ROME – Across the Catholic world, March 24 is a date with special significance because of one single death – that of El Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated while celebrating Mass on March 24, 1980, and who’s now venerated as a towering martyr and a saint.
In Italy, however, March 24 calls to mind not just one death, but 335. That’s the number of Italian civilians, including political prisoners and Jews, who were executed in 1944 by German forces then occupying Rome as a reprisal for the deaths of 33 German troops during an attack by Italian partisans on a Roman street called Via Rasella the day before.
The 335 prisoners were taken to a series of caves outside Rome with their hands bound behind their backs. They were ordered to kneel and shot in the back of the head by members of the SS. German engineers then detonated explosives to seal the caves, so the remains of the victims weren’t recovered until after the liberation of Rome by allied forces.
The anniversary of the massacre, known as the “Fosse Ardeatine,” today is observed as an informal national day of mourning. Yesterday, Italian President Sergio Mattarella presided over a harrowing ceremony of memory in Rome in which the names of the 335 victims were read aloud as black and white photos of their faces were projected against a large screen. He then laid a wreath at a tombstone honoring the victims.
There was also controversy, however, after Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni issued a statement saying “335 innocent Italians were massacred only because they were Italians.” Noting that Meloni’s own “Brothers of Italy” party has roots in Italy’s neo-fascist movements, critics objected that the 335 victims were killed not merely for being Italian but also for being anti-fascists.
This being Italy, the legacy of the Fosse Ardeatine inevitably also is tied up with the broader debate over the role of the Catholic Church during the war.
Two days after the massacre, L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, published an unsigned comment which remains deeply contested to this day. It read:
“Facing such facts, every honest soul must remain deeply saddened in the name of humanity and Christian feelings. Thirty-two victims on the one hand; 320 persons sacrificed for the guilty parties who escaped arrest on the other.”
“Yesterday we made a heartfelt appeal for serenity and calm; today we repeat the same invitation with even more ardent feeling, and with more moved insistence,” it said, speaking in the royal plural utilized by popes.
Aside from small errors in the numbers of victims, as final counts hadn’t been established at the time, the statement still generates resentment among critics who felt the Vatican was equating the partisan attack on German troops, which many Italians saw as a legitimate act of war and resistance to an occupying power, with the massacre of innocent civilians.
Critics also complain that the statement appears to blame the partisans for not turning themselves in, yet historians note that the reprisals were carried out a mere 24 hours later, by Hitler’s personal order, and inquiries to identify the authors of the Via Rasella attack weren’t made until much later. There was no warning to the public that executions were imminent if the guilty parties didn’t surrender.
Years later, the editor of L’Osservatore Romano at the time, Giuseppe Dalla Torre, said that he’d initially wanted to publish a stronger denunciation of the Ardeatine massacres, but the language was reviewed and watered down to a generic condemnation of violence so “there wouldn’t be other atrocious vendettas, as the fear was making a very serious situation even worse.”
Worse was yet to come in terms of accusations against the Vatican.
In 1967, American historian Robert Katz published a book titled Death in Rome in which he claimed that Pope Pius XII had advance knowledge of the impending massacre and did nothing to try to prevent it. The book was later made into a 1973 film starring Richard Burton and Marcello Mastroianni, titled in English Massacre in Rome.
Defenders of the wartime pope insisted that there’s no documentary evidence that Pius XII had advance knowledge of the massacres, which came together overnight, and in any event, since Hitler himself had demanded the reprisals, no papal intervention would have mattered. The episode became part of the broader debate over Pius XII and his alleged “silence” on the Holocaust.
In 1974, Katz and the director of the movie based on his book were sued for defamation by a niece of Pius XII, Elena Rossignani. The court battle raged for years, with Katz eventually found guilty but not sentenced or fined due to an amnesty.
As a generalization, it’s probably fair to say that most Italians long ago made up their minds – with many tending to absolve Pius XII and the church, but others convinced a priori of their guilt.
As a footnote to the Fosse Ardeatine story, the SS officer who led the massacres, named Erich Priebke, escaped to Argentina after the war using forged documents allegedly supplied by a “ratline” operated by Austrian Bishop Alois Hudal, a pro-Nazi cleric in Rome who led the German-Austrian congregation at the Church of Santa Maria dell’Anima. Priebke eventually was captured and extradited back to Italy, where he was condemned to a life sentence of house arrest.
When Priebke died in 2013, the Vicariate of Rome issued a ban on holding a funeral in any church in the city. The breakaway Society of St. Pius X then offered to celebrate the funeral at one of their institutes in the city of Albino Laziale, where violence broke out between sympathizers and anti-fascist protestors.
On the other hand, among the victims of the Fosse Ardeatine was Father Pietro Pappagallo, secretary to the cardinal-archpriest of the Basilica of St. Mary Major, who risked his own life to aid soldiers, partisans, Jews, political dissidents and others hunted by the Nazi occupiers. Pappagallo was betrayed by a German spy and arrested in January 1944, sharing his meager meals with prisoners who had not been fed, before his execution two months later.
Pappagallo’s story was the basis for the character of Don Pietro Pellegrini in Robert Rossellini’s celebrated 1945 neorealist film Roma Città Aperta (“Rome, Open City”).
Rossellini also drew on the story of Father Giuseppe Morosini, another priest executed by the Nazis a few days later after refusing to name his accomplices under torture. Morosini was accompanied to the site of his execution by the bishop who ordained him, and a fellow prisoner recalled that his last words were “God, forgive them, they know not what they do.”
For Italians, the Fosse Ardeatine anniversary is an annual reminder of the lacerations their country suffered during one of the darkest hours of its history.
For Catholics, however, it’s also an annual occasion to take stock of the realities of the Church’s passage through history, as refracted through one of its most complicated and controversial moments. It’s a story that’s a mix of light and shadows, of heroes and villains, and of hope and heartbreak, all in roughly equal measure.