Yes, He’s the Burying Kind

We should have buried Erich Priebke. Or rather, since protesters in Albano Laziale effectively derailed Priebke’s funeral cortege, forcing officials to suspend the service, we should have tried. Whatever happened, the effort would have been worth it.

Not that Priebke, who died in Rome October 11 at the age of 100, was a warm or cuddly character. He’d been living under house arrest since 1998, when Italy’s Court of Appeals sentenced him to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity. In March, 1944, after attacks by Italian partisans claimed 33 German servicemen, Priebke, then serving in Rome as an officer in the SS security police, executed 335 Italians in retaliation. Two he shot personally, though his rank of Hauptsturmführer, or captain, would normally have excused him from such dirty work.

By Nazi standards, the massacre, which took place in the Fosse Ardreadtine, or Ardreatine Caves, makes Priebke no more than a journeyman. Compared, for example, to Butcher of Lyons Klaus Barbie, he was a bench-warmer. Whether or not Priebke took pride in his meager accomplishments, he never expressed remorse for them — or for Hitler’s more monumental ones. In an interview conducted a few months before his death and just passed on to International Business Times by his attorney, Paolo Giachini, he swore Auschwitz was a cozy place equipped with brothels for the inmates’ comfort.

“I’ve chosen to be myself,” Priebke told the interviewer, explaining that National Socialism is “my way of looking at the world…my ideals.” Sure enough, in photographs, Priebke, who remained spry and presentable almost to his dying breath, had a trick of mugging proudly, as though declaring himself a self-actualized man. “Get an eyeful, Dame und Herren. The kid’s still got it, not like that broken pansy, Eichmann.”

But Priebke was a Catholic. In 1948, while hiding in a Tyrolean village, he received the Sacrament of Baptism from a local curate. What motivated him — whether he thought a baptismal certificate would be his in with Msgr. Alois Hudal, the Nazi-sympathizing bishop who did, in fact, help arrange his escape to Argentina — is unclear. As John Allen, Jr. points out “there’s little evidence [Priebke] ever practiced his faith.” Still, his name remains on the books.

The Vatican’s canonical justification for denying Priebke a funeral is straightforward. Canon 1184 authorizes the competent hierarch to refuse one to “manifest sinners” for fear of causing “public scandal among the faithful.” The Vatican’s additional motives are just as plain, and just as respectable: holding an ecclesiastical funeral for an unrepentant Nazi war criminal could have dampened dialogue with the Jewish people.

It could also have compromised relations with quite a few Italian gentiles. Only 57 of Priebke’s victims were Jewish. Though the greatest number had belonged to various far-left partisan groups, some were non-political people who just happened to be at home when the round-’em-up order came down. In public-relations terms, barring Priebke’s bier at the church doors offers something for everyone.

For all that, I think the Vatican’s decision was short-sighted. If Pope Francis really wants to remind the world just how great God’s mercy is, how preferrable are errors made on the side of charity, he should have held his nose and permitted the funeral to go ahead. Benedict could never have gotten away with it; his service as a Flakhelfer, grudging and barely competent though it was, would have ruined the whole gesture. Francis, by saving lives during Argentina’s Dirty War, by co-authoring a book with a rabbi, by being a generally happy-clappy guy who makes no objections to beach Masses, has amassed the capital to spend.

If the funeral of a Nazi seems like a silly place to spend it, think again. It was the Society of St. Pius X that ended up agreeing to do the honors for Priebke’s remains. Thanks partly to the funeral’s failure, SSPX’s name has made every paper from the New York Times to the South China Morning Post. Normally, its mention comes with a description along the lines of “far-right” or “ultra-conservative,” as well as some reference to the Society’s history of anti-Semitism. But there are people out there for whom those are plusses.

Far-right nativist and ethno-nationalist parties are serious players in European politics. Though, by all accounts, most of the protesters at the Priebke funeral were of an anti-fascist disposition, it was fear of the other side — “neo-Nazis” — that caused Roman prefect Giuseppe Pecoraro to cancel the event. Though the Society did expel Holocaust-denier Bishop Richard Williamson (as well as Fr. Floriano Abrahamowicz, who called Priebke “a friend” and “a faithful soldier”), it did so when it was still engaged in dialogue with the Vatican. Now, with SSPX leader Archbishop Bernard Fellay thanking God no agreement was reached, it seems determined to be more its lovable self than ever before.

One hopes that won’t mean providing chaplains to every gang of wingnuts worldwide. But hoping’s not good enough. Better the Society should have been upstaged. Best, it should have been kept out of the news altogether. To put it another way, Nazi funerals should never be entrusted to people who want to carry out Nazi funerals. They should be a Cross to bear, not a chance to wave a flag.

Besides, I’m convinced Pope Francis, by issuing the right statement, could have made the thing come off more or less peacefully. He’s got the mouth for it. “God’s forgiveness is available to all — atheists, gays, even a cold-blooded, pus-hearted manticore like this guy” couldn’t possibly shock people more than the things he’s said already.

Mind, when I say we should have buried Priebke, I mean buried him.

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