Nazi war criminal denied burial in Italy after fierce protests

Nazi war criminal denied burial in Italy after fierce protests
The funeral of a Nazi war criminal, Erich Priebke, who died in Rome last week, has been halted in Italy after fierce protests. The coffin containing his body has been taken to a military airport with the final destination remaining unclear.

As the country marks the 70th anniversary of the roundup and deportation of Jews from Rome's ghetto, a leading Italian rabbi praised the protesters who blocked Priebke’s funeral. 

Priebke, a former SS officer, had been serving a life sentence in Rome under house arrest for his participation in one of the worst massacres in German-occupied Italy during World War II – the killing of 335 civilians at the Ardeatine Caves outside the capital in March 1944.

Not only did Priebke never apologize for his crimes, he also defended his wartime actions and denied that Jews were gassed during the Holocaust. In a final interview released by his lawyer after his death, the former SS officer accused the West of inventing such crimes to cover up atrocities committed by the Allies during the war.

After Priebke died last Friday aged 100, a bitter debate has been raging over what to do with his remains, with nowhere apparently willing to offer his body a final resting place.

The Catholic Church in Rome refused his funeral service, despite protests from his family and lawyer.

On Wednesday, Rome’s Jewish Community gathered in the city’s main synagogue to commemorate the 1943 deportation of 1,000 Jews to Auschwitz, of whom only 16 survived.

The head of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, Renzo Gattegna, drew applause at the ceremony, and, referring to Priebke, he refused to pronounce his name “not to profane this sacred place”.  He added that the Nazis killed the innocent and their “followers are assassins of memory” who “will never win,” AP cited.

For this we feel proud to be Romans,” the President of the Jewish Community of Rome, Riccardo Pacifici, said, according to Reuters.  He said the public outcry over Priebke has shown the “beautiful face of Italy,” with both civil and Catholic Church officials acting in solidarity to deny his burial.

Protesters demonstrate as Catholic rebels try to hold the funeral of Nazi war criminal Erich Priebke in Albano Laziale near Rome on October 15, 2013. (AFP Photo / Vincenzo Pinto)

Argentina, where Priebke spent nearly 50 years before being extradited to Italy in 1995 to stand trial for the WWII massacre, also refused to take him. Previously, his hometown of Hennigsdorf in Germany, had declined, fearing that Priebke’s grave could turn into a neo-Nazi pilgrimage site.

The story got a new twist on Tuesday, when the schismatic Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) in the city of Albano Laziale, south of Rome, agreed to celebrate the funeral Mass. The group is known for the anti-Semitic views of some of its members. It rejects the church’s modernizing moves, such as the teaching that absolved Jews of responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus and celebrates the pre-Vatican II old Latin Mass.

However, as the coffin with the body of the war criminal arrived for the funeral, it was met by hundreds of angry protesters shouting “murderer” and “executioner.”  Riot police had to hold back outraged protesters who punched the hearse as it was passing by. Protesters also targeted a priest who arrived at the gates and clashed with Nazi sympathizers also gathered at the site. As a result, the funeral was cancelled.

Ex-Nazi captain Erich Priebke, 83, is surrounded by carabinieri 01 August 1996 in a military court in Rome. (AFP Photo / Gerard Julien)

On Wednesday, the SSPX defended their decision to agree to hold the funeral for Priebke, saying a baptized Christian has the right to a proper burial "no matter what his sins".

We hereby reiterate our rejection of all forms of anti-Semitism and racial hatred,” the Italian branch of the fringe right-wing group said, as quoted by Reuters.

Reportedly, Italian authorities have been in negotiations with Germany to take Priebke’s remains.

The German Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday that there are no laws preventing a German citizen who has passed away abroad from being buried in the homeland. 

It is in our interests that this case does not become something it shouldn't - namely an argument about the life of this man,” the ministry’s spokesman told reporters on Wednesday. “It would be nice if Mr. Priebke's remains could be laid to rest somewhere, without it being used by anyone for political ends.”

For now, the coffin bearing the body of the Nazi war criminal reportedly remains in limbo at a military air base near Rome.