Nazi funeral that’s forcing Italy to face its past

The death of the war criminal Erich Priebke has reopened deep wounds and made many ask how much help he got to evade capture


Has Italy fully confronted the horrors of its Nazi-fascist past? That question was prompted this week by the sight of neo-fascists saluting in honour of Nazi war criminal Erich Priebke, who died last week at the age of 100.

If the young neo-fascists who featured in scuffles in Albano Laziale this week when they went to pay homage to Priebke wanted to know more about what he did, they should have talked to Ada Pignotti. This correspondent met Pignotti in May 1996, on the opening day of Priebke’s trial in Rome for multiple homicide. Months previously, Priebke had been extradited from Argentina, where he had lived since 1948.

Arrested at the end of the second World War, Priebke escaped from a British POW camp near Rimini in 1946, moving to Argentina two years later. He later claimed that he had been hidden and helped by a Vatican “ratline” run by the Hungarian bishop Alois Hudal. Remarkably, he went off the radar for nearly 50 years, only being “discovered” in 1994 by an ABC TV crew, acting on a tip-off from the Simon Wiesenthal Foundation in Los Angeles.

In the courtroom that day in May 1996, the hurt and pain were all around. Elegant, petite, 75-year-old Pignotti told us how on March 23rd, 1944, she and her husband, Umberto, had travelled across Nazi-occupied Rome to visit in-laws who owned a shop. That Pignotti family gathering was violently interrupted by a huge partisan bomb attack on nearby Via Rasella, in which 33 German soldiers were killed.

Within minutes the area had been cordoned off by Nazi forces. Soon, soldiers were kicking down the doors of the Pignotti apartment building as they rounded up everybody present. The last time Pignotti saw Umberto, he was standing with his hands behind his head and his back to a wall, waiting to be loaded into a lorry.

Reprisals ordered
By that evening an enraged Adolf Hitler had ordered a reprisal killing of 10 Italians for every dead German. Working feverishly through the night, the Nazi commander in Rome, Hauptsturmführer Herbert Kappler, drew up a list, including prisoners, captured partisan fighters and people such as Umberto.

In so doing he had been helped by the fascist police chief Pietro Caruso, who threw in 55 Roman Jews for good measure, with the approval of Mussolini, then heading his puppet Salo Republic, in northern Italy.

The next day Umberto and 334 others were taken to the Fosse Ardeatine caves. As they climbed out of the lorries, an SS captain stood by with a list, ticking off their names. Hands tied behind their backs, the men were made to kneel, sometimes on the bodies of those shot before them, before they were shot in the back of the head.

The SS captain responsible for the list was Priebke, who, by his own admission, not only kept the books straight but also personally killed two of the victims.

A month after the massacre Pignotti, who was then 23, received a letter from Gestapo HQ in Rome, telling her to come and collect her 29-year-old husband’s belongings.

In the courtroom 17 years ago, she pulled out of her handbag the now dog-eared letter informing her of her husband’s execution. With tears in her eyes, she said: “That is all that remains of my Umberto . . . I’d kill [Priebke] if I could. If I lived to be 200 years old, I could never forgive him.”

In the end, and not without much polemicising, Priebke was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1998 for his involvement in the infamous Fosse Ardeatine massacre. In the end, too, he served that sentence almost entirely under house arrest in Rome until his death, last week.

Unanswered questions
Priebke’s death leaves us with a variety of unanswered questions. Was it just good luck that he went undetected for nearly 50 years? Or had fascists protected him in postwar Italy? What was the Vatican’s role? In that context, is it not worrying that the Lefebvre movement, with an already established tradition of Holocaust denial (by Bishop Richard Williamson and Fr Florian Abrahamowicz, to name but two) showed itself willing to hold a funeral service for Priebke in Albano Laziale this week?

Speaking in Rome synagogue on Wednesday at a service to mark the 70th anniversary of the deportation of 1,023 Roman Jews to Auschwitz, Rabbi Riccardo Pacifici suggested that Italy, “the country that gave birth to fascism”, needs to recall its fascist past “both for itself and for Europe”. From Bishop Hudal in the Vatican through to police chief Caruso, there is evidence to suggest that he might have a point.

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