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Erich Priebke

Erich Priebke on his early SS career
Erich Priebke on his early SS career.
Erich Priebke during the trial
Erich Priebke during the trial.

Erich Priebke (born July 29, 1913 at Hennigsdorf, Brandenburg, Germany) is a Nazi war criminal. A former Hauptsturmführer in the S.S., he participated in the massacre at the Ardeatine caves in Rome, on March 24, 1944. 335 Italian civilians were killed there as revenge after a partisan group had killed 33 German soldiers and an unknown number of civilians. Priebke was one of those who stood responsible for this mass execution. After the Nazis were defeated, he got help from ODESSA to flee to Argentina where he lived for over 50 years.

In 1994, 50 years after the massacre, Priebke felt it was safe to talk about the incident and was interviewed by an ABC News reporter. This caused great outrage among people who had far from forgotten the incident, and this was the start of a trial which would last more than four years.


The massacre of Fosse Ardeatine took place in Italy during World War II. On 23 March 1944, 33 German soldiers were killed when members of the Italian Resistance set off a bomb close to a column of German soldiers who were marching on via Rasella. This attack was led by the Partito d'Azione.

Adolf Hitler is reported but never confirmed to have ordered that within 24 hours, ten condemned Italians were to be shot for each dead German. Commander Herbert Kappler in Rome quickly compiled a list of 320 prisoners -- all of them already facing death sentences for partisan activities -- whose executions were to be hurried. Kappler voluntarily added ten more names to the list when the 33rd German died after the Partisan attack. The total number of people executed at the Fosse Ardeatine was 335, most Italians. The largest cohesive group among the murdered were the members of Bandiera Rossa (Red Flag), a non-mainstream Communist (Trotskyist) military Resistance group.

On the 24 March, led by SS officers Erich Priebke and Karl Hass, the victims were transported to the Ardeatine caves in groups of five. They were led into the caves with their hands tied behind their back and then shot in the neck. Many were forced to kneel down over the bodies of those who had been killed before them. During the killings, it was found that by a mistake five more people than were supposed to have been taken to the caves had been brought there, but they were killed -- some say in order to prevent news of the retaliation from spreading, though that seems irrational, since the retaliation could only have an impact if it were known as a retaliation.

Popular perceptions of the Fosse Ardeatine are numerous. The foremost among these is the notion that the Partisans who attacked in via Rasella should have turned themselves in; this stems from a popularly-held notion that the Nazis gave warning to the Roman public that a retaliation was imminent. The concept of "ten Italians for one German" is also frequently applied to this argument, as if the Partisans could or should have realized that their attack would cost 330 Italians their lives. There were arguments among the Nazi leadership in Rome and between Hitler and his command over whether 50, 30, or 10 Italians should be killed for every German. Anyway, 5 more people than implied by the "ten to one" rule have been killed in the Fosse Ardeatine massacre, and indeed Priebke's trial was strongly focused on these 5 extra killings because that rules out any possible justification for Priebke's behaviour on the basis of alleged "obedience to official orders".

Although it would be expected - and indeed it is frequently claimed - that the victims of the Fosse Ardeatine were predominantly Jewish, this is not so; 75 of the 335 victims were Jewish. Even if this was among the criteria for the massacre, the first goal was to fill the number quota; many of the prisoners at via Tasso and Regina Coeli who happened to be available at the time were sent to their deaths by the Nazis at the Fosse Ardeatine. Some of these prisoners had simply been residents of via Rasella who were home at the time of the bombing; others had been arrested and tortured for Resistance- and anti-fascist-related activities. Not all of the Partisans who were killed were members of the same Resistance group. Members of the GAP, the PA, and Bandiera Rossa, in addition to the Clandestine Military Front were all on the list of those to be executed. Furthermore, the scale and even the occurrence at all of this retaliation was unprecedented. Since Nazi occupation of Rome in 1943, anti-Fascists and members of the Resistance had been practicing guerilla warfare against their occupiers and oppressors.

The cultural and political fallout from the Fosse Ardeatine, and more generally from the Fascist movement after WWII, continues today. Alessandro Portelli's The Order Has Been Carried Out is an important work on the action in via Rasella and the Fosse Ardeatine.

In the spotlight

In 1994, reporter Sam Donaldson filmed a report about Priebke for the ABC Television newsmagazine Primetime Live. Priebke spoke openly about his role in the massacre. He also justified his actions by saying that he only followed orders from the Gestapo chief of Rome, Obersturmbannführer (equivalent to Lieutenant Colonel) Herbert Kappler. When testifying after the war, Kappler explained that Priebke had been ordered to make sure that all the victims were brought to the caves and executed and to check the list of people which were to be killed.

A free man

In post-WWII trials, Priebke was also set to be tried for his role in the massacre, but he managed to escape from a British prison camp in northeastern Italy in 1946. Two years later he resurfaced in Argentina where he lived as a free man for 50 years.

Priebke told Donaldson that the victims - from 14 year old boys to 75 year old men - were nothing but terrorists. He admitted that it was he who compiled the lists of those who were going to be executed. In addition to the massacre, Priebke is thought to have participated in the deportation of 6,000-7,000 Jews from Italy to Auschwitz concentration camp, and to have tortured political prisoners.

The trials

The extradition of Priebke

Donaldson's news report showed how openly Priebke could live in Argentina, and how little remorse he felt for his actions. This caused strong reactions by many people. Argentinean authorities arrested Priebke. Because of his old age and poor health, he was at first not imprisoned, but rather held in house arrest at his home in Bariloche, the ski resort where he had lived since 1949.

The extradition of Priebke had several delays - his lawyers used tactics like demanding all Italian documents be translated to Spanish, a process which could have taken two years. The Argentinean court eventually denied the process, but appeals and other delays caused the case to take more than a year. His lawyers made arguments that the case was expired since murder cases expire after 15 years.

In March 1995, after nine months of delays, the president of the Jewish organization B'nai B'rith was promised, by among others the Argentinean president Carlos Menem, that the case would soon be closed, and that Priebke was to be transferred to Italy by the end of the month. In spite of these promises, the Argentinian supreme court decided that the case was to be transferred to the local court in Bariloche where the case was originally brought up. This opened the possibility for years of delays from future appeals, while Priebke could live at his home.

In May 1995, a federal judge accepted the Italian demand for extradition on the grounds that cases of crimes against humanity could not expire. But there were more appeals and rumors that the court might change the ruling.

In August of the same year, it was judged that Priebke was not to be extradited because the case had expired. To put pressure on the Argentinean government, Germany demanded extradition the same day. The Italian military prosecutor, Antonio Intelisano, argued that FN agreements which Argentina were part of, express that cases of war criminals and crimes against humanity can not expire.

After seventeen months of delays, the Argentinean supreme court decided that Priebke was to be extradited to Italy. He was put on a direct flight from Bariloche to Ciampino, a military airport close to the Ardeatine caves, where the executions had been carried out many years earlier.

Priebke in court

In court, Priebke declared himself not guilty. He did not deny what he had done, but he denied any responsibility. He blamed the massacre on the Italian terrorists who were behind the attack in which 33 young German soldiers were killed. The order came directly from Hitler, and he thought it was a legitimate punishment.

During the trial it became clear that Priebke had personally shot two Italians. This was also in his testimony from 1946 before he managed to escape.

Around noon on March 24, 1944, between 80 and 90 men went to the Ardeatine Caves, Rome. All were tied with their hands behind their backs and their names were read out loud. Five and five went into the caves. Priebke went inside together with the second or third group and shot a man with an Italian machine pistol. Towards the end he shot another man with the same machine pistol. The executions ended when it got dark that night. After the shootings, explosives were used to shut the caves.

Priebke was ruled not guilty, because the case was judged to be expired.

On August 1, 1996 orders were given for the immediate release of Priebke. The Italian minister of justice later told that Priebke might be arrested again, depending on whether or not he was going to be extradited to Germany, where he was charged with murder. The courts were blocked by demonstrators for over seven hours after Priebke's trial.

The judges voted two against and one for sentencing the 83 year old Priebke for taking part of the massacres, which he himself had admitted, but he was released because he was following orders.

There were strong reactions from family members of the victims, who claimed that the judges put no value on human lives. Shimon Samuels, the leader of the Simon Wiesenthal Center said that with this ruling, Italy was permitting crimes against humanity.

The appeal

The case was appealed by the prosecutors. The day after, Germany asked Italy to keep Priebke imprisoned until their demand to have him extradited was processed, as they wanted him put on trial for the murders of two people that he had personally shot.

Outside the courthouse there were demonstrations, but when it became known that Priebke had been rearrested, these calmed down. Many people later went to visit the Ardeatine Caves to honor the victims.

The Italian supreme court decided that the court that had freed Priebke was incompetent and the appeal went through. Among other things it was questioned why the Nuremberg trials were not taken up earlier, since it had been concluded that an individual has personal responsibility for his actions. The reason that Priebke had been released was that he followed orders. He claimed that if he had not obeyed, he would have been executed himself, but the appeals would not accept this.

In March 1997 it was decided that Priebke could not be extradited to Germany. The reason for this was that he was now going through a trial which was for the same things that Germany wanted him tried for. He was not to be tried for the same crime twice.

On April 14, 1997 the new trial began. Priebke was sentenced to fifteen years in prison, while another man who also was part of the massacre, Karl Hass, was sentenced to ten years. Because of an amnesty which was given a few years earlier, Priebke had to do five years, while Hass was released. Additionally Priebke got some time subtracted because of the time he had spent in house arrest and in custody in Italy. The sentence thus was to be 2-3 years.

Priebke's appeals

Priebke denied any responsibility, and therefore appealed the case. At the appeals it was decided that Hass and Priebke had committed cruel murders of the first degree and that they should be put away for life.

Priebke himself claimed that he was the victim of intense hatred, and that he was blamed for all atrocities done during WWII. "I gave Argentina 50 years of my life, and they don't want me. (...) I fought for Germany during the war, now they want me put to trial for obeying orders."

Priebke appealed the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, where he claimed he had no choice but to obey Hitler's orders, a defense which has been ruled invalid ever since the Nuremberg Trials. Moreover, it's been underlined by many that in the massacre of the Fosse Ardeatine 335 died, 5 more than required by the order "10 Italians executed for each German killed". These 5 extra victims are a responsibility of Erich Priebke alone, since he was given the duty of checking the list.

On March 20, 2004, Priebke was 91 years old, the oldest prisoner in Europe. 80 Nazi and fascist sympathizers gathered in a room of the Centro Lettarario in Trieste to show their support for the man. He is currently under house arrest because of his old age, and on June 12, 2007 he received authorization to leave his home for working reasons, being now expected to work at his lawyer's office in Rome. This led to angry protests from Jewish groups and the judge decision was overturned.

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