What Erich Priebke teaches us about evil

The other day, I met a Jew who was upset. Since I work for The Times and his argument was with The Times, he was a little upset with me, though he was as courteous as a Lord Lieutenant at a royal garden party. His issue was this: should we have carried, in our obituaries section, a piece on the life of Erich Priebke, the Gestapo officer, who died last week aged 100? He thought not.

Priebke was the police attaché at the German Embassy in Rome during the war and in 1944 was responsible for drawing up a list of 330 Italian prisoners to be executed in reprisal for the deaths of 33 German policemen, who had been blown up by a partisan bomb.

The infamous massacre of the Ardeatine Caves took place on March 24 of that year and Priebke himself participated in the executions, shooting two prisoners dead — each with a single pistol shot to the head. Though captured after the German surrender, Priebke escaped from the holding camp and made his way to Argentina. There he lived for 50 years until being deported in 1996 to face trial in Italy for war crimes.

Priebke pleaded that he was simply following instructions. He lost the case after two trials but, though subsequently imprisoned, because of his age he was allowed out to walk in a Roman park and attend church.

Priebke was in Rome by chance — it could have been London

Last week, the same breakaway Catholic sect that harboured the Holocaust denier, Richard Williamson, held the funeral service for Priebke, despite local protests.

The argument of my interlocutor was essentially that the obituaries section in a newspaper like The Times has the power to confer importance and almost to confer a respectability on the subjects it chooses to include. Even if the obituary gave a full account of the dead man’s crimes, nevertheless it somehow glorified him, creating a shrine in print.

I am very sensitive to this argument for two reasons. The first is that, as time goes on and the survivors of the period die out, it is possible to lose a sense of the incredible magnitude of what the Nazis did. You could argue that a kind of normalisation takes place, which affects the perception of the scale of the crime.

The second is that malign movements and individuals do indeed feed on the notoriety of people like Priebke. This is one reason why the locations of the remains of leading Nazis has always been such a sensitive subject.

But if it hadn’t been for the obituary in The Times I would not have been reminded of one of the great lessons of the Holocaust era. Priebke had been no conviction-Nazi. He left school at 14 and became a hotel waiter.

He worked in Italy and then in London at the Savoy, lodging with an English family in Kensington and walking to work every day, probably through Trafalgar Square. In 1936, when he returned to Berlin, he was told by a friend that the Gestapo were looking for Italian speakers to translate for them. That was how he ended up in Rome — by chance. Had the Germans invaded London, the former waiter might have returned here instead, perhaps to draw up a list of British citizens to be executed.

And that was one of the points of the obituary and the reason, in the end, that I thought it right to publish it. This waiter, this Italian-speaking catering expert, without an ideological thought in his head, could — in the wrong circumstances and working for the wrong people — take a pistol and blow out the brains of a bound captive he himself had selected, and think it a day’s work.

It seems to me that this is not just a lesson for the past, but for the present and the future. And not just for Italy or Germany, but for everywhere.

Last updated: 12:40pm, October 24 2013