A Brief History
On July 4, 1987, justice came late, but better than never, when Nazi German war criminal, Klaus Barbie, known as the “Butcher of Lyon” was sentenced to life in prison for his crimes. A member of the SS and officer of the dreaded secret police, the Gestapo, Barbie was known to personally torture prisoners while in charge of the Lyon, France, Gestapo station during World War II. Despite fierce French animosity toward this monster, the United States intelligence apparatus helped Barbie escape Europe for Bolivia, South America, where the US used him as an anti-Marxist agent. Barbie is a prime example of how the victorious allies sometimes used former German Nazi’s as pawns in the Cold War that developed after World War II, both for political reasons and for scientific contributions, notably the space programs of the US and USSR.
Nikolaus Barbie was born in what is now part of Bonn, Western Germany, in 1913. His ethnic heritage was probably French, though he was raised as a German, his father serving as a German soldier during World War I, an experience that left the elder Barbie wounded and bitter, turning to alcohol and abuse of his family. The plans for Klaus to continue his education were upset when his father died in 1933. Instead of a university education, Klaus was conscripted into the Reichsarbeitsdienst, a labor force concocted by the Nazi party. Barbie apparently took readily to the Nazi political philosophy and joined the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), the security arm of the dreaded SS (Schutzstaffel) in 1935.
Once World War II was underway, the German conquest of Europe necessitated intelligence and security operations in occupied nations, and Barbie was assigned first to the Netherlands and then to France, where he operated as the station chief of the Lyon, France division of the Gestapo, the infamous and highly dreaded German secret police. In Lyon Barbie earned his reputation as a monster, responsible for perhaps 14,000 deaths of French citizens suspected of anti-German activities. Barbie was known to sadistically and personally torture victims, including children, even to the extent of skinning a victim alive! Barbie also participated in send Jews and others to concentration camps until forced to retreat with the rest of the German occupiers after the Allied invasion of France and march across the country liberating city after city.
Relations between the wartime Western Allies were somewhat strained by the conflicting lust for revenge by the French and other victims of German occupation and the desire by the Americans to coopt former German operatives as agents in the Cold War against the Soviet Union. Barbie was such a pawn in this struggle, recruited by the Americans in 1947, despite demands by the French that he be turned over for trial for war crimes. Barbie provided the US intelligence services with valuable information about British interrogation techniques that had been employed on Barbie personally. Barbie was also consulted for advice in fighting against communist activities in liberated Europe. The US intelligence community feared the French were riddled with communist sympathizers and were somewhat leery of trusting their erstwhile Allies.
The aggrieved French knew Barbie was in the hands of the Americans and having been rebuffed in their efforts to have Barbie turned over to the French for trial, the French tried the war criminal in absentia, finding him guilty and sentencing the monster to death. The US secretly spirited Barbie out of Europe to South America, ironically using a Roman Catholic connection to achieve the clandestine transport of the criminal. The US feared that Barbie had too much information about US intelligence activities and spy networks in Europe to allow him to be taken by the French or any other power.
In the 1960’s Barbie was hired by the West German intelligence apparatus (Bundesnachrichtendienst, or BND). Back in Bolivia, Barbie enjoyed cordial relations with the ruling party and even was appointed as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Bolivian armed forces! In 1971, French Nazi war criminal hunters known as the Klarsfelds discovered the alias being used by Barbie and his whereabouts in South America. The Klarsfelds “outed” Barbie by publishing this information in French newspapers. Bolivia continued to refuse extradition despite international pressure. In 1983, a new government in Bolivia had had enough of Barbie and his criminal activities and decided to send him back to France for trial.
Barbie used his alias of Klaus Altmann as his name in the trial and argued that the extradition had been illegal. His defense was financed by a wealthy Swiss financier. Barbie’s defense team attempted to use the historic French colonial abuses of native people against the prosecution, including alleged war crimes by France in Indochina and other colonies since World War II ended. The jury did not buy Barbie’s defense, and found him guilty of war crimes, the judge imposing a sentence of life in prison. Barbie died in prison 4 years later, the victim of leukemia at the age of 77.
Barbie is just one of many former World War II war criminals to have been successfully hunted down and prosecuted for their crimes, and by now (2019) there cannot be many such criminals left alive, the War having ended 74 years ago. Will any further arrests and prosecutions take place, or are we done with that sad era of man’s inhumanity toward his fellow man?
Question for students (and subscribers): What World War II war criminals can you think of that have escaped arrest and prosecution? Should there be a statue of limitations on war crimes? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Bower, Tom. Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyons. Pantheon Books, 1984.
McFarren, Peter, and Fadrique Iglesias. The Devil’s Agent: Life, Times and Crimes of Nazi Klaus Barbie. Xlibris, 2013.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by Romainbehar of a trial for history exhibition at the Department of Archives of the Rhône department and the Lyon metropolis, held between September 15, 2017 and April 30, 2018, is made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.