not interested in revenge," said Mr Mancini firmly. "But the absence of justice has weighed heavily on us. What we want is truth and justice. We want a little moral reparation."

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