Thursday, April 11, 2019

Looking back on the massacre of civilians in the Padule di Fucecchio

Albert Kesselring in 1940.
Part 4 in a series on the Slaughter in the Swamp of Fucecchio

What drove German soldiers to behave in such a frenzied manner when they killed some 174 innocent Italian civilians in the Padule di Fucecchio? The strongest reason is that they were following orders issued by Field Marshal Albert Kesselring. Nazi headquarters had issued directives for the “fight against the gangs” that stated anyone who supported partisans or found themselves in places of conflict could be punished. These directives also said to arrest and treat resisters as prisoners of war, without killing them, but Kesselring ignored or downplayed this aspect. He ordered soldiers to open fire without worrying about passers-by or any civilians in the area. He gave every soldier the chance to kill anyone suspected of complicity with the partisans, and he declared that such action would not result in any punishment, thus giving carte blanche to both commanders and soldiers under his jurisdiction.

Eduard Crasemann
German General Eduard Crasemann had been named commander of the 26th Panzer Division, stationed in Northern Tuscany, in July of 1944. In the ensuing days, he had seen his patrols ambushed and shot at by snipers. It was he who gave the order “Vernichten!” The German term Vernichtungskrieg has been described as “a war of annihilation in which all psycho-physical limits are abolished.” Captain Josef Strauch then led action on the field and supervised his lieutenants to carry out the orders.

Officers were under intense pressure, because the Gothic Line, just a few miles from the Padule, was collapsing, and they wanted to provide safe passage for their retreating troops. Their intelligence reported that bands of 200 to 300 partisans were using the Padule as an operations center, when in fact only a poorly organized group of partisans was active in nearby Ponte Buggianese. The massacre occurred only on the fringes of the Padule, where many civilians were living. German troops, apparently fearful of ambush by possible partisan encampments, never reached the inner areas of the swamp. In the end, three partisans were among the dead, but this happened only by chance.

Following the retreat of the Germans, both the British and American armies opened commissions of inquiry, collecting and recording 169 testimonies from those who witnessed the massacre, which detailed the weapons used, the non-involvement of the civilian population in the partisan movement and the identification of those responsible.

The depositions were all very similar. The survivors stated in general terms that they were in the swamps to take refuge from bombings or Nazi raids. Some escaped the action because they had returned temporarily to their homes, others because they managed to hide in ditches or penetrate the most internal areas. Still others managed to escape or were left free by some soldiers, while others, injured or not, pretended to have died to avoid being shot. Almost all claimed that neither they nor their dead family members were partisans or had helped any partisan organizations. They often said they had no time either to talk or to escape. The killings took place directly inside the houses, or in front of them, after all the inhabitants had been ordered out.

Witnesses identified as many as 45 Germans and three Italian collaborators. After ascertaining the details, the English commission held a trial in Venice with the aim of condemning the biggest war criminals. Only two were convicted: Captain Strauch was sentenced to six years imprisonment, and Commander Crasemann to 10 years. Crasemann died in prison in 1950.

Commander Kesselring was initially sentenced to execution for all the war crimes he committed, including the slaughter of Sant’Anna di Stazzema and a massacre at Fosse Ardeatine, but later the sentence was changed to life imprisonment. In 1948, however, the term was reduced to 21 years. A political and media campaign resulted in his release in 1952, ostensibly on health grounds. He died at age 74 in 1960.

An image from the Strage di Sant'Anna di Stazzema.
Family members of those slaughtered reported receiving some closure in 2011 when three ex-soldiers were sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment after a military tribunal in Rome ruled they bore responsibility for the Padule slaughter. They were convicted, in part, from evidence gathered by British military policeman Charles Edmonson, who was determined to bring the culprits to trial. In 1945, a year after the massacre, he took dozens of statements in which survivors told him of villagers being shot by German machine gunners and of a two-year-old toddler, crying in the arms of its dead mother, being killed with a blow from a rifle butt.

“As the occupants walked out, they were mown down by machine gunfire,” he wrote. “Some who were uninjured by the first burst had the presence of mind to throw themselves on the ground. They continued to fire at the dead and the dying until everyone lay still.” Edmonson died in 1985, and copies of the witness statements, contained in his private papers, were sold in 2010 by an auction house in the UK. The military court in Italy managed to track the documents down and use them as evidence. The court tried Officer Ernst August Arthur Pistor, Marshall Fritz Jauss, Sergeant Johann Robert Riss and Lieutenant Gerhard Deissmann. The latter died at 100 years of age during the trial period, but the court sentenced the other former soldiers to life imprisonment. The Court of Appeal in Rome confirmed the sentence towards Jauss and Riss in 2012, while Pistor died at the age of 91. The convicted men did not serve prison time because Germany was not obligated to release them into Italian custody.

Prosecutor Marco De Paolis also called on the German government to pay 14 million euros to 32 surviving relatives of the victims of the massacre as a gesture of “civil responsibility.” However, Germany maintains that it is no longer liable for such claims because of immunity agreements drawn up with Italy in 1947 and 1961.

“Today, finally, justice was done, and even if the sentences took 67 years, there’s the satisfaction of seeing the legal responsibility of the accused and the German army recognized, said Rinaldo Vanni, president of the Center of Research, Documentation and Promotion of the Padule di Fucecchio.

Some may say Vannis statement is overly enthusiastic, considering that those convicted received no punishment, and that only four of the many soldiers and officers involved were charged. However, it is encouraging to know that even many years later, people havent forgotten and still want to do what they can to correct a wrong. History can be excruciatingly painful. We can’t change it, but if we face our past with courage, we can change the future. 

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