The ‘Bildung’ of Barbie

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…

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