Survivors of a notorious Waffen-SS massacre in Tuscany have spearheaded a seventy-five year fight to bring the killers to justice. These Italians were all young children on 12th August 1944. On that long day of wartime summer, German troops from the 16th SS Panzer Division executed 560 Italian civilians in a savage reprisal operation. It happened in the olive groves and chestnut woods of the Tuscan mountain village of Sant’Anna di Stazzema. More than 80 of the victims were children, one barely three weeks old.
It remains the most high-profile war crime ever committed by the Germans in Italy in WW2. None of the SS killers responsible have ever been caught, or served a day in prison. Ten of them were sentenced to life imprisonment in absentia by Italian courts – Germany refused to extradite them, and they all died in freedom. Other SS men who took part in the Sant’Anna massacre, and others, are reportedly still alive today and at liberty in Germany.
From Tuscany to Rome and to the modern-day streets of Hamburg, The Olive Trees Screamed Murder tells the story of the massacre at Sant’Anna di Stazzema, and the 75-year international failure to bring the killers to justice. Told through the personal stories of three Italian survivors, it follows them from childhood to the present day, as they battle to try and ensure that those who massacred their family, friends and village do not escape justice. Now pensioners, they’ve testified in Italian war crimes courts, and given evidence to German state war crimes officials. They’ve pressured Italian and German governments and senior European justice officials. They have never given up.
A compelling mix of humanity, history and investigative writing, the book also goes to track down any surviving perpetrators still at large in Germany. It investigates how almost every single man in an entire SS regiment, that killed more civilians in Italy than any other German unit combined, got away with murder. Only two SS officers from the 16th Division were ever imprisoned. One, the commanding general and a notorious war criminal, was sentenced to twenty years imprisonment, but then pardoned by the British.
For seven decades, the German government refused to extradite the wanted SS men back to Italy. A trail of shady intelligence deals during and after the war between the Allies and the SS, and a consistent post-war refusal by Germany to cooperate with war crime investigations, has meant they’ve escaped. Until his death this year, one of them was the world’s highest-ranking, living Nazi war criminal.
Only in summer 2019 did the German government return two famous Renaissance masterpieces to the Uffizi gallery in Florence, paintings looted by the SS in 1943. When it comes to returning guilty Waffen-SS men to face time behind bars in an Italian prison, the Germans are not quite as fast. What survivors of the massacre at Sant’Anna want more than anything is that present and future generations know what happened, and why to this day justice has never been delivered.
Christian Jennings is a British writer and freelance foreign correspondent, and the author of eight works of non-fiction. Since 1994, across twenty-three countries, he has been writing books and journalism on international current affairs, history, science and subjects such as war crimes investigations, for publications and news organisations ranging from The Economist and Reuters to Wired, The Daily Telegraph, and The Scotsman. He has been based variously in Sarajevo, Pristina, Belgrade, Kigali, Bujumbura, Skopje, Nairobi and Geneva. He now lives...
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