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Erich Priebke

Erich Priebke was a Hauptsturmfuhrer (Captain) in the Waffen SS. In 1996 he was convicted of war crimes in Italy, for participating in the massacre at the Ardeatine caves in Rome, on March 24, 1944. 335 Italian civilians were killed there in retaliation after a partisan attack had claimed the lives of 33 German soldiers (an SS military police battalion from Bolzano-Bozen). Priebke was one of those who was held responsible for this mass execution. After the defeat of Nazi Germany, he got help to flee to Argentina where he lived for over 50 years.

In 1991, Priebke's participation in the Rome massacre was denounced in Esteban Buch's book El pintor de la Suiza Argentina . In 1994, 50 years after the massacre, Priebke felt he could now talk about the incident and was interviewed by an American ABC News reporter Sam Donaldson. This caused outrage among people who had not forgotten the incident, and led to his extradition to Italy and 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 (members of an SS military police battalion from Bolzano-Bozen) were killed when members of the Italian Resistance set off a bomb close to their column, and attacked the soldiers with firearms and grenades while they were marching along via Rasella, in Rome. This attack was led by the Gruppi di azione patriottica.

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 to be killed. 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, mostly Italian. The largest cohesive group among those executed were the members of Bandiera Rossa (Red Flag), a non-mainstream Communist (Trotskyist) military Resistance group, along with more than 70 Jews.

On the 24 March, led by SS officers, Erich Priebke and Karl Hass, the victims were killed inside 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 a mistake had been made and that five additional people who were not on the list had been brought up to the caves.

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. Priebke is often accused of murder because an additional 5 people were killed who were not on the list of 330 condemned by the "ten to one" rule. As a result Priebke's trial strongly focused on these 5 extra killings. Priebke was responsible for the list and his complicity in those killings ruled out any possible justification for Priebke's behaviour on the basis of "obedience to official orders".

75 of the 335 victims were Jewish. Even if this was among the criteria for the massacre, the first goal was to fill the numerical 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 of this retaliation was unprecedented. Since the Allied invasion of Italy in 1943 and the subsequent overthrow of Mussolini, anti-Fascists and members of the Italian Resistance had been practicing guerilla warfare against Axis troops.

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 news magazine 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, Obersturmbannfuhrer (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 who were to be killed.

A free man

In post-WWII trials, Priebke had been 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. After he had escaped, he lived with a family in Sterzing/Vipiteno. During this time he received on 13 September 1948 a second baptism by a local priest.

After his time in Bolzano-Bozen he went to Vatican City in Rome to find protection. Bishop Alois Hudal, a main participant in the Vatican's Ratlines, was accustomed to making false travel documents for German officials who had been involved in the war, and he supplied Priebke with a falsified visa to travel to Argentina (then led by Juan Peron). Though alleged to have been responsible for war crimes, Priebke lived in Argentina 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. Argentine authorities arrested Priebke. Because of his old age and poor health, he was at first not imprisoned, but rather held under 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 Argentine court eventually denied the process, but appeals and other delays caused the extradition 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 Argentine 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 Supreme Court of Argentina 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, an Argentine 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 Argentine government, Germany demanded extradition the same day. The Italian military prosecutor, Antonio Intelisano, argued that FN agreements which Argentina was signatory to, expressly state that cases of war criminals and crimes against humanity do not expire.

After seventeen months of delays, the Argentine 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 whom he branded as "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 found 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, 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, as it was a baseless excuse"Without an unquestioning attitude towards obeying orders, the successful conduct of military operations, the success of a military campaign, and even the survival of a nation would be seriously threatened. Yet, the soldier, and especially the officer, also has a legal obligation to disobey orders that violate the constitution or the law, and has a moral and ethical obligation to disobey orders that are contrary to societal norms. Thus, the soldier's requirement to obey orders is not open-ended,and the oath of loyalty is not an excuse for blind patriotism or blind obedience to orders, the infamous "I was following orders" defense. Even within the German Military tradition, such a defense is not legally permissible, despite its use by the defendants at the Nuremberg war crimes trials (as well as at other war crimes trials). Article 47 of the 1872 German Military Penal Code, still legally in force, if not unenforced, down to 1945, stated:

If execution of an order given in line of duty violates a statute of the penal code, the superior giving the order is alone responsible. However, the subordinate, obeying the order is liable to punishment as an accomplice if ... he knew that the order involved an act the commission of which constituted a civil or military crime or offense.

Ironically, even Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, reiterated the essence of Article 47 and refuted the "I was only following orders" defense in a May 28, 1944 article in the German newspaper Deutsche Allgemeine. As we shall see later, there is precedence within the Prusso-German military tradition for disobedience to orders.

The oath is not an excuse which the soldier can use to justify immoral acts after the fact, as we saw it used by numerous former German military officers during the various war crime trials that followed World War II or by the defendants in the My Lai massacre trial in 1971."

Note: emphasized text is from the original.

Source: Robert B. Kane, Disobedience and Conspiracy in the German Army, 1918-1945, McFarland, 2001, ISBN 0-7864-1104-X, p. 15..

The Court of Cassation voided the decision, ordering a new trial for Priebke. He was sentenced to 15 years. These were reduced to 10 years because of his age and alleged ill health. In March 1998, the Court of Appeal condemned him to life imprisonment, together with Karl Hass, another former member of the SS. The decision was upheld in November of the same year by the Court of Cassation. Because of his age, Priebke has been put under house arrest.

Furthermore, 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.

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 not accepted during the Nuremberg Trials (see Nuremberg Defense and Nuremberg Principle IV). Moreover, it has 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 80 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's decision was overturned.


In 2007 two stamps printed by the Post of Finland, sent by Erich Priebke to his son, caused some quarrel in Argentina. In Finland it is possible to buy stamps with your own picture on it, and according to the post officials, nobody knew that the man in the image was a Nazi war criminal.

In June 2007, Erich Priebke had his work permit revoked by an Italian magistrate after a day of protests. The magistrate cited that Priebke had failed to adequately communicate his movements. He was supposed to be working in his lawyer's offices as a clerk and a translator, given his knowledge of German, Spanish, English and French languages. The issue of a work permit to the former Nazi SS captain sparked outrage, particularly in the Italian Jewish community.

See also

Ex-Nazis and List of living Nazis

Nuremberg Principle IV

External links

Erich Priebke home page

Interview with Erich Priebke by Antonella Ricciardi, 3 July 2004

Remembering evil - Reason.com

The Massacre at the Ardeatine Caves, 24 March 1944

Erich Priebke 2005-2007 in a Finnish stamp, 12 December 2005

Trial Watch - a Swiss site re. Priebke's trial

Italians protest outside Priebke's office in July 2007

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