Erich Priebke, Nazi Who Carried Out Massacre of 335 Italians, Dies at 100
Gregorio Borgia/Associated Press
By ALISON SMALE
Published: October 11, 2013
Erich Priebke, a former SS captain who was sentenced to life in prison for helping to organize the execution of 335 men and boys at the Ardeatine Caves in Italy in 1944, died on Friday under house arrest at his home in Rome. He was 100 and the oldest surviving convicted Nazi war criminal.
He “died of old age,” said his lawyer, Paolo Giachini.
Mr. Priebke was at the center of one of the most contentious Nazi war-crimes prosecutions of the 1990s, begun after an American television crew tracked him down in Argentina at San Carlos de Bariloche, a resort city in the foothills of the Andes.
Mr. Priebke fled to South America soon after World War II and had been living under his real name, owning a butcher shop and traveling to Europe — and even Italy — with a German passport.
He was extradited to Italy in November 1995 and ordered to stand trial before an Italian military tribunal the next year. The proceedings — described at the time as possibly the last Nazi war-crimes trial in Europe — centered on the massacre at the Ardeatine Caves, just south of Rome, on March 24, 1944. The men and boys were rounded up and killed in reprisal for an attack in which Italian partisans killed 33 members of a Nazi security force.
Herbert Kappler, the Gestapo chief in Rome, ordered the deaths of 10 Italians for every dead policeman. Seventy-five of the 335 victims were Jewish. By many accounts, the captives were led into the caves with their hands tied behind their backs, forced to kneel — many over the bodies of those already killed — and shot in the neck.
Mr. Priebke said he was responsible for exceeding the quota by five. “It went wrong,” he was quoted as saying in an article published in the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung a week before his death.
The prosecution in Italy was a protracted affair. The military tribunal that tried Mr. Priebke in 1996 ended up ordering him freed. While finding him guilty of involvement in the massacre, the court acquitted him of acting with premeditation and cruelty. Only a conviction on those counts would have sent him to prison because of a 30-year statute of limitations on murder charges.
His release caused an international outcry, and he was rearrested after an appellate court ordered another trial by military tribunal. In July 1997, the second military court sentenced him to 15 years in prison, but reduced that term to five years, saying there had been mitigating factors, including Mr. Priebke’s assertion that he had acted under orders.
Prosecutors appealed, and in March 1998 Mr. Priebke was sentenced to life, a verdict that was upheld by the Court of Cassation, Italy’s highest appellate court.
Because of his age, Mr. Priebke was put under house arrest. Two soldiers kept watch day and night outside the apartment block in western Rome where Mr. Priebke lived, and two police officers followed him whenever he left the residence, according to the account in Süddeutsche Zeitung, by Malte Herwig.
Referring to Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase about the Nazis when she covered the trialof Adolf Eichmann in Israel, Mr. Herwig, who has done extensive research on the Nazi era, described his encounter with Mr. Priebke as “the last chance to investigate that supposed banality of evil with a living person.”
Mr. Priebke was born on July 29, 1913, in Hennigsdorf, near Berlin. His parents both died early in his life, he told Mr. Herwig, and he was reared largely by an uncle. Little is known of his early life.
As World War II ended, he was imprisoned by the British but eventually fled to a German-speaking area in the north of Italy, where he reunited with his wife and two sons, according to Mr. Herwig. The family fled by way of Genoa to Argentina, where Mr. Priebke worked as a waiter and then opened a butcher shop.
His commander at the time of the massacre, Mr. Kappler, was sentenced to life in prison in 1948 by a Rome court. He was smuggled out of a military hospital in 1977 and died in freedom in Germany the next year. Karl Hass, an SS major, was convicted with Mr. Priebke in July 1997 and given a life sentence in 1998. He died while under house arrest in 2004.
Mr. Priebke is survived by his two sons and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. His lawyer said he would be buried in Argentina.
In recent years, Mr. Priebke remained a rallying point both for neo-Nazis and for their opponents. In July, members of Jewish groups and other protesters gathered near his home on the occasion of his 100th birthday to read the names of the massacre’s victims.
To the end of his life, Mr. Priebke expressed no remorse for his actions.