The Progress of Klaus Barbie

The Nazi Legacy: Klaus Barbie and the International Fascist Connection

by Magnus Linklater and Isabel Hilton and Neal Ascherson
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 355 pp., $17.95

Klaus Barbie

by Ladislas de Hoyos, translated by Nicholas Courtin
W.H. Allen (London), 310 pp., £10.95


For well over two years former SS Hauptsturmführer Klaus Barbie, indicted for crimes against humanity committed during World War II, has been confined in Lyons’ St. Joseph Prison, close to the former Gestapo headquarters where he conducted his tortures. Every few months a brief story in the French press reports on the prisoner’s fluctuating health (he was recently slipped a dose of floorcleaning compound instead of his daily medicine, and suffered mouth burns), and surmises that his trial will probably take place this fall. But no court date has officially been set, and the euphoria that swept France at the time of Barbie’s extradition from Bolivia has been replaced by a wary indifference. There has been a growing sense that life imprisonment is sufficient punishment; that the seventytwo-year-old former SS man should be allowed to live out his last years in his cell, untried, rather than awaken the bitterness of the occupation years in a court of law.

The prospect that once elated many French people—that Barbie would be tried for the torture and murder of Jean Moulin and other members of the Resistance—has been eliminated. French law imposes a twenty-year statute of limitations on war crimes, and therefore Barbie can no longer be tried for the atrocities he committed against the Resistance. He can only be tried for “crimes against humanity,” that is, against innocent, unarmed civilians. The eight charges originally brought against Barbie have been reduced to three, and they deal solely with his part in the deportation of some 780 Jews to the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Ravensbruck. By restricting itself to Barbie’s crimes against Jews his trial threatens to unmask numbers of French citizens who thrived as informers in Barbie’s employ. It could bring into the open an issue particularly painful to the French: to one degree or another, many collaborated in carrying out the Final Solution, and did so with a zeal equaled only in occupied nations (Hungary, Romania) that had already been allied with Germany before the war.

The slow pace—some think deliberately slow—of Barbie’s prosecution has given publishers time to issue a number of books on Barbie. Several of them belong to the familiar genre of S & M pornography disguised as Nazi history; they show the “Butcher of Lyons” as an archetypal SS monster, fondling women on his lap while whipping his victims, calling into his interrogation rooms naked blondes and German shepherd dogs trained for bestiality.1 By contrast, The Nazi Legacy: Klaus Barbie and the International Fascist Connection, written by three gifted and scrupulous British journalists, is the first complete account of Barbie’s fifty-year career in international crime. It is also a brilliant case study of how the Nazi ideology and techniques were exported throughout Latin America after the war and how this activity was abetted by the Western democratic powers, particularly the United States.

Who, precisely, was Klaus Barbie? What led him to become, if not a high executive of Nazism, and exceptionally efficient middle-level manager of its killing machine? The Nazi Legacy offers many new insights into Barbie’s early years. He is remembered in his home town of Trier (in the Mosel valley, an exceptionally Francophobic region which had been occupied by French troops for a decade after World War I) as a remarkably unremarkable boy, mild of temperament and average in studies, in every respect clean-cut and mousy. Both his parents taught school in the neighboring village of Udler; the father drank excessively and violently; his mother, or so the authors were told, was a fair-minded and moderate woman, who remained throughout her life the center of Klaus’s affection. The authors found that Barbie, who was born in 1913, was a particularly devout Catholic in his teens; he joined church groups that did relief work among the poor and thought of studying for the priesthood.

Two bitter experiences marked his youth. In 1933 his father died at the age of forty-four, from cancer of the neck, presumably caused by a wound incurred in the First World War, a wound on which his son would later blame his particularly violent hatred of the French. The family was left with little to live on, and Barbie had to give up his hopes for higher education, especially hard on a son of teachers, who took it for granted that he would go on to a university.

It was in this mood of personal bitterness, during the year of his father’s death, that Barbie joined the Hitler Youth, thereby forswearing his Catholic faith. “The committed youth with a sense of mission towards the destitute,” as The Nazi Legacy puts it, “had turned into a neo-pagan militant attached to the doctrine that the weakest should be driven to the wall.” Perhaps the authors make a bit too much of this reverse conversion. Many other good Catholic boys joined the National Socialist party as part of the Märzgefallenen in the spring of 1933. What they seem right to emphasize is the mysteriously exalted position in the Nazihierarchy to which the apparently “average” young Nazi rose only three years later. At the early age of twenty-two Barbie was already a member of the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) branch of the SS, the party’s own secret service, the inner sanctum of its power structure. How was this novice admitted so swiftly?

Barbie has tended to swaggering selfaggrandizement in the autobiographical statements he has made since the war. But those of his accounts that deal with his rise in the party would seem more trustworthy than others. He testified that at the age of eighteen, in his next-to-last year at the Gymnasium, the National Socialist party headquarters in Trier engaged him as a “voluntary helper” in the SD, promising him, in exchange, a free education in law school. The term “voluntary helper,” The Nazi Legacy explains, was a common euphemism for an infiltrator or spy. And so the authors suggest that Barbie began his career as a schoolboy informer, reporting on the activities of fellow Catholics in classrooms and in church groups. Since the SD, in those years, was in great part concerned with “cultural matters,” that is, with the potentially subversive nature of religious organizations, this deduction makes a great deal of sense.

In 1939 Barbie married a girlfriend of his adolescence, Regine Willms, daughter of a Trier postmaster. The ceremony was held under an oak tree in a large forest, according to some SS fantasy of ancient Nordic rites. Soon thereafter he followed the conquering army to Holland, where he was promoted to second lieutenant and assigned to a branch of theSDthat concentrated on hounding Jews and Freemasons. By interviewing Holocaust survivors in contemporary Amsterdam, Barbie’s British biographers show how he took part in the rounding up, in 1942, of several hundred Jews who were later deported to concentration camps.

One of the deportees was the distinguished scholar Adolf Altmann, formerly chief rabbi of Barbie’s home town of Trier, a man remembered to this day for his wisdom and gentleness. Could it be a coincidence that Klaus Barbie, six years later, chose for himself the name “Altmann” when he was about to flee to Latin America? The citizens of Trier, the survivors of Amsterdam, and the authors of The Nazi Legacy do not believe that he came upon the name accidentally and neither can the reader. Remembering the streak of cynicism already evident in his apostasy as an altarside spy, one can only see this as a savage, deliberate choice, the executioner toying with the identity of his victim, sarcastically defying the powers that had begun to hound him.

This tendency to engage in nosethumbing braggadocio, this additional measure of psychological bestiality, was much on display during Barbie’s years in Lyons, where he was sent in November 1942, after being promoted to the rank of captain. Throughout his sessions of interrogation and torture he showed a particularly morbid, almost scientific interest in the behavior of his prisoners, and a curious need to identify with the more valiant of them. “[Jean Moulin] impressed me throughout,” he would later write in one of his reports on his capture of the Resistance leader, “not the least because of his disturbing physical resemblance to me. Like me, he was calm and decisive.”

The Nazi Legacy sheds little new light on Barbie’s career in Lyons, but adds a few sadistic details. He shot a prisoner from two feet away as he shoved him down a flight of stairs, laughing as the man’s head split apart when it hit the floor. He strolled to a piano in the middle of a torture session and played “Parlez Moi d’Amour” with his bloodied fingers. He unleashed his vicious Alsatian dog, Wolf, to tear at the flesh of a captive resister.

What distinguishes the psychology of this barbaric local cop from that of high officials such as Eichmann and Himmler, and from mass killers such as Stangl, Höss, Stroop, all of whom tried to minimize their crimes, is Barbie’s subsequent desire to seem even more criminal than he had been, inventing atrocities he never committed. In recalling his days in Holland, for instance, he often described with gusto how he had killed a prominent Jewish resister, Ernst Cahn, by splitting open his skull with a heavy glass ashtray. The records show that Cahn had been tortured by someone else and had died in a camp.

Barbie’s blustering was infused with supermacho talk of sex. The French Resistance movement, in his words, was “a bunch of cowards with nothing in their underpants.” He contracted venereal disease during his first months in France, a flaw on his record which he complained had cost him a promotion to the rank of major. A few years later this did not lessen his delight in offering lurid accounts of his sexual adventures to his colleagues in the American intelligence services. The only flaw of The Nazi Legacy is that, like other secondhand accounts of Barbie, it fails to give the close sense of the man’s personality that one gets from his surviving victims—the dandyish, flirtatious manner with which the SS man, dressed in an immaculate gray business suit and stroking the gray cat he often held in his arms, approached most of his prisoners, addressing them in fluent, barely accented French. “He came into the room with a sweet smile on his face,” Simone La Grange, a survivor of his tortures and of Auschwitz told me, when I interviewed her. “He caressed my cheek, turned to my mother, and said, ‘How pretty she is!’… Later, when he began to strike me with his fist, he kept polishing his nails on the lapel of his jacket between blows, looking attentively at his fingernails before he struck me again.”

When Mme. La Grange, who will be a key witness at Barbie’s trial, came into his jail cell in Lyons in September of 1983, he looked at her attentively for a few minutes and then greeted her with the following words: “Quel plaisir, après tout ce temps, de revoir une jolie femme.”


In the years following the German defeat Barbie lived as a petty crook, hiding in lavatories of trains for days on end to evade Allied authorities. He rode a bike about the countryside in search of menial jobs—plowing fields, cleaning cowsheds—to support his wife and child, with whom he had been reunited near Frankfurt. He would pass forged papers or cartons of Camels under a table to some ill-shaven contact who had recently strutted, as Barbie had, in an SS uniform. He was rescued by a chance encounter with one Kurt Merk, a former officer of the Abwehr whom Barbie had known in the Lyons days. The genial, generous Merk was a considerably less fanatical Nazi than Barbie (his boss in the Abwehr had been the ill-fated dissident Admiral Canaris), yet the two men had always recognized each other’s talents.

At the time of his meeting with Barbie, Merk had already been engaged by a unit of the US Army’s Counterintelligence Corps (CIC) in Memmingen, where he was being warmly protected by an American officer called Robert Taylor. Taylor’s German girlfriend had become the closest pal of Merk’s French mistress, a collaborator whom Merk had brought to Germany under an assumed name; the two couples became inseparable. By concentrating on Merk’s role in Barbie’s career and by gleaning extensive material from Merk’s French mistress, who is still alive in Germany, the authors of The Nazi Legacy clarify the heretofore muddled record of Barbie’s career in the CIC, and his American-sponsored flight to wealth and safety in Bolivia. They also draw liberally on the report of the US Justice Department on Barbie’s involvement with US intelligence as well as on documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.2

What emerges from this saga is not only the bureaucratic amorality of our intelligence units, but also the anarchy unleashed by their naiveté and multifold paranoias. The Nazi Legacy brilliantly documents the basic premises under which the average CIC official functioned in occupied Germany as early as 1946. They can be summarized as follows: (1) A war between the United States and last year’s ally, the Soviet Union, is inevitable and imminent. (2) The intelligence services of our other two allies, Great Britain and France, are fully as dangerous as those of the Soviet Union; the French in particular have become so infiltrated with Communists (witness the presence of two in De Gaulle’s cabinet) that they are to be treated as members of the Soviet bloc. (3) If our local CIC unit at Memmingen, for example, breathes a word about its activities to the neighboring unit in Frankfurt or Munich they’ll steal our information and blow our cover and—disaster—score more points than we do. (4) The anti-Nazi witch hunt initiated by the Allied High Command in Berlin is a pain in the neck since the real witches to be hunted are the Reds; and only Germans—who care about what kind of Nazi past they had—have the contacts to lead us to them.

In this atmosphere of rivalries and simple-minded obsessions, Klaus Barbie, a violent Francophobe skilled in anticommunist espionage, was seen as an asset by the CIC unit at Memmingen and hired with no concern whatever for the atrocities he had committed three years previously. Drawing on the Justice Department’s documents, The Nazi Legacy shows that the first list of war criminals published by the Allied High Command, in July 1944, already described Barbie as “a dangerous conspirator, brutal character hidden under a jovial exterior, very cruel,” and that its updated 1946 report listed him as wanted in France for murder. The book demonstrates that American CIC officer Bob Taylor, the boss and good friend of former Abwehr captain Kurt Merk, hired Barbie in 1947, while being well acquainted with the High Command’s reports. The CIC’s indifference to the issue of a Nazi’s criminal record is well summed up in the following passage:

The two men [Taylor and Merk] spent a few days working out how to persuade their regional commander at CIC Munich, Lieutenant-Colonel Dale Garvey, that it made sense to hire as a CIC informant one of the most hotly-pursued Nazis in the American zone…. Garvey agreed, and simply failed to inform CIC headquarters that…a man being industriously hunted by Garvey’s own CIC colleagues all over the zone and who in theory he should at once seize and lock up, was now his employee.

Barbie’s own activities for CIC-Memmingen were quite in keeping with this bureaucratic trickery, closer to a Laurel and Hardy film than to the glamorized yarns associated with Nazi fugitives. The gifted bluffer was once caught earning his salary by studiously copying articles on Communists from German newspapers and handing them in as hot new information. Notwithstanding his complete ignorance of the Balkans, he managed to pose as an authority on Romania; since his CIC handlers knew even less than he did about the region, his reports were taken very seriously. He snooped about the “America House” cultural centers, which one of Barbie’s American superiors reported to be “stocked with all kinds of left-wing literature.” The French government, which wanted to try Barbie on charges of war crimes, began to press for information of his whereabouts at the beginning of his association with the CIC.

The accumulation of lies gradually built up by his employers in Memmingen, who insisted for two years that they had never heard of him, increased their fears that, if released, Barbie might sell his invaluable information on CIC-Memmingen’s inner workings to a rival CIC unit, to the French, the British, or (even more catastrophic) to the US High Command. By 1950, when France’s demands for Barbie had been passed on to its embassy in Washington, and to the offices of the secretary of state and General Lucius Clay, the officers at Memmingen were so mired in lies to their own superiors that they had only one way to save face. They would, they decided, send their boy down the “Rat Line” the CIC had established a few years earlier to get the more controversial agents out of its hair.

The remarkable information in The Nazi Legacy on this network may be even more shocking than the Memmingen episode. For at the time of Barbie’s escape the Rat Line was being run from Italy by the Croatian fascist priest Krunoslav Draganovic, cutely referred to by the CIC as “the good father.” Draganovic had been active in the Croatian Ustasa movement which, while ruling Croatia as an independent fascist dictatorship between 1941 and 1945, had exterminated several hundred thousand Serbs of the Orthodox faith, aiming at a “100 percent Catholic state.” Wanted for questioning about war crimes himself, he had spent part of the war in Rome, representing the interests of the Ustasa government. According to the CIC’s own reports, by 1947 Draganovic had already arranged passage to Argentina for more than one hundred Ustasa war criminals being hunted by the Allied High Command, a rescue operation that seemed to receive tacit support from powerful agencies at the Vatican. This “good father” became personally responsible for the flight of Klaus (Barbie) “Altmann” and his family. The Latin American oligarchies were recruiting skilled workers as eagerly as the United States was scanning Germany for rocket specialists. The papers drafted for Klaus Altmann by the CIC attested to his competence as a trade mechanic. Translated into Italian to ensure boat passage from Genoa, they described him as “molto diligente, molto volenteroso, e molto coscienzioso.”

It is interesting to compare the very different lives of Klaus Barbie and Adolf Eichmann (whose escape was also masterminded by right-wing priests) during their stay in Latin America. Barbie’s boldness, conviviality, and debrouillardise contrast strongly with the reclusive, melancholy, occasionally guilt-ridden life of the Nazi superhenchman. Until his arrest by Israeli commandos Eichmann lived in considerable isolation in a small house without light or running water in the suburbs of Buenos Aires; he built the house himself while working as a rabbit keeper and part-time salesman. During the same years, Barbie became an honorary lieutenant colonel in the Bolivian Army and flourished in arms dealing and the cocaine trade, owning two elegant country houses and a spacious flat in La Paz. He was also protected by a special passport granted to Bolivian government officials, and between 1965 and 1968 alone traveled without difficulty to Mexico, Portugal, France, the United States, and Madrid, where he had sent his younger child, Klaus Jr., to a university.

Perhaps the most dramatic revelations of The Nazi Legacy concern Barbie’s thirty years in Bolivia. According to the authors, “Barbie introduced the fully-developed concentration camp to Bolivia, and lectured on the use of electrodes…to extract confessions, a technique first developed by Gestapo interrogators in France.” The book also exposes his intimate associations with three of the most lethal neofascist paramilitary thugs of the past decades, Pierluigi Pagliai, Stefano delle Chiaie, and Joachim Fiebelkorn, all eventually convicted of masterminding the bombing, in 1980, of a train station in Bologna, Italy, in which eighty-four people were killed.

Using many heretofore untapped sources—internal reports of Bolivia’s army and of its ministry of defense, personal papers of Barbie’s business partner, the Nazi fugitive Friedrich Schwend—the three British writers explain Barbie’s links to these mercenary criminals. They called themselves the “Fiancés of Death,” and for several years helped the Bolivian dictatorship to suppress all protest by intimidation and murder. The star of the group, Pagliai, would regularly appear for torture sessions of Bolivian dissidents wearing ballet tights, stripped to the waist, his torso oiled. He once killed two Bolivian peasants during a practical demonstration at one of his public seminars on “countersubversive techniques.”

This ghoulish band supported their international conspiracies, in good part, from their activities in Bolivia’s six-million-kilograms-a-year cocaine trade. Barbie became a security adviser to Bolivia’s secret police, a post to which he was appointed in 1972 by the military dictator Hugo Banzer, who stayed in power until 1978. Working with the secret police, Barbie had much to do with the drug traffic. He provided the Fiancés of Death with police passes and generally ensured their good relations with government officials, who were equally immersed in the trade but often requested a larger share of the cocaine loot than the foreign racketeers liked to part with. In exchange for his services, Barbie was so protected by the Banzer regime that when the Nazi hunter Beate Klarsfeld came to La Paz and revealed his identity, leading the local press to splash “Barbie-is-Altmann” headlines on its front pages, the French government’s demands for extradition got no response and were unanswered for another decade.

In the summer of 1980, Pagliai traveled from La Paz to Bologna, where he masterminded the bombing of the train station. An international warrant for his arrest was issued two years later, when his part in the bombing was disclosed by an associate who bartered information for bail money. According to a CIA report documented in The Nazi Legacy, Pagliai was still being seen at a café in La Paz in the company of Barbie in July of 1982, a few weeks before his arrest warrant was issued. Three months later Pagliai was kidnapped in La Paz and returned to Italy by a joint operation of the US and Italian intelligence services. The raid seemed to serve as a rehearsal for Barbie’s own capture. The very week of Pagliai’s kidnapping, Bolivia’s first democratically elected leader in some decades, Siles Zuazo, said he would “put an end to the Barbie problem.” Many of Barbie’s friends started urging him to find another haven.

But the seventy-year-old fascist was entering a period of increasing depression and fatalism. His son had recently died in a gliding accident, his wife was to die of cancer at the end of the year. By the fall of 1982 he was receiving—just how and why is not known—a weekly issue of Newsweek openly addressed to “Klaus Altmann-Barbie, SS Hauptsturmführer.” François Mitterrand’s staff, which is notably more concerned about the memory of persecution during the Resistance than either Pompidou’s or Giscard d’Estaing’s was, began secret negotiations for Barbie’s extradition a few days after Zuazo was sworn in. Less than three months after Zuazo’s inaugural, Barbie was arrested in La Paz for alleged nonpayment of an obscure six-year-old debt. A few weeks later he was expelled from Bolivia on the ground that his citizenship was invalid, since it had been obtained under the false name of “Altmann.”

The past is buried,” Barbie protested during his return trip to Lyons. From that moment on, the past was being resurrected for many French citizens who would have preferred to keep it buried. Ladislas de Hoyos, author of Klaus Barbie: The Untold Story, is a French television journalist who was in La Paz during Beate Karsfeld’s trip in 1972. His televised interview with Barbie did much to unmask the Nazi’s identity, but he has written a wretched book replete with stories already told. Apart from the transcript of an interrogation of Barbie concerning the death of Jean Moulin, conducted in Munich in 1948 by a French official, most of the information in his garbled pages is available from press clippings. De Hoyos misses the importance of Kurt Merk in Barbie’s career with the CIC, and he has done nothing to untangle Barbie’s Bolivian connections. This is a shame, for de Hoyos is one of the few European journalists who had personal contacts with Barbie in La Paz. From such experience a skilled writer might have drawn the vivid kind of portrait that only the surviving victims of his tortures have so far been able to convey. But the records of de Hoyos’s conversations with Barbie are childish and cartoonlike, impressing us solely by the most consistent trait in Barbie’s character—his caddish and primitive unrepentance, his ability to swagger to the very end. “What do you think of Hitler?” de Hoyos asked the Obersturmführer on the plane heading for France. “He united the people.” Barbie answers, “in a year and a half he eradicated six million unemployed.”

If I had to be born a thousand times,” he said another time, “I’d be a thousand times what I have been.”


Beate and Serge Klarsfeld are the Parisian couple who are responsible for bringing Barbie to justice and returning him to Lyons’ St. Joseph Prison. Serge Klarsfeld, a lawyer by profession, is a French Jew of Romanian descent whose life has been marked by his need to avenge his father, who died at Auschwitz. Beate, a German Christian, has said that she has long been obsessed by a need to punish her father, who obediently did war service in the Wehrmacht. The Klarsfelds have dedicated themselves during the past fifteen years to keeping alive the memory of the Holocaust, to emphasizing Vichy France’s participation in it, and to ending the impunity of any criminal, either German or French, who was responsible for the deportation of Jews.

The Children of Izieu is one of several books that the Klarsfelds have edited on the theme of the Holocaust in France. It is an awesomely precise, heart-rending documentation of a shelter for Jewish children near Lyons whose forty-four young inmates were arrested at Barbie’s orders and subsequently deported to the gas ovens of Auschwitz. After three years of painstaking research in West German government archives the Klarsfelds discovered concrete proof of Barbie’s part in this deportation. They reproduce a telex sent by Barbie to Gestapo headquarters in Paris which reports the arrest of the Jewish children and states that their ages “range from three to thirteen years.” The telex will serve as an invaluable document for the prosecution if the Barbie trial comes to court. According to the Klarsfelds, the Izieu children’s shelter was the only one in France where orphans were singled out for deportation to a death camp. And as Serge Klarsfeld states in his restrained, powerful introduction to the book, this act, far more criminal than any of his persecutions of French resisters, warrants Barbie’s trial and punishment.

The Children of Izieu manages to retrace the life histories of each of the forty-four children sent to their deaths by Barbie. The Klarsfelds gathered this information during six years, advertising in more than a thousand Jewish periodicals throughout the world to contact the children’s surviving relatives. Thanks to one of the two adult survivors of Barbie’s roundup, a guardian who carefully preserved documents relating to the Izieu community, the Klarsfelds’ book also presents photographs of every child, their drawings, extracts of letters they wrote to their parents, photographs of them at play a few weeks before their arrest. The Children of Izieu offers each of the victims the dignity of a restored identity and serves as a memorial to their martyrdom. It could serve a more pragmatic purpose: relatives of each of the forty-four children have declared themselves plaintiffs (“parties civiles“) in the Barbie case.

But will the Barbie trial ever take place, and when? As of May 1985 Serge Klarsfeld, who will represent most of the plaintiffs, was still predicting that it would be held by the end of this year. Those who are surprised by France’s lethargic attitude toward its prisoner might be reminded that Barbie is only one of three men awaiting trial in France on charges of crimes against humanity during the German occupation. The other defendants are considerably more embarrassing to the nation than any aging Nazi, since they are extremely prominent French citizens.

Jean Leguay, wartime chief of the Paris police, was responsible for the deportation of four thousand Jewish children interned during the infamous “Vel d’Hiver” roundup. He was granted a full pardon at the end of the war and subsequently became a multimillionaire in the cosmetics and pharmaceutical trade (Nina Ricci, Warner Lambert). The most embarrassing trial of all will be that of Maurice Papon, one of the government officials responsible for the deportation of some 1,500 Jews in the Bordeaux region, who, between 1978 and 1981, served as budget minister in the cabinet of Giscard d’Estaing, resigning only when the Klarsfelds revealed his wartime record.

Internationally, Barbie’s trial will no doubt receive the most attention, especially in view of his links with American intelligence. But in France, the unmasking of two such dignitaries with connections to powerful economic and political forces might well obscure the trial of Barbie. It will confront the nation with truths more difficult for the French to accept than the ones Barbie might bring to light—that the Vichy regime is not an old nightmare to be forgotten, but a scandal still very much alive; that the Vichy bureaucracy slid into the Fourth Republic with considerably less purging than many French, particularly those of the younger generation, had been led to believe. No wonder, then, that Barbie’s lawyer, Jacques Vergès, has requested that the Papon trial be completed before Barbie comes to court.

Familiar French sayings: “Il ne faut pas remuer la boue.” “Il ne faut pas déballer la merde.” In the past months few aspects of the Barbie trial have threatened to “stir more mud” than the inflammatory, enigmatic personality of Jacques Vergès. Born on the island of Reunion of an Indochinese mother and a French father, a member of the French Communist party after World War II, he has expressed extreme leftist views since the beginning of his career at the bar. He took Algerian citizenship in the early Sixties. His more notorious clients have included members of the Baader-Meinhof gang, associates of the terrorist Carlos, and members of the FLN, one of whom he married. He left France in 1970 and vanished for eight years. According to The Nazi Legacy, “He has never offered an explanation, and rumours suggest he was involved for part of that time in training Palestinian guerrillas in the Lebanon.”

An outspoken critic of Western democratic institutions, Vergès is planning a courtroom strategy known as “defense by rupture,” in which the accused challenges the entire “system” that has placed him on trial and refuses to accept the legal procedures it imposes. Through this tactic the defense could try to turn the court-room into a trial of the French bourgeois state and expose France’s own past crimes against unarmed civilians. It might claim, for instance, that the government’s persecutions of Vietnamese and Algerian citizens are as punishable as those of which Barbie stands accused. It may well try to exonerate Barbie by attempting to prove the culpability of the government that has accused him.

Yet another possible tactic of Vergès’ defense brings great unease to the very factions of French society—former resisters, liberal intellectuals—that two years ago had most passionately wished to bring Barbie to justice. Vergès has said that traitors within the ranks of the Resistance, rather than Barbie, were responsible for the arrest and death of Jean Moulin. Although he took part in the Resistance himself, he has referred to Moulin as “Egmont parmi les gueux,”3 and has intimated that the trial will sling much mud on important members of the Resistance.

Hovering over Barbie’s impending trial has been the fear of many French that it will destroy once and for all the Gaullist myth of a nation that united, gloriously, in resisting the Nazi yoke. Many of those who have responsibly tried to expose this myth are appalled at the prospect that such a man as Vergès will now demagogically attempt to explode it, weakening the position of those who have tried to bring some measure of truth to the French. The trial may present the spectacle of a lawyer long associated with anti-Zionist groups defending the fascist murderer of hundreds of Jews in order to broadcast his own far-left doctrines, and to destroy what little wartime honor France had. If Jacques Vergès gets his opportunity in court, this trial could be a grim one for France. Venom calls forth venom—as it has throughout the career of Klaus Barbie.


The Bologna Bombing November 7, 1985

  1. 1

    Philippe Harzer, Klaus Barbie et le Gestapo en France (Paris: Le Carousel-FN, Editeur, 1983).

  2. 2

    Klaus Barbie and the United States Government, A Report to the Attorney General of the United States, August 1983, submitted by Allan A. Ryan, Jr., Special Assistant to the Assistant Attorney General, Criminal Division, US Department of Justice, US Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 218 pages.

  3. 3

    guex“: scoundrels, members of a corrupt rabble.