War criminal Nazi SS captain Erich Priebke dies at 100

War criminal Nazi SS captain Erich Priebke dies at 100

Photo story:  (Clockwise from top left) (1) Erich Priebke in Rome military court for a hearing on 19th July, 1996, (2) Priebke, Nazi SS police during WWII, (3) Entrance to the Ardeatine caves, Rome (4) In March, 1944, Italian collaborators and German soldiers rounding up Italian civilians

Erich Priebke was a German captain in the Nazi SS police force. He was convicted of most heinous of war crimes German occupiers carried out in Italy during WWII and evaded arrest for almost 50 years. He has died this Friday at the age of 100, his lawyer said. For taking part in the massacre of 335 Italian civilians at the Ardeatine caves in Rome on 24th March 1944, he was convicted of war crimes in Italy in 1996, The www.nzherald.co.nz reports.

When interviewed by US reporter Sam Donaldson of ABC news in 1994, Priebke felt like he could open his mouth about the massacre. The interview showed that how openly the war criminal could live in Argentina without showing any remorse for his actions. This caused uttermost outrage among the people who had not forgotten the monstrosity carried out by the Nazi war criminal.  This led to a four year long trial upon his extradition to Italy from Argentina in 1995.  The Italian Court of Appeal found him guilty and sentenced him to Life in Prison along with another Nazi SS Lieutenant-Colonel, but because of their age they were both put under house arrest. Under house arrest at the home of his lawyer, Paolo Giachini, he served the sentence. Another lawyer Carlo Taormina said that Priebke felt like he had been made the scapegoat as many other German soldiers who participated in the massacre were not convicted.

On March 23, 1944, Priebke was the second in command at Nazi Secret Police, Gestapo headquarters, when a partisan bomb attack on the SS Police regiment Bozen killed 33 German soldiers in Via Rasella, Central Rome. The partisan forces in Italy formed the Italian resistance movement, an umbrella for the pro-Allied Italians fighting the Nazi Germans and the Fascist Italian puppet regime. This attack was spearheaded by the partisan group Gruppi di Azione Partigiana (GAP). Priebke later said that as a reprisal Adolf Hitler personally responded with order to execute ten Italians for every German soldier killed. Priebke insisted that he was only following orders but he admitted rounding up victims and shooting two people.

Within 24 hours of the partisan attack Nazi Commander in Rome Herbert Kappler compiled list of 330 Italian civilian men and boys to be killed. Priebke was responsible for the list and it was found that 5 extra civilian were brought up to the caves and were killed too. Most of the 335 executed were members of a communist military group Bandiera Rossa (Red flag) along with 70 Jews. The victims were killed inside the Ardeatine caves five at a time. By candlelight, the Nazis shot the victims in the back of the head. The bodies of the victims were placed in one meter high piles. Then the German military engineers set explosives to bury the victims under rock debris and seal up the caves by blowing off the entrance. The bodies were found a year later only after Rome was liberated by the Allied forces on 4th June, 1944. It was an unprecedented scale of retaliation monstrosity on Italian soil.

After WWII before Priebke could be tried for the massacre, he escaped in 1946 from a British prisoner of war camp in Rimini, northeastern Italy. He immigrated to Argentina with fake visa supplied by German officials involved in the war. He ran a cafeteria there, led a German-Argentine cultural organization and lived as free man for 50 years.

After Donaldson’s investigative interview and research, amidst strong public reaction Argentine law enforcement authorities arrested Priebke. On Nov, 20th, 1995 which was the 50th anniversary of the initiation of Nuremberg trials, he was extradited to Italy. On 12th June, 2004, under house arrest the war criminal was given small freedoms like going to church, doing personal shopping, working at his lawyers office in Rome, which led to angry protests from the Jewish organizations and the Judge’s decision of small freedoms was overturned.

Chief Nazi hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Efraim Zuroff said that Priebke’s case proved that it is never too late to seek justice. Mentioning Priebke as a classic example of an unprecedented war criminal he also said that Priebke’s death at 100 would remain as a strong reminder that some of the worst perpetrators of the crimes of Holocaust had been living to healthy old age. He also said that a person’s age should never prevent them from being held responsible for their crime. ‘If they are healthy enough to be brought to justice’ he added.

Mohammad Rafi Saad

Mohammad Rafi Saad is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE