Nazis in Italy: War Crimes Report Estimates 165 Murders Per Day

By in Rome

Some 165 murders a day. That is the horrifying conclusion reached by an historical commission assigned the task of exploring the full extent of Nazi war crimes committed in Italy in World War II. The identity of many of the murderers has long been known, but to this day little has been done to bring them to justice.

A momument to the victims of Nazi war crimes in Sant'Anna di Stazzema. Zoom
REUTERS

A momument to the victims of Nazi war crimes in Sant'Anna di Stazzema.

Roberto Oligeri still lives in the small village in Toscana where his family was murdered. The killers marched into the hamlet on Aug. 19, 1944. Held at gunpoint, his father, who ran a small inn, was forced to serve Sturmbahnführer Walter Reder and his underlings a meal. As they dined on roast chicken and regional wine, soldiers from the 16th SS Mechanized Infantry Division combed through the village and surrounding area and rounded up women, children and a handful of old men. When Reder had finished his meal, he gave the order that all of them be killed.

"On that day, 160 people in our village were muredered, including my five siblings -- two brothers and three sisters. The oldest was 19 and the youngest just three," says Oligeri.

Neighboring villages experienced the same fate as SS troops beat, murdered and burned men, women and babies in that August of 1944. Some 560 people died in the mountain village of Sant'Anna di Stazzema on August 12 alone.

The crimes have never been atoned for nor have they been adequately addressed by the judiciary. An Italian court did sentence 10 of the SS thugs involved in the Sant'Anna di Stazzema massacre to life in prison in abstentia, but Germany never extradited them. And just recently, a court in Stuttgart refused to pursue the case, saying that murderous intent could not be proven.

It was a decision that enraged Oligeri as a slew of similar failures by the judiciary have enraged him before. He says that survivors of the massacre were left alone to deal with their pain and nightmares while the perpetrators returned home to a normal, peaceful life. He has pursued the case in multiple courts, but has never found success. He has also written endless letters to politicians and newspapers. "We don't want revenge," he says. "We want justice."

Brutal and Murderous

It might still be awhile before he gets it. On Wednesday, a new report was released on the crimes committed by Germany during its occupation of Italy shortly before the end of World War II. Historians from both countries spent some four years examining original sources to determine exactly what happened in Italy after the country's fascist government -- until then an ally of Nazi Germany -- changed sides in September 1943 and negotiated a truce with the Allies.

The more difficult the situation for German troops in Italy became, the more brutal their murderous behavior. They declared more than 600,000 Italian soldiers as "military internees," denying them the status of prisoners of war, and shipped them to Germany or the Balkans to perform forced labor. Thousands died.

The Germans also descended on the Italian civilian population with homicidal ferocity. One example is the "revenge operation" of March 24, 1944: Some 335 people were dragged to the Ardeatine Caves on the outskirts of Rome and shot before the caves were then blown up. To this day the victims are buried there.

One historian estimates that, on average, the Germans killed165 civilians, prisoners of war and military internees every day between Sept. 8, 1943 and May 8, 1945. That figure doesn't include victims from skirmishes between the German army and Italian soliders and guerillas. "The massacre was on the whole thoroughly organized and followed tight military procedure," according to Carlo Gentile, a professor of Italian history at the University of Cologne. It is even known who the killers are, along with their units, their commanders and other information. And yet there have still, to this day, been but a very few convictions.

For years after the war, political expediency dictated that the issue was largely ignored in Italy. In the postwar conflict between East and West, Germany was to be rearmed so as to play a meaningful role in the new North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Focusing attention on German war crimes would have generated substantial opposition among the Italian population.

Not a Single Verdict

Only much later did significant public pressure force Rome to initiate a handfull of proceedings -- and a few German perpetrators were finally punished. Erich Priebke, for example, one of the SS officers who participated in the Ardeatine Caves massacre, received a life long sentence. At the age of 99, he is still alive today and remains under house arrest in Rome.

In Germany, however, not a single, legally binding verdict related to the war crimes committed in Italy was handed down.

Resentment in Italy has occasionally boiled over. Such was the case four years ago, when Germany successfully avoided paying reparations to the relatives of murdered civilians in a case at the European Court of Justice. States are "immune" to such civil claims, Berlin's lawyers successfully argued.

Italians were outraged, and the German government made an effort to show some understanding. "The unresolved World War past holds some potential to strain German-Italian relations," said Michael Steiner, who was the German Ambassador to Rome at the time. But morality and justice must not be confused, he said. In an attempt to calm the situation, a historical commission was appointed to begin an "intensive, trusting dialogue."

This Wednesday when the report was presented, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said that he deeply regretted the "terrible war crimes" committed by the Germans in Italy. He also expressed an understanding for the anger of the Italian public over the ruling in the case against the murders in von Sant'Anna di Stazzema, he said.

There are now plans to erect a memorial at the site of the forced labor camp in Berlin's Niederschöneweide district to honor the fate of Italian soldiers captured by the Nazis. There is also be a small memorial created in Italy.

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1. Time to put the past in the past
KevinBlankinship 12/20/2012
Anyone who was 18 years old in 1945 would be at least 87 years old today. Any war criminals still alive from that era would have been low in rank. Prosecution may nail the occasional camp guard, but the big fish have either already been caught or are now dead. Germany will probably eventually forget that era, and most Germans today weren't alive then. But the country's culture has much improved since then. As far as modern-day German intransigence on the prosecution of remaining war criminals goes, Germany is what it is.
2. Justice?
ilsehoyle 12/20/2012
Zitat von sysopSome 165 murders a day. That is the horrifying conclusion reached by an historical commission assigned the task of exploring the full extent of Nazi war crimes committed in Italy in World War II. The identity of many of the murderers has long been known, but to this day little has been done to bring them to justice. http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/war-crimes-report-explores-world-war-ii-nazi-brutality-in-italy-a-874024.html
There is no justice. I would want revenge.
3. Why aren't Germans protesting?
pmoseley 12/21/2012
So why has the lack of prosecution of German war criminals been left to the Italians to protest about? Why haven't the German people and politicians been more active over the years in protesting to their own government about prosecuting them? Don't they care anymore about redemption?
4. Priebke Christmas message - Freedom at last
Alexandervl 12/21/2012
As far as I remember the 2nd world war ended 67 years ago. How many new wars with million of deads have occured since? What is it the point in digging in this long passed event? Is it seeking for justice? I doubt. Is it seeking for peace and friendship? I doubt. Could it be that more contemporary political and financial reasons stand as motivation behind these old nazi-war-stories? What does the faith of Erich Priebke tells us of nowadays society, who at the age of 99 1/2 is still being detained in life emprisonment in Rome? Isn't there a humane voice in us that tells us that a man being in his 100st living year should be, no matter what he could have been done in his past, for sure given amnesty? I mean can there be any doubt on this matter in a civilized and humane society? Is ever lasting revenge our guiding principle? Or shouldn't it be, at one point, plain decent forgiveness? Have a look at the christmas message from Erich Priebke himself. I have no doubt that you will also believe that is finally the time to let free this old man, last prisoner alive of the 2nd world war, at the age of 99 1/2: http://youtube.com/watch?v=RplUVJTM4Uo Merry Christmas to you and peace and friendship for all mankind. AvL
5. Misleading impressions given by the article
stevej8 12/23/2012
There is no doubt that massacres and war crimes were committed by some German troops in Italy, however this article conveys the impression that this was a practically universal activity of German forces, whereas it was mostly on the part of certain units especially SS, sometimes on their own local initiative (ie without specific direct orders from high up, though Hitler had ordered retaliations against partisan attacks in general - which Allied leaders such as Stalin and Churchill based their strategy on in part) and many German troops carried out no such deeds, as well as that every claim of such actions and numbers of victims is established beyond doubt, without any consideration of factors such as possible (and in some other cases proven) deliberate exaggeration (on occasion) by eg Communist propaganda, or even similar actions if on a smaller scale by partisans who also fought a ruthless war in the East especially. Furthermore Italian forces themselves had conducted ruthless wars in Africa and the Balkans often hitting civilians hard, as to some degree did Italian forces of the 'Salo Republic' at this time, which illustrates the context of the times at issue, and of course German and other 'Axis' nation civilians were also killed in large numbers in the late war years by Allied forces and partisans (eg in Yugoslavia). None of which justifies the targeting of civilians (though the laws of war were not quite so clearly defined then as later), yet the impression should be avoided that only Germans were doing this, and that all Germans were involved, both of which are far from the truth.
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