Remembering Evil

The view of massacre from the Ardeatine Caves


Dueling demonstrations were scheduled to take place in Rome over the weekend, three different emotional marches—including two in a single piazza—addressing the same issue from very different points of view. Yet, Rome's outrage had nothing to do with Iraq, George W. Bush, Muslim immigration, or anything else you're likely to find on the front page. Instead, it was about a 60-year-old massacre that's grown dim in many people's memory, about how best to continue honoring its victims, and even about how to think of guilt and punishment after so many years. Because Rome was caught in a vortex of anger at the end of a week of blood, a week in which the major international news involved massacres in Iraq and Pakistan, the old and unhealed wounds of the wartime city seem both contemporary and compelling. Rome's scars are a study in evil and remembrance.

At the center of Rome's outrage is a very old man named Erich Priebke. Once a Nazi SS officer, Priebke spent the decades after World War II living under his own name in Argentina, where he ran a Patagonian deli and enjoyed the regard of his neighbors. He was extradited to Italy in 1997, however, and prosecuted in a series of highly dramatic trials. Priebke is now serving a life sentence under house arrest for his role in the shooting of 335 people in 1944, in the Ardeatine Caves near Rome. Priebke is 90 years old now, and some people think that justice is no longer served by his sentence. Continued detention is inhumane, they argue; they want the old man pardoned. "Priebke's detention is against the Italian constitution and all principles of civilization," Paolo Giachini, a friend of Priebke's, told the Associated Press. Many other Italians demand that the punishment continue. Both sides were taking their case to Rome's streets, but at the last minute city officials stopped the pro-Priebke group, citing fears of violence.

What exactly did Priebke do? In March 1944, Italian Communist partisans set off a bomb near a column of German soldiers, killing 33 of them as they marched on Via Rasella, not far from the famous steps of Piazza di Spagna. Hitler was informed immediately and ordered that, within 24 hours, ten Italians be shot for every dead German. Rome's Nazi authorities rounded up hundreds of men, including many prisoners who had been detained for trivial offenses. They then compiled a master list of victims, and trucked the men to the nearby man-made caves to kill them.

Priebke, an SS Hauptsturmfuehrer, was waiting for the victims as they were pulled off the trucks, the master list in his hand. At his trial, Priebke admitted to shooting two of the men himself. But on that March day, he was also murder's bureaucrat; it was his responsibility to match the list with the corpses. According to Robert Katz's 1967 reconstruction of the massacre, Death in Rome, Priebke walked with the victims as they were led, five at a time, deep into the cave's twisting passages. As they knelt to be shot, Priebke demanded their names so that he could scratch them from his list. The whole operation had been arranged for maximum calculated efficiency, down to the position the victims were ordered to assume so as to guarantee an efficient single-bullet death. The head of Rome's Gestapo, Herbert Kappler, who commanded the execution squads, had ordered that no priests be present because confession would have wasted too much time. The last person that the 335 victims spoke to was Priebke.

It is the only day of Priebke's long life of any interest. He does turn up in some memoirs of wartime Italy, notably Peter Tompkins' still-fascinating 1962 account, A Spy in Rome, but only as a portrait in banality. Tompkins, an American OSS agent who had been smuggled into the city, writes that he would sometimes see Priebke at drunken parties. Tompkins was even worried that Priebke had become suspicious of him. In the end, Tompkins concludes, Priebke's real interest was in trying to seduce the Italian actresses at such gatherings.

Priebke's defense at his trials was that he was only following orders. Indeed, an interview with Priebke was published only last week in the Italian daily Il Giornale, one that revealed the old man's faculties as being perfectly sharp, and he still makes the same case for his innocence. According to the AP's account, Priebke told the interviewer that, "This execution was a tragedy for us. I don't feel the responsibility to repent for something I didn't want to do. I was against it. I had to obey like every soldier must do."

Thus, from Priebke's point of view—with 60 years to think about it—the massacre was a tragedy for the executioners. As it happens, Gestapo commander Kappler realized even at the time that shooting so many people in the back of the head would take a toll on his soldiers; he thoughtfully brought along some cognac for them, and encouraged them to get drunk. They did, and it made them sloppy shooters; some victims were decapitated by the wild shooting, others appear to have survived their bullet, and died only after having dragged themselves from beneath the piles of corpses.

Moreover, not all the soldiers had been willing to obey their orders. The carnage was horrific: To save time that would be lost in stacking the dead, new victims were ordered to climb atop the growing piles of bodies, and the increasingly drunken executioners had to climb atop the dead as well. Robert Katz writes that one German soldier, on witnessing this hellish scene, fainted, and that a second German soldier pronounced himself filled with revulsion, and refused to shoot. Kappler, the empathetic Gestapo commander, chose not to punish him. Instead, he put his arm around the reluctant SS man, walked with him into the caves, and joined him behind a group of victims. In a remarkable display of what may be called fascist compassion, Kappler shot a victim of his own just to make it easier for his underling to overcome his reluctance.

Priebke, for his part, kept taking names and crossing them off his list. There were lawyers, actors, doctors, shopkeepers, waiters, students, soldiers, electricians, even a priest. They were as young as 14, as old as 75. Most were Catholics; some 75 were Jews; one, a Libyan, was doubtless a Muslim. They were all men, including a father and son found in a final embrace. But when Priebke was finished with his calculations, he was surprised to discover that though Hitler's order had called for 330 executions, there were 335 bodies: an irritating "error." As one German was later to tell a superior, the soldiers had simply shot everyone who had been trucked to the caves. "They were already there," he explained.

What should one do with Priebke now? By virtue of having survived so long, the old Hauptsturmfuehrer has presented his punishers with a moral dilemma, or so Priebke's defenders argue. Continuing to punish such an old man, they imply, reduces Italy to the inhumanity for which it is punishing Priebke. These defenders may believe that the issue of responsibility fades with age, or that at a certain point stern justice is best tempered with compassion, even in the most monstrous cases. Yet such arguments carry a moral negation within themselves. If unrepentant guilt, responsibility, and even monstrousness fade with time, then perhaps none of these exist: There is only their temporary appearance.

Priebke's case may seem on its surface to be a historical curiosity, perhaps the last such moral challenge to be posed by World War II. But there's nothing historical about the issues it raises. The innocent and unknown dead lie waiting in mass graves in many places. What justice can—or should— the hidden dead of Rwanda and Sudan expect? Nameless bones still emerge from the snow every spring in the old Soviet Gulag, as The New York Times' Steven Lee Myers noted recently in a moving description of Norilsk. Of course, the sands of Iraq have been yielding tens of thousands of Ba'athism's victims. Assigning blame and demanding justice may well present problems for societies, like Russia's and Iraq's, that are focused on the pressing demands of their transformation. What of years to come, when researchers have combed through the millions of documents reflecting the bureaucracy of totalitarian slaughter? Will the weight of guilt have been lifted by time? Will the appearance of monstrousness have metamorphosed?

One final point. Priebke is not alone, among those present at the Ardeatine Caves, who can still address us. He may have lived to give newspaper interviews at this late date, but many of those whom he helped murder 60 years ago still have things to say to us, too. Some victims realized that they were about to die, and smuggled their last messages to their families from prison. Others scribbled farewell notes while waiting for death at the caves, notes that they placed in their pockets in the hope that their bodies would eventually be found, and their words delivered. Messages written in ink didn't survive, but a handful of pencilled notes did; Katz included his translation of these messages in his account.

Heard yet are the voices of sons who wanted to assure their families that they died bravely, "staring their executioners in the eyes." So are the voices belonging to husbands and fathers urging their families to "seek comfort in Christ as we in our suffering have done." One note found on a young Catholic was a final, selfless prayer: "My dear God, we pray that You may protect the Jews from the barbarous persecutions. 1 Paternoster, 10 Ave Marias, 1 Gloria Patri."

And there is this note from an 18-year-old named Orlando Posti: "God will soon put an end to the suffering through which the whole world is passing. He will make it so that everyone can return to his home and thus peace will return to every family and all will be restored to normal."

Posti's vision awaits fulfillment. A "normal" world remains one of sudden violence, the innocent and often secreted dead, and the dispiriting spectacle of murderers who live peacefully through the years that they have denied their victims.