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date has officially been set, and the euphoria that swept France at the time of Barbie’s extradition from Bolivia has been replaced by a wary indifference.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…

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