It infuriates me that Erich Priebke, the SS officer who supervised the infamous Ardeatine caves massacre in Rome in 1944 (335 Italians executed in response to an attack by partisans), lived more than a hundred years. He finally died a few days ago. Of natural causes. But then, these monsters often live a very long time, as I discovered when I went to Italy in the mid-sixties to begin research on Italian fascism, the subject of my doctoral dissertation. I was amazed at the longevity of many of the men I was studying, as I was amazed at the ease with which they recycled themselves into “mainstream” life. Fascist propagandists found good university positions in sociology and political science departments, and if they were willing to join the Communist Party, their fascist careers were airbrushed from the official histories (only very recently has this ugly story begun to be documented).
Priebke didn’t recycle at all; he escaped to Argentina, where he worked as a butcher (how’s that for consistency?) until ABC reporter Sam Donaldson found him in 1994. So Priebke escaped to freedom for half a century, and was then extradited to Italy, where you might have expected the full weight of justice to be brought to bear on him. But no. It took three trials, two in military courts (the first ordered him released, the second gave him five years, and the third, in criminal court, sentenced him to life — and not in prison but under house arrest). He came and went at will (albeit under surveillance), was said to step aside for women in line at the markets, and slowly slipped into dementia, watching children’s cartoons on Italian television.
I attended a day’s worth of the third trial, because i thought it obligatory. The case was clear cut, the story of the massacre was well documented, and Priebke didn’t deny the facts. Years later he confessed to one mistake: he had miscounted the victims, and an extra five had been executed, kneeling with their hands tied behind their backs, with a bullet to the back of the neck. Those 335 were guilty of being Italian. Eighteen of them were Jews. He invoked the Nurenberg defense: just carrying out orders. It worked in military court, to the shame of the judges.
The Priebke affair speaks to us today, at least to those of us determined to destroy such evil. He should have been executed. Inevitably, he became the object of protests against the “injustice” to which he’d been subjected. He wrote a ponderous memoir. I have no doubt that, if he is not executed, we will some day read a ponderous memoir from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and that demonstrators will protest his unjust treatment. Indeed, there have already been many demonstrations against Guantanamo.
Priebke and his fellow SS killers executed the 335 innocents in order to break the will of any Italian inclined to resist the Nazis, just as the Muslim fanatics of 9/11 sought to break our will twelve years ago. Do we want the 9/11 terrorists to live a hundred years?
I hope we will be spared the shame of endless appeals and retrials, but somehow I have the horrible suspicion that it’s going to be Priebke all over again.