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Entry to caves in the Fosse Ardeatine Monument.

The Fosse Ardeatine massacre ( ) was a mass execution carried out in Romemarker on 24 March 1944 by Germanmarker occupation troops during the Second World War as a reprisal for a partisan attack conducted on the previous day in central Rome.

Subsequently, the Cave Ardeatine (also known as the Fosse Ardeatine) became a National Monument and a Memorial Cemetery open daily to visitors. Every year, on the anniversary of the slaughter and in the presence of the senior officials of the Italian Republicmarker, a solemn State commemoration is held at the monument in honour of the fallen.

Partisan attack in Via Rasella

On 23 March 1944, a column of German policemen marching through central Rome on Via Rasella was attacked by partisans. The unit targeted by the ambush was the 11th Company, 3rd Battalion, Police Battalion Bozen. This unit was raised from German-speaking natives of the northern Italian province of Bolzano-Bozen in October 1943. Many were veterans of the Italian Army who had served in Russia who had opted to serve in the police rather than serve another tour on the Russian front with the Wehrmacht.

The attack was carried out by 16 partisans of the communist dominated Patriotic Action Group (Gruppi d'Azione Patriotica) (GAP). An improvised explosive device was prepared consisting of 12 kilograms of TNT packed in a steel case. This was inserted into a bag containing an additional six kilograms of TNT and TNT filled iron tubing. The bomb was hidden in a rubbish cart, pushed into position by a partisan disguised as a street cleaner. Others acted as lookouts. The fuse was lit when the police were forty seconds from the bomb. The bomb blast caused the immediate deaths of 28 policemen and at least two Italian civilians. Others would die over the next few days. All sixteen partisans - some of whom fired on the German soldiers - managed to melt away unscathed into the crowd and evade capture.

Preparation for the reprisal

The German police attaché and commander of the Security Police in Rome, SS Obersturmbannführer Herbert Kappler was on the scene soon afterwards to supervise the investigation. That evening he was summoned to the headquarters of the German Armed Forces Commandant in Rome, Luftwaffe Generalmajor Kurt Mälzer, who had decided that the outrage called for reprisals. This was legal under the international law of the day . They agreed that the execution of ten Italians for each German policeman killed was a suitable ratio. Mälzer, who also proposed burning part of Rome down, passed this on to Generaloberst Eberhard von Mackensen, the commander of the Fourteenth Army, whose jurisdiction included Rome, who endorsed the recommendation. In turn the staff of the German Commander-in-Chief South (Oberbefehlshaber Süd), passed this on to the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW). That night, Adolf Hitler authorised the reprisal, stipulating that it be carried out within 24 hours. Commander-in-Chief South Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, considered this an order, one he interpreted to call for the execution of Italians who had been previously sentenced to death. He was reassured by Kappler that sufficient prisoners were available.

However, Kappler soon found that he did not have 280 Italians on death row. What he had was four who had been condemned to death, 17 serving long sentences, and 167 "worthy of death", plus two to four who had been rounded up in the Via Rasella area who were suspected of involvement in the partisan attack. His superior, SS Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der PolizeiDr. Wilhelm Harster suggested making up the numbers from the 57 Jews who were being held in Kappler's jails. By noon on 24 March, Kappler had a list of 271 victims, each with their crime listed against their name, except for the Jews, whose offence was simply listed as "Jew". But by this time the death toll had risen to 32. (One more would die while the reprisal was under way; the death toll would eventually reach 42.) To make up the numbers, the Italian police chief in Rome offered some Italians from his jails. Because of the time limit that Hitler had imposed, Mälzer and Kappler agreed that the victims would have to be shot from behind at close range rather than by a conventional firing squad.


In fact, by mistake, a total of 335 Italianmarker hostages were taken, composed of civilians (including Jews from the local community) who were casually picked up on the city streets, Italian prisoners of war (up to General rank), previously captured partisans and some inmates from Roman prisons. The massacre was perpetrated without prior public notice in what was then a little-frequented rural suburb of the city, inside the tunnels of the disused quarries of pozzolana, near the Via Ardeatina.

On 24 March, led by SSmarker officers Erich Priebke and Karl Hass, the victims were transported to the Ardeatine caves and then, in groups of five, were put to death inside the caves.

Since the killing squad mostly consisted of officers who had never killed before, Kappler ordered several cases of cognacmarker delivered to the caves to calm their nerves. The officers were ordered to lead the doomed prisoners into the caves with their hands tied behind their backs and then have them kneel down so that the soldiers could place a bullet directly into the cerebellum; thus no more than one bullet would be needed per prisoner.

To save time, soldiers had the prisoners climb on top of those killed just minutes before, so that several orderly piles of bodies were formed. However, as the day went on, the cognac that was sent to calm nerves began to make the soldiers sloppy. More and more bullets went astray and prisoners endured torturous last moments as the soldiers tried to finish them off. During the killings, it was discovered that there were five more prisoners than were supposed to have been taken, but they were killed anyway, in order to prevent news of the location of the place of execution from becoming known.

Some of the Germans involved in the massacre were horrified by the slaughter. One of the officers, who refused to shoot, was personally dragged to the execution site by Erich Priebke, who put his arm around the officer's waist and forced him to kill his victim.

Another, named Amon, testified at the trial of Kappler which was held in Italy in 1948; saying that once he entered the cave and saw the piles of dead bodies, he was so horrified that he fainted and was replaced by a comrade who pushed him aside and shot another victim.

The massacre took most of the day. Some of the victims' heads were blown off by the fire; others were only wounded and may have survived until the explosions intended to seal the caves after the massacre was completed: one youth and his father were found in each other's arms in a corner of the cave galleries which had been not filled with the debris under which most victims had been buried. Some crawled into corners to die.

The bodies of the victims were placed in piles, typically about a meter in height, and then buried under tonnes of rock debris when German military engineers set explosives to seal the caves and hide the atrocity. They remained summarily buried and abandoned for over a year inside the caves. They were eventually found, exhumed and given proper burial only after the Italian capital was liberated by the Allies on 4 June 1944.


Popular notions of the Fosse Ardeatine are numerous, and often false. Foremost among these is the notion that the Partisans who attacked at the Via Rasella should have turned themselves in. This stems from a belief (still cultivated by neo-fascist propaganda) that the Nazis gave warning to the Roman public that a retaliation was imminent. The concept of 'ten Italians for one German' is also frequently applied to this argument, as if the Partisans could or should have realized that their attack would cost 330 Italians their lives. In fact, there were arguments among the Nazi leadership in Rome as well as between Hitler and his commanders as to whether 10, 30, or 50 Italians should be killed for every German.

Although it may be expected (and is frequently claimed) that the victims of the Fosse Ardeatine were predominantly Jewish, this is not so; only 75 of the 335 victims were Jews. Although this was one criterion for the selection of victims the main concern was simply to fill the quota; many of the prisoners at Via Tasso and Regina Coeli prisons who had the misfortune to be in Nazi hands at that moment were also included. Some of these prisoners had simply been residents of Via Rasella who were home at the time of the partisan attack; others had been arrested and tortured for suspected Resistance and other anti-fascist activities. Others had been casually picked up on the streets or arrested at their homes after fascist informants tipped the Germans. Not all of the partisans killed were members of the same group. Members of the GAP, the PA and Bandiera Rossa, in addition to the Clandestine Military Front were on the list of those to be executed. The largest group among the murdered were members of Bandiera Rossa, a Communist military Resistance group. The youngest victim was 15 years old.

The scale and even the occurrence of this retaliation was unprecedented. Since the start of the Nazi occupation of Rome (which had begun on 9-10 September 1943), anti-Fascists and members of the Resistance (including many Italian Military officers) had been organising and practicing intense guerilla warfare against the occupiers.


For a number of reasons, including (but not limited to): the large number of victims; the fact that many of them were civilian innocents casually taken only to make up the number of those to be killed; the cruel methods implemented (even by Nazi standards) to carry out the massacre; the fact that the reprisal order had come directly from Adolf Hitler, and the hiding of the bodies, which were buried summarily instead of being returned to their families, the slaughter became a symbol of the various massacres carried out against civilians in Italy from 8 September 1943 until the German surrender on 8 May 1945.

The cultural and political fallout from the Fosse Ardeatine, and more generally from the Fascist movement after WWII, continues today. In December 2007, Giorgio Bettio, a city councillor of Treviso, Italymarker and member of the Northern League party, suggested that "With immigrants, we should use the same system the SS used, punish 10 of them for every slight against one of our citizens" in reference to Italy's current debate over immigration policies. This comment was met with public condemnation, and Bettio later said, "I certainly made a mistake in citing the SS." He also claimed the incident had been sensationalized by the media.

The Vatican's role in the massacre came under particular scrutiny following the publication of Robert Katz's book, in particular his contested claim that Pope Pius XII allegedly had advance knowledge of the Nazi orders and did little to forestall it. In an update tohis book, Katz states that documents later published supported his claims, and that no exonerating sources exist.

Both Priebke and Kappler sought Vatican assistance after the war (see separate Wikipedia entries for details), a fact which Katz and anticlerical critics use to imply Vatican 'complicity'. Priebke could flee to Argentinamarker thanks to the pro-German Austrian bishop Alois Hudal and the CIA, and Kappler, however without success, sought asylum within the Vatican.

Popular culture

The event was dramatized in the 1962 film Dieci italiani per un tedesco directed by Filippo Walter Ratti and starring Gino Cervi, and in 1973 in the feature film Massacre in Rome by George Pan Cosmatos, starring Marcello Mastroianni and Richard Burton.



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