Berlin worries the verdict could set off an avalanche of World War II-related court cases against the German government. On Oct. 22, Italy's highest appellate court, the Cassation, ruled that Germany must pay €1 million in compensation to the descendents of those killed by Nazi soldiers in the Italian town of Civitella in 1944.
Now, Germany has taken the case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague in the hopes that it will rule that the payments don't have to be made. A spokesman for the foreign ministry in Berlin on Saturday confirmed a report in this week's SPIEGEL, saying that the ICJ "has been asked to clarify this question."
The October verdict in Rome also sentenced a German officer named Max Josef Milde in abstentia to life in prison. The court found that the officer was involved in the June 29, 1944 massacre which saw over 200 villagers, including the village priest, executed in revenge for the killing of three German soldiers by partisans 10 days earlier. Germany and Italy signed an agreement in 1961, which resulted in a blanket payment of 40 million deutsche marks.
Of particular concern to Berlin, however, is the finding that Germany can also be held liable for the massacre. Such a precedent could trigger an expensive wave of individual lawsuits against Germany.
"Germany is right to be concerned that this verdict could clear the way for an unending series of other lawsuits," Antonio Cassese, the former president of the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia, told the Süddeutsche Zeitung.
Germany's position is that the verdict transgresses rules regarding state immunity, which govern the degree to which a country can be sued in the courts of another country. Germany has successfully used the approach in the past in numerous cases regarding Nazi crimes.
As a result of the October ruling, there is a real possibility that German properties in Italy could be seized. According to information received by SPIEGEL, there are 51 cases pending in Italy that are similar to the Civitella case. In addition, there are tens of thousands of victims of Nazi crimes in Italy who could now be moved to file suit. Families of the 600,000 Italian slave laborers brought into the Third Reich during World War II could likewise begin filing lawsuits on the strength of the precedent.
Still, even within Italy there are those who are uncomfortable with the October verdict. "If courts can decide from case to case whether a country can be granted immunity, the principle of state immunity becomes capricious," Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told the Süddeutsche Zeitung recently.
Indeed, the Italian precedent could pave a legal path for a global wave of lawsuits, extending from victims of colonialism in Africa to the families of those who died in the US bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is now up to the ICJ.
Correction: In the original version of this story, the International Court of Justice was erroneously referred to as the International Criminal Court. We apologize for the error.