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The Tragedy in the Caves

What happened in the Ardeatine Caves remains a painful memory for those left behind.

At the beginning of World War II, Italy sided with the Axis Powers. Three years later, Benito Mussolini’s government was overthrown and Italy surrendered to the Allies. Hitler couldn’t stand for this detraction; he sent German forces to free Mussolini and establish control. They took back most of Northern Italy before focusing their attention on the Italian Resistance.

On March 23, 1944, some resistance fighters targeted a group of German police officers in Rome. They detonated a bomb and killed thirty-three officers instantly; 7 more died in the following days. Those resistance fighters could never have imagined the reprisal the Nazis had in store. 

The following day, March 24, SS Captain Priebke and SS Captain Hass were given orders to kill 10 Italians for every 1 German officer who had died. The captains and their men rounded up prisoners of war and then took men from the streets when they didn’t have enough. In total, 335 Italian men and boys were led to the Ardeatine Caves outside of the city. They were brought into the caves, 5 at a time, where they were forced to kneel before they were shot. 

When the massacre was over, the Nazis sealed the entrance of the caves with explosives. If anyone had managed to survive the gunshots, the explosion assured their death. The Nazis left the caves, and their victims, to be lost to history. 

This slaughter came to be known as the Ardeatine Caves Massacre. 

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When World War II finally came to an end the bodies were freed from their stony tombs. Surviving family members and friends came forward to identify the victims before they were reburied in a monument near the caves. 

Priebke and Hass managed to evade justice until 1997 when they finally were put on trial in Italy. During the first trial, the men received shortened sentences for time served. Fortunately, on appeal, they were later a life term of house arrests. Hass died in 2004 and Priebke died in 2013. 

The memory of what happened in the Ardeatine Caves still lives on in Italians. Italy will never know the contributions and achievements these men could have made if they had been allowed to live. 

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