Italian poet Salvatore Quasimodo lamented in 1943, “And how could we sing, / with that foreign boot on our heart/ among the dead abandoned in the square/ on grass hard as ice/ to the lamb-whimpering of children?”
After the Armistice of Cassibile (September 8, 1943), the German army occupied central and northern Italy. During their retreat, the German troops perpetrated thousands of massacres against the Italian civilians. The Atlante delle Stragi Naziste e Fasciste in Italia (Atlas of the Nazi and Fascist Massacres in Italy) lists more than 5,000 episodes of violence in the peninsula. Some were carried out in reprisal for partisan attacks. Others were part of the so-called “war on civilians.” The massacres have created deep trauma in the local communities. Often, they have led to contrasting memories of the violence. Here are 4 Nazi massacres in Italy.
1. One of the Most Debated Nazi Massacres in Italy: The Ardeatine Caves in Rome
On March 25, 1944, a release issued the night before by the German Commando in Rome appeared in the newspapers of the city:
“During the afternoon of March 23, 1944 criminal elements carried out an attack by throwing bombs at a German Police column which was passing along the via Rasella … No one shall sabotage unpunished the renewed Italo-German cooperation. The German Commando, therefore, has given orders that for every German killed, ten Badolgio-Communist criminals will be shot. The order has already been carried out.”
The German army entered Italy’s capital shortly after the Armistice of Cassibile. Meanwhile, the Badoglio government, born after Mussolini’s arrest, and King Victor Emmanuel III retreated to the liberated south. In March 1944, however, the German Commando struggled to control the city. Italian partisan groups repeatedly carried out attacks against the occupying force. On March 7, ten resistance fighters, previously detained and tortured in the SS prison located in via Tasso, were shot at Forte Bravetta.
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On March 23, 1944, the anniversary of the founding of the first Fascist association in Milan, the members of the Gruppo d’Azione Patriottica (Patriotic Action Group), a Communist resistance group, planned an attack against the occupying forces. In the afternoon, they detonated an explosive device hidden in a rubbish cart as a column of the SS Police Regiment “Bozen” marched and sang along via Rasella. Twenty-eight soldiers were killed at the scene. Five more died later in the evening.
When Hitler learned of the attack, he ordered Field Marshal Albert Kesselring to retaliate by killing ten Italians for every German casualty within 24 hours. During the night between March 23 and 24, SS Obersturmbannführer Herbert Kappler, the Commander of the Security Police in Rome, and SS Hauptsturmführer Erich Priebke compiled the list of Italians to execute.
Some of them were political prisoners. Others were picked at random. Some were Jews. When the death toll rose to 33, Pietro Caruso, the fascist Questore of Rome, suggested more names for the list.
“The men killed at the Fosse Ardeatine,” wrote Alessandro Portelli in his seminal work on the massacre, “were Catholics, Jews, atheists … There are military men and civilians; aristocrats, peddlers, manual workers, merchants, lawyers.” After the war, they became the universal symbol of Rome’s suffering during the German occupation.
On March 24, Erich Priebke and Karl Hass transported the prisoners to the so-called Ardeatine Caves, a series of disused quarries on the outskirts of Rome. There, the men, in groups of five, were forced to enter the caves, where they were shot in the back of the head. The youngest victim was in his teens. The oldest was 70 years old. As they counted the prisoners, the SS officers discovered they had mistakenly rounded up 335 men instead of the 330 required. To leave no witnesses, they decided to kill them anyway. After the massacre, the Germans used dynamite to seal the entrance to the caves. The bodies were discovered only after the liberation of Rome on June 9, 1944.
According to Portelli, the Ardeatine Caves massacre is “an intensely remembered and dramatically mis-remembered event.” In the postwar era, the Italian government started to commemorate the anniversary of the crime with a solemn ceremony. However, the killing also created contrasting memories among the victims’ families and the citizens of Rome, with many blaming the partisans for provoking the butchery.
The narrative is linked with the false belief that the resistance fighters could have prevented the massacre by turning themselves in as supposedly requested by the Germans. During the postwar trials, the SS officers declared that their retaliation was publicly announced only the day after the killing. Despite these testimonies, the “anti-partisan” theory is still widespread.
2. The Massacre of Civitella Val di Chiana and Italy’s “Divided Memory”
“On the morning of 29 June 1944, I was home dressing my youngest daughter to take her to mass,” remembers Ada Sistini, “around 7 o’clock I thought I heard gunshots. I went to the door with my little daughter to see what was going on. I saw the villagers horrified, running from all sides shouting: ‘The Germans are killing all the men!’”
In June 1944, the Hermann Göring Division occupied Civitella Val di Chiana, a small village in Tuscany. Some resistance groups were also active in the surrounding area. On the evening of June 18, the members of the partisan formation “Renzino” decided to disarm four German soldiers who had gone to the town’s pub for a drink. As the partisans entered the building, a shootout erupted. In the ensuing chaos, two soldiers were killed. A third German died later. When the inhabitants of Civitella learned of the event, they fled the village, fearing retaliation.
In the days after the shooting, some Nazi officers arrived at Civitella to retrieve the bodies of the dead soldiers and gain information about the partisans’ attack. Before leaving, they assured the local priest and podestà that there would be no reprisal. To appease the Germans, many women attended the soldiers’ funeral. Slowly, the townspeople began to return to their houses.
On the morning of June 29, the population of Civitella was ready to celebrate the feast of Saints Peter and Paul. At the same time, the paratroopers of the Hermann Göring Division advanced toward the village. First, they combed through the houses, killing the men in front of their families. Then, they gathered all the inhabitants in the town square and stormed into the church, where Don Alcide Lazzeri was serving Mass. According to some survivors, the priest tried to save the villagers by offering his life. After separating the men from the women and children, the Germans carried out the massacre. They set fire to the houses before leaving.
On the same morning, the German troops also killed the population of the nearby villages of Burrone, Cornia, Gebbia, San Pancrazio, and Poggiali. In Cornia, they indiscriminately shot men, women, and children. In the end, over 250 civilians died. In the following days, the widowers buried their husbands and sons. The massacre created a deep trauma in the local community, whose wound remained open for decades after the end of the war.
In July, when British and American troops reached Civitella, the survivors could finally tell their stories, thus beginning to construct a public memory of the event. In 1944, the British Investigative Branch sent the results of its inquiry to the Italian provisional government. The dossier was disregarded until the 1990s. Only in 2006 did the Military Tribunal of La Spezia sentence Max Josef Milde, Unteroffizier of the 1st Fallschirm-Panzer-Division “Hermann Göring,” to life in prison. However, in 2012, the International Court of Justice overturned the sentence, stating that Italy had “repeatedly disregarded the jurisdictional immunity of Germany as a sovereign State.”
Similarly to the Ardeatine Caves killing, the massacre of Civitella created divergent memories and narratives. During his research on the event, historian Giovanni Contini coined the term “divided memory” to describe the remembrance landscape in the town. “I can never forgive the partisans who have determined the massacre,” stated a victim’s son, “but if I got to see the German who killed my father, I would forgive him today.” Among a community desperately searching for the meaning behind the violence, the local partisans were usually the most convenient scapegoats.
3. The Massacre of Sant’Anna di Stazzema
In August 1944, the German army was retreating towards the Gothic Line. As the US Fifth Army advanced through the peninsula, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring issued orders to fight the partisans with increasingly harsh measures. In July, he had decreed to hold the civilian population (including elders and infants) responsible for any resistance activity. In August, the German army began the so-called Bandenbekämpfung (fight against the gangs), or “cleansing operations” of areas where the partisans were particularly active. During this type of operation, commonly referred to as guerra ai civili (war against civilians), the German soldiers systematically combed through villages and towns, decimating their inhabitants.
On August 12, 1944, Sant’Anna di Stazzema, a small village near Lucca, was full of women and children who had fled from the nearby coastal towns to escape the bombings. Most of the local men had already left. Early in the morning, the soldiers of the 16th Panzer-Grenadier-Division “Reichsführer-SS” led by Max Simon, along with Anton Galler’s 2nd Battalion of the SS-Panzer-Grenadier-Regiment 35, surrounded the village.
According to some survivors, the local Fascists, wearing German uniforms, were also present. After raiding several houses and killing the families hiding inside, the soldiers gathered the population in the main square and opened fire. Some civilians were killed with hand grenades in other locations. The youngest victim was 20-day-old Anna Pardini. The massacre was violent and ruthless. Some soldiers tore open a pregnant woman to shoot her fetus. More than 500 civilians died that day. It was the second-largest Nazi massacre in Italy.
After the violence, the survivors were unable to cope with the trauma for a long time. Sant’Anna became a ghost town. The smell of burned human flesh and the view of the bodies haunted the villagers. “A ‘cult of death’ took hold in the village.”
In the postwar years, Sant’Anna constructed its anti-fascist identity around the 1944 massacre. However, many survivors, struggling to make sense of the event, held the local partisans responsible. In particular, the resistance fighters were blamed for supposedly urging the population not to obey the evacuation order issued by the Germans.
The contrasting narratives merged in a new, shared remembrance in 1971 when the town received the Gold Medal of Military Valor. Over the years, the local communities honored its victims with several monuments, plaques, and shrines. In 2005, the Military Tribunal of La Spezia sentenced (in absentia) ten former SS to life in prison.
4. The Bloodiest Nazi Massacre in Italy: Monte Sole (Marzabotto)
“I saw two other soldiers enter: one with a heavy tripod and the other one with a machine gun. They placed the weapons against the left part of the cemetery walls,” remembers Lucia Sabbione, one of the eight survivors of the massacre in the cemetery of Casaglia, “others entered, holding grenades in their hands, and so the bloodbath began.”
On September 29, 1944, several German army units arrived in the hamlets and villages around Monte Sole in the Apennines near Bologna. Located between the rivers Reno and Setta, Monte Sole was strategically important for the retreating occupying forces. Many resistance groups were also active in the area. The Germans adopted a “scorched earth” policy to isolate the partisans from the local communities. The bulletin of the 14th Army referred to the operation as Vernichtungsunternehmen (annihilation operation). The result was the worst Nazi massacre in Italy and Western Europe. SS-Sturmbannführer Helmut Looß coordinated the operation. Some local Fascists aided the occupying forces.
Between September 29 and 30, the German soldiers slaughtered the inhabitants of about 115 small villages of Monte Sole, including Cadotto, Casaglia, and Caprara. As many of them were in the municipality of Marzabotto, the massacre is commonly known as the “massacre of Marzabotto.”
The victims were primarily elders, women, and children. One of the most infamous and horrific episodes of violence happened in Casaglia, where the population took refuge in the church. After killing the local priest, Don Ubaldo Marchioni, and a paralyzed young woman, soldiers of the 3rd Kompanie of the Division “Reichsführer-SS” forced the population to march to the cemetery, where they shot them with machine guns. Only eight children survived, buried under the bodies of the fallen. The acts of violence in Monte Sole ended only on October 2, 1944.
In the following weeks, Monte Sole became a no man’s land. After Reder’s soldiers returned to some villages to kill the remaining few survivors, the inhabitants of Monte Sole permanently abandoned their homes, never to return. Physical traces of the violence were visible everywhere, as many bodies could not be buried until the end of the war.
When the Allied forces reached Casotto, “they found the village badly wrecked. About 17 civilians dead, including women and children who were obviously victims of atrocities, were found among the ruins.” For a long time, the survivors were unable to cope with their trauma. In 1967, Walter Reder wrote to the mayor of Marzabotto, Giovanni Bottonelli, asking for forgiveness and hoping to obtain a pardon from the Italian president. The survivors and the victims’ relatives refused. In 1985, they reiterated their refusal.
After the war, the massacre of Monte Sole became a key feature of Italy’s public memory of the Resistance and the German occupation. In 2002, Johannes Rau, the president of Germany, visited the site of the killing. He expressed his “sadness and shame” to the victims’ relatives.