It’s about trying to understand why this story still matters. A very old man, aged one hundred, still imprisoned – albeit under comfortable house arrest, at the residence of his lawyer – for a crime he committed a lifetime ago, on 24 March 1944. The man dies. You might think it’s the end of the story, or you might hope for some closure. But immediately another story begins: how are we to dispose of his body? What rites are to be afforded to this man – what kind of comfort in death?
The man’s name was Erich Priebke. For the neonazis that three months ago, when he turned one hundred, painted his name on the walls of Rome, he was ‘the captain’. They wrote Happy birthday, Priebke. And Honour to the hero Priebke.
The day before, a group of communist partisans had carried out a daring attack at Via Rasella, killing 32 soldiers of an Italian military police corps attached to the SS. It was eventually decreed that 320 Italians would have to die, then 330, when one of the survivors died in hospital that evening. The designated victims were partisans who had been imprisoned and tortured in the infamous Gestapo headquarters of Via Tasso, 57 Jews who hadn’t yet been deported, and the balance to be comprised of common criminals, all of whom Captain Priebke had helped to select. The men were taken to the remnants of ancient catacombs along the via Ardeatina, on the outskirts of the city, made to kneel and killed with a single shot each at the base of the skull. Then the caves were sealed with explosives, to conceal the bodies and make sure there wouldn’t be any unlikely survivors.
|The memorial at the Fosse Ardeatine|
Then, at war’s end, like a hero, Priebke fled. For nearly 50 years he lived as a free man in Argentina, where he became a respected member of the community of Bariloche. The director of the German cultural association, no less. Until 1994, when reporters from the American television station ABC tracked him down. They approached him in the street, in broad daylight. When they asked him if he was Erich Priebke, he didn’t try to deny it.
The next year he was extradited. Then, the trial. Or rather, a series of trials, as customary in the Italian system, one of which ended in an acquittal followed by the besieging of the Tribunal by protesters. Finally, in 1998, a definitive sentence to life imprisonment. Whatever life he had left.
Somebody always asks, at times such as those, what good could it possible do to put an 85 year old man in jail. The rest of Priebke’s far-too-long existence, as well as the ten days that he has spent dead thus far, offer an exemplary justification.
In life, he never repented. Maybe that’s what makes him a hero to the neofascists and the neonazis, although he hasn’t expressed defiant pride either, just the old, trite justification that he was following orders, and never wished to Jewish people or anyone else any harm. As if – quite aside from anything else – an officer of the SS were a common German soldier, and not an elite member of the paramilitary wing of the Nazi party. Equally ambiguous and strident was his habit of describing his job under Kesserling as that of ‘dealing with terrorists’, and indeed his supporters even now grotesquely blame the reprisal on the partisans’ action.
As a matter of fact, there was never an explicit public warning that the killing of German soldiers would provoke such reaction. Kesserling’s communiqué that contained that edict – ‘10 Italians will be killed for every German’ – was issued the day after the massacre, and ended with the words ‘the order has already been executed’.
That emblematic phrase, which was chosen by Alessandro Portelli as the title of his book on the Fosse Ardeatine, exemplifies the self-serving logic to which Priebke remained faithful until the very end. So now we have a video-testament, of which some excerpts have been released. More excuses, no doubt the casting of a very indulgent light on the atrocities of Nazism and Fascism. Another ‘document’ with to enrich the libraries of Casa Pound and the other far Right organizations across Europe. Another text to be quoted. ‘As Captain Priebke said…’
But there is still a bit of reckoning left for Erich Priebke. No sooner did he die, that the Mayor of Rome ordered that he not be accorded a civil funeral by the city, a prohibition that the prefect extended to the whole province. In a surprise gesture – this new Pope has given us a few of those – the Pontifical Vicar of Rome denied him the right to a Catholic funeral (Priebke had converted in 1946, whilst escaping the country with the help of the Vatican’s Ratline). After days of impasse, the Society of Saint Pius X – the ultra-conservative schismatic fraternity that includes Holocaust denier bishop Richard Williamson, and that Pope Benedict XVI seemed determined for a while to bring back into the fold – offered to celebrate his funeral at their priory in Albano Laziale, a town on the Alban hills which was a centre of partisan resistance during the war. But neither the heavy police escort nor a group of twenty or so neonazis managed to overcome the opposition of the protesters, so the funeral was not held.
Priebke’s remains will likely end up, if not as one of those purposefully, ritually misplaced bodies, as an exile in death, at least for some time. A heart surgeon in the northern city of Brescia offered it sanctuary in his family crypt, only to be swiftly denied by the local Mayor. Now his lawyer and chief supporter, Paolo Giachini, claims that a secret burial place has been found, ‘either in Germany or in Italy’. Perhaps. But it will still have to get there.
Expect more battles over this piece of old flesh. In the meantime, we have to ask why it still matters. Why we won’t let him be.
Bodies and rites are powerful symbols, and it was a surprising show of unity for our chief civic and religious institutions to come together to deny those rites to that particular body. I welcome their stance, and stand in solidarity with the protestors. But it’s a curious thing for the society in which Mussolini memorabilia are sold at every second newsstand, and that just last year was dedicating a monument to the butcher of Ethiopia, Rodolfo Graziani, to be so stark in its condemnation of the foreign villain alone. For that historic, misplaced indulgence towards our own, we are still called upon to account.