Italians protest against Nazi war criminal on his 100th birthday

Unrepentant Nazi war criminal Erich Priebke has been under house arrest for the last 15 years.

Protest in Rome against Nazi 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Yara Nardi)
Protest in Rome against Nazi 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Yara Nardi)
ROME – The 100th birthday of unrepentant Nazi war criminal Erich Priebke on Monday sparked a vocal protest outside the Rome apartment where the former SS captain has been under house arrest for the last 15 years.
Members of Priebke’s legal team and a few friends – one carrying a bottle of champagne – had to work their way through a crowd of more than 200 demonstrators, police officers and journalists in order to enter the apartment for what appeared to be a small birthday celebration.
Protesters called for the conditions of Priebke’s arrest to be toughened and for authorities to force him to show remorse for his crimes. They read out loud the names of the 335 Italian civilians Priebke is charged with killing in 1944 in retaliation for a bombing by Italian partisans that killed 33 soldiers from an SS battalion in northern Italy.
Throughout the protest, there was no movement from inside Priebke’s apartment, located in a working-class neighborhood just west of the Vatican City walls.
“Considering what this man has done, there is no reason he should be treated so leniently,” said Barbara Pontecorvo, a 44-year-old lawyer and a member of the Jewish community in Rome.
“Small-time criminals in Italy are treated much harsher than he is.”
Tomer Kling, a 37-year-old musician visiting Rome from Tel Aviv said, “I came here to demonstrate because we have to remember the horror of what happened so that it can never happen again.”
The massacre of the 335 civilians took place on March 24, 1944, near the Ardeatine Caves outside Rome. Adolf Hitler is reported to have ordered 10 Italians killed for every dead German, and so a list of 330 Italian resistance members, including at least 70 Jews, was drawn up. The prisoners were taken to the caves by Priebke and Karl Haas, another SS officer, and shot in groups of five.
In his trial, Priebke, who checked the names of the men off the list as they were being killed, said he was following orders from Berlin and should not be held responsible for the decisions made by his superiors. That argument drew attention to the five extra people killed as proof that Priebke went beyond what he was ordered to do. It was also alleged that he may have pulled the trigger himself in at least two cases.
After the war, the former SS captain escaped from a British prison camp and eventually fled to Argentina, where he lived freely for 50 years. But after a 1994 high-profile television interview with US news program Primetime Live in which he showed little remorse for his actions during the war, efforts to extradite Priebke to Italy began to gain momentum. After several delays, he was forced to return to Italy in 1994, where he stood trial and was found not guilty two years later.
After demonstrations sparked an appeal from prosecutors, Priebke was retried in 1998 and sentenced to life imprisonment, as was Haas, who died in 2004.
As a result of an Italian law stating that convicted criminals over the age of 80 are to be sentenced to house arrest rather than prison, Priebke was ordered to be confined to his apartment for the rest of his life.
At least one shopkeeper in the area said during an interview on Monday that Priebke sometimes left his apartment to shop nearby, though not recently.
While some protesters blasted the Italian government for what they said were cushy conditions for Priebke’s house arrest, others called on him to repent for his actions – something he has never done.
“The orders were that 10 Italians had to die for every German death,” Priebke told American journalist Sam Donaldson in the Primetime Live interview. “Some were civilians but they were mostly terrorists. When there is a war, you must follow orders.”