Erich Priebke was a Nazi war criminal serving a life sentence in Rome for his role in the massacre of 335 civilians during WWII. His death under house arrest last week ignited a fierce debate over what should be done with his body — Argentina, a country he had lived in for 50 years while attempting to avoid prosecution for his crimes, refused to take him, despite the fact that his family wanted him to be buried alongside his wife. The Catholic Church in Rome refused to hold a funeral service. Even his home country of Germany turned away the body of the former SS officer on the grounds that he had not lived there for decades.
Part of the reason no country wants to be known as Priebke’s final resting place has to do with the nature of his crimes. The 1944 massacre he participated in is considered one of the worst war crimes to be committed in Italy, and over the decades he refused to admit any wrongdoing, saying that he was only following orders and that the hundreds of people he killed were all “terrorists.” He also remained a Holocaust denier to the very end, claiming the Allies fabricated the death of six million Jews to cover up their own wartime human rights abuses. It’s easy to understand why the man is so reviled.
A Catholic splinter group, the Society for Saint Pius X, which is not recognized by the Vatican, decided to go ahead and hold a funeral for Priebke in Rome despite the controversy. The group strongly opposes the reforms made by the Second Vatican Council, particularly efforts to reach out to the Jewish community. Many prominent members of the group are vocal Holocaust deniers, so it’s not too surprising that they would try to publicly honor Priebke’s legacy. Just to add insult to injury, they decided to hold the funeral on the 70th anniversary of the day fascists and Nazis rounded up more than 1,000 Roman Jews and shipped them to Auschwitz.
Given the situation, it’s no surprise that protestors showed up and managed to successfully shut down the funeral on Tuesday. Priebke’s body was actually confiscated by the authorities, who so far are refusing to return it to his family. Unfortunately, the situation raises an uncomfortable question: is it ever appropriate to protest a funeral, even if it’s for the “right” reasons? Yes, Priebke was a despicable human being, and yes, the group that was trying to celebrate his life was an anti-Semitic hate group. But isn’t protesting funerals the sort of tactic hate groups themselves use?
When the Westboro Baptist Church picket funerals, they’re rightly and almost universally condemned for their behavior — and they don’t cause funerals to be completely shut down, nor do they prevent anyone from actually being buried or cremated. Can we ever justify denying someone a burial simply because we believe they were a bad person? When we execute criminals in the United States, we don’t leave their bodies to rot. We bury them. Even Osama bin Laden was allowed to be buried peacefully at sea.
At best, protesting the funeral seems to be a futile gesture: Priebke is dead and unlikely to care whether people object to the proceedings or not, so the only people really being punished here are his children. I don’t believe it’s acceptable to punish the family of a war criminal simply by association. They didn’t chose their parents. Surely there has to be some way to allow the man’s family some closure and give them the dignity of a cremation or burial without offending Holocaust survivors and their families.
It’s understandable that no world governments want to be associated with Priebke’s legacy and don’t want to be seen as condoning his crimes. But in the end, I think that’s the wrong attitude to take. Allowing someone a funeral isn’t condoning anything — if we can allow a war criminal to peacefully pass away from natural causes at age 100, why is allowing a funeral any more controversial?
What do Care2 readers think? Did the protestors in Rome handle this situation the right way? Or was there something else they could have done to condemn Priebke and the Catholic fringe group that would have been more appropriate for the occasion?
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