Erich Priebke (1913-2013) was a former Nazi and war criminal convicted in Italy for his involvement in a 1944 massacre of Italian partisans. After World War two, he had fled to Argentina, where he lived for fifty years. After an impromptu and embarrassing interview with an American news crew in 1994, he was extradited to Italy, where he was eventually convicted for his role in the massacre. He served his time under house arrest until his death in 2013.
Priebke Before World War Two:
Erich Priebke was born in Germany in 1913. As a young man, Priebke worked in hotels in Germany, Italy and England: he had a knack for languages and soon learned to speak English and Italian fluently in addition to his native German. He joined the SS in 1936 and was sent to Italy, where he served as a Nazi agent. He was promoted to captain and worked with the Gestapo as a liaison with Italian police departments and when Italian dictator Benito Mussolini
visited Germany in 1937, Priebke came along as a bodyguard and interpreter. During his time in Italy, it is not known if Priebke personally met future President of Argentina Juan Domingo Perón
, then an adjunct officer in the Italian army, but it was quite possible.
War Breaks Out:
When World War Two broke out, Priebke remained in Italy, co-ordinating efforts between the Axis powers and serving as an intermediary between the Nazis and the Catholic Church. He was held in such esteem by the church that he was granted a private meeting with Pope Pius XII
in 1942. When Mussolini was removed from power in 1943, Preibke helped organize the subsequent German occupation of Rome and re-installation of Mussolini as dictator.
Priebke and the Final Solution:
Priebke was given much responsibility during the German occupation of Rome. He was ordered to lead the fight against anti-Axis Italian partisans. Priebke's nominal commanding officer, Herbert Kappler, was tasked with ridding Rome of its 7,000 Jews. Kappler began with demanding bribes from the Jewish community to keep them safe, and then sent thousands of them to the Auschwitz
death camp anyway. Priebke's role in these deportations is unknown: he would later claim he had nothing to do with it, which seems doubtful given his position as Keppler's right-hand man. As liaison with the Catholic Church, at the very least he confirmed the church's apathy towards the fate of Rome's Jews, thousands of whom were rounded up and shipped off to death camps right in the Vatican's backyard.
The Ardeatine Caves Massacre:
On March 23, 1944, a troop of German soldiers in Rome was hit by a bomb planted by Italian communist partisans: 33 German soldiers were killed. Furious, Reichskanzler Adolf Hitler
demanded that for every dead German, ten Italians must die. The job fell to Kappler and Priebke, who suddenly had to find 330 Italians to execute. Priebke cleared Rome's jails of suspected partisans (many of whom never had a trial), but still did not have enough, so he included 73 Jews and 50 other prisoners provided by Italian police. Due to a miscount along the way somewhere, an extra five prisoners were included. On March 24, Kappler, Priebke and 90 Nazi soldiers brought the prisoners to the Ardeatine Caves outside of Rome, where the prisoners were executed. The caves were then blown in with explosives, burying the dead. During his trials, Priebke admitted to personally executing two of the prisoners.
Priebke on the Run:
Not long after the massacre, things began to fall apart for Nazi Germany and the Axis powers. Rome was liberated by Allied forces in June of 1944 and Priebke fled. He spent the waning months of the war between Berlin and Italy. When Germany finally fell, Preibke was captured and placed in a prisoner camp, and although there was much rage in Italy over the Ardeatine Caves Massacre, Priebke was never arrested for it. His superior officer, Kappler, was sentenced to life in prison for his involvement. Priebke escaped from the internment camp and lived for two years in Vitipeno under an assumed name.
In 1948, things got too hot in Italy for Priebke: Italians were still furious about the massacre and he decided he should not push his luck. A Franciscan priest put him in touch with Carlos Fuldner, an Argentine agent who had been tasked with sending fugitive Nazis and collaborators to Argentina. Papers and a landing permit were provided for Priebke (still traveling under his alias) and his family. His landing permit was issued consecutively with that of famed Holocaust doctor Josef Mengele, proving that major Nazi war criminals were given special treatment. Priebke arrived in Argentina in November 1948. He prospered there, opening a delicatessen and living in the town of Bariloche. He abandoned his alias and lived openly as Eric Preibke and was not shy about talking about his Nazi past.
The 1994 Interview:
In 1994, an American news team in Argentina to interview Reinhard Kops, another Nazi fugitive, learned about Priebke and his unapologetic stance on his war crimes. Priebke was surprised in the street by American journalist Sam Donaldson. On camera, Priebke admitted his role in the massacre and repeated his oft-stated claim that he had only shot two men that day. When the interview aired, Italians were furious. Within months, Argentina had put Priebke on an airplane to Italy.
Trial and Fallout:
Priebke was tried in Italy for his role in the Ardeatine Caves Massacre, and the ghastly details of the cold-blooded slaughter shocked the public. The victims had been coldly led into the caves in groups of five to be shot, a process that took all afternoon. As the massacre wore on, the German soldiers were given alcohol to help them perform their grisly work, and some of the bodies clearly showed that their executions had been slow and painful as the Nazis got drunk and sloppy as the day wore on. Priebke and his companions had counted wrong, and there were five extra victims: they decided to murder them anyway.
Priebke put on the same defense as those at the Nuremberg Trial decades before: he had only been following orders. He said that if he had not helped carry out the massacre, someone else would have, and he may have found himself among the victims. He repeated his claim that he had only shot two people personally, implying that the soldiers under his command were guiltier than he.
During his trial, the Catholic Church once again came to Priebke's aid, allowing him to reside (under guard) in the San Bonaventura Monastery near Rome.
Priebke's first trial resulted in a laughable sentence: he was found guilty, but ordered freed anyway because he had been following orders. An appeal resulted in a slightly sterner sentence: he was sentenced to fifteen years, which were reduced to ten because of his age. Taking into account past amnesties for Nazi criminals and time served, Priebke would only serve a few months. On both occasions, public outrage was considerable, with protesters blocking the courtrooms.
A second appeal, this time to a military court, resulted in a charge of life imprisonment, but considering Priebke's health, he was allowed to serve his sentence under house arrest in Italy. He returned to the spotlight in July of 2013 when he celebrated his 100th birthday. There were protesters outside his house on that day, and they got into a scuffle with a man identified as Priebke's grandson, who was bringing a bottle of champagne for a celebration. Priebke died not long after, on October 11, 2013.
Throughout the trial process, Preibke showed a mixture of defiance and bewilderment. He had lived openly, under his own name, for decades. He stated that he had not been in hiding and that officials in Germany or Italy could have arrested him anytime. He had even traveled to Germany and Italy using his own passport. It is nearly certain that had he not angrily defended his past to the American news crew in 1994 that he would never have been extradited from Argentina.
Goñi, Uki. The Real Odessa: Smuggling the Nazis to Peron's Argentina. London: Granta, 2002.
Former Nazi Erich Priebke Trial. AP Archives.
Anger as Nazi war criminal Erich Priebke celebrates 100th birthday at home. news.com.au.