Last June, the allegation that a 94 year old Ukrainian immigrant living in Northeast Minneapolis could have been a top commander of a Nazi- SS lead unit, received international media attention. The public’s response was polarized as for as many who felt justice needed to be served there were just as many who felt that we should leave him alone. Should a person’s chronological age prevent them from being accountable for their crimes?
This week’s news, the death of Erich Priebke, at the age of 100 in Rome, provides a clear answer to that question. Priebke, one of the few surviving former Nazi-SS
Hauptsturmführer (captain) was among those held responsible for the mass execution of 335 civilians at the Ardeatine Caves outside Rome, one of the worst atrocities committed by German occupiers in Italy during World War II.
After the war Priebke escaped from a British prison camp in Rimini, Italy, and immigrated to Argentina. Like many other high-ranking Nazis, he was aided by the infamous Odessa (Organization of Former SS Members). He lived for decades in the Andean resort town of Bariloche without concealing his identity. He ran a delicatessen, traveled back and forth to Europe, and even became the director of the local German school.
While searching for another suspected Nazi criminal, an ABC News crew came upon Priebke in the early 1990s, and he freely admitted who he was. That revelation led to a lengthy extradition process. On November 20, 1995, on the 50th anniversary of the start of the Nuremberg trials, the former SS officer-who remained faithful to the Nazi ideology and never expressed regret for his actions-boarded a plane for Italy, to stand trial there.
After initial proceedings in which it was ruled that the statute of limitations on the crime had elapsed, Priebke finally faced trial in 1997 and was sentenced to life imprisonment for his role in the 1944 massacre. He was then 85 years of age.
His case proved that it is never too late to seek justice.
Alejandro Baer is the Stephen Feinstein Chair and Director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. He joined the University of Minnesota in 2012 and is an Associate Professor of Sociology.