A more civilized era, depicted in The Surrender of Breda by Valasquez  

From Advance to Barbarism

The Trial of Major Walter Reder

Civilized warfare: The Surrender of Breda by Valasquez

The trial of Major Walter Reder before an Italian military tribunal at Bologna in the autumn of 1951 may be regarded as a belated sequel to the trial of Field Marshal Kesselring before a British military tribunal in Venice in the spring of 1947, that is to say, four and half years before. Major Reder was charged with offences alleged to have been committed by him when commanding the Reconnaissance Panzer Unit No. 16 of the 16th Panzer Division, forming part of the German forces in Italy of which Field Marshal Kesselring was commander-in-chief.

This trial was one of the last of the series of war-crimes trials which began in 1945 immediately after the unconditional surrender of Germany. After the passage of six years’ wartime passions had to a considerable extent subsided and the trial in itself may be considered as a very favourable example of a Routine War-crimes Trial. The Italian army officers who composed the military tribunal in Bologna took their duties very seriously and listened carefully to all the evidence, not only for the prosecution but for the defence. Unfortunately, an acquittal was impossible owing to the political situation existing in Italy at the time. The trial took place in Bologna, a stronghold of the Italian Communist Party, and throughout the hearing angry mobs demonstrated outside the court house demanding the blood of the accused. An acquittal would have been widely resented in Italy as a deliberate affront to the Italian Partisan movement and might well have so aroused popular feeling as to have brought about the downfall of the weak coalition government then in power. Had a Communist government then taken office, the officers composing the tribunal would probably have been charged with acquitting the accused owing to their secret sympathy with Fascism. In these difficult circumstances the tribunal did their best to administer justice: probably they thought that by condemning Reder to imprisonment they were saving his life by putting him out of harm’s way for a time, assuming that when he had been forgotten by his communist enemies, he would be surreptitiously set at liberty.

No doubt this would have been the ultimate outcome of his conviction but unfortunately for Major Reder, Marzabotto, the place nearest to the scene of his alleged offences, was chosen by the Communist Party as a place of pilgrimage at which Communist Partisans could gather annually to honour the memory of that heroic Resistance fighter Mario Musolesi (alias ‘Major’ Lupo) and his Red Star Brigade of Communist Partisans who died fighting to the last man against troops commanded by Major Reder, and at the same time to mourn the abominable massacre of the said Mario Musolesi and his gathering of unarmed, peace-loving Italian civilians, known as the Red Star Brigade, by the troops of the said Major Reder.

Accounts of the war-crimes trials which followed the Second World War are rendered tedious by the fact that precisely the same issue arose in so many of them. Exact statistics are not available but probably in at least three quarters of these prosecutions the complaint against the accused was that he had dealt harshly with civilian irregulars and terrorists who had been attacking his troops in the rear. In all these cases there was generally only one issue to be decided: were the victims of the accused inoffensive civilians so unfortunate as to have found themselves in the midst of hostilities or were they really combatants in civilian dress? War-crimes tribunals invariably accepted the former contention.

The Italian war-crimes tribunal which tried the Italian charges against Major Reder adopted the novel course of accepting both contentions. The gallant but muddle-headed officers who composed this tribunal held as a fact that the inhabitants of a few tiny villages in the mountains south of Marzabotto in which a gang of communist terrorists was surrounded and annihilated by troops some of whom were under the command of Major Reder, were ruthlessly slaughtered as a reprisal for the atrocities previously committed by this gang of terrorists. At the same time the tribunal held that the inhabitants of these mountain villages had well earned the Gold Medal for Valour collectively awarded them posthumously “for heroically resisting the Fascist attack.”

Major Reder was born in Freiwald in Bohemia in 1915, a subject of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He had a distinguished career in the German Army as leader of front-line troops, serving in France in 1940 and later in Russia where at the battle of Kharkov in March 1943 he was so severely wounded that his left forearm had to be amputated. For his services in Russia he was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross. In May 1944 he was sent to Italy and there took part in the desperate battles in Tuscany, fought to hold up the advance northward of the Allies. The division to which he belonged was signalled out for special and generous praise by Field Marshal Lord Alexander in his report on the operations between the 3rd September 1943 and the 1st July 1944. (See the Supplement to the London Gazette dated the 4th June 1950, No. 38937). In particular, speaking of the fighting at Cecina on the 29th June to the 1st July 1944, the British commander-in-chief observes, “The 16th Panzer Division had been brought in here to strengthen the German defence and fought with skill and fanaticism.” Later, referring to the struggle for Rosignano during the first week in July, Lord Alexander records, “the town was defended by the 16th Panzer Grenadiers against the 34th United States Division with the same stubbornness as they had shown at Cecina.”

As winter approached the desperate attempts of the Allies to achieve a breakthrough were intensified. Nevertheless at this critical moment Major Reder and his unit of crack troops had to be withdrawn from the front line facing the 34th U.S. Division in order to deal with a strong group of Communist Partisans called the Red Star Brigade which from a stronghold in the mountains south of Marzabotto was threatening the main road and railway communications between the front and the German headquarters at Bologna. Major Reder performed his mission brilliantly and swiftly. The Red Star Brigade, numbering over 2,000 civilians armed with heavy machine guns and mortars, under the command of the celebrated Communist Partisan leader who called himself ‘Major’ Lupo, was encircled and annihilated. It was with reference to this operation on the 29th September 1944 that the main charge against Major Reder was brought. Upon it was based the notorious propaganda myth called the Marzabotto Massacre.

Major Reder remained in Italy throughout the following autumn and winter. In February 1945 he was transferred to Hungary across which Stalin’s hordes were then sweeping in overwhelming strength. He was again severely wounded. After the general capitulation of the Axis Powers, he returned to his mother’s home in Salzburg. Here he was arrested by the American occupying forces on complaints lodged with them against him by the Italians.

For two years – from September 1945 to September 1947 – Major Reder was a prisoner in an American concentration camp at Glasenbach in which were detained some 7,500 men and 500 women kept prisoner on one pretext or another. Presumably the lengthy task of investigating so many distinct cases provides the reason why the Americans took so long in reaching a decision with regard to the charges against Major Reder. When at last his captors found time to investigate his case they decided that he had no case to answer. As however the charges had been lodged by the Italians and the British were in military occupation of Italy, they rid themselves of responsibility for his fate by handing him over to the British.

The British military authorities investigated the Italian charges against Major Reder with praiseworthy care. At first his interrogation was carried out by a Major J. E. McKee. Later his interrogation was completed by a Major W. G. Aylen. Neither of these gentlemen spoke German so that the services of an interpreter, a Dr. Hans Susseroth, was necessary. At Major Reder’s trial in Bologna, this man Susseroth gave evidence that he himself had interrogated the accused who had denied taking part in any operations against the Italian Partisans.

In affidavits sworn for Major Reder’s appeal to the Supreme Italian Military Court in Rome, both Major McKee and Major Aylen swore that Susseroth had given false evidence. He had been employed, they both testified, only as an interpreter, never as an interrogator. Further, they both testified that Major Reder had freely admitted having directed the operations against the Red Star Brigade south of Bologna in which its commander, ‘Major’ Lupo was killed. In fact Major Reder had claimed that his detachment had borne the brunt of the fighting on that occasion. Major McKee concluded his affidavit by stating:

“Throughout his interrogation by me, Major Reder behaved with dignity. He repeatedly affirmed his innocence. He denied ordering excesses against the Italian civilian population or having received orders from his superiors to carry out excesses. On one occasion Major Reder could without difficulty or danger have escaped from British custody. He explained that he had refrained from escaping as he was quite prepared to face a trial on the charges made against him.”

As we have seen, the British military authorities had already brought to trial and convicted Major Reder’s commander-in-chief, Field Marshal Kesselring. They had also afterwards disposed of his immediate superior, the divisional commander, General Max Simon, at a war-crimes trial at Padua in January 1948 at which he had been sentenced to death and then sent to join Field Marshal Kesselring in Werl Prison. With regard to Major Reder therefore two obvious courses were open to the British military authorities. If they came to the same conclusion as the American authorities that he had no case to answer, their plain duty was to release him at once. If however they were satisfied that a prima facie case against him had been made out, they could put him on trial before a British military tribunal as they had done with his superior officers, Field Marshal Kesselring and General Max Simon.

Neither of these courses were adopted. On the 13th May 1948 Major Reder was handed over by the British military authorities to the Italians so that the latter might try their own charges against him.

The present writer regrets that he has been unable to find any clue suggesting an explanation for this extraordinary procedure. In itself, this is not perhaps remarkable. The working of the British military-legal or legal-military mind during the post-war years is generally quite beyond mere human comprehension. Possibly closer investigation of the political situation in May 1948 would disclose that there was some special reason at that moment for making a gesture which would conciliate Italian public opinion. Some cynical politician in London may have decided that an obscure German officer would conveniently serve as a subject for such a gesture. But a simpler but adequate explanation would be that the British authorities in charge of Major Reder’s case had got themselves in a muddle and therefore decided that the easiest way out of it was to follow the precedent set by Pontius Pilate long ago. It was at any rate clear that the Italians were convinced of Major Reder’s guilt. If therefore the case was handed over to the Italians so that they could act as judges of their own charges, the British could wash their hands of the matter with the confident assurance that it would be quickly disposed of by the prisoner’s death.

Even from a strictly technical legal point of view the procedure adopted in the case of Major Reder seems utterly indefensible. It is true that by the Moscow Declaration of the 30th October 1943 the victorious Powers had conferred on themselves the right to swop prisoners of war between each other in disregard of their treaty obligations under the Hague and Geneva Conventions. Even assuming this swopping of prisoners of war was justified as between the victorious Powers, no authority existed for handing prisoners of war over to a defeated Power. In October 1943 Italy was an ally of Germany and the fortunes of war had turned finally against them. Shortly afterwards Italy abjectly surrendered and her efforts to join the winning side were coldly rebuffed. It is not easy to define what exactly was her status when Reder was handed over to the Italian authorities in 1948 but by no stretch of imagination can it be said that Italy emerged from the Second World War as a victorious Power!

Earlier in this chapter a letter dated the 19th December 1960 written by a high official of the British Foreign Office was quoted verbatim. It sets out clearly what is the official attitude of the British Government to this distressing subject. It may be summarised as follows: “No doubt our military authorities in Italy in 1948 made a grave and deplorable error of judgment when they handed over this prisoner of war in British hands to our former enemies, the Italians. No doubt Major Reder was treated with callous indifference as to his fate: probably his surrender by us to the Italians was contrary to international law. But this regrettable error having been made, no good purpose would be served now by investigating it because once this prisoner of war had passed out of our hands we ceased to have any rights concerning him. The Italians found their own charges proved against him and if they had shot him we could not have complained. In that case he would by now be entirely forgotten and we should not now be troubled to find excuses for the inexcusable. As it is, he unfortunately still lives, a prisoner in an Italian prison, but as we can do nothing to secure his release, there is no good talking about the subject.”

That Major Reder is not now a completely forgotten prisoner in an Italian prison is owing to a fortunate chance. It happened that the present writer was instructed professionally by Reder’s legal advisers to trace and obtain affidavits from the two British officers above mentioned who had interrogated him while he was in British custody, for the purpose of an appeal against conviction which was being made to the Supreme Italian Military Court in Rome. In this way the present writer learned the facts of this case which he later set out in a chapter of a book which received wide publicity not only in Britain and the United States but in Germany and Spain.13 Many influential people have since interested themselves in securing Reder’s release – including in Britain, the late Lord Hankey and Field Marshall Lord Alexander, and in Italy, the late Pope Pius XII. So far the only result of these appeals for justice has been repeated soothing assurances that Reder would be released immediately a propitious moment arrived. Having waited in captivity for twenty years, Major Reder is still waiting for this propitious moment to arrive.

The above-mentioned book, published in 1958, gave the first outline of the facts of Major Reder’s case, hitherto entirely unknown outside Italy. Necessarily it was a one-sided account since it was based entirely on information supplied by the lawyers who had defended him at his trial. In 1961 however the Italian Ministry of the Interior took the unparalleled step of publishing a White Book setting out in full the judgment of the military tribunal in Bologna which convicted Major Reder in 1951 and the judgment of the Supreme Military Court in Rome in 1954 which rejected his appeal.

By publishing this White Book the Italian Government conferred on Major Reder a unique distinction: in his case, alone of all the thousands of cases of prisoners of war subjected to trials for alleged war-crimes, was it considered desirable by his captors to issue an official statement justifying their treatment of him. However contradictory the facts found by the tribunal and muddled its reasoning from these facts, the publication of this White Book at least shows that the Italian legal authorities, unlike the legal authorities of other countries responsible for showing that justice had been done, felt in this case they had nothing to hide. It had long been the invariable practice of war-crimes tribunals at the end of the hearing simply to announce that the accused had been found guilty, leaving this conclusion a subject for guesswork. Often when the indictment contained a number of distinct charges the victim was left in complete doubt whether he had been convicted on all or only some of them. The verdict in fact merely intimated that the adjudicating tribunal had reached the opinion that he deserved to be hanged. The Italian military tribunal which tried Major Reder, on the other hand, stated clearly in their judgment their findings of fact and the reasons which had led them to convict him. Their painstaking and conscientious judgment contrasts strikingly with the vague and slipshod judgment delivered in the relatively well-conducted war-crimes trial before a British military tribunal of Field Marshal von Manstein in Hamburg in 1949.

A judgment which merely pronounces a defendant guilty without stating the facts upon which this conclusion is reached is immune from adverse criticism. It reflects therefore the highest credit on the Italian military authorities that they have dealt with the charges against Major Reder, if belatedly, in so judicial a manner. On the other hand, by conducting his trial in a judicial manner and later publishing the findings of fact and the reasoning of the tribunal which led them to convict him, they exposed the weakness of the case against him.

As is usual in war-crimes trials, a number of ancillary charges were made against Reder, such charges being generally intended to make the indictment seem more formidable. The main charge against him upon which his fate depended related to the encirclement and annihilation of the above-mentioned group of Communist Partisans known as the Red Star Brigade. The headquarters of this group of heavily armed civilians was at Caprara, a tiny village on the upper slopes of Monte Sole, a mountain, 2,190 feet high, on a ridge between two mountain streams, the Reno and the Setta, running parallel with each other about four miles apart north-eastward from the Apennines into the Po Valley. From this stronghold the Red Star Brigade struck at the German lines of communication by road and railway along the valleys of the Reno and the Setta. Convoys were continually ambushed, railway bridges and tunnels damaged by sabotage, isolated German garrisons attacked. The methods of Red Star Brigade were similar to those of other Communist bands operating in Italy in the rear of the German armies: in order to shake the morale of the regular troops opposed to them, individual soldiers caught unawares were shot or stabbed, prisoners were tortured and then murdered, the bodies of the dead were mutilated.

On the 29th September 1944 the stronghold of the Red Star Brigade was attacked by converging columns. The attack was under the general direction of General Max Simon: Major Reder directed the attack from the east from across the Setta. The Partisans to the number of some two thousand armed with machine guns and mortars offered a desperate resistance which was quickly broken. The Red Star Brigade was annihilated: its leader “Major” Lupo was killed.

In its findings of fact the adjudicating military tribunal, as the White Book now discloses, accepted two contradictory contentions. The tribunal held that Reder’s men ruthlessly slaughtered the unarmed and inoffensive inhabitants of three small villages, Caprara, Casaglia and Cerpiane, lying on the upper slopes of Monte Sole. It had been pointed out by the defence that the inhabitants of these places had afterwards been collectively awarded the Gold Cross for Valour in recognition of their heroic resistance “to the Fascist invaders.” With the howls of the communist mob demonstrating in the street outside the courthouse, the tribunal could hardly be expected to disparage this award. The tribunal held, therefore, that the inhabitants of the three villages had defended themselves heroically, while at the same time they had allowed themselves to be butchered like helpless sheep.

A half-hearted attempt was indeed made to reconcile these contradictory findings by holding, without a shred of evidence in support, that a complete separation took place between the local inhabitants and the civilian warriors of the Red Star Brigade. They declared that “Major” Lupo, finding himself surrounded, withdrew his men from the three villages above mentioned to the summit of Monte Sole for a last stand, leaving the inhabitants of these places “to the chivalry and humanity of the enemy.”

Examination of a large scale map will immediately disclose that this contention is nonsense. Caprara, the headquarters of the Red Star Brigade, is only 548 yards from the summit of Monte Sole, from which the other two places mentioned are less than half a mile away. No separation of the civilian warriors of the Red Star Brigade from the local inhabitants of the area, as found by the tribunal, was therefore possible. Also the suggestion is fantastic that an experienced guerilla fighter like Lupo would withdraw his men from the shelter of these places in order to concentrate them on the bare summit of Monte Sole, where they would have been quickly obliterated by artillery fire.

There can be no reasonable doubt the last stand of the Red Star Brigade took place in Caprara and the two neighbouring villages, Casaglia and Cerpiane. It may well be believed that the German troops took little trouble to distinguish between civilians using their weapons and civilians who had thrown away their arms. There is no reason to doubt also that when the Partisans in houses in these villages refused to surrender the attacking forces threw grenades through the windows regardless of any women and children who might be sheltering therein.

The tribunal expressed horror at such ruthlessness. No doubt some women and children lost their lives although the number must have been small since these places near the summit of Monte Sole, described in the White Book as villages, were in fact mere clusters of huts inhabited by goatherds and shepherds who browsed their flocks on the barren mountainside. A prominent feature, it may be noted, of the Marzabotto Myth was the burning of Marzabotto Church to which “the entire population of the town to the number of 1,700 had fled, and there perished, including the priest.”14 The White Book makes it clear that no fighting took place in Marzabotto: in the judgment of the tribunal the Church of Marzabotto reappears as the tiny shrine or chapel at Cerpiane in which, so the tribunal held, fifty persons lost their lives.

Judging from the White Book the tribunal took no account of the surrounding circumstances existing at the time, and the methods by which warfare had come to be waged in Europe. It was no doubt a dreadful thing that on the 29th September 1944 women and children should have lost their lives from bombs thrown into their homes in order to compel the defenders of the village in which they lived to surrender. But in that year and during the previous two years, on every night suitable for air attack, hundreds, and often thousands, of civilians, men, women and children, had been killed throughout Germany not by mere hand grenades but by “block-busters,” deliberately dropped on crowded working-class areas in accordance with the Lindemann Plan adopted by the British Government in March 1942. The story of what took place in the mountains south of Marzabotto should be judged against the background of contemporary events.

In conclusion, it was proved at the trial that whatever excesses might have been committed on the upper slopes of Monte Sole, Major Reder took no personal part in them. Owing to a recent wound, throughout the action he remained on a hillside on the other side of the Setta and directed the advance of his men by wireless.

No admissible evidence that he personally had directed, ordered or countenanced reprisals against civilians was proved against him. As a one-armed man he would have been easily identifiable. No evidence of such identification was given.

The claim is often made that this is a Humanitarian Age in which not only the thought of capital punishment is repugnant but also long terms of imprisonment. Thus in 1962 the British public was shocked to learn that a Greek communist terrorist, Tony Ambatielos, still remained in captivity after sixteen years. The fact was ignored that the reason for his continued detention was his refusal to give an undertaking not to resume his efforts to establish a communist dictatorship in Greece. The general view, even in circles hostile to Communism, was well expressed by The Times which declared that, however heinous this man’s crimes may have been, sixteen years was too long to keep a criminal in captivity.

In response to public opinion in Britain at the present time, sentences of imprisonment for life are carefully reviewed after only twelve years and the culprit, however conclusive his guilt, is released. Major Reder has been in prison now for over twenty-two years after a war-crimes trial in which his accusers acted as judges of their own charges.

It may perhaps seem that the attention paid here to the case of Major Reder is disproportionately long. It has been dealt with in some detail, partly because it is a favourable example of a Routine War-crimes Trial, but more because it happens the victim is still alive and is still suffering from the miscarriage of justice committed against him. Nearly all the other victims of war-crimes trials are either dead or have long ago been released.

Responsibility for his fate rests fairly and squarely on the British Government. In a professedly humanitarian age, a further recital of the facts should lead to belated rectification of an indefensible miscarriage of justice. (pp. 319-307)

Bologna, September-October 1951. SS Major Walter Reder at the military tribunal (Certosa di Bologna Virtual Museum).      Bologna, September-October 1951. SS Major Walter Reder at the military tribunal.


13. In Crimes Discreetly Veiled, published by Cooper Book Coy, London, and Devin-Adair, New York, in 1958. A German translation entitled Verschleierte Kriegsverbrechen was published by Priester Verlag, Weisbaden, in 1959 and a Spanish translation entitled Crimenes Discretamente Ocultados by Editorial Nos, Madrid, in 1901.

14. So described in an official reply dated the 26th June, 1953, by Senor Scelba, Italian Minister of the Interior, to an appeal for clemency for Major Reder by the Austrian State Secretary, Graf.

F. J. P. Veale, Advance to Barbarism: The Development of Total Warfare From Serajevo to Hiroshima. Mitre Press (London) 1968.

      Main Directory      

–– The Heretical Press ––