Interview with Erich Priebke

1) What do you think is the most important message that you have transmitted via your autobiography?

Other than the meaning of single events, a man who is nearing the end of his days has to relive his past life.
Perhaps the most difficult thing is actually accepting one's destiny serenely. I believe, after many trials and tribulations, to have understood the meaning of my life: to battle right up until the end in order to maintain high my self-esteem, the pride of belonging to my people, the Germans who, with their virtues and their defects, I cannot and do not want to stop loving.

2) Since 1994, the year in which your legal battles started until now, have you changed your mind about anything?

During the Priebke case, we have witnessed a frightening number of violations of the basic concepts of human rights. Barbaries which have not been imposed as being bloodless events. The yielding of the institutions happened by means of continual pressure of the political power on the judiciary power (as happened during my kidnapping and subsequent rearrest in the High Court, ordered by the then Minister of Justice Giovanni Maria Flick), ignoring the fundamental principle of the division of powers, which is the very essence of the independence of Magistracy.
At that time, I sincerely believed in the values of justice, in those of which they speak so fondly of in the so-called civil countries which are considered to be States of Rights.
I have had to learn, at my own expense, that behind the mask of democratic legality, often there are hidden interests and intrigues of powerful lobbies, which ride roughshod over rights and manipulate information until they reach their dubious aims.

3)The second first grade court hearing of your long legal battle ended with a 15-year sentence, reduced then to a few months, due to the 10-year judicial pardon and for the 4 years and more of preventive custody that you had already served ( including those suffered as a prisoner of war). An agreement between the prosecution and the defence decided to put an end to your legal battle at that point. Yet, you state in your autobiography that the agreement was masterminded from the top, and in the appeal court you were sentenced to life imprisionment, then confirmed by the Court of Cassation. Do you think that you know who is responsible for this manoeuvre? Do you think that this is part of a bigger, political trial?

Of all the sentences that concern me, I can say that Priebke the man has never been tried, innocent or guilty as he may be, but the ideology that they wanted to try, at all costs, whatever he embodied. I have been judged, not according to the rules of law but with the only aim of staging a stage trial which would only have imposed the usual emotional package, wrapped up in order to influence the masses with the idea of a monster according to the customs of the power games of those in high office.

The Priebke case should have been the most recent occasion to reconfirm and to justify the principles upon which political and social influences are based in today's world. A world planned during the Yalta conference, self-justified by the fase trials of Tokyo, Nuremberg and others, staged along the way against those who refused to be manipulated into thinking in the new way. It should have been the last occasion to use the German soldier as a symbol of evil, played against all that in terms which are more and more categorical are imposed on the worlds' population as being good: the new, world-wide order, that which has been globalised by a close group of cosmopolitan plutocrats and by the petty politicians at their service.

4) You say that you are sorry for the loss of human life, but that you can't apologise, given that you think that it would have been impossible for you to avoid taking part in the reprisal, at the risk of your own life. How do you consider, then, the kind of reprisal carried out at the Ardeatine caves? Do you believe that that reprisal was unavoidable or inopportune?

I had never killed anyone before that day and thank God that I haven't had to do it again. Due to the fact that war is made up of massacres and death, it can't alleviate the tragedy of who has a conscience and who has to put an end to a human life.
Probably, today's generations, those who have never fought a war cannot understand. We had to shoot at the Ardeatine caves: we didn't do it out of hatred. We had to do it following an unrefusable order which had come directly from Hitler himself. All I can say is that the reprisal was and is still today a legal practise in war. To disobey would have been impossible, as has been seen in terrible events like Hiroshima, Dresda and all the other mass murders and reprisals which happened during the second world war, where on the contrary to what happened at the Ardeatine Caves, both women and children were often assassinated indiscriminately.

5) What are the most important episodes that you remember when you were subordinate to Hitler and Mussolini?

After the first positive outcomes on the Eastern front, at the end of Summer1941, working as a liaison officer, I followed Benito Mussolini on an unforgettable journey. The Duce visited the Italian divisions which were under the the command of General Giovanni Messe. The meeting place was a small railway station near the front line, deliberately chosen due to the fact that it was near two tunnels which could have hosted both trains in case of an air raid. We stopped and waited for Hitler's train to arrive and we didn't have to wait very long.
The Duce was sombre, the recent death of his son Bruno, who had crashed whilst testing an aeroplane, proved to be unbearable for him. I saw how Mussolini's distraught face lightened up when he saw the Führer. The cordiality towards the ally struck me as there was something really spontaneous about it and on his part, Hitler was, in turn, just as friendly. I also remember that by Mussolini's side was his son Vittorio.
The shouts of: “Duce Duce” with which the Italian soldiers, up until that moment had victoriously welcomed Mussolini was really overwhelming, a very Italian insight which was moreover, particularly moving for him though suffering in silence.

Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler in Monaco, 1938

6) In your book you paint a very different picture of Colonel Kappler to which is usually portrayed by the mass-media. Infact, you tell of a Kappler who nurtured a dislike for Jews but one of a political kind not one which was merely of a racist nature, you recall that Kappler had also found, during his imprisonment a Gypsy friend.... Do you really think that the figure of Kappler had been manipulated for reasons of political propaganda?

Kappler was considered to be a very promising official who, thanks to his fluency in the Italian language, had shown that he had fitted into the Roman lifestyle more than well.
Born in 1907, he was 6 years older than I and was from Stoccarda, the son of a middle class family . He signed up at the NSDAP(National Socialist Workers Party) in 1931, two years before Hitler's electoral victory, and the year after he had left university to enter the Allgemeine SS. He had attended the police academy in Charlottenburg in 1937. Noted by Heydrich for the acumen shown during the course of the investigations carried out on the attempt to assassinate Hitler, in Monaco in 1939, he was made to specialise in the problems of international communism obtaining the job of liaison officer in Rome with the Italian police in the course of the same year, after a proposal made by General Harster and upon appointment of Heydrich and following a brief period in Innsbruck. He was a man of culture who loved to collect Etruscan vases and listening to classical music. He was surely ambitious, and the organisation of the work under him, according to the style of the period, should have worked like clockwork: being his employee meant obeying and making sacrifices but beyond his job as a chief, he didn't interfere in the personal life of those working under him. Gifted with a flexible mind uncommon for a policeman, he avoided acting on the mere basis of simple suppositions: however he also knew how to be extremely severe with his enemies.
The allied courts tried his superiors, at the end of the conflict: in 1946 the generals Eberhard von Mackensen and Kurt Mälzer in Roma and in 1947, in Venice the Feldmarschall Albert Kesselring. They had communicated with him, as the captain of the security police in Rome, Hitler's orders regarding the reprisal of the Ardeatine Caves. All three high officials were condemned to be shot by the firing squad which was subsequently commuted into a life sentence and eventually, in 1952, they were reprieved and so therefore they lived as free men for the rest of their lives (except for Mälzer who, in the meantime, had died of cancer).
In the end, Kappler was the only one to be sentenced by court martial in Rome in 1948. Although he had been absolved for the reprisal itself, Kappler was charged with the assassination of 10 hostages who, according to the decision of the court, had been killed esclusively on the basis of his personal taste. The decision had been taken by Kappler following the death in hospital of the 33rd German soldier, hours after the partisan attack of Via Rasella.
After more than thirty years' imprisonment, when Kappler was terminally ill with cancer and was, by now, little more than a shadow of his former self, a pack of hyenas continued to hound him. He had been excluded firstly from any kind of clemency, whether it be a reduction of the sentence or whether it be amnesty, by now, when he was at death's door, they had even refused him the suspension of the penalty. Finally, in defiance of all the blathering about humanitarianism of the civil societies, they were more than happy to deny him even the comfort of dying in his own home.Hypocrisy and careerism were myths of the Christian Democrat authorities and their machines in the new Italy myths which have always been sustained by a swarm of satisfied journalists, and a train of comfortable companies and last minute heroes. After his escape towards home, it took yet another six months before Our Lord finally put an end to his interminable martyrdom. Domizlaff, one of my ex-superiors, a fellow prisoner of Kappler's, who was absoved like all the others by the Court Martial in Rome for the reprisal at the Ardeatine Caves, a propos of our ex-enemy partisans imprisoned in the complex in Via Tasso, all those who Kappler had saved by freeing them, without exception upon leaving Rome before the arrival of the allied troops, made this comment: “Kappler was the typical Germanic man who hid his heart behind a mask, but who revealed his true personality with his actions”. Domizlaff, after the war, had spent more than five years imprisioned with Kappler and he also knew well how much our ex-Captain had dedicated his life in prison to keeping his mind and spirit intact. I explained, amongst other things, what had always been quite difficult for me to understand was, why Kappler, right to the very end of his life, had refused to write his memoirs: He hadn't wanted to appear to be pleading self-defence. He hated self-justification, which was a familiar practice after the war.

7) After being sentenced to life imprisonment, how did you manage to carry on living?

If handcuffs, the deportation of an old man, imprisonment, the distance which separates me from my ill bride, represent for me today, a hard cross to bear, the incredible positive aspect of this experience has been to discover many sincere friends, it has been like discovering treasure. Brothers and sisters from all over the world have done all they could possibly do to help me. As I have already said, my duty as a 90 year old man who, even behind bars, has never given up hope, is that of a man who, even if he is extremely exhausted, tries to keep alive in order to pass onto others the real meaning of his life.

8) After Ciampi had considered that there were not the right conditions to grant you a pardon due to the unanimous disagreement of the relatives of the victims of the Ardeatine caves, do you still believe that you have any chances of regaining your freedom? If so, who do you think will have contributed to this outcome, in order to satisfy you?

I believe that a man should never lose hope. Even if I find the lack of freedom difficult to bear and even more so the separation from Alice, my conscience is clear. For no reason whatsoever, would I like to be in the position of my persecutors, without space limits, but they are prisoners of the soul. They have taken my freedom from me, but they can never take away my dignity.

9) You have written in your book that the uncle of the ex-Minister of Justice Giovanni Maria Flick was a member of the SS: can you give us further details?

In 1944, when I was working in the city of Brescia, I met the captain of the Italian SS division who was on duty in that area, Major Alois Thaler, a man who had shown to possess great value in the field. His group of about 200 Italian SS members faced the partisans in the mountains.
Together with Thaler, I had the possibility to visit his headquarters which was approximately ten kilometres from Brescia. He introduced me to a second lieutenant: Massimo Flick, a very nice young man. By working in Anzio in order to counter the allied landings, he had been awarded the Iron cross second class. He was a devoted Nazi and in the North he had fought against the partisans and due to the after-effects of an injury he became a law officer– Gerichtsoffizier – also due to the fact that he has studied law at university. He was in charge of interrogating the prisoners, of collecting evidence for the SS Court in Verona where he was also the consultant for the German judges. He had told me about the weight on his conscience due to death sentences delivered by the court. His nephew, the ex-Minister Flick, had always pretended to ignore these episodes in which his uncle was involved. He had kept this secret until 1992 when his uncle died. Yet he was determined to get me convicted!

10) After the life sentence, what is the thing that troubles you the most?

The inventions on behalf of some false witnesses regarding my responsabilities in wicked acts, torturing and similar things, is a very free evil and therefore causes me even more distress. It is just this which above everything else, still makes me suffer today. The unjust sentence to life imprisonment, comes under the logic of the vendetta, more or less, a mechanism which, even if it is wrong, it is comprehensible for me to understand. The slanderous lies however, alter the image of a person, distorting it in the eyes of his equals, of his friends and relatives, an unbearable disgrace, a very refined evil against which I'll never stop fighting.
For this very reason for some time now I have brought a series of civil law suits against my libellers and up to date, I have already obtained against double-dealing journalists and false witnesses a good 8 charges for libel, others will soon follow.

11) What do you think of the prohibition to use the stage for fashion shows and for the demonstration in your honour to take place on the 6th March? On that occasion, greatly reduced due to the prohibitions, your wife Alice could have come: Did she come all the same? Have you seen her since 1995, the year in which you were forced to leave Argentina ?

I haven't seen my wife since then!
In Democratic Italy, for both my supporters and I, even the right to make a legittimate request has been forbidden: the right to request measures for clemency. Of course they can deny me a pardon, but it is an unalienabile right to be able to request one. Against such abuses of constituted power, I can only quote the words of the barbarian Brenno, which are also the title for my book: Vae Victis (Woe to the Winners).
(Translation into English by Terry Marshall)

Related articles:
Recensione Autobiografia Erich Priebke (italian only)
Articolo contro le calunnie (italian only)
[This article was published on these Italian journals: L'Altra Voce, Avanguardia, Rinascita, il Quotidiano di Caserta, Orion]

Antonella Ricciardi , 3rd July 2004