Sat 12 Oct, 2013 - by Kyl Chatwaal
On March 23, 1944, a bomb went off in a street-sweeper’s cart on
the Via Rasella in Rome.
It was planted by an Italian Anti-Fascist group “Gruppo
d’Azione Patriottica” (GAP), one of the many underground organizations
resisting Nazi occupation of the Italian capital.
Seven months prior, Mussolini had been deposed, and his successor, Pietro
Badoglio, had surrendered to the Allies. Badoglio famously ordered the Italian Army
to cease hostilities against Allied forces, and instead to repel attacks “from any other
quarter”—in other words, the Nazis.
Hitler’s armies swiftly invaded Rome, and for the first time during the war, Romans
found themselves an occupied people.
The Nazi commandant in Rome, Kurt Malzer, ordered that an SS Regiment known
as “Bozen” march the streets daily to instill fear in the population. Bozen was made
up of ethnic German-speakers from what is now the Italian province of South Tyrol,
many of whom were actually veterans of the Italian army.
The bomb on Via Rasella on March 23rd was intended for the Bozen column. When
it went off, it killed 28 soldiers instantly, as well as a few bystanders, including a
young boy. In the days that followed the attack, over a dozen more Bozen soldiers
succumbed to their wounds in hospital.
News of the bombing went all the way to Berlin, and possible reprisals against the
Italian people were hotly debated. Finally, Hitler himself approved a plan to execute
“10 Italians for every German,” stipulating that the execution must be carried out
within 24 hours of the bombing.
What happened next has gone down in history as one of the most cold-blooded
massacres of the war. Malzer and his subordinate, Herbert Kappler, quickly
compiled lists of all Italian political prisoners in the city. Five more soldiers had
died by this point, and according to Hitler’s grisly arithmetic, 330 Italians were to be
found and executed to avenge the Bozen deaths.
Anyone suspected—even circumstantially—of anti-Nazi activity was rounded up,
including 70 Jews whose only crime was being Jewish.
At noon on March 24, 1944, 335 Italian men—five more than necessary—were put
into trucks and driven to the Ardeatine caves in Rome. They were led into the caves
in groups of five and shot in the back of the head, one bullet per prisoner. Kappler
ordered that cases of cognac be on hand for the soldiers doing the executing. Finally,
after hours of killing and drinking, the scene devolved into a boozy spree of outright
murder and hatred.
Known today as the Ardeatine Massacre, this event is remembered in such detail
thanks to the account of a surviving prisoner, an Austrian army deserter who’d
masqueraded as an Italian. He paints a grim picture indeed: men and boys told
to kneel over the bodies of the already executed, before being shot themselves.
Soldiers who refused to carry out their orders were physically dragged into the
caves and made to shoot by their ranking office, Captain Erich Priebke. Others
fainted at the sight of the carnage, and were roughly kicked aside.
One victim, a priest named Don Pietro Pappagallo, went about blessing the doomed
men before being executed himself. Years later, Pope John Paul II would proclaim
Pappagallo a 20th century martyr, for his self-sacrifice on this frightful afternoon
More recently, on July 29, 2013, protestors gathered outside an apartment building
in Rome, where in the penthouse suite a man was celebrating his 100th birthday.
When the man’s grandson arrived with a bottle of champagne, the protestors grew
agitated, shouting things like “Shame!” and “Disgrace!”
This 100-year-old man was Erich Priebke, the Nazi captain in charge that day at
After the war, Priebke managed to escape an Allied prison camp and slipped off to
Argentina, where he lived with impunity for 50 years.
That is until 1994, when an ABC film crew tracked him down. And while Priebke
was getting into his car one day, out front of the school where he worked, the
journalist Sam Donaldson confronted him.
“You were in the Gestapo in 1944, were you not?” Donaldson shouts while
running up, trapping the ex-Nazi officer. Still, Priebke is surprisingly forthcoming
about his role at Ardeatine, arguing that he committed no crime, and was merely
“following orders.” Furthermore, he says, his victims were not innocents but “mostly
At last he becomes agitated, gets into his car and drives off. “You are not a
gentleman,” he says through the window, to which Donaldson replies, his voice thick
with irony: “I’m not a gentleman?”
This unexpected encounter led Priebke, then in his mid-eighties, to be identified
by Argentine police, arrested, and extradited to Italy. In 1996, he was sentenced
to imprisonment for first-degree murder. But because of his age he was put under
house arrest in Rome instead.
Today, many Romans are disgusted at the idea that Priebke is living among them,
able to entertain relatives and friends in his comfortable suite, and even dine out at
Priebke, for his part, maintains that he was merely a soldier like any other, carrying
out his orders. He says he has become a scapegoat, an outlet for the world’s
collective guilt and anger at the atrocities of WWII.
“You live in this time,” he told Donaldson back in 1994, “but we lived in 1933. The
whole of Germany was Nazi.”
Below is that now infamous Erich Priebke interview on the streets of Bariloche,
Argentina, conducted by Sam Donaldson of ABC: