ROME (Jun. 25)
Former SS Capt. Erich Priebke, on trial for the second time for his role in the Nazis’ worst World War II atrocity in Italy, appeared in court this week to read out a lengthy statement in his defense.
The 84-year-old Priebke, who participated in the March 1944 massacre of 335 men and boys at the Ardeatine Caves south of Rome, took half an hour to read his unexpected statement. About 75 of the massacre victims were Jews.
“At the Ardeatine Caves, I was forced to shoot,” he said. “I could not avoid that horror.”
He said nothing could be done because the order came from Hitler. “To execute that terrible order was for me a tragedy, something horrendous,” he said.
“If I could have avoided having done it I would have, but my death would not have saved those men,” he said.
He admitted shooting dead two of the victims and of holding the list of people who were to be killed in his hand “for a couple of hours.”
The Nazis, who then occupied Rome, ordered the mass execution at the Ardeatine Caves in direct reprisal for a bomb attack in Rome by an Italian resistance group that left 33 German soldiers dead.
“I never killed anyone before that day and I’ve never had to do it since,” Priebke said.
In his statement Priebke stressed that for nearly 50 years after the war he had lived openly as an esteemed citizen in Bariloche, Argentina, and had never tried to conceal his identity.
He said that he had made two vacation trips to Italy using a passport in his own name, and in 1993 had dinner with two Italian members of the European Parliament during an event sponsored by the local Bariloche Italian association.
In interviews published in Italian newspapers Wednesday, the two Italian politicians confirmed that Priebke had sat between them at the dinner but they said that they had not recognized his name or known his background.
Priebke was discovered by an ABC television team in Bariloche in May 1994, and was extradited to Italy in November 1995.
Last August, an Italian military court found him guilty of taking part in the massacre, but ruled that he could not be punished because of extenuating circumstances and a statute of limitations.
This verdict prompted protests, and Priebke was arrested again.
The verdict was annulled on appeal and a new trial ordered, which began in April. Priebke is being held under house arrest in a monastery near Rome during the trial.