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."

Arts & Entertainment
Ricky Gervais at a screening of 'Muppets Most Wanted' in London last month
tvRicky Gervais on the return of 'Derek' – and why he still ignores his critics
News
news
Sport
Vito Mannone fails to keep out Samir Nasri's late strike
sportMan City 2 Sunderland 2: Goalkeeping howler allows Man City to scrap a draw – but Premier League title is Liverpool's to lose
Sport
Gareth Bale dribbled from inside his own half and finished calmly late in the final to hand Real a 2-1 win at the Mestalla in Valencia
sport
VIDEO
Life & Style
Going down: Google's ambition to build an elevator into space isn't likely to be fulfilled any time soon
techTechnology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
News
David Cameron sings a hymn during the enthronement service of The Most Rev Justin Welby as Archbishop of Canterbury, at Canterbury Cathedral last year
news
Life & Style
From long to Jong: Guy Pewsey gets the North Korean leader's look
fashionThe Independent heads to an Ealing hairdressers to try out the North Korean dictator's trademark do
Extras
indybest10 best smartphones
Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
News
peopleRyan Gosling says yes, science says no. Take the A-list facial hair challenge
Arts & Entertainment
tvCreator Vince Gilligan sheds light on alternate endings
Life & Style
Google Doodle celebrates the 63rd anniversary of the Peak District National Park
tech
News
Paul Weller, aka the Modfather, performing at last year’s Isle of Wight Festival in Newport
people
Life & Style
Michael Acton Smith founded Firebox straight out of university before creating Moshi Monsters
techHe started out selling silliness with online retailer Firebox, before launching virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
News
Ethical matters: pupils during a philosophy lesson
educationTaunton School's policy of putting philosophy at heart of its curriculum is one of secrets of its success
Arts & Entertainment
Play It Forward: the DC Record Fair in Washington, US
musicIndependent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads on Record Store Day
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Online Advertising Account Executive , St Pauls , London

£26K-30k + Bonus, Private Medical Insurance, Company Pension: Charter Selectio...

Advertising Account Executive - Online, Central London

£25K-28k + Bonus, Private Medical Insurance, Company Pension: Charter Selectio...

Senior Infrastructure Consultant

£50000 - £65000 Per Annum potentially flexible for the right candidate: Clearw...

Public Sector Audit - Bristol

£38000 per annum + Benefits: Pro-Recruitment Group: Do you have experience of ...

Day In a Page

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part
Vespa rides on with launch of Primavera: Iconic Italian scooter still revving up millions of sales

Vespa rides on with launch of the Primavera

The Vespa has been a style icon since the 1950s and the release this month of its latest model confirms it has lost little of its lustre
Record Store Day: Independent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads

Record Store Day celebrates independent music shops

This Saturday sees a host of events around the country to champion the sellers of well-grooved wax
Taunton's policy of putting philosophy at heart of its curriculum is one of secrets of its success

Education: Secret of Taunton's success

Taunton School, in Somerset, is one of the country's leading independent schools, says Richard Garner
10 best smartphones

10 best smartphones

With a number of new smartphones on the market, we round up the best around, including some more established models
Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

The former Australia coach on why England must keep to Plan A, about his shock at their collapse Down Under, why he sent players home from India and the agonies of losing his job
Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
The pain of IVF

The pain of IVF

As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal