Forgive and forget is generally a beautiful rule to live by, but not when it comes to going easy on convicted war criminals. During the past few weeks, Jews and Italians were up in arms when the Nazi Erich Priebke tried, as usual, to escape responsibility for his old war crimes. As usual, he had plenty of supporters preaching that it is time to let bygones be bygones and ignore crimes of the distant past – so long as the victims of these crimes are other people and not themselves. The argument goes that it is “uncivilized” to punish an old man, perhaps the oldest jailed Nazi in the world, for crimes that he committed over sixty years ago.
As for Priebke himself, after turning the matter over in his mind for sixty-three years, he still can’t understand what all the fuss is about. What was so terrible about participating in Italy’s greatest massacre of Jews during World War II? Indeed, it is this conviction of innocence that landed him behind bars after living for five decades as a respected Argentinean citizen under his real name. He was confident that everyone shared his views.
Priebke almost got away with murder as most of his crimes are unverifiable in court.
Born in Germany in 5673/1913, Priebke was twenty years old when he joined the SS in 5693/1933, raising himself from the humdrum life of hotel management to the exciting goal of helping Germany trample over Europe. Thanks to his expertise in various languages, he spent a few years traveling around Europe in company with Hitler, Goering and Mussolini as a liaison officer and translator. One of his fondest memories is accompanying Mussolini to meet Hitler in the summer of 5701/1941 when it seemed that German soldiers would soon march into Moscow.
Later he was sent to Rome to act as liaison with the Italian police and the Vatican. To him and many other Germans, being an ardent Nazi and devout Catholic at one and the same time was no contradiction.
“We are deeply religious,” he once said of himself and his wife. “In  1942 we were granted a private audience with Pope Pius XII.”
The good times came to an end in July 5703/1943. Sick and tired of the war, the Italians locked Mussolini up in a mountaintop hotel and made peace with the Allies. Tragically, this was a death knell for about 7,000 of Italy’s tiny community of 48,000 Jews who constituted only about a thousandth of the general populace. The Italians did not share the Nazis’ rabid anti-Semitism and had not mounted any extermination campaigns until now; Jews were even fleeing into Italy from the rest of Europe to find a place of refuge. Then, however, the infuriated Nazis, who had seized Northern Italy all the way from the Alps down to Rome, proceeded to incarcerate Jews in concentration camps and ship some of them off to Auschwitz.
In September, the Rome Gestapo chief, Herbert Kappler, was ordered to deport Rome’s 7,000 Jews. As he recounted in the Eichman trial, “I remember particularly a telegram signed by Himmler in which the need was stressed to solve the Jewish question also in the city of Rome.” Kappler sniffed out 2,100 Jews and sent them to their deaths. Although Priebke was Kappler’s deputy at the time, no witnesses or documents definitively proved his complicity in this crime.
In addition, Priebke almost certainly helped torture prisoners in the Gestapo headquarters near the German embassy. Once again, lack of witnesses or paperwork meant that he would have gone free despite his crimes. By this time, months of criminal activity under Nazi auspices gave him confidence that every atrocity was permitted so long as it had his superiors’ imprimatur. This was his downfall.
On the 23rd of March, 5704/1944 a group of Communist partisans threw a bomb at a column of German soldiers in Rome killing 33 of them; Hitler promptly sent orders that “for every German soldier, ten Italians had to die.” It was Priebke’s job to find 330 victims. As he told interrogators after the war, he combed the Gestapo records and came up short: “The whole of that night we searched the records and could not find sufficient persons to make up the number required.”
To fill up the quota the Germans seized 73 Jews, ranging in age from 14 to 75 years old, making this what would be the largest single massacre of Jews in Italy during the war. Finding that the quota was still short, the Nazis seized 50 regular prisoners from Rome’s jails. Priebke then accompanied the group to the Ardeatine Caves outside Rome.
These were actually not caves at all but ancient burial caves, or catacombs, carved out of rock by early Christians. Apparently bored by ticking victims’ names off his list the whole day long,
Priebke livened things up a little by executing two victims himself. Discovering that they had rounded up five prisoners too many in their vicious manhunt, the cruel executioners decided that the extras may as well share the others’ fate. The caves have since been turned into a national monument to German brutality.
ESCAPE THROUGH ODESSA
After the war, Priebke found himself penned in a British prisoner camp at Rimini together with 220,000 German soldiers. On New Years night when the guards were inebriated, he and four other prisoners cut their way through the wire and escaped. The Vatican generously supplied him with a fake identification document which helped him get a Red Cross passport the same day.
The chief purveyor of these items was Bishop Alois Hudal, a Vatican Nazi sympathizer who helped many war criminals escape after the war, boasting afterwards, “I thank G-d that he opened my eyes and granted me the unmerited grace of being able to visit and comfort many victims in their prisons and concentration camps in the postwar period and to snatch not a few of them from the hands of their torturers, aiding their escape to happier countries with false identity papers. I felt duty bound after 1945 to devote my whole charitable work mainly to former National Socialists and Fascists, especially the so-called ‘war criminals.’” (From his book Roman Diary) Hudal was part of the well oiled “Organization Der Ehemaligen SSAngehörigen” (Organization of Former SS Members), better known after its initials, ODESSA, that helped thousands of Nazis flee from Europe to South America. Interestingly, the organization arranged Argentinean landing permits for Priebke and Josef Mengele on exactly the same day. Their file numbers are consecutive – 211712/48 and 211713/48.
In Argentina, Priebke picked up the threads of his pre-Nazi life, working in hotels and restaurants until opening his own delicatessen.
In 5719/1949, the pro-Nazi Argentinean president, Juan Peron, granted a general amnesty to anyone who had arrived in Argentina illegally, and Priebke changed his fake name, Otto Pape, back to his real name. As he told Italian newsmen in 5756/1996, “I always lived under my real name without hiding it from anyone. If they wished to arrest me they could have done so all along.”
For the next half century Priebke lived prosperously in the beautiful ski resort of Bariloche, never denying his part in the Ardeatine Caves massacre. After all, no one there seemed to care. As he described it, “Nobody since I’ve been here has ever said a word about politics. It’s completely taboo and that’s how our people behave.”
This idyllic state of affairs continued until 5754/1994 when a group of American newsmen suddenly accosted Priebke in the street. They had arrived in Argentina to interview another war criminal, Reinhold Kops, and to get rid of them Kops had told them to go after Priebke instead.
As usual, Priebke saw no reason to deny anything. “That kind of thing happened you know,” he told the Americans. “At that time an order was an order, young man, you see?”
This time Priebke had grossly miscalculated. His blatant confession was viewed all over the US, and hundreds of thousands of Americans were less forgiving than the complacent Argentineans. His foolish revelation stirred up an international ruckus that ended up with Priebke’s deportation to Italy where he went through a series of spectacular ups and downs.
One court freed him on the grounds that his case had expired, sparking off a seven hour demonstration outside the courthouse. Other judges ruled that the statute of limitations does not apply to crimes against humanity. Yet another trial let him off the hook on the basis of the well worn excuse that he was following orders even though this sort of rationale had been roundly rejected during the Nuremberg and Eichman trials. A third trial sentenced Priebke to fifteen years in prison cut down to about two or three years for various technical reasons.
At this juncture, Priebke made a second giant mistake. Foolishly considering even this tiny slap on his wrist as a travesty of justice, Priebke appealed. This rebounded against him when an appeals court sentenced him to life in March 5758/1998.
Priebke’s latest tactic to escape justice was this June 12th when he attempted to work out of home, utilizing a loophole which permits prisoners to hold jobs after a few years of house arrest. Although this mouse hole has been temporarily blocked, there is little doubt that this latest attempt is by no means the last break for freedom of a wily criminal who regards himself as totally innocent and even claims to have never hated Jews.
As he argued in the course of his trials, “I was never an anti-Semite! I grew up in Berlin where I had Jewish friends and my wife’s best friend was Jewish.”
To the bitter end, Priebke considers himself the victim of a global judicial system gone awry ever since the “false trials,” as he calls them, of Nuremberg and Tokyo.
(Main source: Goni, Uki. The Real Odessa. London: Granta Publications, 2002.)