How did more than twenty former members of the Waffen-SS, all wanted for major war crimes committed in Italy in 1944, end up escaping justice and living in freedom in Germany? Among those still alive is ex-SS Lieutenant Gerhard Sommer, currently the world’s highest-ranking, living Nazi war criminal. He’s on the most-wanted list, compiled under Operation Last Chance by the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Jerusalem, which is designed to bring the last guilty Nazis to justice.
Having evaded justice for sixty years, Sommer and nineteen other SS officers and NCOs, all former members of the same unit, were finally sentenced to life imprisonment for their war-crimes by two Italian courts, in absentia, in 2005 and 2009. Today some of the men are still alive, and at liberty in Germany. Why? Is it because American intelligence made a secret deal with senior SS officers in 1945, that meant that almost all SS men guilty of war-crimes committed in Italy in WW2 escaped imprisonment? Why has Germany not tried the men? Why did it then take Italy sixty-five years to do so?
German troops from the 16th SS Panzergrenadier Division, the Reichsfuhrer-SS, massacred more Italian civilians than any other German unit in Italy. In one killing alone 560 Italian civilians – of whom 80 were children, one three weeks old - were executed at the Tuscan village of Sant’Anna di Stazzema in August 1944. It remains the most high-profile war crime committed by the Germans in Italy in WW2, and none of the SS killers responsible have ever been caught or imprisoned. The 16th SS massacred nearly 2,000 Italian civilians in separate reprisal operations in 1944, most of them women, children and elderly people.
Yet documents in British, American, Swiss, Italian, Vatican and German archives show that in 1945 secret intelligence deals between the Americans and the SS, court pardons, and controversial compensation and immunity arrangements essentially meant that all but a very few guilty Nazis escaped justice for war crimes in Italy. SS General Karl Wolff, the head of the SS and German security police in Italy from 1943-1945, made a controversial secret deal with the American Office of Strategic Services whereby he agreed to testify against his high-ranking SS colleagues at the Nuremberg Trials, in return for immunity from prosecution for himself and, allegedly, any SS man who had participated in reprisal operations against Italian civilians.
Archive documents show that post-war Italian governments were very reluctant to prosecute Germans for crimes committed in Italy, for fear that the many former Italian Fascists living at liberty in Italy – some guilty of war crimes in Italy, Yugoslavia or Africa – would themselves be prosecuted. The Italians wanted to appease their new, rich German allies, then to gain EU membership, and access massive development funding. The Allies wanted a newly-rearmed Germany onside in the Cold War against the Russians. A new study also shows that in the 1950s up to 75% of judges in Germany were former members of the Nazi party. Modern Germany itself has regularly impeded judicial proceedings, and despite repeated requests from Rome, refuses to extradite even a single guilty SS war criminal back to Italy.
Finally, in 2005 and 2009 Italian courts found nineteen former officers and NCOs from the 16th SS guilty, in absentia, of three different massacres: the men were all sentenced to life imprisonment. They haven’t been extradited, nor brought to trial in Germany, or made to serve their sentences there. German lawyers are blocked access to the SS mens’ wartime records. German Prosecutors say the unrepentant Gerhard Sommer, living outside Hamburg, is too infirm to stand trial: lawyers representing the families of the Italian victims say that this just avoids re-opening a high-profile war crimes case and revealing to the outside world how the men responsible for the massacres in 1944 got away, literally, with murder.
This book is a fast-moving and dramatic investigation that leads from the Tuscan mountains and government ministries in Rome, via British and American intelligence archives and Germany’s War Crimes Commission in Bavaria, to the respectable suburbs of present-day Hamburg. It goes to track down the guilty men, tell the story of their crimes, and asks why they are still free.
Christian Jennings is a British freelance foreign correspondent and the author of five works of non-fiction. Since 1988, across twenty-three countries, he has been writing books and journalism on international current affairs, history, science and such areas as war crimes investigations, for publications 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 in Turin.
His fifth work of non-fiction was published in the U.S and ...
More about Christian Jennings