Peace Consulting

International Holocaust Day: The Case of Herbert Kappler and Eric Priebke War Criminals and the City of Rome

By <b><br>Dr Marta Katz-Turi</b>

Dr Marta Katz-Turi

As we celebrate International Holocaust Day on January 27, it is a great opportunity to both remember the horrific war crimes that were committed against the Jewish community during WWII, and that nobody should escape justice! The main perpetrators were put on trial by a military tribunal and were sentenced to life imprisonment.

I wish to write an article about a famous case, the city of Rome, how it was occupied by Nazi forces, and how the leaders of the German military forces were brought to justice after the war! This demonstrates that nobody should avoid persecution, and indeed that everyone must face responsibility for the grave breaches of international humanitarian law that were committed. Human life is precious and every life matters.

These events are not forgotten. Indeed, Hollywood has produced two movies based upon the events that happened in Rome during WWII. They do not have happy endings but they show the courage and the bravery of people who risked their lives to save the lives of others.


The City of Rome during the Second World War, the Case of Herbert Kappler, SS Colonel

Herbert Kappler was an SS Colonel the Head of Gestapo and the highest representative of the Third Reich in Rome, Italy from 1943-1945. He organized the “Ardeatine Massacre” in Rome, in which 335 Italian civilians were killed on March 24, 1944, by German Nazi forces as a reprisal for an attack by Italian resistance fighters that killed 33 men of the SS Police in Rome. Hitler wanted to take 10 Italian lives for 1 German soldier as a reprisal. So, they assassinated 335 innocent Italian civilians. Kappler was convicted, and received life imprisonment, for this by an Italian military tribunal after WW II.

Herbert Kappler was under the command of Luftwaffe General Kurt Maelzer, as well as the SS Chain of Command of Higher SS and Police Leader of Italy, SS- Obergruppenführer Karl Wolff.

Kappler got directly involved in a conflict with the Vatican, as he and the German SS forces suspected that the Vatican was harboring escaped Allied POWs, meaning English and American soldiers, as well as escaped Italian prisoners. Although the Vatican, under Pope Pius XII, was technically neutral and never publicly condemned the persecution of Jews. (Pope Pius XII was criticized for this after WWII). Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, a senior Vatican official, helped thousands of Jewish fugitives and Allied POWs escape from Rome. He became Kappler’s target even though he had diplomatic immunity as a high-ranking priest in the Vatican.

Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty was recognized for his activities. He was awarded the CBE by the British Government and the medal of Freedom by the U.S. Government, as well as many other high honors by the Governments of Canada and Australia after WWII.


What happened to Herbert Kappler, SS Colonel, after WWII?

Kappler was convicted to life imprisonment by an Italian military tribunal after WWII and served life imprisonment in an Italian prison.  I recommend you watch his trial here.

His wife divorced him while he was serving his sentence.

He had only one visitor, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, his greatest enemy during the war, who visited him once a month. After nearly 15 years in prison, Colonel Kappler converted to Christianity in 1969. This was a big achievement for Monsignor O’Flaherty.

Kappler married a German nurse in the prison in 1972, with whom he had been corresponding for many years. He was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1973. This second wife, Anneliese Kappler, helped him escape from Italian prison during a visit in 1977. She carried him out in a large suitcase, he only weighed about 45 kgs (104 pounds) at the time, and they escaped to West Germany which refused to extradite him. Six months later he died in Soltau, West Germany.


Are there any movies available about Herbert Kappler and the Nazi occupation of Rome?

In the 1973 feature film “Massacre in Rome”, which deals with the Ardeatine massacre, Kappler was portrayed by Richard Burton.

Everybody should see the famous movie: “The Scarlet and the Black”, starring Gregory Peck as Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty. It is based upon the true story of how Rome was affected by Kappler and his military forces as well as the tremendous bravery and cunning of Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, who saved thousands of lives.


What happened to Kappler’s deputy, Eric Priebke?

While Kappler, the Nazi police chief in Rome was tried and convicted after the war for his crimes, Erich Priebke never faced a court. In 1948 he escaped from a British prisoner-of-war camp near Rimini.

Eric Priebke collaborated with Kappler in compiling the lists of the martyrs of the Ardeatine Caves and was present at the killing of the 335 civilians as a reprisal for the 33 assassinated German soldiers. He was certainly one of the principal organizers of the killing, even if it seems he did not actually fire a shot.

Former SS Capt., Erich Priebke, had been living in Argentina for nearly 50 years when the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which tracked down Nazi war criminals, asked Germany to reopen Priebke’s case in the 1990s. The case was closed when Priebke could not be located. The Center used an undercover agent to infiltrate a neo-Nazi group in Germany, which led them to Priebke and other reputed Nazis living in South America. In 1990, Argentina sent Josef Schwammberger to Germany, where he was sentenced to life in prison for killing and ordering the deaths of Jews at slave labor camps in Poland.

Priebke was a prominent member of the German community in Bariloche, 1000 miles from Buenos Aires, and the president of a local German-Argentine cultural association.

In an ABC interview, Mr. Priebke acknowledged that he had taken part in the killings and said he had personally slain two people. But he characterized the killings as a mistake of his youth and argued that he had been carrying out orders as a member of the German military.

In May 1995, an Argentinian 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 1995, it was judged that Priebke was not to be extradited because the case had expired. To put pressure on the Argentinian government, Germany demanded extradition the same day. The Italian military prosecutor, Antonio Intelisano, argued that UN agreements, to which Argentina was a signatory, expressly stated that cases of war criminals and crimes against humanity do not expire.

After seventeen months of delays, the Argentinian supreme court decided that Priebke was to be extradited to Italy in 1996. 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.


Erich Priebke in Court in Italy

In court, Priebke declared himself not guilty. He did not deny what he had done, but he denied any moral responsibility. He blamed the massacre on those whom he branded as “the Italian terrorists” who were behind the attack in which 33 German SS men 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 also formed part of his testimony in 1946 before he managed to escape.

The judges voted two against one for convicting the 83-year-old Priebke for taking part in the massacres, which he had admitted, but he was acquitted, purportedly because he had been following orders.


Erich Priebke’s Appeal in Italy

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 to put on trial for the murders of the two people that he had personally shot.

The Italian supreme court decided that the court that had freed Priebke was incompetent. Among other things, it was questioned why the example of the Nuremberg trials had not been raised earlier, since those trials had concluded that an individual has personal responsibility for his actions. The reason that Priebke had been released was that he followed orders. Priebke claimed that if he had not obeyed, he would have been executed, but the appeal judges would not accept this as they felt it was a baseless excuse.

The Court of Cassation voided the decision, ordering a new trial for Priebke. He was sentenced to 15 years. The sentence was 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 SS member. The decision was upheld in November of the same year by the Court of Cassation. Because of his age, Priebke was put under house arrest. 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 therefore could not be tried for the same crime twice.

Priebke denied any responsibility and therefore appealed the case. At the appeal, it was decided that Hass and Priebke had committed murder in the first degree and that they should be given life imprisonment.


Priebke’s case at the European Court of Human Rights

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, five more than required by the order stating that “10 Italians should be executed for each German killed”. These five extra victims were the responsibility of Priebke alone because he was given the duty of checking the list.


Priebke’s Death and His Funeral Banned by the Vatican

Priebke died in Rome in 2013 at the age of 100, from natural causes. His last request, that his remains be returned to Argentina so he could be buried alongside his wife, was denied by the Argentinian government. The Vatican issued an unprecedented ban on holding his funeral in any Catholic church in Rome. His hometown in Germany also refused to take his body, over fears that his place of burial could become “a pilgrimage site for neo-Nazis.

Eventually, the coffin containing Priebke’s body was seized by the Italian authorities, taken to a military base near Rome and then buried “in a secret location”, as his lawyer Paolo Giachini stated. Giachini said the agreement “satisfied the family and ethical and spiritual requirements.

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