Reinhard Kopps (29 September 1914 Hamburg – 11 September 2001 Bariloche, Argentina) was an SS Officer for the Nazi Party during World War II. Following the defeat of Germany in World War II, he helped Nazis escape to Argentina, finally fleeing there himself. Under the assumed name of Juan Maler, Kopps was hiding in the small town of Bariloche in the Andes Mountains. Bariloche was the home of many Germans after World War II.
Nazi archives opened in 1994 caused ABC News to research Nazi war criminals. After research revealed many Nazis living in Argentina, Sam Donaldson confronted Maler on camera,getting him to admit that he was Reinhard Kopps, a former Nazi, and that he assisted Nazis to leave Germany and settle in Argentina. The Simon Wiesenthal Center accused him of having organized ethnic crimes in Albania where thousends of jewish were deported and killed. He was also reported for alleged activities as an ideologist of neo nazi groups in all over the world.
In order to deflect attention away from himself, he told Donaldson that an even worse war criminal, Erich Priebke (under the assumed name Erico Priebke)was also living there.Donaldson and his team waited for Priebke outside the school he was working and interviewed him at his car.
After initial hesitation, Priebke admitted who he was and spoke openly about his role in the massacre. He justified his actions by saying that he only followed orders from the Gestapo chief of Rome, Obersturmbannführer Herbert Kappler and that, in his view, the victim were terrorists.
Erich Priebke (29 July 1913 – 11 October 2013) was a German mid-level SS commander in the SS police force (SiPo) of Nazi Germany.
In 1996 he was convicted of war crimes in Italy, for participating in the Ardeatine massacre in Rome on 24 March 1944. 335 Italian civilians (among them 75 Italians of Jewish ancestry) were killed in retaliation for a partisan attack that killed 33 men of the German SS Police Regiment Bozen.
The massacre was perpetrated without prior public notice in a little-frequented rural suburb of the city, inside the tunnels of the disused quarries of pozzolana, near the Via Ardeatina.
By mistake, a total of 335 Italian prisoners were taken, five in excess of the 330 called for. On 24 March, led by SS officers Erich Priebke and Karl Hass.
They were transported to the Ardeatine caves in truckloads and then, in groups of five, put to death inside the caves. Because the killing squad mostly consisted of officers who had never killed before, Kappler had ordered several cases of cognac delivered to the caves to calm the officers’ nerves.
The nerves of Erich Priebke didn’t need to be calmed. To set an example for the other men he personally shot the 2 first victims himself.
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, ensuring that no more than one bullet would be needed per prisoner. Many were forced to kneel down over the bodies of those who had been killed before them because the cave had become filled with dead bodies. During the killings, the existence of the five extra prisoners was discovered, and it was decided to kill them anyway, in order to prevent news of the location of the place of execution from becoming known.
Priebke was one of the men held responsible for this mass execution. After the defeat of Nazi Germany, he received help from a bishop stationed in Rome and fled to Argentina on a Vatican passport, where he lived for over 50 years.
In 1991, Priebke’s participation in the Rome massacre was denounced in Esteban Buch’s book.In 1994, 50 years after the massacre, Priebke felt he could now talk about the incident and was interviewed by American ABC news reporter Sam Donaldson.This caused outrage among people who had not forgotten the incident, and led to his extradition to Italy and a trial which lasted more than four years.
Donaldson’s news report showed how openly Priebke could live in Argentina, and how little remorse he felt for his actions. Argentine authorities arrested Priebke. Because of his old age and poor health, he was at first not imprisoned, but rather held under house arrest at his home in Bariloche, where he had lived since 1949.
The extradition of Priebke had several delays – his lawyers used tactics like demanding all Italian documents be translated into Spanish, a process which could have taken two years. The Argentine court eventually denied the process, but appeals and other delays caused the extradition case to take more than a year. His lawyers argued that the case could no longer be criminally prosecuted because the crime of murder was subject to a statute of limitations of 15 years under Argentine law.
In March 1995, after nine months of delays, the president of the Jewish organization B’nai B’rith was promised by, among others, the Argentine president Carlos Menem, that the case would soon be closed, and that Priebke was to be transferred to Italy by the end of the month. In spite of these promises, the Supreme Court of Argentina decided that the case was to be transferred to the local court in Bariloche where the case was originally brought up. This opened the possibility for years of delays from future appeals, while Priebke could live at his home.
In May 1995, an Argentine federal judge accepted the Italian demand for extradition on the grounds that cases of crimes against humanity could not expire. But there were more appeals and rumors that the court might change the ruling.
In August of the same year, it was judged that Priebke was not to be extradited because the case had expired. To put pressure on the Argentine government, Germany demanded extradition the same day. The Italian military prosecutor, Antonio Intelisano, argued that FN agreements to which Argentina was signatory expressly state that cases of war criminals and crimes against humanity do not expire.
After seventeen months of delays, the Argentine supreme court decided that Priebke was to be extradited to Italy. He was put on a direct flight from Bariloche to Ciampino, a military airport close to the Ardeatine caves, where the executions had been carried out many years earlier.
In court, Priebke declared himself not guilty. He did not deny what he had done, but he denied any moral responsibility. He blamed the massacre on those whom he branded as “the Italian terrorists” who were behind the attack in which 33 German SS men were killed. The order came directly from Hitler, and he thought it was a legitimate punishment. During the trial it became clear that Priebke had personally shot two Italians. This was also in his testimony from 1946 before he managed to escape.
Around noon on 24 March 1944, 335 men went to the Ardeatine Caves, Rome. All were tied with their hands behind their backs and their names were read out loud. In groups of five they went into the caves. Priebke went inside together with the second or third group and shot a man with an Italian machine pistol. Towards the end he shot another man with the same machine pistol. The executions ended when it got dark that night. After the shootings, explosives were used to shut the caves. Priebke was found not guilty, for the reason of acting under orders.
On 1 August 1996, orders were given for the immediate release of Priebke. The Italian minister of justice later said that Priebke might be re-arrested, depending on whether or not he would be extradited to Germany to be charged with murder. The courts were blocked by demonstrators for over seven hours after Priebke’s trial.
The judges voted two against, one for, convicting the 83-year-old Priebke for taking part of the massacres, which he had admitted, but he was acquitted, again, purportedly because he had been following orders. There were strong reactions from family members of the victims, who claimed the judges put no value on human lives. Shimon Samuels, the leader of the Simon Wiesenthal Center said that with this ruling, Italy was permitting crimes against humanity.
The case was appealed by the prosecutors. The day after, Germany asked Italy to keep Priebke imprisoned until their demand to have him extradited was processed, as they wanted him put on trial for the murders of two people that he had personally shot. Outside the courthouse there were demonstrations, but when it became known that Priebke had been rearrested, these calmed down. Many people later went to visit the Ardeatine Caves to honour the victims.
The Italian supreme court decided that the court that had freed Priebke was incompetent and the appeal went through. Among other things it was questioned why the Nuremberg trials were not taken up earlier, since it had been concluded that an individual has personal responsibility for his actions. The reason that Priebke had been released was that he followed orders. Priebke claimed that if he had not obeyed, he would have been executed himself, but the appeals would not accept this, as they felt it was a baseless excuse.
The Court of Cassation voided the decision, ordering a new trial for Priebke. He was sentenced to 15 years. These were reduced to 10 years because of his age and alleged ill health. In March 1998, the Court of Appeal condemned him to life imprisonment, together with Karl Hass, another former SS member. The decision was upheld in November of the same year by the Court of Cassation. Because of his age, Priebke was put under house arrest. In March 1997 it was decided that Priebke could not be extradited to Germany. The reason for this was that he was now going through a trial which was for the same things that Germany wanted him tried. He could not be tried for the same crime twice.
Priebke died in Rome on 11 October 2013 at the age of 100, from natural causes. His last request to have his remains returned to Argentina to be buried alongside his wife was denied by the Argentinian government. The Vatican issued an “unprecedented ban” on holding the funeral in any Catholic church in Rome. His hometown in Germany also refused to take the body, over fears that the place of burial could become a pilgrimage site for neo-Nazis.
Reinhard Kopps was never prosecuted and died in Bariloche in 2001.
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