Klaus Barbie: Criminal In Absentia (1945-1983)

Klaus Barbie incognito He is going to pay at last!

-- Headline of Le Monde on the day of Barbie's return to France

Klaus Barbie was gone for almost forty years and in those forty years France changed a great deal. France had not only put the ambiguities of the Occupation behind her, but had done the same for the colonial wars in Indochina and Algeria. The transition back to democracy was not smooth, nor was the process of losing the empire, and France decided that the best way to cope with the inconsistencies of the past was to forget about them as quickly as possible. In the name of progress, France forgot and forgave the sins of the Occupation, Indochina, and Algeria. But, for each sin France forgave, there were victims. There were victims of the Occupation, there were victims of Indochina, and there were victims of Algeria. When the victims cried for justice, France, the land of the tricolor chose to ignore them. This, the victims neither forgave nor forgot.

Like France, Klaus Barbie experienced many changes during the forty years between his disappearance and his trial. It turned out that Barbie did not just disappear on his own, but had been smuggled out of Europe by the United States government. (See FBI document on U.S. role in hiding Barbie) Immediately following Germany's surrender, Barbie became a leading figure in a clandestine "resistance" organization made up of other former SS officers who were at large and who wanted to prevent the former Reich from falling into the hands of the Communists. The group planned to approach the British and Americans and offer them "a strong experienced corps of post-war leaders, loyal to Germany and opposed to Communism."1 In February, 1947, however, the American Counter-Intelligence Corps (C.I.C.) infiltrated the organization and arrested all of its senior members, except for Barbie, who eluded arrest by climbing out his bathroom window.2 The C.I.C., which was mainly concerned with countering Soviet espionage, wanted to force the S.S. men to work for the Americans by arresting them and then recruiting them through bribery and blackmail.3 Despite his escape, the C.I.C.'s offer of money and protection was too much for Barbie to resist and he surrendered himself to a C.I.C. agent in June, 1947.4 For the next two years Barbie would act as a U.S. agent in Germany where would live "very comfortably" and would receive "hundreds of dollars" for his anti-communist activities.5 Then, in 1949, Barbie disappeared again.

An investigation by Allan A. Ryan, Jr. of the U.S. State Department revealed that Barbie's disappearance in 1949 was sponsored by the C.I.C., which wanted to use him as an anti-communist agent in Bolivia.6 By 1951, the transformation of Klaus Barbie from a Gestapo officer to an American agent was complete, and he was living under the assumed name of "Klaus Altmann" in Bolivia. In Bolivia, Barbie used his identity as a former Gestapo officer to his advantage; if the C.I.C. ever tried to prosecute him for his crimes during the war, he would embarrass the U.S. government by revealing that he and others like him were on their payroll. With the only people who knew of his identity and whereabouts silent, Barbie was a free man.

In order to secure his place in Bolivia, Barbie often performed services for Bolivia's various military regimes. When Hugo "El Petiso" Banzer, one of Bolivia's most oppressive leaders, came to power in 1971, he relied on Barbie's expertise to maintain his unpopular rightist regime. That year, Banzer "gave total powers to Klaus Altmann [Barbie] to concentrate on the creation of internment camps for his [Banzer's] political opponents...torture and executions were common in those camps." Many of Banzer's enemies were Communists and Barbie probably saw no discontinuity between his activities in Lyons and La Paz."7 Between 1951 and 1983, Barbie also participated in drug-running schemes and even served as an officer in the Bolivian secret police for a few years. When he was not suppressing uprisings against Bolivia's various military regimes, Barbie led a peaceful life as businessman and was an active socialite in some La Paz circles. Aside from his activities in Bolivia, Barbie also had a wife and children in Europe and he visited Europe on a regular basis throughout the Fifties and Sixties to see them. On one visit he even had the nerve to go on a sightseeing tour of Paris, where he had been sentenced to death twice in absentia, in 1952 and 1954, by French war crimes tribunals.

As Barbie transformed from a Gestapo agent into an American agent and then into a businessman and henchman in Bolivia, he never gave up his Nazi ideology. Robert S. Taylor, an American intelligence operative who recruited Nazis to work for the C.I.C., described Barbie as "strongly anti-Communist and a Nazi idealist who believes that he and his beliefs were betrayed by the Nazis in power."8 Not only was Klaus Barbie free, he was still a proud Nazi. Such a proud Nazi that in 1966 he was forcibly removed from the German club in La Paz for shouting "Heil Hitler" to an envoy from the West German government.9

While Barbie roamed South American and Europe, his numerous victims and enemies began to look for him. Barbie's principle adversary was Serge Klarsfeld, a French Jew who devoted much of his adult life to hunting Nazis and bringing them to justice. Klarsfeld himself was a survivor of the Holocaust but his survival would not have been possible had it not been for the fatal sacrifice made by his father, Arno Klarsfeld. When the SS swept through Nice on the night of September 30, 1943, to round up Jews, the Klarsfelds hid behind a false wall in their apartment's coat closet. Arno Klarsfeld, knowing how thoroughly the S.S. searched for hidden people, realized that in order to save his family he had to prevent the Nazis from examining the apartment too closely. He knew that if the S.S. found his wife and children, they would almost certainly die, but, as a healthy man who spoke German fluently and who had years of experience as a manual laborer, he figured the Germans would put him to work instead of simply killing him. When the Gestapo arrived, Arno was waiting for them and surrendered himself while his family hid behind the closet. His gamble paid off and the SS left with their prisoner without bothering to thoroughly search the apartment.10 The family was saved, but it turned out that Arno Klarsfeld's guess was only partially correct. He was right that his family would have been killed by the Nazis, and he was right that as an able-bodied man the Nazis would put him to work. He was wrong, however, to think he would survive. Arno Klarsfeld expected hard work ahead of him, but not even the heartiest of men could survive the notorious Furstengrube mines where he worked until his health was destroyed by 36-hour work shifts and malnutrition. When he was worn down to the point at which he could no longer work, Arno Klarsfeld was sent to Auschwitz, where he disappeared in March 1944.11 For the young Serge Klarsfeld cowering in a closet and knowing that he would never see his father again, the Nazis became his eternal enemies and he vowed never to rest until they had all been brought to justice.

The other person responsible for the end Klaus Barbie's life as a free man was Beatte Kunzel, the wife of Serge Klarsfeld. Kunzel, a German whose father had served in the Wehrmacht, was enraged that Nazis could go free "because of the apathy of governments" and, like her husband, devoted her life to tracking down these criminals.12 The Klarsfelds' strategy was simple; they would flush a hidden Nazi criminal out of hiding and then whip up public interest so that a trial could take place. The really tricky part was not finding the Nazis or getting the public enraged, but was getting the governments of the counties where the Nazis were hiding to cooperate. In 1972, the Klarsfelds got a lucky break when they stumbled across a secret report claiming that Klaus Altmann, a German living in Bolivia, and Klaus Barbie, the "Butcher of Lyons," were one and the same.13 While Serge worked his way through the French legal system, Beatte went to La Paz and told the Bolivian press about Altmann/Barbie. Although she succeeded in creating an uproar and in getting to French government to ask formally for Barbie's extradition, Barbie was again saved from answering to justice.

What saved Barbie in 1972 was the greed of Hugo Banzer, the military dictator who ran the Bolivian government from 1971 to 1978. Not only was Barbie one of Banzer's most valuable henchmen, he was a potential form of currency. In essence, Banzer wanted to sell Barbie to France for increased political leverage, money, and weapons and because Barbie was valuable to both Banzer and France, the price was quite high.14 So high, in fact, that the Pompidou administration refused to play Banzer's game. The relatively conservative Pompidou administration had another reason for not purchasing Barbie, they were perfectly content with Barbie staying in Bolivia where he could not dredge up any unwanted memories.

Favorable circumstances saved Barbie in 1972, but it was only a matter of time before both France and Bolivia saw it in their best interests to extradite him. Barbie's time ran out in the early 1980s, when Banzer had been replaced by a leftist regime who wanted to get rid of Barbie, and when Pompidou was replaced by the liberal Mitterand administration which was eager to take Barbie off of Bolivia's hands. In late 1982, the Bolivians had lowered their demands but still wanted something in exchange for turning over Barbie and surely it was no coincidence that the Bolivian president received "a planeload of arms, three thousand tons of wheat, and fifty million dollars" on his visit to Paris in 1983.15 With Barbie's "airfare" paid for, all that remained was the actual extradition, but even in 1983 France was not truly prepared for Barbie's arrival, because with Barbie also arrived the past.

For the Mitterand administration, Barbie's return seemed like a no-lose situation. The administration figured that if they prosecuted Klaus Barbie, who was guilty beyond the shadow of a doubt of some of the most heinous crimes of the Occupation era, they would surely become more popular among their constituents. When France brought justice to Klaus Barbie, it would redeem all the wrongs and inconsistencies of the Occupation. Thus, it was not just Barbie who was on trial but France itself. By confronting Barbie, France would be confronting its past and by punishing him, France would be conquering the past. And most importantly, it was a trial the government thought it would certainly win.

For his victims and their relatives, Barbie's return had even greater significance; justice finally seemed within grasp after almost forty years of painful waiting. In 1983, Klaus Barbie was the same man as forty years before. Never once over the past forty years had Barbie apologized for his crimes, nor did he ever show the slightest bit of remorse for them. Even in the late Seventies, Barbie bragged to a journalist that he was proud of his role in Lyons and he went so far as to claim he prevented France from falling to communism.16 Thus, the only cure for many of the wounds Barbie had inflicted and then his irreverent absence would be his punishment. Even the usually pessimistic French press was caught up in the excitement. "He is going to pay, at last!" boasted Le Monde's front page on February 7, 1983, the day following Barbie's arrival in France.17 No group was more optimistic than the Left, though. Daniel Voguet, lawyer for the Parti Communiste Franaise, was quite optimistic about the upcoming trial: "The entire trial will be an accusation of the Right. The French right-wing was in collaboration with the Germans."18 The PCF thus saw the trial as a chance to highlight its role in the Resistance and for the first time ever it seemed as if the 150,000 Communists who died during the Occupation would be vindicated. Whatever their political outlook, most of the French media were looking forward to the trial and promised that trial would be "long and spectacular."19 That was too true.

Although he did not know it when he was being taken to a Bolivian prison for failing to repay a debt, Klaus Barbie would play a key role in forcing France to confront her inconsistent past and present. What he did know was that chances were pretty slim that his arrest was solely for the failure to repay $10,000. To begin with, Barbie had already been sentenced to death in absentia in 1952 and 1954 for his crimes against the Resistance Under France's Statute of Limitations, however, Barbie was no longer accountable for his past crimes and could not be punished for them. The logic behind this law is that, if twenty years passes between when a person is convicted for something and when he is punished for it, there have been so many changes in the political environment and the individual's life that punishment would be futile. Over the course of twenty years a criminal might "go straight" and raise a family and try to leave the past behind; likewise, what was a crime twenty years ago, may not seem so bad in retrospect. Barbie, who was sentenced to death twice in absentia by French military tribunals, in 1952 and 1954, for his "war crimes," and who twenty years after those trials, was still in Bolivia, could not be excluded from the Statute of Limitations should he be tried under French law.20 Although he had escaped being punished for his war crimes, Barbie was far from off the hook. Starting in 1972, when the Klarsfelds found Barbie living under the name of Altmann in Bolivia, there was a considerable push to try Barbie for a different set of crimes, those he conducted against humanity. The Klarsfelds' success is illustrated by the shift in the French government's attitude towards Barbie. In 1972, the French government attempted to extradite Barbie for war crimes, that is, for acts of violence against the Resistance, but by 1983 the Mitterand administration extradited Barbie for his "crimes against humanity." To admit that Barbie's crimes were against humanity was to give a new and well-deserved weight to his crimes, but it was also to make any trial of Barbie that much more sensitive. Although distance and time had saved Barbie from paying for his crimes against the Resistance, the incircumscribability of the Nuremburg laws made it impossible for him to escape being tried for the torture, massacres, and deportation of civilians.

From his prison cell in La Paz, Barbie was taken to the airport and flown to French Guiana where was put on a military plane bound for Lyons. Once he figured out that the plane was going to France and not Germany as he had hoped, Barbie "walled himself in silence."21 Maybe he thought that if he were quiet enough, the French would forget about him, just as they had so conveniently forgotten about their own past. He was not forgotten and when he arrived in Lyons on February 6, 1983, the whole world remembered who he was. Although the French military had tried to keep the details of Barbie's flight secret, someone leaked Barbie's itinerary to the press. By the time Barbie arrived in Lyons, the police were struggling to restrain the angry crowds that awaited Barbie at the airport. The emotions running through the crowd were at a fever pitch and more than one person had come to the airport with plans to kill Barbie. For instance, a woman who had been interned in Drancy for three months bought a 22-caliber rifle just for the occasion.22 Unluckily for those who wanted to continue forgetting about the past, she missed. Also at the airport that day was another group of people, those trying to flee the memories brought back by Barbie's return. For some, Barbie's return triggered unbearable flashbacks to the Occupation, but many others feared that Barbie would denounce them collaborators and shatter the lives they had constructed for themselves over the past forty years.

When Barbie arrived back in Lyons, the memories of the Occupation began to return and the general public became nervously euphoric about finally getting the chance to confront one of the darkest, most tragic chapters of their history face on. As was the case with most trials of prominent Nazis, the trial of Klaus Barbie was surrounded by a swarm of misconceptions. Like the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Final Solution, the most prominent and most short-lived misconception was that the trial would be an easy victory for the prosecution.23 The problem was that what Barbie and his fellow Nazis had done had caused a great deal of pain and because that pain had gone unanswered for almost forty years, it became even deeper. Repressed agony on a massive scale makes for moral uneasiness and given the amount of memories they repressed, it is fair to say that the French liked to avoid such uneasiness. To paraphrase Erna Paris, in order to convict Barbie, France would have to open the door of the closet into which the truth about Vichy had been so hurriedly shoved.24 Once that door had been opened, it would remain that way until all its contents had been exposed. Nervous or not, most French thought they were ready to finally confront their past. What they did not know was how much of the past they would confront, because far more than just the Occupation was going to be brought up during Barbie's trial.

Related Sites:

FBI document on Barbie

References for Chapters 4 and 5

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Trial of Klaus Barbie Homepage

Copyright 2000 by Joseph November