Interview'It epitomizes the enormous failures of justice'

After killing hundreds of Italian civilians, a brutal SS division evaded justice

UK author Christian Jennings’ new book ‘Anatomy of a Massacre’ examines the infamous murders at Sant’ Anna di Stazzema to highlight Nazi war crimes that went unpunished

Robert Philpot is a writer and journalist. He is the former editor of Progress magazine and author of “Margaret Thatcher: The Honorary Jew.”

Sant' Anna di Stazzema massacre memorial sculpture, February 22, 2008. (Wikimedia  Commons/ Hans Peter Schaefer)
Sant' Anna di Stazzema massacre memorial sculpture, February 22, 2008. (Wikimedia Commons/ Hans Peter Schaefer)

LONDON — Few countries in World War II were in a position as complex or ambiguous as that of Italy. In the summer of 1943, with the Allies poised to invade, the Nazis’ junior Axis ally secretly negotiated an armistice, ousted Benito Mussolini, and flipped sides. In response to this apparent betrayal, a furious Hitler rushed troops into the country, seizing northern and central Italy and occupying Rome.

Within days, a call went out from the newly formed resistance movement for the Italian people to “actively contribute” to the fight to drive the Germans from Italy and assist the defeat of fascism. That call was answered by tens of thousands of Italians.

As the Allies slowly advanced up the Italian peninsula, behind enemy lines the partisans relentlessly sniped at and harassed German forces, and even occasionally engaged them in open battle. The Nazis responded with characteristic brutality, cold-bloodedly murdering thousands of Italian civilians in what one British officer later described as “a systematic policy of extermination, looting, piracy and terrorism.”

The story of one of the most notorious Nazi acts of vengeance is the subject of a new book by British journalist Christian Jennings, “Anatomy of a Massacre: How the SS Got Away with War Crimes in Italy.” It recounts how on a single day in August 1944, the SS butchered between 457 and 560 people in and around Sant’Anna di Stazzema — a small, Tuscan mountaintop village previously untouched by the war.

“Italy is seen as a country of perpetrators, rather than of victims and courageous fighters. One of my aims in this book was to turn that on its head,” Jennings told The Times of Israel. “The Italians might have been victims in some cases, but they also resisted furiously.”

The brutality of the SS actions in Sant’Anna has made it the most high-profile, if not the bloodiest, mass killing committed by the Germans in Italy.

An elderly survivor at Sant’Anna di Stazzema on December 14, 1944. (Public domain)

Supposedly an anti-partisan operation, most of its victims were women, children and the elderly. The youngest victim was three weeks old; many of those murdered were burned alive. When they had finished with their brutality, the men of the 16th SS Panzergrenadier Division sat in the shade of the village’s chestnut and olive trees and ate their lunch.

The 16th Division was responsible for the greatest number of war crimes in Italy. To each of its atrocities, writes Jennings, it brought “a special barbarity, an imaginative twist of violence.”

As a foreign correspondent who reported on atrocities and their aftermath in Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the former Yugoslavia, Jennings throws a fascinating and horrifying light on the men who committed this crime. However, a major focus of the book is not on the terrible events of that summer’s day, nor on the many other massacres which cut a bloody scar across rural Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna in the summer of 1944, but on what happened next — or rather, what didn’t happen.

The SS men, he writes, “got away, literally, with mass murder.” None of the perpetrators ever spent a day in prison for the crimes they had committed. “The killings at Sant’Anna resonate so strongly today,” writes Jennings, “because the incident has come to epitomize the enormous failures of justice for war crimes committed by the Germans in Italy.”

Valiant actions prevent worse atrocities

None of this is to suggest, however, that the partisans’ guerrilla warfare, nor the thousands of innocent lives lost at the hands of the Germans in response, were somehow in vain. The partisans aided and abetted the Allied advance, and their ferocious attacks on the German forces, believes Jennings, may have helped save the lives of thousands of Italian Jews.

‘Anatomy of a Massacre’ author Christian Jennings (Courtesy)

Within weeks of the occupation, the Nazis set to work rounding up and deporting Jews in Rome, Milan, Genoa and other major cities in northern Italy. But this effort met with limited success: in Rome, just over 1,000 of the city’s 10,000 Jews were deported. In all, 80 percent of the Jews in Italy — the highest figure in Western Europe — survived the Holocaust.

“Partisan actions behind German lines were so significant, however disorganized, that the collective effect was to deny huge swathes of Italy to the Germans,” Jennings says, adding that the “logistical stability” required to carry out the Final Solution was “destroyed by the partisans, and it made it even harder for the Germans to carry out their arrest and deportation operations.”

Chilling brutality

That the Germans would respond ruthlessly to such attacks was inevitable. In a series of directives issued in the early months of 1944, the German supreme commander in Italy, Field Marshall Albert Kesselring, ordered his forces to use “all means at our disposal” and to act with “the utmost severity.” But the vicious savagery of the 16th Division stemmed, Jennings believes, from its decidedly dark history.

A substantial number of its members were drawn from the 1st SS-Totenkopf Regiment, later expanded and renamed the 3rd SS Totenkopf Division, which guarded concentration camps before being posted to fight on the Eastern Front.

In action in the Soviet Union, the 3rd Totenkopf gained a grim reputation for mistreating and killing Red Army prisoners and Ukrainian, Byelorussian and Russian civilians. This lethal culture was exacerbated by the nature of its recruits. These included a high percentage of young, impressionable Hitler Youth fanatics — by 1944, the average age in the 16th SS’s reconnaissance regiment was just 18 — who looked up to the officers and NCOs who had served in the East.

Jennings meticulously details the background and beliefs of some of the individual men who operated at and around Sant’Anna in the summer of 1944.

3rd SS Totenkopf Panzer Division troops during Operation Barbarossa in 1941. (Wikimedia commons/ Bundesarchiv Bild)

Twenty-year-old Werner Bruss, for instance, joined the SS in 1940 not, he later said, “out of any ideological motives, but to get away from a father who was an alcoholic.” He later served in Poland and Ukraine with an Einsatzkommando, carrying out mass killings and massacring partisan prisoners on the Eastern Front.

Georg Rauch, who joined the Hitler Youth aged 12 in 1933, was an apprentice baker and cake-maker before joining the SS. He served as a concentration camp guard and on the Eastern Front before fighting partisans in the Warsaw Ghetto.

And Alfred Concina, a member of the Nazi party from his teens, had served on the Eastern Front and in Prague before moving to Italy with the 16th Division.

“These were men,” says Jennings, who “saw National Socialism and entry into the SS as a way of bettering themselves socially and professionally, and advancing themselves.”

Getting away with murder free and clear

But none of these men, nor any of their fellow butchers, faced a court in Germany for their actions in Sant’Anna. Indeed, only two SS officers were ever to serve time in prison for any of the 16th Division’s multiple killing sprees in Tuscany.

The reasons for this failure of justice, believes Jennings, are complex and multiple. Certainly, Allied investigators were on the scene, collecting evidence from survivors of the massacre within weeks of its perpetration.

“The British, Americans and Italians did exactly the right thing, and carried out immediate, muscular and mainly effective war crimes investigations during and after the war,” he says. “But it turned out to be much harder than expected to translate these into effective court processes in the second half of the 1940s and early 1950s.”

One early factor muddying the waters was the cloud of suspicion that surrounded the relationship between United States intelligence services and SS-General Karl Wolff, the Supreme SS and police commander in Italy.

Wolff, who was heavily implicated in the deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto, had been involved in secret talks with the Americans aimed at securing an early surrender of German forces in Italy. He had also demanded immunity from prosecution in return for giving evidence at the forthcoming Nuremberg war crimes trials. Indeed, some of Wolff’s subordinates believed their wily and duplicitous boss was attempting to negotiate a free pass for all SS men who had served under him in Italy.

Heinrich Himmler, Franz Ziereis and Karl Wolff at the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp, April 1941. (Bundesarchiv Bild)

“The main effect of whatever relationship Wolff did or didn’t form with the US intelligence services was that it created an atmosphere of distrust and insecurity at a high level between the British, Americans and Italians,” says Jennings. “It sowed disinformation… among these three principal partners when it came to dealing with SS war crimes carried out in Italy: the British and Italians were unsure what the Americans had done, whether the judicial goalposts had been moved, so to speak.”

Ultimately, the British and Americans opted to put on trial only the most senior SS and Wehrmacht officers responsible for war crimes in Italy. These included Kesselring and SS Major General Max Simon, the 16th Division commander, who both received remarkable leniency. Kesselring served a mere six years in prison after his death sentence was commuted. Simon similarly escaped execution. An initial death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, but he too was released after only seven years behind bars.

SS commander Max Simon. (Wikimedia Commons/ Bundesarchiv Bild)

On assuming responsibility for prosecuting war crimes committed on their soil, the Italians initially planned “una piccolo Norimberga,” a small Nuremberg. But ultimately, only 13 German war criminals were sentenced. Jennings faults the British and Americans for their “slowness and inefficiency” in devolving to the Italians “a robust and trustworthy” court system in which the perpetrators of Sant’Anna and other massacres could be held to account for their crimes.

However, he believes other factors were also at play in helping the Sant’Anna killers evade justice. Of crucial importance was the ease with which the SS men could avoid arrest in postwar Germany. The de-Nazification process proved wide open to abuse.

Thanks to what became known as “Persilscheine” — so-called after a popular brand of laundry detergent because even the guilty could emerge clean as a whistle — SS men could provide each other with false testimony and thus forge their de-Nazification certificates.

They were also aided, says Jennings, by Germany’s “desire to ease former SS and other servicemen back into a new society.” Thus in 1953 Germany’s first postwar chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, described members of the SS as “soldiers like everybody else.”

Politics add to the injustice

All of this took part against the backdrop of the emerging Cold War, when German rearmament and European integration to counter the Soviet threat took precedence over pursuing war criminals. Senior politicians in Italy, which stood on the frontlines of the Cold War, shared this line of thinking.

‘Anatomy of a Massacre,’ by Christian Jennings. (Courtesy)

Alcide de Gasperi, the fiercely anti-communist prime minister, worked with Adenauer, writes Jennings, “to limit the scope of war crimes trials in Italy.” The Italians agreed with the Allies that Maj. Walter Reder, the one-armed commander of the 16th’s reconnaissance regiment, should stand trial as the effective representative of all the division’s Italian crimes. Reder, who staunchly defended his regiment’s bloody record, received a life sentence at his 1951 trial and was not released until 1985.

Any lingering hope of justice for the victims of Sant’Anna disappeared at the turn of the decade when Italian officials gathered together thousands of wartime documents, including those relating to war crimes investigations, and locked them in a cupboard in a Defense Ministry building in central Rome. The cupboard was padlocked and turned to face a wall. It would remain there for nearly four decades before it was rediscovered in 1994 as part of an investigation into the infamous Ardeatine Caves massacre.

But Jennings believes that “the major damage had been done” long before the crucial Sant’Anna files were ferreted away in the so-called “cupboard of shame.”

“Italy and Italians, almost in their entirety, and to their huge credit, had and have done as much as they could, in the face of considerable obstacles of international realpolitik, to try and bring justice to bear on the perpetrators of the German war crimes committed in Italy,” Jennings says.

Trial and error

For the survivors of the Sant’Anna massacre, those renewed efforts in the 1990s culminated in the 2005 trial of 10 SS men who, after a painstaking investigation involving German and Italian prosecutors, were tracked down and accused of participation in the killings. The case turned into the largest collective war crimes probe of former SS members since the 1950s.

One of the men, Ludwig Goring, moreover became the first German ever to have fully cooperated with Italian magistrates in a war crimes trial. Reportedly haunted by nightmares and PTSD, he confessed to having killed at least 20 women at Sant’Anna and initially agreed to testify at the trial in exchange for immunity.

More common, though, was the attitude of Concina, whose lawyer told investigators when he was interviewed in December 2003 that he would not make any statement about what had happened on the day of the massacre. Nonetheless, in a later interview Concina — who said he had been in Sant’Anna but denied killing anybody — inadvertently implicated the lead suspect, Gerhard Sommer, as his former commanding officer. Sommer, who at first refused to talk to the investigators, claimed the operation at Sant’Anna was strictly targeted at partisans.

Italian partisan in Florence in August 1944. (Public domain)

When the trial opened in the Tuscan port of La Spezia in April 2004, none of the accused SS men — who included Goring, Sommer, Concina, Goring, Rauch and Bruss — appeared in person. Their defense contained a mix of lies, claims of ignorance and obfuscation. Even Goring, who accepted his criminal responsibility, fell back on the hoary offering that he was obeying orders and was afraid he might have been shot had he refused to do so.

Sommer, whose name had first surfaced in connection with the massacre in 1944, stonewalled, making the incredible claim that he was aware of anti-partisan actions, but had never participated in, nor could remember, any of them.

Although he had chosen not to appear in person, Goring’s testimony ultimately proved critical and, in June 2005, all 10 men were found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. Seven of the men, including Sommer, appealed against the verdicts. Although they were upheld, Germany refused to act on Italian extradition requests.

A subsequent German investigation into eight of the men — two had by this time died — was abandoned in 2012. “Belonging to a Waffen-SS unit that was deployed to Sant’Anna di Stazzema cannot replace the need for individual guilt,” the prosecutors said. Until his death in 2019, Sommer showed not a scintilla of remorse. In 2002, he told a German TV that he had “an absolutely clear conscience.”

Survivor testimony

Nine of those who survived the massacre regularly attended the Italian trial. Among their number was Enrico Pieri. His life had been saved by a young refugee girl who had been staying with the family in August 1944. Grazia Pierotti pulled Enrico outside into a vegetable patch where they hid among the runner beans as the Germans dragged away their parents. Adele Pardini had survived when, in a hail of SS bullets, her mother’s body had fallen onto her, pushing open a small door in the wall of a house into which she and two of her sisters crawled. Her baby sister, Anna, was, however, the massacre’s youngest victim.

Motorcycle unit of the 16th Division in Rome, November 1943. (Wikimedia Commons/ Bundesarchiv Bild)

On the day of the massacre, a third survivor, Enio Mancini, had been among a small group of children being escorted by a young, blond-haired soldier. The soldier had stopped them behind some trees and then gestured for them to flee back up the hill, eventually firing a bullet into the air to encourage them to run away to safety.

A decade after the trial ended, Mancini received a phone call. “My uncle saved your life in 1944,” Andreas Schendel told him. His family, he explained, had discovered Heinrich Schendel’s diaries — which included a description of the events of that day in Sant’Anna — after his recent death. Andreas said he wanted to come to the village to meet survivors and apologize. His subsequent visit, Pardini told Jennings, was one of the first times they had ever met a German who had come to Sant’Anna because they wanted to, not because — like ambassadors and politicians — they had to.

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