The Massacre History Thread

Welcome to the History Thread! I didn’t have a chance to prepare a literary article this week, but today is the anniversary of a famous World War II atrocity which made for a nice, if disquieting back-up subject.

On March 23, 1944 a column of SS troops (members of the Bozen Division who were, ironically, mostly Italians of German descent from the Tyrol Region) patrolling Via Rasella in Rome were ambushed by Italian partisans. The attackers, members of the Communist Gruppo d’Azione Patriottica (GAP), detonated an improvised explosive device concealed in a cart, then opened fire on the surviving Germans. Twenty-eight German soldiers were immediately killed (along with four who died later), along with two civilians.

Rom, Soldaten vor Gebäude
Via Rasella after the attack

At this time, Italy was not only the site of fierce fighting between Allied and Axis troops, but in a civil war after the ouster of Benito Mussolini’s regime the previous year. German troops had occupied the northern part of the country and reinstalled Mussolini as the head of a puppet state, the Italian Socialist Republic, at the city of Salo. Mussolini’s new government failed to rally popular support, and an increasing number of Italians resisted the occupation. Some, in the southern areas occupied by the Allies, fought alongside their liberators; others served as partisans in the northern provinces. Rome was ostensibly an “open city” to avoid Allied bombings but was, in fact, heavily occupied and administered by German troops.

SS Obersturmbannführer Herbert Kappler convened with other German authorities the night after the bombing to determine an appropriate response. Major General Kurt Maelzer, the military commander in Rome, wanted to burn down the neighborhood which saw the bombing, along with wholesale massacre of its inhabitants. Kappler determined upon a slightly more moderate course of action: the execution of ten Italians for every German killed in the attack. Maelzer accepted this more measured war crime as acceptable retaliation, and it swiftly passed up the chain of command to Adolf Hitler, who ordered it carried out within 24 hours.

Herbert Keppler
Herbert Kappler in the dock

Pressed for time, Kappler decided on the easiest course of action. Most of the victims were Italians already imprisoned, mostly political dissidents or suspected partisans, along with 57 Jews. These included several celebrated leaders of the Italian Resistance, including Pietro Pappagallo, a Catholic Priest who had assisted hundreds of Jews in escaping German authorities until betrayed and arrested in January. Another was Giuseppe Montezemolo, a colonel in the Italian Army who, after the German occupation of the city, had volunteered to stay behind as a spy for Marshall Badoglio’s government and carried out espionage missions in disguise. Both men had endured gruesome torture in their confinement; Montezemolo, in particular, saw his nails torn out and his skin roasted with a blow torch by his interrogators.

There were also small-scale round-ups of Italian civilians near the Via Rassella, with men and teenage boys captured off the street and spirited away by the SS. (For unknown reasons, Kappler decided not to announce his plans for reprisal, nor did he make any efforts to hold the victims hostage to force the partisans to come forward.) When four additional Germans died from their wounds in the bombing, Kappler pressed the city police for additional men; a few dozen common criminals were added to the roll of the condemned. Ultimately, 335 Italians were selected for execution – not a perfect ten-on-one ratio, but this excess hardly bothered Kappler. Pleas by Roman officials and a few Vatican priests (though not Pope Pius XII) to forestall the reprisal fell on deaf ears.

Victims: Don Pietro Pappagallo (left) and Colonel Giuseppe Montezemolo

On March 24th, German troops transport the prisoners by truck to the Fosse Ardeatine, a cave system on the outskirts of Rome which, in ancient times, had been used by Roman Christians as catacombs. The prisoners were sent into the caves five at a time, forced to kneel and executed with a single pistol shot to the back of the head. The bodies soon covered the floor of the cave, forcing the Germans to execute them and pile the victims on top of each other. Kappler ordered cognac to steady his officers’ nerves, though this didn’t work for all of them; a junior SS officer known as Amon became overwhelmed with disgust and passed out.

Having completed the massacre, Kappler ordered the bodies covered in garbage and the entrances to the cave dynamited to hide the corpses. The massacre was never officially announced to the Italian public (although Pope Pius XII condemned the partisans for provoking the reprisal), and only a few families of the victims received any notification of their deaths. The bodies weren’t discovered until several months later, following the Allied liberation of Rome, when a monk from nearby San Callisto discovered the caves. A massive Allied-Italian excavation project, headed by Professor Attilio Ascarelli, managed to exhume the bodies and identify 326 of the victims; many of the rest were so disfigured they’d have to wait until the advent of DNA testing decades later.

Prisoners heading to execution

The two main perpetrators of the massacre, Herbert Keppler and Erich Priebke, sought asylum in the Vatican. Keppler was unsuccessful; captured by British troops and turned over to the Italian government, he received a life sentence. Despite failing health, Keppler escaped from prison in 1977 and died in West Germany the following year. Priebke was successful, escaping via a “ratline” to Argentina where he hid until the 1990s. Recognized by locals and profiled on ABC News, he was extradited to Italy and placed under house arrest until his death in 2013. Both men, at least, stayed out of the public eye, unlike their colleague Karl Hass. When Luchino Visconti’s The Damned (1969) premiered in Italy, many shocked Italians discovered that Hass served as Visconti’s historical adviser and even appeared onscreen in the film’s Night of the Long Knives sequence.

The Fosse Ardeatine massacre became an important touchstone in postwar Italian history. Italians eager to move beyond fascism embraced it as proof that their country, too, had been victims of Nazi Germany. The truth, of course, is far murkier; no amount of revisionism can disguise Mussolini’s role as Hitler’s principal European ally, and the atrocities committed by his men in Africa, Eastern Europe and elsewhere. Nonetheless, the courage of those Italians who did resist Nazi rule, and the many who perished for it, speaks for itself. Today, there is a memorial at the caves which commemorates the murder, with a ceremony attended every year by Italian and Vatican officials. One of the plaques on site reads:


The massacre inspired two films: Filippo Walter Ratti’s Ten Italians for One German (1962), starring Gino Cervi; and George P. Cosmatos’ Massacre in Rome (1973), an adaptation of Robert Katz’s nonfiction book Death in Rome, starring Richard Burton and Marcello Mastroianni. Sergio Leone’s Duck You Sucker! (1971) features a grotto massacre modeled after the Fosse Ardeantine, transposed to Revolutionary Mexico. Like much of the film, it reflects Leone’s childhood under fascism more than its ostensible setting; his father Vincenzo was a leader in the Roman resistance and narrowly escaped the SS round-up leading to the massacre. American composer William Schuman dedicated his Ninth Symphony to the victims of the massacre.


Further reading:

Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Jewish Virtual Library

Mauseolo Fosse Ardeatine (official museum site, in English and Italian)

United States Holocaust Museum