Former Nazi SS captain Erich Priebke, who died on Friday aged 100, never understood why he was found responsible for a wartime massacre when all he had done was obey orders.

"The order came directly from Hitler in Berlin," he told the Italian military tribunal which staged his first trial in Rome in 1996. "Anyone who refused to obey would have been tried by the SS."

Priebke was sentenced to life in prison in 1998 for his role in the massacre at Rome's Ardeatine caves in March 1944, which left 335 people dead, including 75 Jews.

They were executed with a bullet to the neck, killed by the Nazis in retaliation for an attack by the resistance movement on SS soldiers.

The former officer was arrested in 1994 after fleeing to Argentina at the end of World War II. He had lived there for more than 40 years.

He was allowed to serve out his sentence under house arrest because of his advanced age and ill-health.

He later described the massacre as "a horrible thing, a personal tragedy" in a long letter written at the time of his failed appeal.

But he stopped short of real remorse. "If I could have stopped this horror I would have. My death would not have allowed for those innocents to be saved," he wrote.

After the 1944 ambush, Berlin ordered the Rome SS chief Herbert Kappler to draw up a list of prisoners, Jews and Roman citizens to be arrested.

Kappler delegated the task to Priebke, who drew up the list and checked off those who went to their deaths. Priebke later admitted killing two of them himself.

Born July 29, 1913, at Henningsdorf, in the Berlin suburbs, he entered the hotel business in 1929 after finishing his education, learning first English while working for ten months in London's Savoy Hotel and then Italian, living in Rapallo, Italy, for two years.

On returning to Germany he joined the Nazi party soon after Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933 and became a policeman. The following year he joined the SS, the elite military unit of the Nazi party.

In 1940, the year after his marriage to a fellow Berliner with whom he had two children, Priebke's career began to take off.

He entered the SS police force, rising to the rank of detective superintendent in the service set up by Reinhard Heydrich, who became known as the "butcher of Prague."

According to official Nazi records, Priebke was not highly regarded by his superiors, who thought him intellectually mediocre.

Nevertheless he was posted to Italy in 1943 as a deputy to Kappler, who was jailed for life after the war for his own part in the massacre.

He took part in the spectacular 1943 release of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini from custody in the Abruzzi mountains, earning the Iron Cross and a promotion to captain for his efforts.

Soon after the Ardeatine caves massacre he was ordered to Verona, then appointed head of security in Brescia, where according to resistance fighters he commanded round-ups that resulted in executions.

Captured by the British at the end of the war, Priebke managed like so many Nazis to escape to Argentina, eluding the 1948 trial in Rome of other perpetrators of the massacre.

Arriving in San Carlos de Bariloche, in the Andes southwest of Buenos Aires, he resumed his former profession of hotelier, living under his own name and becoming a respected member of the local German community.

He retained his German passport, even travelling to Italy, Germany and the United States.

He became president of the German-Argentine Cultural Association, and every year on April 20, he and former comrades gathered to celebrate Hitler's birthday.

But in May 1994, Priebke's past finally caught up with him when he granted an interview to a visiting US television crew. He was extradited to Italy where he was convicted.

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