Predictably, the death of one of the last living war criminals from the Nazi era has triggered the usual emotional storm, showing how difficult it is for Western societies to fully come to terms with the past and act with moral clarity when it comes to its ghosts.
Erich Priebke was an SS officer in Rome when the occupying power ordered the execution of hundreds of Jews and political prisoners in response to an attack by the Italian Resistance. Priebke participated in the slaughter and was condemned. He passed away last week in Rome, the scene of his crimes 69 years ago. Like so many war criminals, in 1945 he found an escape route to South America, where he lived, undaunted, undisturbed and unrepentant, until he was finally extradited in 1994 to stand trial in Italy. By then, Priebke was an octogenarian pensioner, who, unlike his victims, lived a full and free existence. He even begat a child whom he raised in the same values of anti-Semitic hatred, if one is to judge by the recent declarations of his son.
Nor was his punishment commensurate to his crimes – being so old when he was extradited, he spent his confinement at the home of his lawyer, rather than in a prison cell, or under six feet of dirt like his victims. Every additional day of life for Priebke has been an insult to the memory of his victims and all those who died at the hands of The Nazi extermination machinery. That he died at age 100, in the tranquility of his lawyer’s residence in Rome, is a reminder of the limits of human justice.
It is also the trigger of a disingenuous polemic about pity, piety, mercy and the dignity of death, for now many voices are being raised in Italy to give him a proper burial, inclusive of religious sacraments. But given his crimes, no measure of prayer and holy water should save his soul.
To the Vatican’s credit — a further sign that Pope Francis’ warmth to the Jewish people is not just genuine but driven by moral resolve — an order has gone out to all Roman churches not to celebrate the funeral. Priebke’s lawyer is stuck with a Nazi cadaver in his home, and Italy is debating how to dispose of his dead body.
And this is where moral clarity is missing – Priebke and his fellow thugs never gave any of their victims the dignity of a decent burial. Complicit governments gave him a new lease of life, letting him escape justice and live for another 69 years after his crimes were consummated. Now that he is dead, human forgetfulness and some measure of malice is chastising those who wish to prevent his burial on Italian soil, let alone with the succor of religious sacraments.
Priebke’s cadaver should simply be cremated; his ashes dispersed at sea, outside Italy’s territorial waters, so as not to pollute the memory of his victims further by his presence and so as not to provide another pilgrimage site for European Neo-Nazis.