Klaus Barbie
Klaus Barbie; drawing by David Levine

Certainly he remembered Klaus Barbie, said the old baron when I telephoned him. He had robbed the family of its jewels back in 1946, assisted by two other SS officers on the run. But the baron’s sister knew more. Just you wait in your hotel room, he continued jovially, and I will fix a meeting with her and call you right back. What was the number of your room? Na schön…be patient and wait there for my call.

So I sat and waited. Half an hour later, there was a knock on the door. I opened it, and suddenly the small room was overcrowded with two bulky men, one in a fawn trenchcoat, the other in a black leather jerkin. Badges flicked out: Kriminalpolizei. Who was I? What was my interest in Klaus Barbie and the jewel robbery? How long had I been in the city? I began to laugh; the man in the leather jacket allowed himself a smile, with a twinkle of gold tooth. A room search was briefly debated, then thought not necessary. The man in the raincoat looked frustrated. I was, it seemed, no more than what I claimed to be: a British writer researching for a book about Klaus Barbie, the SS and Sicherheitsdienst officer who had been the most famous torturer in the Lyon Gestapo and then an agent of American intelligence in postwar Germany.

Why had the baron called them, I asked. More interesting, why had they instantly responded to his call? To this, they offered no clear answer. They prepared to leave. The man with the gold tooth murmured pleasantly something about old men, about difficult times, about people of a certain generation who had strange things in their memory or on their conscience….

Brooding on this, I went to the public prosecutor’s office. A polite lawyer apologized: there were no files left about a robbery committed so long ago; everything had been destroyed; it was routine. But the police would probably have at least an entry confirming that a trial had taken place. Not at the main police headquarters, but at a little office in the Goethestrasse. I could mention his name. A short ride by streetcar took me there. The electric locks on the door seemed elaborate, but after a few moments, there was a buzz and the door yielded inward.

The man who let me in smiled broadly; this time I could see the whole of his gold tooth. He had exchanged the jerkin for a handsome three-piece suit in Prince-of-Wales check. He and his chief had made some preparations for me; the nonexistent Barbie file was on his desk. I was not allowed to read it—“the new laws protecting the privacy of the individual, you understand”—but my hosts riffled about its pages and fed me suggestive bits. There was a sense of compensation for a little misunderstanding. I left, comprehending even less of what was going on in this town. “Oh, those two!” said a surprised German friend at lunch afterward. “What on earth did they want with you? They are Department K14, what we used to call the political police.”

To research the past of a particular Nazi in West Germany is constantly to encounter the sense that you are missing some point. Plenty of German students and journalists undertake such research, but always instrumentally: to topple some political opponent with a revelation about his past, to prove that today’s capitalist is yesterday’s fascist, to use the testimony of the repressors to discover more about the resistance of those who were repressed. The simple question: “What shaped this person so that he could do these things?” is not held to be interesting. This can easily be misunderstood; a suspicious foreigner can read evidence of pro-Nazi machinations into what are no more than the curiosities produced by German bureaucracy and history.

Officer Gold-Tooth covers political subversion, and when that job started under the Allied occupation over thirty years ago, it dealt primarily with fugitive Nazis supposed to be plotting against the British and American forces. The prosecutors in another town, I discovered, had known for twenty years exactly where Klaus Barbie was living in South America and under what name; they never bothered to pass the information on simply because their instructions were to deal with Barbie’s movements on German territory. In the late Forties, prominent ex-Nazis and SS veterans with evil records often banded together secretly with all the apparatus of codewords and forged papers, but their object was less to revive the Hitlerian Reich than to keep out of jail and acquire enough cartons of Camels on the black market to trade for the cans of Spam and bags of coal they required to stay alive.

I did most of my work in Trier, the city on Germany’s western border where Barbie was brought up. As I grew to know the place a little, so the enterprise came to seem like some Asian shadowplay: it was quite easy to get local historians to recount the drama of the town’s history under the Third Reich, but a severe breach of the convention to demand that the surviving actors appear in person. One early Sunday morning, walking in the market square and listening to the rumbling and groaning of Catholic church bells, I thought of three old men, none of whom I was able to meet, now awake and shuffling in slippers to prepare their coffee: Albert Urmes, who was once the Nazi propaganda director in Trier; Willy Torgau the Communist, who spent most of the Hitler years in prisons and headed the denazification tribunal when the French army arrived in 1945; and Erich Süsskind. After years of bullying and discrimination, Süsskind and his wife and their small son were deported to Auschwitz in the winter of 1943. At the selection on the ramp, he asked his son if he wanted to stay with him or his mother. The boy went with his mother, which proved to be the way to the gas chamber.


Erich Süsskind survived. When he was liberated in 1945, he weighed some seventy pounds. Not only his wife and son, he found, but his parents, his four brothers and sisters with their families, and almost the entire family of his wife had been exterminated. But Erich Süsskind, unassuming and alone, and as if it were the most natural thing in the world, went home to Trier and reopened the little cobbler’s shop that had been taken from him eight years before. There were almost eight hundred Jews in Trier when Hitler came to power. Today, there are perhaps thirty. Süsskind does not talk much about the past. But he is loved in the city for one laconic sentence uttered on his return: “Die Trierer waren es doch nicht!—It wasn’t the people of Trier who did it.”

Trier is a polite, conservative city. The fact that its two most famous sons appear to be Karl Marx and Klaus Barbie is accepted with distaste but without protest. Neither fascism nor communism has gained much authentic support in this ancient Roman capital on the upper Mosel river, close to the frontiers of Luxembourg and France, regularly wrecked and plundered by foreign armies on their way to the Rhine valley down one of Europe’s most inviting invasion routes. Trier is a frontier city, sharply patriotic by tradition, whose dominant politics have always been Catholic and conservative. This year’s official celebrations of the centenary of Marx’s birth, in the pretty little mansion on the Brückenstrasse, which once housed a French governor in Napoleon’s time and then, after 1933, the editorial offices of the Nationalblatt, were a pallid affair. At another ceremony held in the high school where both Marx and Barbie were taught, the dignitary invited to unveil a plaque observed comfortingly that the school could not be held responsible for having educated the author of Das Kapital (“Why did you bother to come?” shouted irritated boys at the back of the hall).

The spirit of the school, the Friedrich-Wilhelm Gymnasium, has in fact always been an enlightened, almost liberal Catholicism, hostile to political extremes and carefully independent of the bishop. If young Dr. Krapp, the headmaster, felt depressed when I asked him for essays by the pupil Barbie, he was too courteous to show it: files were hunted out, photocopies made, and the mystery of Barbie’s development discussed. How did this sensitive, pious small boy; so withdrawn that few of his school contemporaries even remember him clearly, metamorphose into a torturer?

Even today, and whatever their views, pupils at a German high school navigate cautiously when writing answers about religious belief. Liberal the Friedrich-Wilhelm Gymnasium may have been, but it was never prudent simply to dismiss religious faith as nonsense when taking the main state examination to matriculate. Barbie tried to dodge the issue by suggesting that matters of faith “affect the inner man” and were therefore not proper topics for logical discussion. Exactly ninety-nine years before, the boy Marx—a Jew baptized a Lutheran—dared to sail a bit closer to the wind: “Before we examine the basis, nature and effects of the union of Christ with the faithful, we should see…whether Man cannot by himself reach the End for which God called him forth out of nothingness.” Both, of course, were prevaricating. Barbie was already a member of the Hitler Youth when he wrote, committed to anticlerical neopaganism; Karl Marx was high on Hegelian revolutionary liberalism. Both passed the examination, Marx with far greater distinction than Barbie.


Among Barbie’s examiners was Dr. Michel, one of his form teachers, who was later to provide a rather disconcerting example of civil courage and its penalties. In 1937, with Hitler in his fifth year of power, Dr. Michel ordered his pupils to turn all the desks around so that they faced the door rather than the blackboard. Until now, there had been a crucifix on the end wall of every classroom, above the teacher’s head. A new decree had ordained that the cross must be removed and hung over the door, to be replaced in the position of honor by a portrait of Adolf Hitler. Dr. Michel’s class were thus obliged to turn their backs on their Führer. He was instantly reported by one of his colleagues. But all that happened to him was a transfer to another school.

The Nazis in Trier were always outnumbered by the Catholics, and scored miserably in free elections during the Weimar Republic. Even after Hitler assumed full power in 1933, Catholic dissidents—as the case of Dr. Michel showed—enjoyed some immunity. But there was no attempt to use this strength. Instead, Bishop Bornewasser (who much later attacked the Nazis over the euthanasia program) tried to conciliate the new regime by declaring a pilgrimage to the Holy Robe, Trier’s most famous relic. Nazis in uniform shepherded the foreign pilgrims about the town and lined the streets; party dignitaries stood beside the bishop at the cathedral door to welcome important visitors. A film of this episode, one of Hitler’s easiest propaganda victories, is kept locked in the diocesan archives at Trier. There also exists a photograph of Bornewasser standing with Goebbels and giving the Nazi salute. It remains unpublished. “To explain it would be too complicated in a caption,” the owner told me. At the time that the photograph was taken, the new Nazi mayor of Trier was banning Jews from public swimming pools on the grounds that their cheeky and tactless behavior was upsetting normal citizens.

The creaking and gasping of the lovers in a room along the hotel corridor has died down. Then the silence is broken again by a hoarse voice from the direction of the river outside: “Hilfe, Hilfe!” The voice grows faint, then returns with new desperation. I open the windows, letting in a swarm of river flies, and peer out over the Mosel at the arches of the Roman bridge, at the indifferent headlights of late cars. The source of the voice is invisible. The river is black, with trembling silver flowers of reflected light from the lamps on the bridge. Now the voice from the dark water is screaming and sobbing: “Help—O Gott!—help me….” Windows begin to open along the hotel; guests peer out.

The police van drives straight down the bank to the water’s edge: a floodlight goes on, and suddenly there is another silver flower in the black water, this time with a struggling fly caught in it. “Bleibt doch ruhig—stay calm!” repeats a loudspeaker. Men wade into the Mosel and vanish; there is the sound of wet commotions, more sobbing. Flashlights dance up and down as a man is pulled up the bank. An ambulance drives slowly away, bouncing over the uneven turf. I look along the front of the hotel, where a head protrudes out of each window. Only the window of the two lovers remains shut.

The Polish writer Artur Miedzyrzecki writes: “Misery is close by, right outside your window. But it doesn’t affect you directly. Sleep. So a person hears and does not hear the cry for help. A person does not realize that violence is occurring. He realizes it when everything is over. Too late to do anything…. Heroism is first and foremost the courage to see in time.”

In the morning, the Trier newspaper does not mention anything about a man in the river.

Klaus Barbie once cared about the misery outside his window. It was a phase, in his late teens. He joined several Catholic young men’s groups, who went about the city feeding derelicts and visiting the prisons. It was a way of relieving the guilt and confusion of his life at home, where his father, a village schoolmaster, was drinking himself to death. Some of his acquaintances thought this quiet boy was a natural recruit for the priesthood. Barbie himself once considered studying theology. Then, in his twenty-first year, everything changed. His father and his handicapped younger brother died, the pension on which the family hoped to finance Klaus through university was cut off, Hitler came to power, and Klaus became a Nazi.

He never explained this sudden change, and nobody in Trier can account for it. Such conversions were common enough in 1933. He looked into the glaucous, pale blue eyes of the Führer, was dazzled, and fell. All his previous life, his loyalties and beliefs and sufferings, became irrelevant. “I have become a serving member in the mighty retinue of the Führer,” he wrote later that year. And he remained true. Forty years later, an acquaintance in Peru remembers, a joke about Hitler made Barbie, who was then using the name “Altmann,” leap to his feet, turkey red, shrieking that he would tolerate no insult to the leader in his presence. Year by year, he observed Hitler’s birthday. “He lacked only patience,” he wrote recently to another SS veteran. “If we ‘young ones’ had been allowed to take charge in time, he would be alive to celebrate his birthday now….”

It is easier to explain why he made such a brilliant party career so young: adjutant to the Trier-Central Nazi chairman at twenty-one, at twenty-two admitted to full membership of Reinhard Heydrich’s Sicherheitsdienst (SD), the SS intelligence service. Barbie, it seems, was the Nazi stool pigeon in the Gymnasium. The party in Trier saw its main enemy in the Catholic youth groups, especially strong in the high school; Klaus Barbie was a member of one of these groups and was a priceless source of information about his own schoolmates.

In the underpass leading to the Friedrich-Wilhelm Gymnasium, Dr. Krapp’s pupils have written with a spray can: “Better to be a Universal Dilettante than a Specialized Idiot.”

Trier is a beautiful city again, rebuilt carefully after bombing and American artillery tore out its old heart. Rococo churches and Renaissance palaces collapsed; only monuments of dictatorship—the gigantic Roman gateway, the Porta Nigra, and the concrete flak bunker—survived unshaken. Its politics today, dominated by the Christian Democrats, are tranquil, and the arguments that generate ideological heat are mostly about symbols. Lieutenant-colonel K., an earnest and intelligent soldier, combines the roles of a Bundeswehr officer, a historian of the working-class movement in Trier, and an elected member of the Social Democrat opposition in the city council. When he proposed changing the name of the street still dedicated to Hindenburg, the Christian Democrat city fathers said that such shocking demagogy reminded them of Goebbels. When he suggested that the council formally revoke the grant of honorary citizenship made to Adolf Hitler more than forty years before, they said that they had never heard anything so outrageous since the speeches of Julius Streicher. Nothing is proved by all this except how deeply and effectively the Trier establishment has buried the past.

And it is not only the Nazi past that has been buried. On a back wall in the municipal art gallery, I found a small, untitled painting by Peter Krisam, showing French Moroccan cavalry charging a civilian crowd in the marketplace. It was a spirited, angry little canvas, marked only with the date, 1923, hung in an obscure corner. But with that date, a corner of the historical coffin lid began to creak upward. This painting was about the Trier which for hundreds of years understood itself as Germany’s western bastion against French imperialism, the city where the word “France” did not stand for red wine and berets but for bayonets, for spahis riding down demonstrators, for attempt after attempt to lever the whole border region away from its German allegiance. This is an aspect of Trier which is scarcely mentioned in public in these days of Franco-German reconciliation (besides, there are still twenty thousand French troops quartered in and around the city). But it was the aspect that dictated the political climate in which Klaus Barbie grew up. That date of 1923 referred to the climax of Franco-German conflict in the aftermath of the First World War, as French occupation troops tried to impose on the population a chain of puppet “separatist republics” intended to bring about the secession of the whole Rhineland from the Reich. Louis XIV had blown up many of Trier’s medieval churches, Napoleon annexed the whole region to France, and after 1945 France refused to permit the return of Trier’s hinterland in the Saar to Germany and ruled the town with a harshly effective network of Sûreté agents and informers.

Here at last was a key to the “Bildung of Barbie.” The folklore of his childhood was composed of fresh memories of resistance to the French and their tame “separatists.” His own father came from the Saar, cut away from Germany after the defeat of 1918, and after fighting the whole war on the western front, he had taken part in the patriotic, anti-French resistance. When Klaus Barbie entered the Friedrich-Wilhelm Gymnasium, there were still older boys who could boast of their experiences dodging the scimitars of the spahis in the market square in 1923.

And here, too, lay a clue to one of the sickest manifestations of Barbie’s character: his hero-worship of Jean Moulin. Barbie, with the Lyon Einsatz-kommando, captured the French resistance leader in 1943, who had been betrayed by one of his own countrymen to the foreign occupiers. Moulin died soon afterward of injuries which Barbie still claims were self-inflicted but which most witnesses say were the result of Barbie’s interrogation methods. Everything that Barbie has said since, however, suggests that he identified in Moulin the German patriots, some of them partisans and saboteurs, who paid for their guerrilla war against the French occupants of 1923 with their lives, and who had become the mythical figures of his own youth.

When he faced this calm, resolute prisoner in Gestapo headquarters at Lyon, Barbie saw only a mirror image from recent Rhineland history. He did not grasp the difference between a nationalist fanatic and a democratic politician like Moulin. Instead, he thought he recognized—this squat, trivial, warped little policeman—the special human quality and stature which, as a Nazi, he had been trained to worship and blindly to obey. But this superman, this “member of history,” was at his mercy. And, if the evidence can be believed, Barbie fell upon him, battering and clubbing him until Moulin was a bleeding wreck beyond recovery. In an interview, Barbie once gave away a horrible fragment of the truth: “As I interrogated Jean Moulin, I felt that he was myself.”

Many years after the war, “Altmann” made a business trip from Bolivia to Europe. He had been twice condemned to death in France in absentia, and there was a warrant out for his arrest. But he took a risk. He went to Paris, to the Pantheon where Moulin’s remains now rest. In that empty place, the man who had begun life as a Christian idealist, who had passed through the careers of a Nazi torturer and an American secret agent, and who was now a corrupt businessman in South America, paid his indecipherable respects.

This Issue

November 24, 1983