What do you do with a dead Nazi? This question is at the very heart of my work on funerary practices in postwar Germany. Clearly, I have macabre research interests, and the notion of writing the history of deceased perpetrators can raise a few eyebrows (who cares what happens to dead bad guys?). Yet it is an issue that underscores the complexities of remembrance cultures – and remains highly topical.
The recent death, in Rome, of former SS captain Erich Priebke shows this all too clearly, generating international headlines not only due to his age (at 100, Priebke was the oldest war criminal still serving his sentence), but also the logistical and ethical dilemmas surrounding the disposal of his mortal remains.
Priebke, who played a key role in the massacre of 335 Italian civilians in March 1944, was initially refused burial in Italy, Germany and Argentina, his adopted refuge for some 50 years after the Second World War. The Roman Catholic Church prohibited a celebratory Mass for the deceased, while an attempted funeral organised by the Society of St Pius X (itself frequently associated with anti-Semitism) had to be halted amid violent clashes between antifascists and Far Right sympathisers.
The reaction against Priebke is understandable: the man was a Holocaust denier who showed no remorse for his wartime deeds and, in an act of grossly insensitive timing, his ill-fated funeral was held on the 70th anniversary of the roundup of Roman Jews. Much of the reluctance to afford Priebke burial rights also stems from the fear of creating a place of pilgrimage for Neo-Nazis. His birthplace of Henningsdorf already had to contend with supporters gathering to mark his birthday, and the town is no doubt anxious to avoid the fate of Wunsiedel, an area plagued by visitors to the grave of Hitler’s deputy, Rudolf Hess, until his eventual exhumation in July 2011.
Yet the problem of dead Nazis also poses some interesting questions. Should the Church, for instance, show forgiveness and allow Priebke, a practicing Catholic, to have a religious funeral service? Should the Argentine authorities really deny Priebke’s last wish to be buried alongside his wife, Alicia? Does everyone, regardless of who they were in life, have the right to a decent burial?
None of these points are raised to defend Priebke, or diminish his crimes. Clearly, the Nazis showed scant consideration for the final fate of their victims. But Priebke is not the first dead war criminal to cause problems for the living, and the questions highlighted here and in the recent press have actually been articulated throughout the post-war era.
This summer, I visited Hameln in Lower Saxony, a town that witnessed a particularly protracted effort to bury the Nazi past with perpetrators’ graves becoming a focal point for veterans’ reunions and political protests. In Hameln, the dead have literally been raked over again and again.
The British hanged 155 convicted war criminals in Hameln prison at the end of the war, including Josef Kramer, the infamous ‘Beast of Belsen’. Initially, these corpses were buried in unmarked graves within prison grounds and, when this space became full, in an annexe to the local cemetery. This same cemetery already held bodies of the civilian war dead and those killed by the Nazis; the remains of victims and perpetrators were effectively laid side by side, bringing competing memories of the Third Reich into stark relief.
Despite receiving a number of emotive petitions from grieving relatives (a factor that reminds us that Nazi perpetrators were not just demonic monsters but ‘ordinary’ people with loving families), the British refused to divulge information on specific graves, or allow the sites to be tended by the public. Attempts to leave flowers or individual crosses in the cemetery were routinely thwarted by prison inspectors. There were to be no shrines to the old ideology.
However, when the prison was handed back to the Germans in 1953, the fate of the executed war criminals provoked renewed and immense public debate. Those buried in the prison grounds were exhumed and given a ‘decent burial’ in the nearby cemetery. The dead were portrayed as victims of British aggression, their wartime atrocities largely ignored. Right up until the 1980s, there were local citizens’ initiatives to tend the graves and erect wooden crosses in memory of the executed. In other words, even when West Germany was generally regarded to be ‘coming to terms’ with the past and engaging critically with the Holocaust, local communities saw the persistence of an alternative remembrance culture.
It was only in 1986, after a mass demonstration by the Neo-Nazi Free German Workers’ Party (FAP), that the town council finally agreed to level the site. These days, it remains unmarked and, when I was there in July, completely overgrown with weeds, a fitting end to the perpetrators of the Third Reich.
Priebke, then, is just the latest in a long line of dead Nazis who have proved very difficult to lay to rest. If the Hameln example is anything to go by, there could be many years of wrestling over the location and maintenance of his grave ahead of us. Of course, one might regard cremation as the simplest way out of all this – yet here too we should pay attention to the lessons of the past.
In 1946, the Allies cremated the leading Nazis executed after the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg, their ashes scattered in the River Isar in Munich. The message was clear: these men were to disappear without a trace. However, three of these figures (Keitel, Jodl and Ribbentrop) actually have memorial plaques within family cemetery plots, affording a physical location for commemorations. No doubt that those who wish to mourn and remember Priebke will find similar ways of doing so.
Ultimately, the best way to bury a Nazi must be to do so as quietly as possible. Unfortunately, that’s so much easier said than done.
Caroline Sharples is Lecturer in Modern European History at the University of Leicester and author of West Germans and the Nazi Legacy (2012). Her current research project is entitled ‘Dead Nazis: Recalling Perpetrators since 1945’ and you can find her on twitter @carol1ne_louise.
Image: War criminals’ burial plot, Friedhof Wehl, Hameln, July 2013 ©Caroline Sharples