The approaching 100th birthday of former SS officer Erich Priebke – a Rome resident and one of the world’s last surviving Nazi criminals – has prompted a statement from the partisan group Associazione Nazionale Partigiani d'Italia (ANPI) that “to celebrate a war criminal would be indecent.”
Priebke turns 100 on Monday 29 July and is serving a life sentence, under house arrest, for his role in the 1944 Fosse Ardeatine massacre in Rome in which the Nazis killed 335 people, mostly Italians. Priebke lives near Piazza Irnerio in the city’s Balduina district where he receives numerous visitors and is a familiar figure on his daily walks in the neighbourhood, accompanied by his carer and a police escort.
The milestone birthday has put the former Nazi captain in the spotlight once more, and comes ten years after there was outrage over his 90th birthday party at an agriturismo at Tor Lupara north-east of the capital, where over 100 guests arrived from across Italy, Germany, France and Switzerland.
However Priebke's lawyer Paolo Giachini insists there will be no party this time around. Giachini has appealed for an end to "climate of hatred'' against his client who he says has been subject to a "media lynching'' and a "witch hunt.''
Relatives of Priebke’s victims have called on him to make a public apology 69 years after their murder, and the president of Rome’s Jewish community Riccardo Pacifici has appealed to authorities not to allow any public birthday celebration. “The bone of contention is not the centenary of Priebke – said Pacifici – but the tribute that many make to him by going to his house. It is to them that we express our indignation, not only as Jews but as Italians.”
The mayor of Rome Ignazio Marino has also intervened in the debate, pledging to ensure “personally” that no public party for Priebke takes place.
One of Priebke’s close friends Mario Merlino, nicknamed “il Professore Nero” for his neo-fascist past, recently told Italy’s Corriere della Sera newspaper that Priebke "has got a lot closer to Christianity, perhaps because he feels his end is near. He reads sacred texts, he meditates. He is almost deaf and has lost most of his memory."
Angelo Sermoneta, who runs Rome's historical Jewish community association Ragazzi del 48 said: "We will make the memory come back to him. The Italian authorities treat him with kid gloves. He is escorted on walks, to the park, to restaurants. He lives his old age in serenity, he who has denied an old age to so many people” he said.
On 24 March 1944 the Nazis executed 335 hostages including 75 Jews in retaliation for a partisan attack on Rome’s Via Rasella the day before, in which 33 German soldiers died. The SS command in Rome under Herbert Kappler recommended that ten Italians be shot for every dead German, with the direct order allegedly coming from Adolf Hitler who stipulated that it be carried out within 24 hours.
Priebke is accused of ordering the deaths of five extra prisoners brought erroneously to the caves, close to the Via Appia Antica south of the city walls. He was responsible for checking off the list of those executed and has admitted to killing two hostages personally.
Following the war Priebke escaped from a British prison camp in the north-east Italian city of Rimini in 1946. After living for a couple of years in a safe house in South Tyrol, northern Italy, he made his way back to Rome where Alois Hudal, an Austrian bishop based in the capital, provided him with false travel documents. In 1948 Priebke arrived in Argentina as "Otto Pape" but reverted to his real name the next year after an amnesty for illegal immigrants was issued by the Argentine president Juan Peron.
Priebke settled in the picturesque skiing resort of S. Carlos di Bariloche, a town with strong German connections. Here he lived for nearly 50 years, becoming a delicatessen owner and even heading the local German-Argentine Cultural Association.
His apprehension by authorities came about after American investigative reporters, acting on a tip-off, were led to his adopted town in pursuit of another former Nazi, Reinhard Kopps, in 1994. To get rid of the journalists Kopps told them that there was a far more senior Nazi living nearby, and directed them to Priebke. When a camera crew led by Sam Donaldson arrived at his doorstep, Priebke admitted to his role in the massacre stating “at that time an order was an order…I had to carry it out.”
The confession resulted in the 1995 extradition of Priebke to Italy where he faced a protracted series of high-profile trials and appeals. Eventually, in 1998, he was sentenced to life in prison but the following year received permission to serve the rest of his sentence under house arrest, on grounds of poor health and old age.
For more details on the Fosse Ardeatine massacre see the Wanted in Rome article.