Remembering the Fosse Ardeatine

The anniversary of the Fosse Ardeatine massacre takes place each year on 24 March

Almost 70 years after the world war two tragedy at the Fosse Ardeatine, fresh flowers still line the graves at the sanctuary there. The mass executions that took place on 24 March 1944 are commemorated every year in the pozzolana quarries and caves of the Ardeatina, close to the Via Appia Antica south of the city walls. This year the Italian president Giorgio Napolitano will conduct the ceremony accompanied by military and political officials.

The massacre on 24 March was ordered in reprisal for a bombing in Rome the previous day, carried out by a group of 18 Italian resistance fighters in a strike against the German forces occupying the city. On 23 March a homemade bomb went off inside a municipal rubbish cart on Via Rasella, targeting a column of the Bozen military police attached to the SS on its way from Piazza del Popolo to its quarters in the Viminale, just off Via Nazionale. The bomb was ignited when the patrol turned into the narrow, steep street that runs parallel to Via del Tritone between the Traforo and Palazzo Barberini, just a short walk from the Trevi fountain.

Of the 156 men in the German unit, 28 were killed instantly, rising to 32 the next day and subsequently to 42. The SS command in Rome under Herbert Kappler immediately recommended reprisals, which were swiftly approved by the military authorities all the way up to Hitler. Within 24 hours the German command ordered the Ardeatine massacre. The response was rapid and brutal, without the usual posting of notices offering to forgo reprisals if the bombers should give themselves up.

Hundreds of innocent victims were rounded up immediately from Regina Coeli prison, from their homes and off the street in an attempt to reach a ten to one ratio for every German killed in the Via Rasella bombing. The innocent victims were a cross section of those living in Rome at the time: about 100 civilians and professionals, military men, factory workers, a Catholic priest and several students, 75 of them Jews. They were of all ages from 15 to 70, and all political opinions, from monarchist army officers to ultra-left wing communists. Some of them came from outside Rome.

On 24 March the 335 victims were taken in lorries outside the city by SS officers Erich Preibke and Karl Hass, divided into groups of five and shot in the back of the head. When the officers discovered that, by mistake, five too many hostages had been rounded up, they decided to kill them anyway so that word of the massacre should not spread too soon.  

The caves were then dynamited to seal them off and the bodies left to decay. It was not until more than a year later, after the Allied Liberation of Rome on 4 June 1944, that the caves were reopened and the bodies found. The state of the bodies and the severity of the head wounds made identification difficult.

Even today not every victim has been named. The director of the Mausoleum, Major Francesco Sardone, confirmed in an interview with Wanted in Rome that nine bodies are still not officially identified, although at last year’s annual commemoration the names of three previously unidentified bodies were announced as a result of DNA testing by the Carabinieri.

After the war the site of the massacre was transformed into a museum, national mausoleum and sanctuary dedicated to the martyrs. Today visitors can see some of the 335 tombs and the gap caused by the explosion of the German mine intended to prevent access to the site. Almost all the dead are buried here, although Sardone explained that 12 of the tombs are empty as the families preferred to take the bodies for burial in their own family graves. A plaque on the wall of the cave reads: “Here we were brutally killed, victims of a horrible sacrifice. May from our sacrifice rise a better homeland and lasting peace among people.” Three popes, Paul VI, John Paul II and last year Benedict XVI, have been to pray on the site, together with Rome’s chief rabbis.

There are other world war two sites in Rome such as the Liberation Museum on Via Tasso, once an apartment complex where Jews and political opponents were tortured and held captive by the Germans. A Holocaust museum is also planned in Villa Torlonia, the former residence of Mussolini and his family, to commemorate the 1,600 Jews from Rome deported to concentration camps in October 1943.

The Fosse Ardeatine massacre has left deep scars on the Roman psyche, dividing people still today, mainly on the grounds that the bombers should have known there would be a vicious reprisal. It is a tragedy that has been dramatised in film and music, has been researched in detail and argued over by the political left and right. Even today many people know someone in Rome who has a personal story to tell of the tragedy. In his book The Order Has Been Carried Out, Italian historian Alessandro Portelli relates a series of intimate interviews with family members and neighbours of those killed and partisans who were active in Rome. He argues that "because the attack was carried out in a metropolis and affected many different types of people, the event has a powerful hold over memory and identity."

In a final ironic twist to the story one of its main perpetrators, Erich Priebke, is still living in Rome today. Having fled to Argentina after the war he was tracked down in 1994 and extradited to Rome to stand trial for war crimes. After several appeals he was found guilty in 1998, along with Karl Hass, and condemned to 15 years in prison, reduced to 10 because of his age, and put under house arrest. Priebke, who will be 100 in July this year, lives in the city’s Boccea district. Hass, who is said to have become an agent of the Unites States secret services after the war, died in 2004 in Castel Gandolfo. Their superior, Kappler, was held in prison in Italy for many years, escaped in mysterious circumstances in 1977 and – by then a seriously ill man – died less than a year later of cancer in Germany.

Theresa Potenza

The mausoleum of the Fosse Ardeatine is open Mon-Fri 08.15-15.15 and Sat-Sun 08.15-16.45. The museum is open Mon-Fri 08.15-15.00, and Sat-Sun 08.15-16.30.


Published in the paper edition of Wanted in Rome, 6 March 2013

Wanted in Rome
Wanted in Rome
Wanted in Rome is a monthly magazine in English for expatriates in Rome established in 1985. The magazine covers Rome news stories that may be of interest to English and Italian speaking residents, and tourists as well. The publication also offers classifieds, photos, information on events, museums, churches, galleries, exhibits, fashion, food, and local travel.
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