The Death of Erich Priebke

Erich Priebke, one of the most infamous Nazi war criminals, died on Friday in Italy at the age of 100.

Priebke’s death made news not only as a post–World War II milestone, but also due to the reaction in Italy, where the suggestion that he be buried in Rome provoked open indignation and revulsion. Ignazio Marino, the center-left mayor of Rome, said it would be an insult for Priebke to be buried in the city. “I will do everything in my power to prevent the burial of Erich Priebke in Rome,” he said. Church authorities also refused to give him a religious burial in Rome.

The horror and shame of the Nazi period is still sufficiently alive there that people shun the very thought of burying the unrepentant perpetrator in their soil. In Argentina, too, the government has refused to allow his body to be returned for burial. Let not the evil be interred in our city! they say. Let not the evil be interred in our country! He who carried out the massacre and then ordered explosives to be detonated to seal the cave, killing any survivors and entombing the dead, deserves no decent burial. Let his remains be disposed of somewhere else, but not here.

This is a fitting end for the likes of those who disposed of their victims in caves and ditches and sent them to Auschwitz to be incinerated.

Unlike many other Nazis brought to trial after World War II who denied the charges against them, Priebke unashamedly admitted what he did. After 50 years of living quietly in Argentina, he was discovered by an American journalist. In an interview, he defended his leading role in the massacre of 335 Italians in the Ardeatine Caves near Rome in 1944 as an operation conducted against “terrorists,” a justification recently made familiar by another diligent counter-terrorist, Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The victims were executed by firing squad (at close range, to save ammunition) in reprisal for a partisan action that killed 33 German soldiers. The dead included 75 Jewish victims, the largest single massacre of Jews in Italy in the war. In addition, Priebke is also thought to have assisted in the deportation of thousands of Jews from Italy to Auschwitz.

Following the interview, Priebke was extradited to Italy, where he was eventually convicted and given a life sentence in 1998. Due to age and infirmity, he was serving out the sentence under house arrest at the home of his lawyer when he died.

Some Italians protested house arrest as an unwarranted leniency for someone who had shown no compassion to his captives. They were outraged that he was allowed to do his own shopping, go for walks in the park and to restaurants with friends.

But that, along with Priebke’s advanced age at the time of his death, and his undisturbed half century in Argentina, where he worked as a waiter, should raise no questions in our mind about justice in his case. He was, after all, brought to justice long after he surmised that the world no longer cared about what he had done and it was safe to talk about it in the media — another stern lesson for those who think they can commit atrocities in one place and find sanctuary elsewhere.

And despite the leniency, he was hardly a serene figure, complaining bitterly, “I gave Argentina 50 years of my life and they don’t want me. I fought for Germany during the war and they put me on trial for obeying orders.”

The deaths of known Nazis seven decades after the war, and 13 years into a new century, serve as needed reminders. Europe would prefer to forget the Holocaust, if not deny it, but every time another Nazi is prosecuted or dies they are reminded of the shameful past.

For those Europeans who were born and grew up after the war, the news accounts of these cases are much-needed history lessons, helping to fill gaps in the school curricula, and making it difficult for anyone to say that it happened before their time and so how could they know about it. It should force them to take a hard look at the neo-Nazis and the anti-Semitic and anti-Israel elements who deny the Holocaust and blame the Jews for all their problems.