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Painful memories of Nazi massacre in Italy

Nazis killed thousands of Italians between 1943 and 1945. A report released by a German-Italian historical commission in Rome has brought new light to the war crimes.

The release in Rome of a report by a German-Italian historical commission has opened old wounds: it documents about 5,000 attacks by German troops, including theft, rape and murder.

Elide Ruggeri, who miraculously survived an attack by German Wehrmacht and SS troops in the mountains south of Bologna on September 29, 1944, remembers. "I was there and an SS man came, who killed a girl, smashed her head in, and she just let out a wail. He struck her and I thought the next one was for me. He fixed me in his gaze and said, 'Niente kaput.' That's how he let me know he wouldn't kill me."

From allies to enemies

The Marzabotto massacre's backstory begins on September 8, 1943. When Italy broke off its alliance with Hitler's Germany, friends became foes - from one day to the next, German forces in the country became occupiers, leaving behind a trail of devastation in their retreat to the north.

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A limited number of units were involved in the violence, said Wolfgang Schieder, a history professor and deputy director of the commission. Keeping that in mind, the German military formations acted all the more horribly, according to him.

The historians researched the bloody history of World War II's final years in Rome and Berlin for the past three-and-a-half years. Guided by the questions of where, when and who, Schieder said they based their research on the experiences of those affected, including victims and perpetrators.

This research provides an alternative view of German-Italian history, refuting national myths - including some that are widespread in Italy. For example, that from 1943 Italy belonged to the "resistance" against Hitler - since Italian fascists and Mussolini followers supported German troops in their actions against the civilian population.

That's also what the historical work is about, Schieder said: "This issue of collaboration must be more intensively investigated, because aspects very different from a pure resistance perspective have emerged."

The commission was created after the Italian high court in 2008 ruled that Germany pay damages, and sought to appropriate German property in Italy. The Hague Tribunal rejected the demands against Germany, saying no state may hold another liable - an unsatisfying decision for the victims and their families in Italy.

Survivors' suffering

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In the Marzabotto massacre alone, 1,830 people were killed, almost exclusively civilians including the elderly, women and children. Gianluca Lucarini, whose grandparents died in the massacre, is president of the victims' association in Marzabotto.

He described the consequences, which to this day affect the descendents. "This is my heritage, a very difficult part of my life. My father lost his parents when he was 18, and naturally, he brought that pain into the family that he started."

His father's life was anything but easy, Lucarini said, since no one was around to help or even help him to understand and process what had happened.

Finding out what actually occurred is the work of the historical commission. For Lucarini's father and most other victims, however, this understanding is coming far too late.

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