On this date in 1944, Nazi troops occupying Italy avenged a partisan attack by executing 335 Italian hostages in the Ardeatine caves outside Rome.
It was six months since Germany had invaded her onetime ally, eliminating those fascists who had deposed Mussolini. Now an occupied country — an increasingly tenuous occupation as the Allied war effort bore down on Germany — Italy’s partisans multiplied.
On March 23, some of them bombed a German army column, killing 33.
The Germans ordered an immediate reprisal, although there were administrative debates over how many hostages to shoot for each casualty. Hitler initially ordered a staggering 100:1 ratio, the sort of boundary-pushing command that makes 10:1 look like the choice of moderate, reasonable mass-murderers.
A motley collection was hastily assembled to fill the quota: regular prisoners, captured partisans, men from the neighborhood and from the Jewish community rounded up randomly,* even a young Italian diplomat (the link is in Italian) being held as a political suspect. So hastily was it done, the killers miscounted the harvest — as one later explained in a deposition:
Q. It was discovered that the number of people killed was more than intended, five extra. Can you explain that to us?
A. [At the Ardeatine,] Priebke was there with the copy of the list. He got the people down [off the trucks] and canceled out their names. At a certain point, one of the prisoners was not on Priebke’s list. At the end, in fact, there were five extra men. That was when Kappler said, “What do I do with these five? They’ve seen it all.”
For much of this day, in groups of five in these manmade caves that form part of the ancient catacomb network, German soldiers went about their sanguinary business. The bodies were stacked; some of the caves dynamited — as surely many Germans realized it would not be many months before the less that was known of such crimes, the better.
But publicity is the point of reprisals, after all, and the five extra men were far from the only ones who had seen the awful business. The butchery was known from the very next morning.
Intended to alienate leftist partisans from the general populace, the massacre instead united Italians of every stripe in disgust. Even the Italian fascists were horrified; according to Richard Lamb’s War in Italy 1943-1945, Mussolini ordered all political prisoners released to safeguard them from a repeat performance.
Like many wounds of the Second World War, this infamous war crime is far from healed over.
For one thing, the Pope was notably — outrageously — silent about a crime in his own back yard and directed largely against his own flock, feeding charges of Vatican collaboration.
For another thing, there was far from a complete accounting for its authors after Italy’s liberation. An American investigative series famously caught one of the massacre’s perpetrators, onetime Gestapo officer (and little apologetic about it) Erich Priebke, living in Argentina — in 1990.
The relevant parts two and three are below (part one is here).
And finally, the affair, or more particularly the partisan bombing that precipitated the massacre, has been the subject of postwar critique and revisionism, especially given the years of terrorist tit-for-tat between far-right and far-left factions that followed the war. Just last year, an Italian court intervened in the historical dispute, ruling against a Berlusconi newspaper’s campaign to smear the resistance with responsibility for this day’s executions.
* Notorious informer Celeste di Porto, “the black panther,” reputedly helped fill up the rolls by fingering Jews. A childhood friend of hers, Lazzaro Anticoli, scribbled before his execution, “If I never see my family again, it is the fault of that sellout Celeste di Porto. Avenge me.” According to Susan Zuccotti, the informer had had Anticoli’s name added at the last minute to bump her own brother off the list; di Porto’s Italian Wikipedia page charges her with responsibility for 26 of the Ardeatine victims. She was almost lynched at one point after the war for collaborating; she spent seven years in jail.