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War criminal Erich Priebke dies at 100; Nazi captain convicted in 1995

He evaded arrest for nearly 50 years in Argentina after acting as second in command of the Gestapo headquarters in Rome.

October 11, 2013|Times staff and wire reports
  • Former Nazi SS officer Erich Priebke enters the military court in Rome on Dec. 7, 1995. Priebke was eventually convicted in the massacre of 335 civilians in 1944. He died Oct. 11 at 100.
Former Nazi SS officer Erich Priebke enters the military court in Rome on… (Domenico Stinellis, Associated…)

Erich Priebke, a former Nazi SS captain who evaded arrest for nearly 50 years after taking part in one of the worst atrocities by German occupiers in Italy during World War II, died Friday in Rome. He was 100.

Priebke was finally extradited to Italy from Argentina in 1995 to face trial for the 1944 massacre, and he was sentenced to life in prison. Because of his age, he was allowed to serve that sentence under house arrest at the home of his lawyer, Paolo Giachini.

Giachini announced the death and released a final interview conducted with Priebke in July during which the German denied that Nazis gassed Jews during the Holocaust and accused the West of having fabricated the crimes to minimize the Allies' own abuses during the war.

Priebke was tried and convicted for his role in the 1944 massacre of 335 civilians by Nazi forces at the Ardeatine Caves outside Rome. The massacre was carried out in retaliation for an attack by resistance fighters that killed 33 members of a Nazi military police unit a day earlier in central Rome.

Second in command of the Gestapo headquarters in Rome, Priebke admitted shooting two people in the caves and maintaining the list of victims but insisted he was only following orders.

Born near Berlin in 1913, Priebke had worked at a hotel on the Italian Riviera since his teen years. During the Nazi occupation of Italy, he worked as a translator for the SS.

In 1946, he escaped from a British prison camp on Italy's Adriatic coast. He arrived in Argentina in 1949, working first in a restaurant as a dishwasher and then a waiter before saving enough money to buy a delicatessen in an Andean resort town. He lived openly in the country, using his own name. He led the German-Argentine Cultural Assn. and traveled back and forth to Europe.

While searching for another suspected Nazi criminal, reporter Sam Donaldson and an ABC News crew came upon Priebke, who freely admitted who he was.

That started a lengthy extradition process that ended with Priebke boarding a plane in Argentina on Nov. 20, 1995, the 50th anniversary of the start of the Nuremberg trials, to stand trial in Italy.

"The importance is not the fate of this man," Tullia Zevi, an Italian Jewish community leader in Rome, told The Times in 1996. "The importance of this is that we can interrogate the defendant, ask certain witnesses to appear and broaden the scope of the trial. It is our duty to document things as they were. This is important today, when the trend in the apportioning of war guilt is toward revisionism."

The country's highest appeals court upheld his conviction and life sentence in 1998.

Efraim Zuroff, the Simon Wiesenthal Center's chief Nazi hunter who this year launched a new push to search for unpunished war criminals, said the case proves it is never too late to seek justice.

"Priebke was a classic example of a totally unrepentant Nazi war criminal," Zuroff said.

In his final interview, Priebke denied that gas chambers were used in Nazi concentration camps and that generations have been "brainwashed" into believing that they were.

Priebke was to be buried in Argentina, alongside his wife, Alice Stoll Priebke, who died in 2004.

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