ROME — Former SS Capt. Erich Priebke, on trial for his role in the 1944 massacre of 335 Italian civilians, has admitted to a military court in Rome that he took part in the killings — but said he would have faced death had he disobeyed orders to do so.
The 82-year-old Priebke, who has been on trial since May 8, made the declaration in a four-page handwritten statement he submitted to the court on Monday.
He took the stand Monday for two minutes, announcing that he preferred to submit the written statement rather than testify in open court. Priebke feared that if he testified, he would be booed and heckled by spectators, his lawyer said.
Seventy-five Jews were among the victims of the Ardeatine Caves massacre, considered Italy's worst World War II atrocity. Priebke has confessed in the past to drawing up a list of victims, checking it off at the caves and personally shooting two people.
In the statement, whose text was released Monday evening, Priebke said he and other officers had protested the March 24, 1944 massacre, which was ordered in reprisal for a partisan attack the day before in which 33 German soldiers were killed.
"We all protested, but [SS Cmdr. Herbert] Kappler said that the order came directly from Hitler and we had to carry it out. He said anyone who refused would be sent before an SS court martial," Priebke wrote.
Priebke also wrote, "I declare that I never approved that which was done to the Jews and I have always thanked God that I never had to do anything against them." He also denied that he took part in beatings and interrogations at Gestapo headquarters in Rome.
The Italian news agency ANSA said Monday that a recently declassified document drafted in 1945 by the American wartime Office of Strategic Services named Priebke along with six other people as having "tortured and killed" partisans and political prisoners at Rome's Gestapo headquarters.
Priebke's recent revelations led Italian judges to seek another former SS officer in connection with his alleged role in the Ardeatine Caves massacre.
Investigators want to question former SS Maj. Karl Hass, who they believe also took part in the mass murder.
After Priebke gave an interview to an Italian magazine last month, it was discovered that Hass, now in his 80s, has been living near Milan. In the interview last month, Priebke said he met with Hass in Rome in 1978.
"Despite an arrest warrant issued in 1946, he never left Italy," Priebke was quoted as saying.
The newspaper Corriere della Sera on Sunday published photos of a residency permit issued to Hass in the town of Albiate, near Milan, and of his house and its doorbell with Hass' name on it.
Reports said police tried to question Hass at his home 10 days ago, but he had apparently left Italy. Military Judge Giuseppe Mazzi has ordered the investigation against Hass reopened.
If convicted, Priebke could be sentenced to life imprisonment.