Italy faces up to ghosts of Fascist past

After years of silence, Priebke case prompts national soul-searching
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The Independent Online
Embarrassed by the uproar surrounding the trial of former SS captain Erich Priebke, military prosecutors across Italy are digging through old files for the first time in decades and launching investigations into ex-Nazis responsible for war crimes at the end of the Second World War.

In a rush of activity that follows on from nearly 50 years of almost total silence on the subject, military tribunals in Verona, La Spezia, Turin and elsewhere are all looking for possible cases to prosecute. One has already emerged - another former SS captain who ordered the shooting of 15 partisans in Milan in August 1944, at the height of the civil war pitting resistance fighters against Italians loyal to the puppet Fascist republic of Salo.

The shooting became such a symbol of partisan outrage that when Mussolini and his mistress, Clara Petacci, were captured and shot at the end of the war, their bodies were brought to the same site in Piazzale Loreto and hung upside down as a crude gesture of revenge.

Prosecutors in Turin announced this week that they were seeking an indictment against the former captain, who has lived in Germany since the war. They did not name him, but he is believed to be Theodor Sawecke, now in his early eighties, who was stationed with the SS in Milan in 1944.

This renewed interest in prosecuting Nazis, an activity the Italians have not engaged in since 1948, is due almost entirely to the Priebke case - an affair that has highlighted Italy's previous reluctance to come to terms with the darker episodes of its past.

Priebke was extradited from Argentina a year ago after being "discovered" by a US television crew, and put on trial for his role in the massacre of 335 civilians in the Ardeatine Caves outside Rome in June 1944. The military court that heard his case, however, chose not to send him to jail, on the grounds that he had been under severe pressure to obey orders.

That verdict, which outraged the Italian establishment, was deemed a shoddy piece of justice and eventually quashed on appeal last week. Priebke will now appear in the dock again sometime in mid-December, joined this time by a fellow former SS officer, Karl Hass, who originally appeared at the trial as a witness for the prosecution.

One of the themes to emerge from the first trial was that Italy not only turned its back on war crimes after 1948, the date of the last big military tribunals, but actively sought to bury them. One military prosecutor, Sergio Dini of Padua, has alleged that thousands of cases were deliberately consigned to the archives in the 1950s and 1960s.

The renewed activity looks like a belated attempt to make up for this long period of bad faith. It could prove too hot to handle. By chasing old Nazis, the Italians risk opening a can of worms about the behaviour of their own citizens.

The massacre for which Sawecke is being pursued is a case in point. Although ordered by Kesselring, the supreme German commander in Italy, it was carried out by Italians loyal to Mussolini. If military prosecutors are going to pursue the German officers, then logic dictates they must sooner or later started delving into the cases of surviving Italians. That kind of investigation, with all the national soul-searching that it implies, may be more than Italy is prepared to countenance.