“My role is not to make people happy,” declares Beate Klarsfeld in Hunting the Truth, the assertive memoirs she has written with her husband, Serge. “It is to tell the truth [about Nazism and the Holocaust] as strongly as possible—bluntly, even savagely, if necessary.” The Klarsfelds have never stopped trying to “kick up a storm.” On November 7, 1968, Beate—a German citizen by birth—slapped West German chancellor Kurt Georg Kiesinger, a former Nazi Party member, during a public meeting.
In 1971, the couple located and photographed three former senior SS officers tasked with Jewish deportations from occupied France—Kurt Lischka, Herbert Hagen, and Ernst Heinrichsohn—who were living quietly in West Germany. In March of that year their attempt to kidnap Lischka and take him to France for trial ended with him unconscious on the sidewalk and the Klarsfelds racing for the frontier. Even so, as Serge claims in his account of their effort, “a failed kidnap attempt could still be considered a success as long as it caused a big stir.” Their gamble paid off: the West German judicial authorities eventually acted on the files of incriminating documents prepared by Serge. In 1979 and 1980 the state court of Cologne sentenced Lischka, Hagen, and Heinrichsohn to prison sentences of, respectively, ten, twelve, and six years.
Meanwhile, in 1971 the Klarsfelds learned that the former SS officer Klaus Barbie, the “Butcher of Lyon,” was living in South America. After World War II, American occupation authorities in Germany had employed him to root out Communists. In 1950 they had shielded him from French extradition efforts and helped him escape to Bolivia (for which the United States government apologized officially to France in 1983). Under the alias Klaus Altmann, Barbie advised the dictatorial regimes of Hugo Banzer, Luis Garcia Meza Tejada, and others in Bolivia on security matters, and engaged in arms and drug trading.
Beginning in January 1972 one or both Klarsfelds traveled repeatedly to Peru and Bolivia to locate Barbie and to demonstrate publicly against him. Their effort to kidnap him in 1973 failed. Only in 1983, after a democratic regime came to power in Bolivia, was Barbie arrested and turned over to French representatives in French Guiana. After lengthy judicial preliminaries concerning technical matters such as double indemnity and statutes of limitation, he was tried in Lyon in 1987 in the very building where he had tortured his victims. He was given a life sentence and died in prison in 1991.
The Klarsfelds were equally interested in French collaborators who were living and working quietly after light postwar sentences. Using dossiers assembled by the Klarsfelds, French prosecutors in 1979 indicted Jean Leguay, the Paris representative of Vichy police chief René Bousquet, for crimes against humanity. He was the first…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.