The acquittal of Erich Priebke by a military tribunal in Rome and the resulting public outrage have once again highlighted the bitter legacy of the Nazi - and fascist past in Italy and its outstanding contemporary resonance. If politics is the continuation of war by other means, it is clear that much remains unresolved in Italy's political system 52 years after the massacre of 335 Italians by the SS, documented by Priebke in his role as Nazi book keeper, ticking off the victims as they went to their deaths.
The massacre in the Ardeatine Caves on March 24th, 1944, was carried out in reprisal for an ambush by Italian partisans the day before in which 33 Nazi fascist soldiers died. It was ordered personally by Hitler and carried out by the SS on the orders of the German supreme commander in Italy, Field Marshal Kesselring. The passionate response to the verdict demonstrates that many old wounds remain unhealed. There are, indeed, many procedural and substantive questions arising from the handling of the case and the judgment reached, which bear out suspicions that sympathisers of the fascist state may have so directed this trial as to maximise the likelihood of a favourable outcome from Priebke's point of view.
Italy is one of the few European states that still has a system of military courts. They must be presumed to take more seriously than civilian courts a plea that a military officer was acting under orders. The charge Priebke faced, of multiple homicide, was serious but subject to the 50 year statute of limitations. In the event, the court decided that these facts and further - as yet not fully explained extenuating circumstances - were such as to merit acquittal, despite Priebke's guilty plea.
Why, it is being asked in Italy, was the case not heard by a civilian court, which would probably have taken a less lenient view? Why was Priebke not charged with crimes against humanity, not covered by the statute of limitations? Does this display the continuing influence of a close knit band of fascist sympathisers in the Italian administration?
Given the recent emergence of a neo fascist party with over 15 per cent of the vote and members who openly sympathise with Mussolini, it is not surprising that such questions should be asked. Indeed the series of corruption scandals in the last few years has reopened much of the post war history, which was based on quite opportunist coalitions to keep the communists out of power at all costs, circumstances which enabled such sympathisers to retain considerable influence in the state machine.
Now that the ex communists are in government for the first time in Italy's post war history, it is to be expected that this case will galvanise Mr Prodi and his colleagues to probe the circumstances of this case very closely indeed. Mr Prodi indicated as much when he led a party to the Ardeatine Caves shortly after the verdict was announced. In the process Italy bay have to face up to the ambiguous legacy of the fascist period more directly than it has suited its governments until now.