On June 10, 1940, when the Italian Fascist government under Benito Mussolini declared war on England and France, Italy entered World War II on the side of the Axis.
Following the Allied invasion of Sicily in July 1943 and the subsequent vote of no-confidence against Mussolini at the meeting of the Fascist Grand Council on July 25, King Victor Emmanuel III had the Fascist dictator arrested and appointed an emergency government under Marshal Pietro Badoglio.
Fleeing to a provisional seat in Bari on the southern Adriatic coast, Badoglio concluded a cease-fire with Allied forces on September 3, 1943, and announced Italy's surrender to the Allies on September 8.
Several days after Italy's surrender to the Allies, a German commando unit led by SS Lieutenant Colonel Otto Skorzeny freed Mussolini and aided him in establishing a Fascist puppet state, the so-called Saló Republic (properly La Repubblica Sociale Italiana, or Italian Social Republic), headquartered near Lake Garda. German military forces occupied much of northern Italy and, with loyalist Fascist troops, fought Allied units and partisans from the Italian Resistance movement until they surrendered on May 2, 1945.
On March 23, 1944—the day which marked the 25th anniversary of the founding of Mussolini's Fascist movement—17 members of a resistance cell, the Patriotic Action Group (Gruppi d'Azione Patriotica, or GAP), under the leadership of Rosario Bentivegna, detonated a bomb near a column of police marching down the Via Rasella in German-occupied Rome.
The resistance operatives, who had ties to Italy's underground communist movement, dispersed into the crowd of bystanders and evaded capture. The targeted police unit, a battalion of the 11th Company, Police Regiment Bozen, was largely composed of German-speaking Order Police personnel from the former South Tyrol, annexed by Italy from Austria under the Treaty of St. Germain in 1919 and reannexed to Germany when the Germans occupied Italy in 1943.
Twenty-eight police officials died on the scene; by the next day thirty-three policemen had died. The final death toll would rise to forty-two policemen, with additional casualties among civilian bystanders.
On the evening of March 23, the Commander of the Security Police and Security Service (Sicherheitsdienst-SD) in Rome, SS Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Kappler, and Lieutenant General Kurt Mälzer, the Wehrmacht commandant in Rome, recommended a reprisal action in which ten Italian civilians would be shot for each policeman killed in the guerilla action. They suggested that the potential victims be drawn from individuals already condemned to death and awaiting execution in prisons of the Security Police and SD. Colonel General Eberhard von Mackensen, the commander of the Fourteenth Army, whose jurisdiction included Rome, approved the proposal.
Upon hearing of the attack on the policemen that evening, Adolf Hitler reportedly suggested the destruction of Rome. Defendants accused of perpetrating the massacre claimed after the war that Hitler ultimately endorsed Kappler and Mälzer's reprisal plan. There is evidence, however, to suggest that Hitler quickly lost interest in the matter and left the final decision to Colonel General Alfred Jodl, Chief of the Operations Staff of the Armed Forces High Command (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, or OKW).
Whatever Hitler's actual level of involvement, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, Commander-in-Chief South, presumably interpreted Hitler's initial reaction as a guideline and authorized the reprisal plan as originally suggested.
On the following day, March 24, 1944, personnel from the headquarters of the Security Police and SD in Rome, led by SS Captain Erich Priebke and SS Captain Karl Hass, assembled 335 Italian male civilians near a series of man-made caves on the outskirts of Rome on the Via Ardeatina. The Fosse Ardeatine, or Ardeatine Caves, were the remnants of ancient Christian catacombs, and served as a convenient venue to carry out the reprisal shootings in secrecy and to conceal the bodies of the victims.
Priebke and Hass had received orders to select the victims from prisoners who had already been sentenced to death; but the number of such prisoners fell well short of the 330 deaths required to meet the quota of the German reprisal plan.
The Security Police officers therefore added prisoners serving jail sentences, many of them for political offenses, as well as individuals known or suspected of having engaged in resistance activities. The Germans also included 57 Jewish prisoners, many of them held at the Roman prison of Regina Coeli to the group marked for murder. To reach the required quota, they rounded up civilians found on the streets of Rome. The eldest of the hostages was in his seventies; the youngest fifteen.
As the group assembled at the cave, Priebke and Hass discovered that they had inadvertently gathered 335 prisoners, rather than the 330 prescribed in the order. The SS men decided that to release the five hostages might compromise the secrecy of the action, and included the five among their victims.
Those slated for killing arrived at the caves with their hands tied behind their backs. Before reaching the site, Priebke and Hass had decided against using the traditional method of execution by firing squad. Instead they instructed shooters to choose a victim and shoot him at close range, saving both time and ammunition. The German police officials brought the victims into the cave and forced them to kneel in rows of five. The shooters then killed each one with a shot at close range to the base of the skull.
As the killing proceeded, the German police officials forced the hostages to kneel on top of the bodies of those who had been previously shot, to conserve space.
Following the shootings, Priebke and Hass ordered engineers to seal the mouth of the cave through the detonation of explosives, killing any victims who had managed to survive and entombing the dead.
After the war, Allied authorities tried some of those responsible for the Ardeatine Cave Massacre.
In 1945, a British military tribunal convicted Generals von Mackensen and Mälzer for their part in the massacre and sentenced them to death. Both successfully appealed to reduce their sentences. Von Mackensen was released from custody in 1952. Mälzer died in prison that same year.
In 1947, a British court in Venice sentenced Field Marshal Kesselring to death for the shootings at Ardeatine and for incitement to kill civilians. In 1952, however, Kesselring was pardoned.
In 1948, an Italian military tribunal also sentenced Herbert Kappler to life imprisonment for his role in the murders. In 1977, Kappler's wife succeeded in smuggling her husband, who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, from a prison hospital in Rome back to Germany. Officials of the Federal Republic of Germany refused to extradite Kappler on grounds of ill health, and he died the following year.
Erich Priebke spent the first months of the postwar era in British custody, but succeeded in fleeing to Argentina, where he lived for nearly fifty years as a free man. In a 1994 television interview with ABC journalist Sam Donaldson, Priebke spoke openly of his involvement in the Ardeatine Caves Massacre, expressing little remorse for his actions. The telecast galvanized officials both in Argentina and Italy to re-open the case against him and fellow SS officer Karl Hass. In 1995 German and Italian justice authorities cooperated to facilitate Priebke's extradition to Italy.
After initial proceedings, in which it was ruled that the statute of limitations had elapsed on the crime, Priebke and Hass finally faced trial in Italy in 1997. The Italian court convicted both men, sentencing Priebke to fifteen years and Hass to ten years in prison. Due to time previously served, authorities released Hass and reduced Priebke's sentence. Priebke and his attorneys appealed this verdict. As a result, an Italian military appeals court initiated a new trial in 1998, in which Priebke received a life sentence. He served the remainder of his sentence under house arrest, until his death in October 2013.
The site of the massacre at the Ardeatine Caves outside Rome has become a national memorial in Italy.