What were the experiences of those involved?

Was what happened a reaction to Partisan attacks in the area or an unlawful massacre?

Commentary by Antonio Politi, consultant to the Military attorney at the trial of former members of the 16th SS Panzergrenadier Division,  La Spezia, 2006


The consultant then described the operation on the basis of maps drawn by Major Reder himself during his trial. He provided more details, reminding the court how the strategic plan of the operation in Marzabotto was identical to another massacre of civilians in Vinca (in Tuscany) in August 1944 . He pointed out how at first the action was only explained by Reder to his officers in order to guarantee a surprise effect. Reder always claimed to have ordered his men to respond to fire “without any regard to civil population” and to set fire to those houses where shooting against his soldiers was coming from. Some German soldiers contradicted this version of the facts, claiming that Reder's orders were to “exterminate the civil population”. The testimonies from survivors supported this second version of the facts because there was a pattern of very uniform behaviour by all the units and platoons engaged in the action, even when they had not engaged with partisan forces . On the contrary the major part of the massacres took place in locations where there were no partisans. This modus operandi perfectly matched the German counterinsurgency doctrine which was in practice at that time , i.e. combing out of the population of the area; and its elimination without any possible or preventive interrogation. The consultant's opinion, based on the evidence, was that everything was prepared in advance and what happened was the result of precise orders given before the beginning of the operation. The opposite thesis – that the massacres were reprisals that were ordered after or in anticipation of armed resistance – conflicted with radio connections between the troops and between the platoons and headquarters. In reality this was how German SS forces operated during counter-insurgency operations. The whole population was considered automatically to be actively supporting the partisans and subject to the consequences of that. This doctrine had been elaborated and trialled on the “eastern front” and they were inspired by the contempt inculcated in the troops towards partisans and the population in those areas where partisans operated. Such mentality spread to the Italian front and especially after the fall of Rome when the Germans army started to withdraw to the north and felt it necessary to protect their lines of communication. In this context the German information services considered women and children as essential helpers of partisans' groups. The massacres had the strategic goal of practicing a “scorched earth policy” in areas where partisan groups were located.

Source: Dispositivo (Judicial statement) of the sentence that ended the trial against 17 defendants, former members of the 16SS division, held La Spezia, Italy in 2007