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Thursday, September 29, 2016
- Enrico Pieri was ten when German SS soldiers attacked his home village of Sant’Anna di Stazzema, Italy on Aug. 12, 1944 in a massacre that left 560 people, mostly women and children, dead.
Nearly seventy years later, justice remains elusive for Pieri and others, as German prosecution rejected the re-opening of an investigation into the massacre, citing the lack of proof for planned action and for the guilt of the individuals involved.
In 1944, Sant’Anna, situated on the hills of the Tuscan city of Lucca, was considered a “white zone”. Reachable only through a path in the woods, many local refugees fled to Sant’Anna, where the war seemed too far away to affect them – until the morning of Aug. 12, when the 16th Panzergrenadier Division “Reichsführer SS” approached and encircled the village.
The news of their arrival spread quickly. Fearing capture, the men hid in the mountains, while women, children and the elderly remained in their houses, certain that the Germans would not harm them.
Unlike the other men, Pieri’s father, uncles and grandfather stayed home to protect the house. When the soldiers arrived, everyone else was forced into a neighbour’s kitchen, where Pieri managed to hide in a locker, Pieri has recounted publicly.
The gunfire started immediately and lasted for five minutes. Pieri heard one of his sisters screaming, and then, silence. When he left his hiding place, the bodies of his mother, father, two sisters and grandparents lay on the floor.
From the field where he spent the following hours hiding together with two other survivors, he could hear the screams and cries coming from houses that the Germans set on fire. They returned to the village once the troops had left, but by then everyone was dead. Still, no one has yet served a sentence for the massacre of Sant’Anna.
Today Pieri is the president of the Association for the Martyrs of Sant’Anna and still struggling for justice. “Crimes against civilians like the one Sant’Anna must be condemned,” he told IPS.
“We don’t want any revenge,” he insisted, “but justice, yes, we want it, as a matter of respect for the victims.”
Decision in Germany
In 2007, the Italian High Court of Appeal confirmed the verdict of the Military Court of La Spezia condemning eight SS officers to life sentences for their crimes at Sant’Anna. But since Germany rejected the request for extradition, the opening of a trial in Stuttgart, Germany was the survivors’ only option to obtain the justice they have awaited for the last 69 years.
But on May 21, the Public Prosecutors Office in Stuttgart rejected Pieri’s call for a re-opening of the case, after a decade-long investigation was shelved on October 01 2012. The review of the files by the Public Prosecutors Office had found no evidence of guilt for those accused of committing the murders, and the information indicating premeditation was found insufficient.
“We did take into account the Italian jurisdiction, but the sentence is not legally binding here, and the information does not reach the German requirements for a conviction,” Christoph Kalkschmid, the senior public prosecutor in charge of the investigation in Stuttgart, told IPS.
Still, the issue received such attention that it led to a meeting of the Italian president, Giorgio Napolitano, and the German president, Joachim Gauck, at a commemoration ceremony of the victims in Sant’Anna in March.
“Gauck’s visit had made us hope for the better,” Michele Silicani, mayor of Stazzema, told IPS. “In the end, we simply ask Germany to open a trial, but refusing to even discuss it, that is offensive.”
In order to bring the case to court, the individual guilt of the 17 accused former SS soldiers, of which 5 are still alive, would have to be proven.
Although neither side doubts that murder, the only crime that is not yet time-barred, was committed on Aug. 12, 1944, for a conviction, what must be proved is that the former soldiers actively participated in killing civilians, or assisted others in doing so.
In the case of Gerhard Sommer, the second lieutenant (“SS- Untersturmführer”) of one of the SS divisions involved killing women and children in front of the village church, the prosecution could not assess his individual guilt.
Gabriele Heinecke, the lawyer who represents Pieri and the other survivors, agrees that the individual guilt of the accused should be proven. Nevertheless, “Stuttgart is ignoring the historical context of the situation,” Heinecke insisted. “Had Sommer not given the order, nothing would have happened.”
A planned massacre
Apart from the individual guilt, premeditation was the other element that, according to the prosecutors, could not be proven, despite indications that such a large-scale action involving an entire battalion of the SS could not have taken place without detailed and extensive planning. The problem is that no written evidence for such planning can be found.
“For a conviction, it must be a case of a deliberately planned and commanded extermination campaign against the civilian population,” insisted Kalkschmid, Stuttgart’s prosecutor. “It is not enough that it is likely that it happened in a certain way, it has to be proven from a legal point of view.”
Heinecke, however, labelled this claim “absurd” and told IPS, “There [was] clear evidence that the order for the attack came the night before.” She added that research has found that the soldiers carried weapons used in similar massacres of civilians, not for fights against partisans.
Silicani, Stazzema’s mayor, also found the doubts around the premeditation inconceivable. “I could understand if it was a clash with armed partisans. But they killed children, women and elderly people. They raped, they eviscerated pregnant women and shot new-born babies, throwing them in the air as you do with birds.”
“If this is not premeditation, if this is not cruelty, I don’t know what that is,” he concluded.
Heinecke and Pieri are appealing the decision by the Stuttgart prosecutors to stop the investigation on Jun. 15. If they fail, “we will go to the supreme court,” Silicani added.
“I know it won’t be easy to carry it through,” Pieri said. “This is why I’m not retiring.”