During World War II, SS Hauptsturmführer Nikolaus “Klaus” Barbie earned a reputation for sadistic cruelty unmatched by all but a handful of his contemporaries in Adolf Hitler’s Gestapo. In 1942, he was dispatched to Nazi-occupied France after leaving his bloodstained mark on the Netherlands. In Lyons, Barbie was entrusted with “cleansing” the region of Jews, French Resistance fighters, and Communists, an assignment he undertook with unparalleled enthusiasm.
Thousands of people died on Barbie’s orders during his time in France—often by his own hand—including forty-four orphaned Jewish children and captured resistance leader Jean Moulin, who was tortured and beaten to death. When the Allies were approaching Lyons in the months following the D-Day invasion, Barbie and his subordinates fled, but not before brutally slaughtering all the prisoners still being held captive.
But the war’s conclusion was not the end of the Klaus Barbie nightmare. With the dawning of the Cold War, the “Butcher of Lyons” went on to find a new purpose in South America, just as tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were escalating. Soon, Barbie had a different employer who valued his wartime experience and expertise as an anti-communist man hunter and murderer: the US intelligence services.
In Klaus Barbie, investigative journalist and documentary filmmaker Tom Bower tells the fascinating, startling, and truly disturbing story of a real-life human monster, and draws back the curtain on one of America’s most shocking secrets of the Cold War.
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The Butcher of Lyons
By Tom Bower
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1984 Tom Bower
All rights reserved.
Lawyers do not usually contemplate murder, but this was a special case. For eleven years, Parisian lawyer Serge Klarsfeld and his German wife Beate had battled in vain to bring a vicious Nazi torturer and mass murderer back to Europe to face his victims. With guile and contempt he had frustrated their most dedicated efforts. Ever since he had been discovered hiding in Bolivia in 1971, Klaus Barbie had boasted provocatively about his love for Adolf Hitler, his undying devotion to Nazism, and how he had humiliated the French Resistance in Lyons. His scornful defiance of the French had wounded his surviving victims and the Klarsfelds were determined on revenge.
In late summer 1982, the Klarsfelds feared that he was about to disappear forever into the impenetrable South American underworld of fugitive Nazis, that haven which had nourished and protected so many of the architects and executioners of Hitler's Reich. They were, quite simply, determined that 'The Butcher of Lyons' was not going to have the pleasure of joining them. Their options were crude, perhaps, but were, they felt, inevitable. If Barbie could not be brought back to Europe alive to stand trial for his massive crimes as Gestapo chief of Lyons during the Occupation, he would have to be killed.
Seven thousand miles away, on the high plateau of the Andean mountains, Bolivian politicians and generals were struggling through a more than usually turbulent political crisis to settle the fate of the country's 191st president. Waiting in exile to become the country's next leader was the liberal president-elect, Hernán Siles Zuazo. In July 1982, Zuazo had told reporters that the protection and friendship which Klaus Barbie and his family had enjoyed from Bolivian generals since 1951 would end once he took over in La Paz. Zuazo did not explain his intentions, but no-one missed the important new ingredient: this was the first time that any Bolivian politician had even suggested that Barbie was not a fully protected Bolivian citizen. Yet, Zuazo's statement contrasted sharply with events in the capital: at that very moment, the grey-haired tubby figure of Klaus Barbie was seen emerging from the presidential palace. He had just spent one hour paying his compliments to his good friend, the new President. The significance of that visit was clear. Klaus Barbie was the first civilian to be received by the new President since taking office – confirmation, if it were needed, of his importance in the country.
In Paris, the Klarsfelds warily monitored developments. Although experienced and successful Nazi-hunters, they could not predict his tactics on this occasion. In such a volatile climate they could only guess at their prey's reactions to political change. At the beginning of October, Bolivia was reported to be preparing itself for yet another president. Siles Zuazo was finally sworn in on 10 October and now the Klarsfelds feared that Barbie would flee the country. Exactly three days later, Serge Klarsfeld bought a one-way ticket for a young Bolivian to fly to La Paz (via Barcelona and Buenos Aires, 'so as not to raise suspicion') to see if Barbie was preparing to escape. Beate Klarsfeld is unashamedly honest about their intentions and motives had the report been positive:
Barbie would have been killed. Serge and I felt responsible for the mothers of the children he had murdered. It was inconceivable to us that the mothers would one day die, having suffered terrible anguish for forty years, and Barbie would still be enjoying life. We always told the mothers that killing would be an act of despair, a defeat, but that we had to be prepared to kill him if we couldn't find a legal solution. It would still have been a success.
The Klarsfelds' agent reported from La Paz that, posing as a businessman, he had actually met and spoken with Barbie and there was no immediate indication that the German was planning a swift escape. Instead, he was sticking to his regular routine of drinking coffee in his favourite bar, the Confiteria La Paz, and visiting his dying wife in hospital. His faithful Bolivian bodyguard, Alvaro de Castro, was by his side, but then Barbie had been protected thus for ten years. Asked by a journalist a few days after Zuazo became President whether he feared extradition, Barbie replied, 'I doubt if President Zuazo will extradite me. The war has been over for thirty-seven years. I was doing nothing but defending my people when Germany and France were at war.' The only outward sign of the Nazi fugitive's concern about his safety, was that he had relinquished his favourite table in the middle of the café and now sat at the side, with his back to the wall. Serge Klarsfeld asked his associate to keep Barbie under observation and decided to see whether the French government was prepared to renew its 1972 request for Barbie's extradition. He telephoned an old friend at the Elysée Palace, Régis Debray, a special assistant to President Mitterrand. Debray had more than a passing interest in both Bolivia and Barbie.
In 1967, Debray had become internationally famous as a French Marxist and journalist. He had joined the legendary Cuban guerrilla leader, Che Guevara, on his historic but futile attempt to encourage the Bolivian peasants to revolt against the country's dictatorial landowners and generals. Guevara was soon killed and Debray arrested. In the late Sixties, the young Frenchman became a martyr. His whole cause – books, the trial, and the imprisonment – aroused passionate sympathy among student radicals around the world who were demonstrating against the Vietnam war. In 1970, with the help of President de Gaulle, he was reprieved of his thirty-year sentence. Inevitably, on his return to France, his anger against the repressive and murderous Bolivian juntas and their 'security advisers' had not disappeared. Klaus Barbie was one of those advisers. In early 1972, the Klarsfelds had masterminded an aggressive international campaign to force Barbie's extradition from Bolivia, but it had failed. Bitterly disappointed, the Klarsfelds immediately recruited Debray into an audacious plot.
Using a false passport, Serge Klarsfeld flew to Chile in December 1972 to meet Debray, who at the time was living in the capital. Renting a small plane, they flew together from Santiago to Chile's north-eastern border with Bolivia for a prearranged meeting with Bolivian guerrillas who were keeping Guevara's cause alive. The Frenchmen's plan was for the guerrillas to kidnap Barbie and bring him, drugged, across the border, whence he would be flown down to Santiago and loaded onto a ship bound for France. The plan agreed, Klarsfeld returned to France, leaving the guerrillas to arrange the safe houses, cars and other necessary ingredients of a kidnap. Their plan depended on the sympathetic cooperation of Chile's Marxist President, Salvador Allende. But in early 1973, the CIA's sudden destabilisation of the Allende government plunged Chile into crisis. After weeks of planning, there was no alternative but for Klarsfeld and Debray to abort their mission.
They had kept in touch over the next decade, so when Serge called Debray at the Elysée Palace on 26 October 1982, asking to see him urgently, he was given an appointment the following afternoon. For an hour, Klarsfeld and Debray discussed the new conditions in Bolivia and the chances of a successful request for Barbie's extradition. The legal hurdles seemed, as ever, insurmountable: Barbie had Bolivian nationality, he seemed to be an intimate friend of many important Bolivians, and France had no extradition treaty with Bolivia. Yet Klarsfeld and Debray agreed that they could never hope for better conditions. Bolivia's new President was a socialist, very friendly towards France and a personal friend of several French cabinet ministers. He was also anxious to improve Bolivia's image and wanted French help. A week earlier he had told the New York Times that he favoured Barbie's extradition. When the French ambassador in La Paz read the report, he had discreetly reminded the new President that the West German government had officially requested the Nazi's extradition the previous May. To ensure Zuazo's complete cooperation, Klarsfeld and Debray agreed that they now needed the personal prestige and authority of the French President.
There was a strong Jewish contingent in President Mitterrand's cabinet and many of their fathers, including the President's, had been members of the French Resistance. Mitterrand's and Klarsfeld's fathers had been members of the same Resistance group. Everyone knew that President Mitterrand was always anxious to ennoble the memory of the Resistance. To emphasise that commitment, the President had on the day of his inauguration, paid a special solemn visit to the tomb of the Resistance leader, Jean Moulin, in the Pantheon, the resting place of many French heroes. Moulin had been tortured to death by Barbie and the fortieth anniversary of his death was approaching. The catalogue of Barbie's other alleged crimes in Lyons would make the prospect of his arrest, in Debray's view, very attractive to the government. It would be a national homage to his victims – 4,342 murdered, 7,591 deported to German concentration camps and 14,311 arrested.
Debray had good access to the President and had soon explained the chances of extracting Barbie from South America. Predictably, the President was immediately interested, and not just to satisfy his own feelings. It is in the nature of politics that governments seek any device to increase their popularity: Mitterrand was not averse to a project which might cost little but produce so much. His government had won a spectacular election victory in May 1981 but it was already under pressure to compromise and sacrifice many of its election promises. The opinion polls showed that support for France's first socialist government to be elected since 1936 had declined sharply. Any opportunity of winning overwhelming national approval and boosting the government's prestige was not to be missed.
Mitterrand cautioned Debray about the need for utmost secrecy, not only to avoid alarming Barbie, but also to protect the government in the event of failure. Both men knew that success depended on a sensitive approach and on delicate negotiations with both West Germany and Bolivia. The West Germans had to be consulted because, since 1975, they were empowered to prosecute Germans who had committed war crimes in France. President Zuazo had to be convinced that he should accept Germany's recent request for Barbie's extradition. There was no doubt in the President's mind that Bonn would be agreeable, and France, which had always prided itself on its special understanding of Latin America, could help diplomatically.
Not all the news from La Paz in early November was encouraging. Barbie was reported suddenly to have disappeared, probably to another country. Paraguay, the reputed refuge of Josef Mengele, the infamous Auschwitz 'doctor', was mentioned as his likeliest destination. The Elysée was not deterred. Common sense dictated that even Nazi murderers do not abandon their dying wives. Quietly, the operation was launched. Only a handful of ministers and officials with a 'need-to-know' were to be alerted and included in the special team which was to be masterminded by Jean Louis Bianco, the head of the President's personal staff. Others in the select group were the Foreign Minister, Claude Cheysson, a courageous Resistance veteran, and the Minister of Justice, Robert Badinter, whose father had been arrested in Lyons by Barbie personally in 1943, and had never returned from Auschwitz.
The first to leave for Bolivia was Antoine Blanca, France's roving ambassador on the continent. When he arrived at the end of November, his access to Zuazo was guaranteed: the French ambassador in La Paz, Raymond Césaire, had given the Bolivian President sanctuary when his life was in danger during a coup in 1980. Blanca was immediately assured of Zuazo's sympathy but cautioned that there were many problems. Zuazo's reaction was telexed to the Elysée.
In Lyons, a town covered with plaques and statues commemorating the victims of Barbie's reign of terror, Christian Riss, a thirty-six-year-old examining magistrate, had been slowly sifting through the Barbie files since February. Serge Klarsfeld had discovered, to his astonishment, in late 1981, that, because of bureaucratic incompetence, there were neither charges nor a warrant outstanding against Barbie in France. As the Elysée prepared its Barbie operation, Robert Badinter advised Riss to find, discreetly but urgently, a list of new charges and formally issue a warrant for Barbie's arrest.
At the beginning of December, the French ambassador in Bonn called at the West German Foreign Ministry. After briefing senior officials about the French government's assessment of the new situation in Zuazo's Bolivia, and of its strong interest in securing Barbie's extradition, he asked the German government to press their case immediately in La Paz. Neither he nor his government in Paris was prepared for the reply. With the authority of Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the Foreign Minister, the German officials explained that, although they had requested Barbie's extradition, Germany felt distinctly lukewarm about his return and a trial. According to one of the French ministers, 'When we heard the news from Bonn, we were very surprised, but when Zuazo heard about it in Bolivia, he was stunned and embarrassed. He wanted to get rid of Barbie; but it was a new, democratic government, and he wanted it done legally. Unless the Germans changed their minds, it was going to be very difficult.'
Barbie had just celebrated his sixty-ninth birthday. If he was brought back to Europe, the worst he could expect was life imprisonment. Germany had abolished the death penalty after the war and President Mitterrand's own government had just passed the unpopular legislation dismantling the guillotine. When Barbie finally returned, outraged, to Europe, he protested not at his unjust imprisonment but at his illegal expulsion from Bolivia. After nearly fifty years of serving tyranny, the outlaw was criticising democratic governments for failing to obey the letter of international law.CHAPTER 2
Nikolaus 'Klaus' Barbie was born on 25 October 1913 in Bad Godesberg, a small quiet town next to the Rhine, just south of Bonn. Although both his parents were Catholic, they did not marry until three months after his birth. The ceremony was held in Merzig, in the Saar, where the Barbie family had lived since the French Revolution. According to Barbie himself, his forefathers were probably called Barbier, and left France as refugees during the reign of Louis XIV.
His father, also called Nikolaus, was first an office worker and later a primary school teacher at the Noder school where Barbie himself was a pupil until the age of eleven; he died in 1933, aged forty-five, the late victim of a First World War bullet wound. Barbie claimed that his father was wounded at Verdun and, in anger at French occupation of the Rhineland, had joined the German resistance movement. Naturally, he claimed that his father's activities were, unlike those of the French Resistance, both legal and justified. That occupation undoubtedly coloured his feelings about the French. Those who knew Barbie after the war say that he was very fond of his mother, Anna Hees. Her second son had died at eighteen, of a heart disease, and she was proud of her surviving son's distinction although probably quite ignorant of his activities.
Barbie's relations with his father were very strained. A heavy drinker, whose developing illness was sharply cutting into his income, his father increasingly subjected his young son to disciplinarian tirades which Barbie himself admits had a very detrimental effect on his whole life and personality. It was therefore a considerable relief when, in 1923, Barbie moved away from his family to the Friedrich-Wilhelm grammar school in Trier, initially as a boarder. 'I was finally independent,' is how he described his feelings in a revelatory essay written when he left in 1934. He felt liberated from the pressure of being the schoolteacher's son: 'It was a major aspect of my education.' In 1925, however, the whole family moved to Trier. Once again, 'I had to live with my mother and father. I was happy, but I was also disappointed.' He clearly felt the effects of his unhappy home life: 'The terrible hardships which I suffered during [those years] will be my secret forever, and have repercussions on my future ... Those years made me a wise man, teaching me how bitter life can be, and how terrible destiny.'
In 1933, both his father and brother died. The Barbie family was plunged into depression and tumult at the very moment that Adolf Hitler became Germany's Chancellor. The deaths were 'a terrible blow for my mother and myself,' wrote Barbie. 'I must say that destiny, through the death of my father, has completely destroyed my most cherished hopes.' After several attempts, Barbie finally passed his graduation exams in 1934, but with just average marks. 'This year's events,' he wrote, 'have left me restless. Like every other true German, I am attracted by the powerful national movement, and today I serve alongside all the others who follow the Führer.'
Excerpted from Klaus Barbie by Tom Bower. Copyright © 1984 Tom Bower. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Table of Contents
Preface and Acknowledgments,
The Rat Line,
The Nazi Hunters,
Note on Sources,
About the Author,