Massacre on the Via Rasella
The Massacre on the Via Rasella took place in Italy during World War II when communist Italian partisans murdered German police soldiers and Italian civilians on 23 March 1944 in Rome. A total of 42 police soldiers and five civilians fell victim to the attack. A hideous act that had no military purpose whatsoever, but it was hoped that the German occupying power would then set an example and thus initiate the hoped-for uprising of the Roman population. The hope was based on the fact that the Allied troops were only 20 km from Rome and there were no German combat troops in Rome itself (open city).
Massacre on the Via Rasella on 23 March 1944
On 23 March 1944 at 3:30 p.m, a column (156 men) of the German 11th Company/III. Bataillon/Polizei-Regiment "Südtirol" (a military police battalion from South Tyrol) was attacked by an ambush of partisans, while marching and singing on a prescribed route that led through the Piazza di Spagna into the narrow street of Via Rasella. The battalion had been raised in October 1943 from ethnic Germans of the former German Austrian, after WWI northern Italian province of South Tyrol, a territory that Adolf Hitler had annexed to the German Reich after the September betrayal by the Italian government. Many of its citizens had since opted for German citizenship. The soldiers of the battalion were veterans (conscripts) of the Royal Italian Army who had seen action on the Eastern Front and had chosen service in the police force (de facto controlled by the SS) rather than face another tour in the East with the Wehrmacht.
Six months after the Operation Achse (Fall Achse), 42 South-Tyrolian policemen and several Italian civilians were murdered or mortally wounded, when Italian partisans set off a bomb close to their column, and then attacked the soldiers with firearms and grenades. This attack was led by the terrorist GAP, the Gruppi di Azione Patriottica.
On the same day, the German government ordered, as provided for by the international law of war, that ten Italians were to be shot for each dead Policeman. Herbert Kappler, head of Sicherheitspolizei ("Security Police") in Rome, compiled a list of 320 prisoners to be killed completed by midnight. Kappler voluntarily added ten more names to the list when the 33rd German, Anton Rauch, died after the Partisan attack at 1 a.m. on 24 March 1944. The total number of people executed at the Fosse Ardeatine was 335, mostly Italian citizens. The largest cohesive group among those executed were the members of Bandiera Rossa (Red Flag), a non-mainstream communist (Trotskyist) partisan group, along with 57 Jews. SS-Obersturmbannführer Kappler later reported:
- The explosion site gave the impression of great chaos: you could see corpses, injured people, rubble, pieces of boxes, helmets and fragments of uniforms and human limbs, the whole thing washed by a strong jet of water that came out of a pipe that had been destroyed by the explosion. From the houses on Via Rasella, civilians came out, led by the German and Italian police, while the soldiers of the detachment that was the victim of the assassination attempt, from Via Rasella and a part of Via Quattro Fontane adjacent to Via Rasella, were shooting at imaginary enemies on the roofs. I ordered this disorderly fire to cease, and my order was obeyed, although not immediately. I then wanted to take stock of how the attack had happened and planned to:
- 1) Interview those present,
- 2) check the rubble at the site of the attack,
- 3) further check the area;
- 4) Search the houses.
- There were perhaps ten or twelve of my men with me. From the interrogation of the soldiers I learned that an explosion had occurred at the level of the second row of three of the company that was marching towards Via Quattro Fontane. Following this explosion, several other smaller explosions were heard. Some said that shots were fired at the department from the rooftops. I discovered that the same company had been passing this road at the same time every day for more than a week. A check of the surrounding area revealed that around 12 small bombs had been thrown, of which I found around four that had not exploded. They were bombs weighing about 400g, apparently intended for small-caliber grenade launchers, and painted red and gray. They also had a fuse. I wrapped these bombs in my cloth and handed them to Corporal Kaspar, who put them in the second car, not mine, which was stolen from that place a little later along with the bombs. The search of the houses, which was carried out simultaneously with the measures described above, did not lead to any positive results in connection with the attack.
- While I was on Via Rasella I heard a shooting in Piazza Barberini, and later I was told that there had been other shootings near Messaggero and Piazza Colonna. I assume that these shootings by Italian soldiers and civilians were the result of the general excitement caused by the explosion on the Via Rasella. I went to Piazza Barberini, where I tried to keep order. Since the shooting had had no consequences, I went to Messaggero and Piazza Colonna, where, as I had been informed, further shooting had taken place. I found that everything was fine in front of the Messaggero and in Piazza Colonna. I then returned to Via Rasella with General Presti and Dollmann, who followed me in other vehicles. There I met Mälzer again at the junction of the street: I don't know whether he had moved to another place in the meantime or whether he had stayed in this place the whole time. I turned to Mälzer and told him that the reports about the shootings in front of the Messaggerro and in the Piazza Colonna were unfounded. Then I was told by Hauptsturmführer Hans Clemens that the second car with the bombs found on the Via Rasella was stolen. Pointing to the civilians lined up along the grille of the Palazzo Barberini, I asked Mälzer what he planned to do with them, and Mälzer answered me almost verbatim: “These must be shot.” In response, I asked him if he wanted to leave this to me and he agreed. Mälzer then left and I met him later in his office on Corso d'Italia, where he said I should go as quickly as possible.
27 men of the 11th Company died instantly. Between 5 p.m. and 11 p.m., five more would follow: Niederstätter, Franz; Matscher, Anton; Moser, Michael; Aichner, Georg; Kaufmann, Johann. The 33rd German, Anton Rauch (b. 5 August 1910 in Völs, District of Bozen), died after the Partisan attack at 1 a.m. on 24 March 1944. The 34th German victim, Josef Raich (b. 14 December 1906 in St. Martin, District of Meran), died in a hospital at 9 a.m. on 24 March 1944. 50 to 60 Germans and c. 50 Italians were wounded. In the following days, another eight police soldiers died, increasing the number to 42.
Five Italians also died, including a grandmother and a 13 year old boy:
- BAGLIONI, Annetta, daughter of Matteo, born in Orvieto, 66 years old
- DI MARCO, Pasquale, son of Marco, born in Villa Passo, 34 years old
- CHIARETTI, Antonio, son of Giuseppe, born 25 September 1896
- ROSSETTO, Erminio di Pasquale, born on 17 October 1924 in Macerata
- ZUCCHERETTI, Piero, resident at Via Cavalleggeri No. 13, 13 years old
A total of 16 or 17 gang members, depending on the source, prepared or took part in the attack. The blood perpetrators included Lucia Ottobrini (code name: Marie), Mario Fiorentini (code name: Giovanni), Rosario Bentivegna (code name: Paolo), Carla Capponi (code name: Elena) and Carlo Salinari (code name: Spartaco). Depending on the source, the idea and the order to assassinate the Germans were given by either the communist Mario Fiorentini or the communist Giorgio Amendola.
After the war, Amendola was a permanent member of parliament for the Italian Communist Party (CPI) until his death in 1980 and was even its (unsuccessful) presidential candidate in 1978. The Via Rasella attackers were never held responsible, although after the end of the war Italian military courts questioned the legitimacy of the attack. The attack fell under the general amnesty of 1946 for acts of violence on both sides, with which Italy wanted to draw an end to the war for Italian citizens.
The Ardeatine Caves site (Fosse Ardeatine) was declared a Memorial Cemetery and National Monument open daily to visitors. Their is no monument, no memorial, not even a commemorative plaque for the German and Italian victims of the slaughter that took place on 23 March 1944.
Atonement on 24 March 1944
In the evening of 23 and in the morning of 24 March 1944, German authorities had pleaded in vain over speakers, placards and radio that the treacherous assassins should turn themselves in in order to prevent a mass execution of uninvolved people. Cowardly as the partisans were, they remained hidden and left their countrymen behind as victims of their bloody deeds. German troops, Italian policemen and Italian soldiers of the Decima Flottiglia MAS rounded up those who were to be executed and brought them to the front of the Palazzo Barberini, Rome, where they were to be transported to the caves. An initial plan for public slopes was rejected as inhumane. Germar Rudolf later wrote:
- "In early 1944 the Allies landed in Italy, a few miles south of Rome. In order to keep the immense cultural treasures of Rome safe from harm, the German Field Marshal Kesselring declared Rome an "open city", i.e., a battle-free zone. This made Rome the hotbed of all kinds of partisan groups and foreign secret service activities. Since Italy was at that time engaged in a sort of civil war (not all Italians agreed with the ousting of Mussolini and the betrayal of Germany), the situation in Rome, only a few miles behind the battle front, was explosive. These were the conditions under which Obersturmbannführer [Lieutenant Colonel] Herbert Kappler of the Security Police was charged with keeping peace and order in the city, a task at which he was indeed largely successful. On March 23, 1944, however, something happened. On this day, as on many other days before, the police regiment "Bozen", which was comprised almost entirely of South Tyroleans, marched through the Via Rasella.
- As the regiment passed by a street-sweeper's cart, an enormous explosive charge in the cart, mixed with iron shrapnel, blew up. [...] 60 policemen were badly wounded. To prevent an escalation of the partisan warfare in Rome, the Wehrmacht Supreme Command reacted to this assassination (which had violated international law) by posting placards announcing that if the perpetrators did not turn themselves in, 10 civilians would be shot for every policeman that had been killed. Kappler even released captured partisans with the order to inform the assassins in the underground of this announcement and to persuade them to surrender. When no one had given themselves up by 24 March, 335 persons were executed in the Ardeatine Caves near Rome; Kappler had assembled this group mostly of prisoners, and of criminals, saboteurs, spies and partisans who had already previously been sentenced to death.
10 civilians would be shot for every policeman that had been killed. The order in this regard reached the commander-in-chief south-west (Oberbefehlshaber Südwest was Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring) on Monte Soratte before 8 p.m., with the requirement that the execution be reported within 24 hours. In order to fill the numerical quota, many of the prisoners at via Tasso and Regina Coeli prison who were available at the time, were sent to their deaths at the Fosse Ardeatine. Many of these prisoners deserters, murderes, rapists and armed thieves, others had been arrested for partisan and communist related activities, attacking German, but mainly Italian soldiers as well as their families. Since the Allied invasion of Italy in 1943 and the subsequent overthrow of Mussolini, communist anti-Fascists and terrorists had been practicing guerrilla warfare against Axis troops.
At around 12 noon on 24 March, Kappler brought his list of prisoners to the city commander, Lieutenant General Kurt Mälzer. The commander of the 3rd police battalion, Major Johann Dobek, who was responsible for the 11th company affected by the attack, also arrived here. According to Kappler, Dobek should have taken over the reprisal executions; He was ready for that too. But when it was explained to him that those to be shot should not be executed by a firing squad as usual, but that each individual soldier would have to kill the victims with a shot in the neck, Dobek raised objections; his men are too poorly trained and too religious. After Mälzer had been convinced by Dobek's arguments, Kappler himself raised objections to the execution by his command. At his urging, Mälzer called the 14th Army under Eberhard von Mackensen and asked for a firing squad. However, the chief of staff, Colonel Wolf Rüdiger Hauser (1906–1965; later major general), gave the negative answer: “The police had been hit, so the police must also carry out the reprisal.” Herbert Kappler stated in his trial:
- On the Via Rasella, too, it seemed unlikely that the assassins could carry out their preparations for the attack without one of the residents of the houses noticing. The civilian population could be grateful to my men, whose preventative and effective work prevented numerous other bombs from exploding and thus spared the corresponding retaliatory measures. But the assassins themselves acted without scruples when it came to the population. In addition to a few civilians, a child was also killed on the Via Rasella. [...] Each individual attack practically invited a retaliatory measure, since it was known that previously carried out retaliatory measures were carried out at a ratio of 1:10. I will now return to the conversation with Mälzer. He began to talk about carrying out the order of retaliation. At first we, Mälzer, I and also Dobek, agreed that it was natural that the order would be carried out by the unit concerned, so through the III. Battalion “Bozen”, and that the retaliatory measure was to be carried out on the same day. I now asked where, when and in what way Dobek wanted the intended victims to be made available to him. Dobek then replied that he did not yet know how or where to carry out the retaliation. Following this response from Dobek and given the limited time available, numerous difficulties arose regarding implementation. Mälzer asked me how the previous executions had been carried out, and I answered him that they had been carried out according to the Italian system, namely in Forte Bravetta, and that there were always only a few people involved and that the city administration of Rome, to which SS-Hauptsturmführer Priebke had made contact with, was concerned with providing the coffins and carrying out the burial. These executions had lasted at least two hours and, making a quick calculation, we realized that it was practically impossible to use the same procedure in the present case.
- It was for example impossible to grant time for everyone to be shot for the purpose of spiritual support. In the meantime, Dobek argued that his men were all elderly, that many were superstitious, and that they were not well trained in the use of weapons, and finally he did not think it possible that his men would be able to to carry out the execution under the conditions imposed by the short time available. I argued, on the other hand, that among the approximately 600 men of the “Bozen” battalion there should be a certain number who were suitable for the execution: and I told Mälzer this. However, he did not agree with me and accepted Dobek's explanations with understanding. Mälzer then thought of contacting the 14th Army to get a detachment of troops: he had the connection made, received it immediately and spoke to Colonel Hauser, the chief of staff of the 14th Army. He explained to Hauser the reasons why Dobek did not consider it possible to carry out the order and added that he would accept these reasons. He then demanded that a detachment be assigned from the 14th Army. Hauser answered literally: “The police were affected by the attack, and the police must atone for the attack.” This sentence was immediately repeated to us by Mälzer as he lowered the receiver. Mälzer then turned to me and said: “Kappler, there is no other solution than for you to deal with this.” He then handed me the list again. These words and the final gesture with which he handed the list back to me left no doubt as to the nature of the order I was receiving from Mälzer at that moment. Mälzer responded to my protest with the sentence: In war there is no protesting, but shooting. [...]
- It is true that no clergyman was called in for the execution. However, this did not correspond to a principle, because in previous shootings as atonement measures at a ratio of 1:10 in the Forte Bravetta on Monte Mario, a priest was always called. Rather, it was one of the technical impossibilities if the large number were to be executed in the remaining few hours. It is not true that I prevented a subsequent consecration of the site. On the contrary, I did nothing to stop funeral masses being held in front of the cave. I only had a civilian monitor the numerous church services there in order to stay informed about the nature of the activities. It is true that the cave was “blasted up”. However, it was by no means my intention to blast the dead. My original instructions and the first blasting were such that the rearmost part of the cave – far from the dead – was to be closed as a kind of large burial chamber. Only when the Wehrmacht engineers' predictions turned out to be wrong (they had not correctly assessed the rock character of the tuff, which disintegrated into sand) and it became clear after a few days that the chamber could not be completely closed in this way, did I agree to another suggestion from the same pioneers on the condition that if the cave ceiling was blown up, the dead would be covered with earth, but would not be hit by the blast itself. The success of the last explosion in this sense was also reported to me.
Ardeatine Caves site (Fosse Ardeatine)
Led by SS officers SS-Hauptsturmführer Erich Priebke and SS-Hauptsturmführer (later SS-Sturmbannführer) Dr. phil. Karl Hass, the retaliation victims were killed inside the Ardeatine caves in groups of five, starting in the afternoon. All were tied with their hands behind their backs and their names were read out loud, they were given time to say goodbye to the others. Five and five went into the caves. Priebke went inside together with the second or third group and shot a man with an Italian machine pistol. Towards the end he shot another man with the same machine pistol. This had to be done, as the trial shows, because the moral of the execution squad was at its lowest point. Most of the men were family men and fathers, none had volunteered, they were chosen at random. Some got sick and had to be relieved, the breaks became longer and longer.
Before the executions had begun, the prisoners were given water, wine and cigarettes. It was a solemn mood, no loud orders, no chattering, just soft-spoken instructions. When he realized that it would take significantly longer, Priebke ordered the Italian police to bring more wine, cigarettes and provisions. The executions ended when it got dark that night. After the shootings, explosives were used to shut the caves.
Priebke is often accused of "murder" because an additional five people were killed who were not on the list of 330 condemned by the "ten to one" rule. As a result Priebke's trial strongly focused on these five extra executions. Priebke was responsible for the list and his complicity in those killings ruled out any possible justification for Priebke's behaviour on the basis of "obedience to official orders". Priebke incorrectly assumed that the men transported to the caves were exactly the 330 on the list handed over to him. The names were Italian, and some were very similar. Nevertheless, it was his responsibility. What seems bizarre is the fact, that the 34th German victim, Josef Raich, died in a hospital at 9 a.m. on 24 March 1944, but this was only reported to the authorities much later (otherwise, 340 executions would have been legal), which is why, according to martial law, the number of people shot should not have risen above 330. In the following days, another eight police soldiers died. Herbert Kappler also testified at his trial:
- Due to circumstances that have not yet been clarified, the Italians delivered five (possibly six) too many hostages and executed them. The police prefect Caruso had handed over his hostages and overlooked the mistake he made: instead of 50 hostages, he delivered five (possibly six) more. Among them were 154 prisoners from the Roman Gestapo prison and 43 prisoners with serious criminal records from the Wehrmacht prisons. Our list had sequential numbers next to the names so it was easy to check the total number. However, the list of prisoners handed over to us by the Italian police did not have consecutive numbers. After returning from the pit, Priebke had added a sequential number to each name and now realized that there were 55, not 50, names on the Italian list. The Italian list was presented to me, it was typewritten and had no heading and there were no corrections on it. With regard to the official number of victims, I must point out that it had to be 330 because, as I have already said, it was reported to me at the table that a 33rd German policeman had died. However, the general opinion remained convinced that there were 320 victims because, when I found out that there were 33 German dead, I forgot to point out to von Borch that the number of 32 that he had previously given was had to be changed, namely for the official communiqué, which had yet to be published. Later I no longer dared to correct this number by saying that there were 330 victims, after I learned that in reality there were 336.
- Polizeiattachè, Kriminalrat, SS-Obersturmführer Herbert Kappler und das Außenkommando der Deutschen Sicherheitspolizeiund des Sicherheitsdienst in Rom vom 11. September 1943 bis 4. Juni 1944
- Für die Mönche ist Priebke "Bruder Erich"
- Giampiero Mughini: Verità nascoste in via Rasella, in "Panorama", XXXIII, No. 17, 2 May 1996, pp. 69–70
- Reprisals and Orders From Higher Up https://codoh.com/library/document/1174/?lang=en