Should Italy Still Put Former SS Soldiers on Trial for War Crimes?

Last June, ten former members of the 16th Waffen-SS Panzer Grenadier Division were tried and convicted of war crimes at a military court in La Spezia, Italy. The ten men, all of whom live in Germany, were considered too old to be extradited, and so have been allowed to remain where they are.

The men were convicted of taking part in the execution of 560 Italians – many of whom were women and children – in the village of Sant’Anna di Stazzema in the Tuscan Apennines near La Spezia in August 1942. It was one of more than 700 separate civilian massacres in Italy between September 1943 and the end of the war in May 1945, although it was not the worst: the massacre on Monte Sole, near Marzabotto, some 20 miles south of Bologna, accounted for 955. It was the largest of its kind outside of the death-camps in Western Europe. A number of units were used in the Monte Sole attack, although it was principally the work of the Reconnaissance Battalion of the 16th Waffen-SS. After the war, the battalion’s commander, Major Walter Reder, was tried and sentenced to life imprisonment in Italy. He was not released until 1985, and died six years later in 1991.

Apparently, the Italian government is determined to pursue more men – still alive – who took part in these numerous massacres. This recent case, and that of Walter Reder, are of particular interest to me because it was these massacres that first drew me to the subject of the Italy campaign as a potential book: I had never heard of either Sant’Anna or Marzabotto/Monte Sole until I read about them in a newspaper article back in 2002, and was amazed that very few British or American historians had ever bothered to write about the experiences of the Italians during what was a particularly vicious and hard-fought campaign of the war.

The vast majority of Italian books on the subject of the war in Italy tend to focus on the part played by the Partisans – the prerogative of the victors. In no book I have come across, however, have I ever seen any attempt to address the question why young German men were able to line men, women, and children against a wall and shoot them. Yet it struck me then, and it still does now, that understanding why these events occurred is important, especially as most of the German veterans I have interviewed or whose memoirs and diaries I have seen, were young men reluctant to be at war just like everyone else. The idea that all German troops – even Waffen-SS troops – were all evil Nazis is simply nonsense.

The root of the answer, I am convinced, goes back to Russia. The Nazis were able to persuade the majority of the German population that Russia needed to be invaded in June 1941 because the Soviets were depicted as a threat to the Fatherland. It was pitched, to use a now well-used phrase, as a pre-emptive strike, in this case against the westward threat of Communism – which was painted in much the same terrible light as Nazism was to the Allied nations. In other words, Soviet Russia was an evil regime that had to be changed and its threat extinguished. It was for largely this reason that most Germans accepted the invasion of Russia as being necessary. In this regard, I would argue that the German nation responded in much the same way as the British and Americans did to Bush and Blair’s reasons for invading Iraq.

As we all know, after initial lightning victories, Germany soon became bogged down in Russia, and a bitter and brutal struggle followed. Russian Partisans made life for the German troops there particularly hard. One veteran, Franz Maassen, told me about the time his friend Peter was wounded. The next day, they fell back and as they did so, passed the burnt-out wreck of the ambulance that had been carrying Peter and three others. The driver had had his hands tied to the steering wheel with wire and had then been set on fire. The four wounded men, Peter included, had been stripped, had had their penises cut off and placed in their mouths, and had then had their skulls smashed in. Some time after, having been wounded in Russia twice, Franz was posted to Italy. In Verona he waited to be assigned a new unit and whilst in a café, was attacked by Italian Partisans. He immediately concluded that all Partisans were alike; furthermore, he had been told that all Italian Partisans were Communists too. Not surprisingly, he had little sympathy with any Partisan, whether Russian or Italian, nor those who helped them in any way.

As it happened, Franz never took part in any rastrellamenti – reprisal actions – as he was too busy fighting the Allies in the front line, but admitted he would have gladly done so. German diaries and veterans I have spoken to all mention the terrible threat of the Partisan in Italy. They were an unseen enemy: wearing mostly civilian clothes, running out and striking, then disappearing again. If they sound familiarly like ‘insurgents’ in Iraq or Afghanistan, then that is because they operated in similar ways. Their actions wore down morale and played on German nerves. Another veteran I spoke to, who had been in the 16th Waffen-SS, had also seen ten of his comrades lying dead by a road with their heads smashed in. He similarly professed little sympathy for Partisans.

Walter Reder was another veteran of Russia, as was General Max Simon, commander of the 16th Waffen-SS. Simon even wrote a pamphlet on how to combat Russian Partisans. Veterans of the Eastern Front were sprinkled throughout German units in Italy, from the top to the bottom of the chain. They only exacerbated what can be seen as an endemic attitude of German troops in Italy towards Partisans. Troops at the front faced the constant threat of Allied action: in the air the Allies had near-constant superiority and the low-level fighter bombers, especially, made their lives a misery. They also faced the Allies’ superior fire-power: shelling, mortaring, and sniping. Unlike the Allies when out of the line, or going back and forth to and from the front, they faced the threat of Partisan action. German troops were often on edge and angry; they were losing the war, and were often dehumanised by the horrors they had experienced. With this in mind, it becomes less surprising that they were able to take part in these operations – operations that would materially improve their lives. After the massacre at Monte Sole, for example, the Partisan band in the area, the Stella Rossa, ceased to exist. Troops travelling down the Setta and Reno Valleys either side of Monte Sole no longer had anything to fear from Italian ‘bandits.’ That civilians were killed was unfortunate, but they probably felt little sympathy; after all, for any Partisan band to survive, they needed the support of the local population. To German troops, they must have been guilty as well by their very complicity.

Clearly, though, such actions cannot be condoned, even if understood. But should the nineteen year-old private be tried for war crimes? Should even the battalion major? After all, it was neither of these men who ordered the operations. That decision lay initially with Field Marshal Kesselring, Commander in Chief of all German forces in Italy, who instructed his commanders to respond with ferocity to any attack on German troops by Italians. It was he, and he alone, who decreed that ten Italians should be killed for every German ‘murdered’ by an Italian. Villages and civilians were not to be spared. Resistors had to be taught a lesson. Those fighting a guerrilla war had already broken the Law of War; therefore such laws became null and void. This was how Kesselring argued his case at his own post-war trial. And although he was found guilty and sentenced to death, this was later commuted to life imprisonment. In the end, Kesselring served just five years in prison, while the man who carried out his orders, and from very much lower down the chain of command, remained in prison for thirty-seven.

One SS veteran I spoke to – who was in a unit that took no part in any reprisal – explained how he has been forced to lie low, in fear of arrest, all his life. His children were told by their teacher that their father was a criminal. Even now, he worries that he will be arrested and put on trial. ‘They bring out witnesses,’ he says, ‘people who suffered, and they say, “Yes, he was definitely there. I recognise him. But how can they after more than sixty years? A fleeting moment of looking into a young man’s face and they think they still recognise the eighty year-old man he has become?’ He pointed out that were it a trial for a more recent crime it would be flung out of court immediately for lack of reliable evidence. People need to have a focus for their anger and grief, I pointed out. To this he nodded sadly. One of his former colleagues living in Austria has just had his house searched by Austrian police and all his papers confiscated. He was too scared to speak to me.

This remains, of course, a highly contentious issue, but I would have thought that it is time now to let sleeping dogs lie. Many of these men have paid a price for what they did, with a proverbial albatross hanging around their necks ever since the end of the war. The generals and commanders – the men who ordered these killings – have all been tried or are now dead.

Franz Maassen was never anything more than a good front-line soldier, the kind of sergeant that is the backbone of any infantry company or platoon. He saw a lot of terrible things, and took part in a lot of terrible things, but after the war returned to his wife, brought up his kids, and led a perfectly respectable life, like many veterans from all sides. I interviewed him a few months ago at his home in Germany and as I left he said, ‘You know, it wasn’t until after the war that I felt human again.’

I have interviewed a number of those who survived the massacre at Monte Sole. I was profoundly moved and appalled by what they told me. Yet I still believe these once very young men, now old, who pulled the trigger and watched them die, should be left alone.

1 reply
  1. Chris Hale
    Chris Hale says:

    I think that whatever the age and infirmity – alleged – of the accused, war crimes trials connected to the German genocide of the Second World War are vital. It is the tardiness of post war courts, especially in Germany, that should be held responsible for the age of the individuals now involved. Above all, these trials function togenerate further historical data and debate about atrocities that all too frequently have been obscured or wilfully covered up. SS activities in Italy are a case in point: we simply don’t know enough about some very complex events. Leaving the individuals alone is surely the same as leaving the events alone?

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