JOHN BARBER May 25 1987


JOHN BARBER May 25 1987



Those who lose a war are called war criminals. The winners become the redressers of wrongs.—Klaus Barbie

The wrongs of former SS Obersturmführer (lieutenant) and convicted war criminal Klaus Barbie are well-documented: he ordered 4,342 executions and deported 7,591 Jews to Nazi death camps. That record alone would suffice to have earned Barbie his place in the pantheon of Nazi evil. But it was not the raw figures that earned the so-called Butcher of Lyons his reputation; it was what his superiors in the Gestapo called “enthusiasm” and what one of his surviving victims, 86-year-old Lise Lesèvre, last week called “the absolute joy he took in making others suffer.”

Lesèvre and others recall that he would sometimes cease burning, maiming, drowning or kicking his prisoners in order to fondle his secretary or play a love song on a nearby piano. They also remember the roles that he devised for his two German shepherd dogs in the torture sessions. That is what made Klaus Barbie unforgettable to his victims. And that is why, according to Lesèvre, “He must pay.” Terror: That simple vision of justice is what led to Barbie’s extradition from his refuge in La Paz, Bolivia, in 1983, and to his forced return to France 39 years after he left. And it has led a generation of French Jews to regard the Barbie trial as a valuable lesson in remembrance for their children. But in the years between Barbie’s arrest and his arraignment in the crowded Palais de Justice in Lyons last week, that vision has become clouded and uncertain. Aided by by his ultraleftist lawyer, Jacques Vergés (page 41), Barbie threatened to turn the tables on his accusers and expose members of the French Resistance who had collaborated in his campaign of terror. Vergés had pledged to expose what he called France’s “shameful past” before an international audience and to drag Barbie’s accusers down from their moral high ground (page 40).

That prospect transfixed the French media and triggered a fierce historical debate about the extent of French collaboration during the Second World War. As a result, by the time Barbie finally came to trial, the aura of righteousness that originally surrounded the case had largely evaporated. In its place was an atmosphere of tension, a sense that when The Butcher of Lyons rose to give his own account of events, anything could happen.

Barbie’s trial took its first twist after just three days when the defendant stunned the court on May 13 by an-

nouncing that he was leaving the court. After patiently listening to a long series of statements followed by brief questions from the judges, Barbie declared himself to be “the victim of a kidnapping” and demanded his return

to St. Joseph Prison in Lyons, where he has been held since 1983 in a comfortable four-room suite. Barbie was exercising his right under French law, and for the rest of the week the glass-shielded prisoner’s dock remained empty.

Victims: Many plaintiffs expressed regret at being denied the opportunity to confront Barbie. Vergés said that his client had adopted the tactic on the advice of a Bolivian lawyer who is

contesting his expulsion from that country. But lawyer Serge Klarsfeld, who is representing many Jewish plaintiffs in the case, declared, “Finally, the executioner showed he was weaker than his victims.”

Barrier: Barbie’s absence left an eerie vacuum at the heart of the spectacle in Lyons. The trial is being staged in the entrance foyer of the city’s largest courthouse, newly renovated to accommodate the extraordinary cast of characters that has found a role in the drama. To that end, 400 folding chairs, most of them reserved for journalists, now dominate the classical Salle des pas perdus (literally, the room of lost steps).

Ranged along three walls is a make-

shift balcony occupied by 150 individuals who have claims against Barbie. They include Lesèvre, an aged Resistance member who survived Barbie’s torture, and the grandchildren of victims who did not. Facing them on a

high dais are three magistrates and nine jurors, with about 40 of the victims’ lawyers ranged on tiers to the judges’ right. And to their left, Jacques Vergés sits alone beneath the now-empty prisoner’s dock.

Barbie’s decision left Vergés at centre stage. At the same time, it removed one more barrier from the attorney’s determination to put France itself, rather than Klaus Barbie, on trial. According to Erna Paris of Toronto, the author of the 1985 book Unhealed Wounds: France and the Klaus Barbie Affair, the attorney’s pretrial tactics have already been successful. She added that he had robbed many of the people who originally urged Barbie’s extradition of a clear-cut victory.

In order to combat Vergés’ strategy, the 40 lawyers representing his victims held silent vigils the day before the trial began at two sites certain to be prominent in their case. One of them was a farmhouse near the village of Izieu, 60 km southwest of Lyons. There, 44 Jewish children and seven of their supervisors remained hidden from persecution—until April 6, 1944, when Barbie sent a squad of armed police to round them up and deport them to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Germany. The other was Montluc prison, the dungeon-like 19th-century fortress in Lyons where Barbie carried out his tortures and

ordered executions. At both locations, the lawyers pledged unity against Vergés’ tactics to divide them and deflect attention from Barbie’s crimes.

Genocide: In building its case over four years, the prosecution focused it narrowly. One reason was that Barbie has already been tried twice in his absence by French courts, once in 1952 and again in 1954. In both instances he was found guilty of war crimes and sentenced to death, but the convictions are now void according to a statute of limitations, and the law protected him from being tried again on the same charges. As a result, the prosecution chose to try Barbie for “crimes against humanity,” a charge adopted by the United Nations in 1945 to deal with Nazi atrocities and incorporated into the French penal code in 1964. No statute of limitations applies to that law, which specifically prohibits the genocide that Barbie is accused of practising against the children of Izieu.

The law does not cover efforts to suppress the Resistance, but the case against Barbie contains one controversial charge related to the execution and deportation of Resistance members.

It was included after a French court ruled that such actions were excessive enough to qualify as crimes against humanity. But many observers say that Vergés will use the charge to derail the trial: French politician and Auschwitz survivor Simone Veil, for one, called it “a catastrophe.”

Mystery: Still, others have welcomed the opportunity to re-examine the role of the Resistance, which until recently has enjoyed an inviolate reputation in France. Many Frenchmen are eager to learn more about Resistance leader Jean Moulin.

Moulin, whose wartime feats have earned him a reputation as one of France’s greatest heroes, was allegedly betrayed by a comrade and murdered by Barbie. Barbie has denied torturing Moulin—despite the accounts of those who witnessed the results—and the question of who betrayed him is still a mystery.

By contrast, there is little doubt about the fate of the Izieu children, an incident that is central to the case against Barbie: all of them, with the exception of one of their adult supervisors, died at Auschwitz. Indeed, the prosecutors plan to introduce a telegram, signed by Barbie, reporting the roundup to his superiors. But there is no evidence that Barbie was present when the Gestapo grabbed the children in the middle of their breakfast and pitched them into the backs of two waiting trucks—the start of a coldblooded action unparalleled in the annals of occupied France.

The testimony of individuals who survived Barbie’s tortures will likely be equally compelling. Edith Klebinder, for one, was on the same convoy that transported the doomed children of Izieu to Auschwitz. And Francine Gudesin, who owned a Lyons café that was frequented by Resistance members, displayed the disfiguring facial injuries that she says were inflicted by one of Barbie’s aides.

For her part, Lesèvre said that she survived 19 days of torture before being deported to a death camp where, miraculously, she survived. “Fortunately, I could faint easily,” she said. “But each time I woke up, it was with Barbie kicking me in the face.” Added

Mario Bardone, another Resistance member who was captured by Barbie:

“We told each other that if any one of us survived, for as long as he lived he would tell how the others died. At the liberation, the camp survivors solemnly promised this.”

Triumphs: To Serge Klarsfeld, the lawyer who has meticulously documented those lurid crimes, Barbie was “among the most cruel, the most zealous of the chiefs of the Nazi po-

lice.” A French Jew whose father was murdered by Nazis, Klarsfeld and his Protestant German wife, Beate, have pursued Barbie and other Nazis with unswerving dedication. Beate first gained attention in the late 1960s with her dogged campaign to discredit West German Chancellor Kurt-Georg Kiesinger after she discovered that he had

been a high-level functionary in the Nazi propaganda machine run by Joseph Goebbels. Her persistent attacks damaged Kiesinger’s reputation, and he lost the 1969 election to Social Democrat Willy Brandt. The Klarsfelds then continued their search for hidden

Nazis, and their triumphs during the 1970s include the exposure of three former leaders of the Gestapo in occupied France. Those men were subsequently tried and convicted, but finding Barbie and forcing his return to France remains their crowning achievement.

Tactics: The hunt began in 1971, when Beate Klarsfeld learned that West German authori-

ties were dropping the case against Barbie because of what they con-

sidered to be a lack of evidence. She lobbied the Munich investigators relentlessly, staged public demonstrations and unearthed more evidence of Barbie’s crimes. Her efforts succeeded, and the West German authorities reopened the case. Soon afterward, the couple traced Barbie to Bolivia. Then, using the confrontational tactics that had proven successful in Europe, Beate went to La Paz in 1972 accompanied by the surviving mother of a family persecuted by Barbie. There, the two women publicly lobbied the country’s military government to arrest him.

Assassination: At first her efforts were unsuccessful, even though the French government had also requested Barbie’s extradition. One reason: operating under the alias Klaus Altmann, Barbie had, over the course of 20 years, embedded himself deep within the Bolivian establishment. Officially a director of a company devoted to building a navy for the landlocked nation, Barbie was also active as an arms trafficker and as a linchpin

in the country’s thriving

drug trade, according to former Bolivian deputy

minister Gustavo Sánchez Salazar, who testified at the trial last week. Sánchez added that Barbie had also organized a terrorist group known as the Bridegrooms of Death which protected the country’s cocaine barons. It was not until 1983, a year after a democratic government came into power, that Barbie lost his protected status and was expelled from Bolivia.

Still, the Klarsfelds alienated some supporters—and less militant Nazi hunters—when they acknowledged in 1985 that they had planned to assassinate Barbie when it appeared that he would never leave Bolivia. The couple’s numerous enemies have since reciprocated, twice trying to bomb them. But the Klarsfelds’ activism has proven effective not only in bringing criminals to justice, but also in spreading awareness of the treatment of French Jews during the Nazi occupation.

The Klarsfelds’ success in getting Barbie to trial has revived efforts to bring war criminals into court before the last witness to the Holocaust dies. To that end, Israel and the United States recently co-operated in bringing former Ukrainian death camp guard John Demjanjuk to trial. In Jerusalem, Demjanjuk is accused of brutalizing prisoners at the Treblinka death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland before driving them into the gas chambers. Now in its 13th week, the trial of “Ivan the Terrible” is broadcast live on televi-

sion and radio and commands intense interest in Israel.

At its centre is a man who for years after the war lived peaceably in Cleveland, where he was an autoworker. His extradition last year represents the

greatest success to date of the U.S. Office for Special Investigations, a special federal unit formed in 1979 to root out Nazi criminals who found refuge in that country. The OSI has stripped 22 naturalized Americans of their citizenship and forced them out of the coun-

try. In addition, it has 27 cases in the courts now and more than 500 investigations under way.

U.S. authorities recently deported two suspected war criminals to the Soviet Union after studying Soviet-sup-

plied evidence of crimes they had allegedly committed. They are Fyodor Fedorenko, sentenced to death last June in the Crimean city of Simferopol, and Karl Linnas, who lost an eight,-year legal battle last month when he was sent back to the Soviet Union to face charges resulting from his command of a death camp in the Estonian city of Tartu.

Guilt: The activism of the OSI contrasts with the dwindling strength of Israel’s official Nazi hunters, the members of a special police unit formed at the time of

the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961. At its peak, the unit employed 16 officers, but Israeli authorities are no

longer replacing retiring members, and there are now only seven officers serving in the unit. But, declared the unit commander, chief superintendent Menachem Roussek, “as long as there are any Nazi criminals still alive and as long as there are still witnesses, we have to go on working.” He estimated that the end of the hunt would come within 10 to 15 years.

As both the Barbie and Demjanjuk cases demonstrate, the history of Nazi genocide has lost none of its power to shock. Just as clearly, prosecutors and many Holocaust survivors say that the passage of decades has done nothing to erase the guilt of war criminals. But some observers say that the Barbie trial is nothing more than a media circus and that it is unlikely to have any lasting impact. One of them, philosopher Alain Finkielkraut said that the trial “will be no better than a rugby final. Everyone anticipates the big game, everyone is glued to the action while it unfolds, and two days later nobody can remember the score.”

Bluff: Finkielkraut acknowledges that the trial could have widespread repercussions in France if Vergés and Barbie are successful in their attempt to expose high-level collaborators within the vaunted Resistance. But that is unlikely to happen, according to Michael Marrus, University of Toronto historian and co-author of the 1981 book Vichy France and the Jews. He called the threat “a colossal bluff.”

As well, Marrus denies claims that the trial could damage the fabric of French society. The reason, he said, is that the full extent of French collaboration with the Nazis has been thoroughly aired over the past 15 years, beginning in 1969 with the release of Marcel Ophuls’s landmark documentary film, The Sorrow and the Pity. Now, noted Marrus, the myth of widespread participation in the Resistance has been revised, if not destroyed. French schoolchildren now learn in their own textbooks that 90 per cent of the 76,000 French Jews deported to Nazi death camps during the war were sent there not by Germans but by French police acting on orders from French politicians. Only 3,000 returned.

The courtroom appearances of an old man in a neat, sombre-toned suit last week introduced to the world someone accused of condemning 44 children to certain death—and refusing to repent for his actions. The survivors of the Holocaust say that the benign appearance of the man in handcuffs should not blur the fact that such crimes did occur. For Barbie, his victims and the rest of the world, the trial is a vivid reminder that the Holocaust is much more than a remote episode in history.