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World War II

Memory of German massacre 'very present'

Sant'Anna di Stazzema was the site of a notorious Nazi atrocity during World War II. On Sunday, the German and Italian presidents visited the village to remember the victims of the 1944 massacre.

Dr. Carlo Gentile
(c) Manfred Wegener

Dr. Carlo Gentile

Along with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, German President Joachim Gauck visited the site of one of the worst German atrocities in Italy during World War II on Sunday (24.03.2013), the first German president to do so.

On August 12, 1944, the Waffen SS surrounded the village in search of members of the resistance. They rounded up the inhabitants, killing more than 500 of them - mostly women and children. After the war, justice was a long time coming.

Eventually, some of the perpetrators were convicted of the atrocities in absentia by an Italian court, and investigations in Germany followed. Historian Carlo Gentile spoke with DW about the trauma suffered by the survivors and the families of the victims.

DW: How fresh is the memory of the massacre in Sant'Anna di Stazzema?

Carlo Gentile: The memory of the massacre of course, is very much present - through the place, the partly destroyed houses, the monuments and memorials, the museum. And of course, the memory of the survivors and family members is very much alive. Such a trauma lasts a long time, for decades, and is passed on to future generations.

An Italian guard stands at a a monument commemorating the 560 victims of the Sant'Anna di Stazzema massacre
(c) AFP/Getty Images

An Italian guard stands at a a monument commemorating the 560 victims of the Sant'Anna di Stazzema massacre

Have you spoken with the families of the victims?

Yes, I know some of them.

What have they told you?

What they say depends very much on their character. There are some for whom it's easy to talk about the past, and for others it's very difficult. They tell of course, what happened to them, what they saw that day, how they experienced the massacre... But there is no hatred of Germany and the Germans. I have never experienced hatred there - nor at other scenes of war crimes in Italy.

This despite the fact that legal proceedings, especially in Germany, were such a challenge…

Sorting out what happened in such cases is always very difficult. At Sant'Anna di Stazzema, the legal proceedings that dealt with the events occurred in waves. There was a preliminary investigation of the Allied investigation authorities immediately after the massacre, and shortly after the end of the war an investigation by the Italian authorities. In the late 1940s, early 1950s, the events were a part of one of the few major trials in Italy, against an officer of the division responsible for the massacre. However, he was not personally responsible for the massacre, and was therefore acquitted.

Afterwards, the investigations came to an end for many years. They only restarted in the 1990s, when incriminating files were found in the famous "closet of shame" in Rome and journalists and historians in Germany began to deal with the case. The public prosecutor in Stuttgart investigated the case for 10 years, without much success. There was an investigation in Italy, which led to a trial and judgments in absentia.

How did survivors and relatives of victims react to the legal proceedings?

The convictions were greeted in Italy with satisfaction. The investigation by the Stuttgart prosecutor's office, however, was seen as a snub. The reactions in Italy were quite strong - even the Italian president spoke quite negatively on the matter. But we need to try to explain in Italy why Italian rulings can't simply be transferred one-to-one into the German legal system.

It's still a difficult issue. It is therefore all the more welcome that President Joachim Gauck would choose to visit Sant'Anna di Stazzema.

Carlo Gentile works at the Martin Buber Institute for Jewish Studies at the University of Cologne, and is involved in research on anti-Semitism, Nazism and fascism.

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