Former Nazi SS Capt. Erich Priebke considers the March 1944 massacre of 335 Italian men and boys as a small detail of war.
“The Ardeatine Caves were terrible for the Jews but for me it was something small that was lost among everything else — the bombings, Dresden, Hiroshima, my dead, the lost war, beginning again from nothing,” Priebke was quoted as saying Saturday in an interview with the Rome daily Il Messaggero.
“I was a soldier. I never thought it was a crime,” he said.
“People have written that I fled Italy” to Argentina from a POW camp after the war because of the caves, he said. “I didn’t even think about the caves.”
Priebke, 83, is currently being held under house arrest in a monastery near Rome during a second trial for his involvement in the Ardeatine Cave massacre near Rome.
He has admitted taking part in the mass execution, which was ordered by the Nazis in reprisal for an attack by the Italian resistance in downtown Rome that had killed 33 German soldiers the day before.
Last August, a military court ruled that Priebke was guilty of participation in the massacre but said he could not be punished for it because of extenuating circumstances and a statute of limitations.
The verdict provoked public uproar in Italy and Priebke was rearrested. It was quashed on appeal in October, and Priebke went on trial a second time before a new military tribunal in April.
The massacre is considered the worst Nazi atrocity to have been carried out on Italian soil, and the caves have been transformed into a national shrine.
Rome’s Jewish community has been particularly vocal in calling for Priebke to be punished, and media coverage has fostered the impression that the case is primarily a Jewish issue, although only 75 of the massacre victims were Jews.
In the interview with Il Messaggero, Priebke denied that he was anti-Semitic, but he praised Hitler’s pre-World War II policies.
“My wife’s best friend was Jewish,” he said. “It’s true we were fans of Hitler, but I didn’t understand his racial laws. If he had died in 1939, he would have been a perfect leader of Germany.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.