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Ardeatine Caves Massacre - 1944

Ardeatine Caves Massacre (1944)

First major atrocity committed by German forces in Italy during World War II

The Ardeatine Caves massacre was the first major atrocity committed by German forces in Italy during World War II as a reprisal for partisan actions. On the afternoon of 23 March 1944, in Rome's Via Rasella, a group of 16 urban partisans of the Patriotic Action Group ambushed and bombed a German police unit that was part of the German occupation forces.

Thirty-two police officers were killed and several others (one of whom died shortly thereafter) were injured. Although no formal written order appears to have been made, there followed a nearly immediate verbal order to execute 10 Italian citizens for every German killed. The order is believed to have originated from Adolf Hitler himself, passed through Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, the commander of all German forces in Italy, to SS Obersturmbannführer Herbert Kappler, who directed the massacre and composed the list of people to be executed.

It comprised 260 civilians already under German arrest and in custody for various charges, including black marketeering, possessing false documents, agitating for strikes, hiding Jews, or otherwise being "enemies of the regime". The last list also included 75 Jews awaiting deportation to concentration camps in Germany. None of those listed had been involved in the bomb attack.

The massacre took place on the afternoon of 24 March 1944 in caves on the Via Ardeatine just south of Rome. Five SS-Schutzstaffel soldiers escorted five prisoners at a time to the mouth of the cave. As the victims entered the cave, SS Captain Erich Priebke checked off their names from Kappler's list. With their hands tied behind their backs, the prisoners were made to kneel and then shot in the back of the head. After they had shot all, the entrance to the cave was blasted shut with explosives.

On 27 March 1944, a young priest and several relatives of the victims found an entrance to the caves and could find out what had happened. Learning of this, the Germans re-blasted and resealed the cave and its tunnels. Not until after the Allied liberation of Rome in June 1944 were Italian and American officials able to open the cave, exhume the bodies, and attempt to identify them. On the fifth anniversary of the massacre, the caves were consecrated as a national monument.

For what would be one of the last World War II war crimes trials, they extradited Priebke from Argentina in 1995 to stand trial in Italy for his role in the Ardeatine caves massacre. After a second trial and appeal, his conviction was upheld, and he was sentenced to life imprisonment.

  • Germany Nazi (1933-1945)
  • Italy
WWII (1939-1945)
260 civilians and 75 Jews


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