Fosse Ardeatine Massacre

In a hypogeum under a concrete slab, countless grey stone coffins stand side by side in long rows.
Tombs of the victims. © Elena Pirazzoli

24 March 1944 , Fosse Ardeatine, caves at the Via Ardeatina (Rome, Lazio)

On 24 March 1944, 335 persons were shot to death in the caves of the Via Ardeatina near Rome. The operation was a reprisal for an attack by the GAP partisan brigade in which 34 soldiers of the III. Battalion of the SS Police Regiment ‘Bozen’ were killed. The Commander-in-Chief of German forces in Italy, Albert Kesselring, or possibly Hitler himself, then ordered the killing of ten Italians for every German death. The Security Police of the Außenkommando in Rome, under the command of Herbert Kappler, selected victims from the Regina Coeli prison as well as the subsequent executions.

Involved Unit

14th Army headquarters; Außenkommando of the Security Police and SD, Rome

Culprits

SS Obersturmbannführer Herbert Kappler, SS Hauptsturmführer Erich Priebke, and others

Victims

335

Investigations and processes

1944: Rome Chief of Police Pietro Caruso and his colleague Roberto Occhetto stand trial. Caruso is sentenced to death, Occhetto to 30 years in prison.

1946: Trial of Kurt Mälzer, Military Commander of Rome, and Eberhard von Mackensen, Commander-in-Chief of the 14th Army. Both men sentenced to death; later commutation to life in prison.

1947: The Allied Military Court in Venice sentences Albert Kesselring to life in prison, on account of responsibility, as Commander-in-Chief of German forces in Italy, for the massacres perpetrated by the German Army. These include the Ardeatine Massacre.

1948-1953: Trial of Herbert Kappler, head of the Rome Außenkommando; sentenced to life in prison.

1995-1998: Erich Priebke is discovered living in Argentina and extradited to Italy. He stands trial and is sentenced to life in prison.

Armed forces
SD
Security Police
The light-coloured rock wall is supported by a wall at the bottom. In the wall is the entrance to the memorial for the massacre in the Ardeatine Caves. There are several memorial plaques for the victims on the wall.
Entrance to the Ardeatine Caves with plaques dedicated to the victims lining the walls. © Elena Pirazzoli

The massacre

The transfer of German troops to Anzio after the Allied landing diminished the German military presence in Rome. But German authorities maintained control of the capital and now began to react more severely to attacks by the GAP partisan brigade.

Die Fotografien

Via Rasella: PK war correspondent Lutz Koch walks down to Via del Boccaccio, where the bomb had exploded shortly before. In the street, the men of the Bolzano police battalion point their rifles at the upper floors of the houses because they still fear that members of the GAP could be hiding there. Police officers and soldiers stand in the street with weapons in their hands; next to them is the body of a man, possibly a victim of the explosion, covered with a white sheet. The photographer also captured the hectic scenes during the arrest of passers-by and residents of the houses around the site of the attack.

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  • In a street, a soldier stands in the rubble in front of a large building with barred windows. He is wearing a uniform and a helmet. He has his rifle pointed at the roof of the building opposite.
    [Translate to English:] Neben dem Explosionskrater in der Via Rasella behält ein Angehöriger des Polizei-Bataillons Bozen die oberen Stockwerke des gegenüberliegenden Wohnblocks im Auge. © BArch Bild_101I-312-0983-15 / Lutz Koch
  • A long street lined with houses. People in civilian clothes and policemen walk away from the photographer towards an intersection. There is debris on the street from the previous explosion.
    [Translate to English:] Via Rasella, Polizisten eilen zur Kreuzung Via Rasella/Via del Boccaccio, wo einige Zivilisten festgenommen wurden. © BArch Bild_101I-312-0983-18 / Lutz Koch
  • A long street lined with houses: in the background are people in civilian clothes. In the foreground, three soldiers in helmets and uniforms stand in the middle of the picture. On the right of the picture, a corpse covered with a white cloth lies on the ground. Next to it, another soldier is standing in front of a house wall with a rifle in his hand.
    © BArch Bild_101I-312-0983-10 / Lutz Koch
  • On the rubble-covered street on the right edge of the picture, several people are walking with their backs to the camera. In front of a house wall in the left corner of the picture, a soldier with a rifle steps out of the house entrance.
    © BArch Bild_101I-312-0983-12 / Lutz Koch
  • In the right edge of the picture, the SS-Hauptscharführer with the bomb fragments in his hand. On the left, soldiers with rifles stand in front of the house wall. Rubble lies on the street.
    [Translate to English:] In der Via Rasella hebt ein SS-Hauptscharführer der Gestapo in Rom Bombenreste auf und inspiziert sie. © BArch Bild_101I-312-0983-14 / Lutz Koch
  • A group of police officers stand with their backs to the photographer in Via Rasella and try to enter a building there.
    [Translate to English:] Vor dem Eingang der Via del Boccaccio Nr. 3, eine Gruppe von Polizisten versucht, das Gebäude zu betreten. © BArch Bild_101I-312-0983-20 / Lutz Koch
  • At a crossroads, several soldiers are standing in front of a house wall on the left of the picture, aiming their rifles at the upper floors of the house opposite.
    © BArch Bild_101I-312-0983-21 / Lutz Koch
  • At the crossroads with Via del Boccaccio, several soldiers stand between the houses with their backs to the camera and observe the surroundings.
    © BArch Bild_101I-312-0983-24 / Lutz Koch
  • Several soldiers stand in front of a house wall and aim their rifles at the upper floors of the houses opposite.
    © BArch Bild_101I-312-0983-25 / Lutz Koch
  • In front of a house wall, policemen in caps press men in civilian clothes.
    [Translate to English:] Deutsche und italienische Polizisten mit Pistolen in den Händen halten einige Bewohner der umliegenden Häuser vor einer Weinhandlung in der Via Rasella 142 an. Heute befindet sich dort ein Hotel. © BArch Bild_101I-312-0983-28 / Lutz Koch
  • In the background of the picture are the civilians held by the policemen. The few other passers-by are watching the scene.
    © BArch Bild_101I-312-0983-29 / Lutz Koch
  • Two armoured vehicles with armed soldiers drive past the photographer at a crossroads.
    [Translate to English:] Geländewagen der PAI (Polizia dell’Africa Italiana, Kolonialpolizei) fahren mit hoher Geschwindigkeit die Via del Traforo hinunter. © BArch Bild_101I-312-0983-32 / Lutz Koch
Kesselring had ordered that within 24 hours, ten Italians be shot to death for every killed German soldier. Kappler contacted General Field Marshall Kesselring’s headquarters; Kesselring told him that the decision came from a higher authority.

Via delle Quattro Fontane, in front of the gates of Palazzo Barberini, immediately after the attack. Men from the IIIrd Battalion of the SS Bolzano Police Regiment and the Barbarigo Battalion of the fascist 10th MAS Flotilla guard the civilians who have been taken from the buildings in Via Rasella.

  • On the right side of the picture, numerous civilians are standing in a row in front of a house wall with their hands behind their heads. In front of them are soldiers with bayonets, guarding them.
    © BArch Bild_101I-312-0983-03 / Lutz Koch
  • In the background, civilians stand in a row in front of a wall with an iron fence, holding their hands behind their heads. In front of them are soldiers with bayonets at the ready. One of them has turned completely towards the camera and is looking directly at the photographer.
    © BArch Bild_101I-312-0983-02 / Lutz Koch
  • The same scene, photographed from the left. The civilians appear to be standing in front of the wall of a church. In the foreground are the soldiers guarding them. Police officers and a vehicle can be seen in the background.
    © BArch Bild_101I-312-0983-05 / Lutz Koch
  • Another photo of the same scene. In the meantime, some of the policemen have joined the soldiers.
    © BArch Bild_101I-312-0983-06 / Lutz Koch

Investigations and trials

Over roughly half a century, a number of trials were held against those responsible for the murders in the Ardeatine caves.

Memory

  • A pebbled area that merges into a lawn in the background. On the right the wall with the memorial plaques and the entrance to the caves, on the left a memorial: three men in civilian clothes on a plinth.
    [Translate to English:] Das Mausoleum in den Ardeatinischen Höhlen. © Elena Pirazzoli
  • In a cleft supported by walls, the high rectangular entrance to the caves is visible in the background of the picture.
    [Translate to English:] Durch die Explosion von Minen, die von deutschen Pionieren zur Sprengung der Steinbrüche gelegt wurden, entstand eine Kluft. © Elena Pirazzoli
  • A grey stone tablet with Italian inscription on a brick pillar of light brown stone.
    [Translate to English:] Tafeln erläutern, wie die Zerklüftungen zustande gekommen sind. © Elena Pirazzoli
  • Inside the caves, there is an inscription in Italian and Hebrew on a stone wall at the place of execution. To the left of it is a heavily decorated iron gate.
    [Translate to English:] Der Ort der Hinrichtung im hinteren Teil der Ardeatinischen Höhlen. © Elena Pirazzoli
  • [Translate to English:] Der Ort der Hinrichtungen, verborgen durch das Tor des Bildhauers Mirko Basaldella. © Elena Pirazzoli
  • The hypogeum in the Ardeatine Caves Memorial is a large, rectangular room. An enormous concrete slab rests on numerous pillars and serves as a roof. Beneath it, in long rows, stand the coffins of all the victims killed there.
    [Translate to English:] Die Grabmäler der Opfer. © Elena Pirazzoli

Sources

In the absence of contemporary German documents, the most important sources for reconstructing the facts are of a legal nature. Many of the relevant documents are kept in the archives of the Rome military court. The state archives in Rieti contain the private documents of Euclide Fantoni, chairman of the military court that sentenced Kappler in 1948. The files for the proceedings against Mälzer, von Mackensen, and Kesselring before the British military court in 1946 and 1947 are kept in the British National Archives, London (Kew) (WO 235/438, trial of Mälzer and von Mackensen; WO 236/366-376, trial of Kesselring). Documents tied to the Allied investigation of the massacre are also kept here (WO 204/11469, Ardeatine Caves case; WO 204/12798, SS Obersturmbannführer Herbert Kappler; WO 309/2197, Massacre of Italian partisans, Ardeatine Caves, Italy; WO 310/126, Trials of German General Staff officers; WO 311/356, Ardeatine Caves, Rome, Italy: killing of Italian civilians).

Literature

Felix Bohr, Die Kriegsverbrecher Lobby. Bundesdeutsche Hilfe für im Ausland inhaftierte NS-Täter, Berlin, Suhrkamp, 2018.

Lutz Klinkhammer, Stragi naziste in Italia. La guerra contro i civili (1943-1944), Rome, Donzelli, 1997, pp. 3-15.

Alessandro Portelli, L'ordine è già stato eseguito, Rome, Donzelli, 1999.

Steffen Prauser, Mord in Rom? Der Anschlag in der Via Rasella und die deutsche Vergeltung in den Fosse Ardeatine im März 1944, in Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte, vol. 50 (2002), 2, De Gruyter Oldenbourg, Berlin, pp. 269-301

Daniele Scopigno, Il processo Kappler nelle carte dell'archivio di Stato di Rieti, Foligno, Il Formichiere, 2020.

Joachim Staron, Fosse Ardeatine und Marzabotto. Deutsche Kriegsverbrechen und Resistenza. Geschichte und nationale Mythenbildung in Deutschland und Italien (1944-1999), Paderborn etc., Schöningh, 2002, pp. 32-74, 103 ff., 111-115, 132-184, 285-308.

Authorship and translation

Autor: Carlo Gentile

Translated from German by: Joel Golb

© Project ‘The Massacres in Occupied Italy (1943-1945): Integrating the Perpetrators’ Memories’

2023

Text: CC BY NC SA 4.0

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