Although there were similar incidents in Greece as Nazi Germany assumed control from defeated Italy, in Corfu and Rhodes for example, the Kefalonia Massacre is the most well known because it is thought to have been the second largest slaughter of prisoners of war during World War II.
The events were precipitated by the Italian Armistice on 8th September 1943, which left Italian soldiers who had been fighting alongside and under German command in an extremely difficult and precariously exposed position.
The commander of the Italian division on Kefalonia, General Gandin, initially received contradictory orders and was undecided about whether to surrender, resist, or join the German troops nearby. He eventually decided to resist, and hundreds of his men died in the ensuing battle, which began on 15th September.
Accounts from the few survivors and the diary of an Austrian soldier involved in the massacre suggest thousands of soldiers were either gunned down while trying to surrender or summarily executed after being taken prisoner.
The massacre started on 21st September, and lasted for one dreadful week. After the Italian surrender to the Allies, Hitler was incensed and issued an order allowing the Germans to summarily execute any Italian officer who resisted ‘for treason’, and on 18th September, the German High Command issued an order stating that ‘because of the perfidious and treacherous behaviour (of the Italians) on Kefalonia, no prisoners are to be taken.’
German soldiers began executing their Italian prisoners in groups, at first killing the surrendering Italians, where they stood, using machine-guns. When a group of Bavarian soldiers objected to this practice they were threatened with summary execution themselves. This method however didn’t kill people quickly enough so the Germans marched the remaining soldiers to the San Teodoro town hall and had the prisoners executed by eight member detachments.
General Gandin and one hundred and thirty-seven senior officers were summarily court-martialed on 24th September, executed and their bodies discarded at sea. Before the execution a sergeant informed each officer that he was being executed for treason, which, given a decision to permit unification of the German and Italian armies in Greece under German command, was technically true. General Gandin was shot first but just before his execution in act of defiance he threw his Iron Cross to the ground.
An Italian army Chaplain and one of the few survivors, wrote that during the massacre, the Italian officers started to cry, pray and sing. Many were shouting the names of their mothers, wives and children. According to the account, three officers hugged and stated that they were comrades while alive and now in death they would go together to paradise, while others were digging through the grass as if trying to escape. In one place, the Chaplain recalled, ‘the Germans went around loudly offering medical help to those wounded. When about 20 men crawled forward, a machine-gun salvo finished them off.’ Officers gave the Chaplain their personal belongings to take with him and return to their families back in Italy. The Nazis, however, later confiscated the items.
Most of the soldiers of the Nazi regiment were in fact Austrians. Alfred Richter, one of the participants in the massacre recounted how a soldier who sung arias for the Germans in the local taverns was forced to sing while his comrades were being executed. The singing soldier’s fate remains unknown. Richter added that he and his regiment comrades felt ‘a delirium of omnipotence’ during the events.
According to Richter the Italian soldiers were killed after surrendering to the soldiers of the 98th Regiment. He described that the fallen Italians were then thrown into heaps of bodies all shot in the head. The Austrian soldiers started removing the boots from the bodies of the fallen Italians for their own use. Richter also mentioned that groups of Italians were taken to quarries and walled gardens near the village of Frangata and executed by machine gun fire. The killing lasted for two hours during which time the sound of the machine guns and machine pistols and the screams of the victims could be heard inside the homes of the village.
The bodies of more than nine thousand men who were executed were disposed of in a variety of ways. Bodies were cremated in massive wood pyres, which made the air of the island thick with the smell of burning flesh, or moved to ships where they were buried at sea. Others, according to Amos Pampaloni, one of the survivors, were executed in full sight of the Greek population in Argostoli harbour on 23rd September 1943 and their bodies were left to rot where they fell, while in smaller streets corpses were decomposing and the stench was insufferable to the point that he could not remain there long enough to take a picture of the carnage. Bodies were also thrown with rocks tied around them into the sea. In addition the Germans had refused to allow the Acqui soldiers to bury their dead.
Memorial to the Acqui Division in Verona Italy.
The few soldiers that were saved were assisted by the locals and the ELAS organisation. An additional three thousand of the survivors in German custody drowned, when the ships Sinfra and Ardena, transporting them to POW camps, sank after striking mines in the Adriatic. These losses and similar ones from the Italian Dodecanese garrisons were also the result of Nazi policy, as Hitler had instructed the local commanders to forgo ‘all safety precautions’ during the transport of prisoners, ‘regardless of losses’.
After the war the Italian government faced the delicate problem of giving an honorary and final burial to the fallen of Kefalonia. In 1952 began the sad task of exhumation and in 1953, the bodies were collected and transported to the town of Bari where they are now resting in the Italian National War Memorial. The final number of Italian dead was 9,646. By feigning death among the corpses just 34 were able to eventually return home.
For me the question has to be, what on earth possessed ordinary people to participate in such an orgy of killing? I have been to Germany and Austria and the people there are nice, ordinary and welcoming so just how did they manage to participate in such a dreadful crime and how did they justify their actions?
I would like to do research on the history of the massacre. Do you have any leads as to where I might find more factual information, coppies or archives with records of the Chaplain’s letter or the Austrian Soldiers journal etc?
I appreciate your assistance.
Your final comment is a query as to “how ordinary people” could have committed such atrocities. One of the quotes, which I have read over and over again – contained in Richter’s diaries – gives a partial clue:
” Richter added that he and his regiment comrades felt ‘a delirium of omnipotence’ during the events. ”
It really is mandatory to put these atrocities in the context of the time in which they happened. In today’s world, it seems impossible (though, clearly, similar ungodly acts have occurred since in the Balkans, in Yugoslavia, and are likely happening today in Syria). If you watch “War Crimes in Cefalonia”, a documentary by Federico Cataldi, he interviews not only survivors (Pampaloni amongst them), but historians (both Italian and German) who make note of the mindset that existed at that time. Hitler and his officers had an overwhelming feeling of omnipotence and immortality that rested on the belief that the next era of German royalty was within reach. The war hadn’t turned around completely yet, the Allies were just beginning to make a strong impact, and –to add insult to Hitler’s massive injury – Mussolini had surrendered to the Allies on Sept 8. This, by Hitler’s view, was anathema to the highest order of “traitor”, regardless of what technical definition would have claimed. He could NOT accept that his largest ally had surrendered, and — in that mindset – all Italians were not worth their weight in spit.
As a result, Hitler sent his most prized troops: the 98th Gebirgsjäger Regiment to “resolve” the problem in Cefalonia. The 98th regiment was known for their particular brutal solutions to resolving “problems” and for committing similar acts against civilians. It was clear he was going to “clean up the mess” that the Italians had “caused” by surrendering, in general. Calling them “traitors”, when in fact many Italians had already surrendered their arms, was the grand excuse that was to be used to cover their tracks. But, by this time, Hitler and his elite troops had no fear of retribution at all, given that they felt untouchable.
There’s no doubt, the same mentality of ‘superiority’ over other cultures and races (at the time) was at the core of these atrocities. And that disgust for any other culture, particularly Italian soldiers who had chosen to no longer fight side-by-side with them (when, in fact, many Germans realized that the Italians were not of the same mentality during the war to begin with – especially in Greece), combined with their long-term goal of ‘cleansing’, made for an ungodly act fueled by hatred of the worst kind.
Though even Pampaloni stated in 2003 that, in his eyes, it may not be worth much to prosecute those who are still alive and who took place at this point; it’s a reality that – for no other reason – these kinds of acts need to take center stage in the world arena to educate people of the kinds of horrors humans are capable of doing during wartime. It’s obvious that – without the publicity for almost 50 years – millions of people had NO idea that this even occurred before Captain Correlli’s Mandolin hit center stage.
De Bernieres was quite a brave and pensive poet… and much should be said about his giving this story the audience it deserved.