Cardinal Reinhard Marx on Sunday asked for forgiveness in the case of a German World War II massacre in Italy on the orders of a man who went on to become a bishop in Munich.

Before he ascended to the rank of auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising in 1968, Matthias Defregger wore a different uniform. As a captain in the 114th Jäger Division, he presided over a grim chapter of history. His unit, in the summer of 1944, extinguished the lives of 17 innocent men and set ablaze the village of Filetto di Camarda.

On July 9, the current archbishop of Munich found himself face-to-face with descendants of those victims. Marx thanked the people of Filetto for their courage in confronting the past and their refusal to let history be swept under the rug.

“We feel how important it is not to forget,” he said. “Suppression of history cannot build a good future.”

World War II was nearing its end in Italy when the massacre occurred. The German Wehrmacht was in retreat, the U.S.-led Allies had just entered Rome. Yet, in the small community of Filetto di Camarda, not far from L’Aquila, the war was far from over. After an attack by Italian partisans, Maj. Gen. Hans Boelsen ordered a brutal act of “reprisal.” Defregger, reportedly reluctant, ultimately relayed the order that led to the execution of at least 17 innocent men between the ages of 20 and 65, and the burning of their village.

When the smoke of war cleared, Defregger, born in 1915 and a grandson of the Tyrolean painter Franz von Defregger, sought solace in the priesthood. He studied at a Jesuit college in Austria and was ordained a priest in 1949 in his native town of Munich.

Matthias Defregger. Credit: Podkást pro každého/YouTube
Matthias Defregger. Credit: Podkást pro každého/YouTube

Defregger’s charisma and competence saw the former Wehrmacht officer rise swiftly through the ranks of the Bavarian diocese, culminating in his appointment as auxiliary bishop by Pope Paul VI.

Yet the shadow of his past was never far behind. The “Defregger case” made headlines in the 1960s with allegations that Munich Cardinal Julius Döpfner knew about the popular prelate’s wartime actions when he consecrated him.

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German and English media covered the “Defregger case” in the 1960s. The Catholic magazine The Tablet noted that neither the papal nuncio nor the Congregation for Bishops in Rome knew about what the magazine called the “Filetto affair” when they “passed on and approved” Defregger’s nomination to bishop. Other media reported that the bishop in 1969 asked the people of Filetto for forgiveness.

Ultimately, despite long legal investigations and several court proceedings in both Italy and Germany, Defregger was never found guilty.

Reflecting on these events on Sunday, Marx emphasized the importance of moral action, even in war, and the courage to face one’s past. He lamented that this was not done in Defregger’s case and apologized for the diocese’s failure to confront the truth.

“It is never good to suppress the truth,” he said, “but it is crucial to always look at the truth and make it an impulse to move forward.”

In 2023, the picturesque town of Pöcking in Upper Bavaria, where Defregger had retired and lived until his death in 1995, made a significant decision. Following a critical examination of Defregger’s legacy — and encouraged by local history professor Marita Krauss — the town’s council voted to change the name of a small street that had been named in his honor.

This move reflected a growing awareness and acknowledgment of the controversial aspects of Defregger’s past, even in the community that remembered him first and foremost as a charismatic and devout preacher.

In 2022, a delegation from Pöcking had traveled to Filetto to attend a commemoration of the 1944 massacre. This year, the residents of Filetto reciprocated the visit, traveling to Bavaria.

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In a symbolic gesture of this growing bond and acknowledgment of the past, the small street in Pöcking, once named after Defregger, as of this year bears the name “Filetto.”