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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Still in Denial: Italy Ignores Its Fascist Past

The recent botched trial of former SS captain Erich Priebke in a Rome military court was more than an undignified farce and more than an appalling miscarriage of justice. More than 50 years after the death of Benito Mussolini, it exposed the continuing failure of the Italian state, and certain sections of Italian society, to come to terms with Italy's fascist past.


By his own admission, Priebke, now 83, took part in the killing of 335 Italian civilians, including 75 Jews, in March 1944 in the Ardeatine Caves south of Rome. He lived in Argentina for most of the post-war period under his own name but was finally extradited to Italy.


Two weeks ago, a three-judge military court found him guilty of murder but set him free on the grounds that he had merely followed orders, and his crime was therefore covered by a 30-year statute of limitations. An angry mob besieged the courtroom, and Priebke was hastily rearrested; he now faces possible extradition to Germany for a second trial.


The handling of Priebke's case has been almost unbelievably inept. If the court was right to invoke the statute of limitations, if the judiciary is genuinely independent, then the Italian authorities had no business throwing a free man back into jail. But if the court was wrong, then Priebke should not have gone on trial until Italy had amended its penal code to get rid of the loophole cited by the military court.


Here lies the nub of the matter. Priebke's actions surely fall into the category of "crimes against humanity." Under principles established at Nuremberg, a perpetrator of such crimes cannot be absolved of responsibility because he acted under orders, and the crimes themselves are not subject to a statute of limitations.Yet Italy has never included the specific offense of "crimes against humanity" in its penal code. Its failure to do so speaks volumes about the way Italy chose to deal with fascists and fascist sympathizers after 1945.


Under Mussolini's dictatorship, 4 million Italians joined the fascist party, and people from all walks of life -- industrialists, landowners, judges, intellectuals and bureaucrats -- helped prop up the regime. Yet the attempts of Italy's first post-war prime minister, Ferruccio Parri, to punish collaborators and exclude them from public life came to nothing.


A sweeping amnesty law was passed, and Italy's state institutions remained full of officials who had served and supported Mussolini. Worse still, for some years after the war Italian courts convicted anti-fascist partisans of "crimes" committed in 1943-45, while many supporters of the rump fascist state of that period, the Republic of Salo, walked free.


West Germany faced similar problems after the war: It was hard to find bureaucrats to replace those who had worked for the Nazis. But from the late 1950s onward, West Germany made a conscious effort to prosecute war criminals; to date, about 7,000 have been convicted. In contrast, Italian military prosecutors were so keen not to rake up their country's dishonorable past that they even ignored war crimes committed by Germans. Karl Hass, a former SS major involved in the same massacre as Priebke, was allowed to live quietly in Milan for years.


In Priebke's case, perhaps the best solution now is that he should be moved to Germany and receive the punishment he has escaped for so long. For Italy, one can only hope this scandal finally prompts a closer and more honest look at history.