Survivors and those massacred
After the Second World War, only a few of the chief leaders of the Nazi regime faced an international tribunal in Nuremberg as war criminals. Shortly afterwards, interest in any further pursuit of those responsible for Nazi crimes noticeably cooled. The main reason was the beginning of the Cold War against the Soviet Union, in which the newly established Federal Republic of Germany played an important role as a NATO ally.
Many of those—in the armed forces, in the administrative machinery, in business and in the judicial system—who had got their hands dirty participating in crimes were now needed. Above all, the working class had to be prevented from making a reckoning with the social breeding ground of the Nazi regime, the capitalist system. The German legal system, in particular, had no interest in probing the crimes of the Nazi period, since many of those responsible had continued their careers in the Federal Republic uninterrupted.
In Italy, with the exception of a few military tribunals in the immediate postwar period, there was also little interest in prosecuting Nazi and fascist crimes.
In April 2004, as the trial of those responsible for the massacre in Sant’Anna di Stazzema opened in La Spezia, the Frankfurter Rundschau wrote, “It is not only in Germany that the wheels of justice grind slowly, in Italy also the prosecution of countless massacres of the civilian population by German troops in the final phase of the Second World War has largely petered out. In the early 1950s, when memories were still fresh and many of the culprits—German soldiers and Italian fascists—could still be apprehended, many of the files were closed.”
In addition to the fact that West Germany and Italy were NATO allies, a significant factor was also their close economic collaboration as members of the European Economic Community (EEC), the forerunner of the European Union. But the unstable social equilibrium and the security of bourgeois rule in Italy were of even greater concern in ruling circles, since the Italian working class also had to be prevented from making any real accounting with fascism and capitalism.
The central responsibility for this is born by the Stalinist Italian Communist Party (PCI) under its leader Palmiro Togliatti. Before returning to Italy in 1944, Togliatti had spent 18 years in exile, mostly in Moscow, as a close and trusted friend of Stalin. While many members and supporters of the Communist Party had fought in the resistance movement against fascism and the German occupation, Togliatti joined the bourgeois coalition government in Rome as the representative of the PCI, in order to secure the survival of capitalism in Italy, becoming justice minister and deputy prime minister.
In his role as justice minister, Togliatti issued a general amnesty in June 1946, in the name of “national reconciliation.” As a result, most of the fascists were released from detention: By July 31, 1946, 7,000 of some 12,000 detained fascists had been released. In July 1947, only 2,000 still remained in prison; in 1952 merely 266 were imprisoned. A further amnesty on November 19, 1953, led not only to the release of nearly all remaining prisoners, but also applied to those fascists, who had gone underground (Transnationale Vergangenheitspolitik. Der Umgang mit deutschen Kriegsverbrechern in Europa nach dem Zweiten Weltkrieg (“Transnational Policies for Dealing with the Past: The Treatment of German War Criminals in Europe following the Second World War”), Norbert Frei, editor, Göttingen: 2006, pp. 556).
The resumption of the trial of German war criminals for the massacres of Sant’Anna di Stazzema and Marzabotto by the military court in La Spezia in 2004 meant at least some of those responsible faced charges and were found guilty. In June 2005, 10 former German SS soldiers were sentenced to life imprisonment in absentia for the massacre in Sant’Anna di Stazzema.
However, the German legal system did nothing to ensure that the war criminals living in Germany were called to account. The whereabouts of two of the former SS men found guilty in Italy were uncovered by investigative journalists and Nazi hunters and their role made public.
In August 2006, Kontrast magazine reported on 82-year-old Karl Gropler, who was involved in the massacre in Sant’Anna di Stazzema and who had lived undisturbed for decades in Wollin, a village in Brandenburg.
Since early 2005, Gerhard Sommer, also sentenced by the court in La Spezia for his participation in the Sant’Anna di Stazzema massacre, has lived in an old people’s home in Hamburg. The public prosecutor’s office refuses to level charges against the war criminal in this case as well.
German justice, which for decades has failed to make any accounting with Nazi war crimes, and which has blocked compensation claims by survivors and their relatives, has also shown little interest in reinvestigating these crimes in light of the recent court case in Italy.
The ever increasing participation of German troops and Special Forces in numerous international war missions, and German participation in the so-called “war against terrorism,” means that the government is eager to avoid any precedent whereby those responsible for actions that are illegal under international law are held responsible before the courts.