Klaus Barbie (1913-1991) was a Nazi SS leader who was head of anti-Resistance operations in France during its occupation by Germany in World War II. After the war, Barbie worked covertly for U.S. Army intelligence in Germany prior to his escape to Bolivia. There he lived for over 30 years as Klaus Altmann before his arrest and return to France for trial as a war criminal.
Klaus Barbie was born October 25, 1913, in the town of Bad Godesberg, a few miles down the Rhine River from Bonn. The son of a school teacher, he spent an uneventful childhood as a good but not brilliant student with a gift for languages.
Barbie Joins Nazi SS
In 1935, three years after Hitler became chancellor of Germany, the 22-year-old Barbie joined the SS (Shutzstaffel), the Nazi party's cadre that swore loyalty not to Germany but to Hitler. He served in the SD (Sicherheitsdienst), the intelligence and security branch of the SS, headed by Reinhold Heydrich.
The young Barbie was assigned to a number of posts in Europe in the next six years as the German war machine swept westward. He won a reputation as a shrewd, dedicated SS officer, earning promotions and commendations from admiring superiors.
Head of Anti-Resistance Operations in France
After Germany invaded France in 1941, Barbie became head of anti-Resistance operations there. He is widely believed to have been responsible for the torture and death of Jean Moulin, the clandestine head of France's anti-Nazi coalition. As head of the Gestapo at Lyon, Barbie also appears to have been responsible for a number of "actions" against innocent French Jews, including a raid on an orphanage in the town of Izieu which sent over 50 boys and girls to the gas chambers at the death camp of Auschwitz.
Recruited by U.S. Counter Intelligence Corps
When the war in Europe ended in the spring of 1945 with the Nazis' defeat, Barbie hid from the Allies until April 1947, when he was recruited by the Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) of the U.S. Army in occupied Germany. Although the Army had a warrant for Barbie's arrest as a suspected subversive, the regional commander decided that his skills as an interrogator made him more valuable as a spy than as a prisoner, and over the next four years Barbie took on increasing responsibility for the Army, at one time running a "net" or spy network that included scores of informants in East and West Germany and France. By all accounts a crafty and skilled interrogator, Barbie soon became one of the Army's most trusted spies. In 1949, however, his presence became known to French war crimes investigators, who demanded that the "Butcher of Lyon" be turned over to them to stand trial for his crimes.
Army Hides Barbie
The Army took a fateful step. It decided not to surrender Barbie to the French, fearing that it would be embarrassed by his service and apprehensive that he might disclose wide-ranging U.S. intelligence efforts to the French. With the aid of Krunoslav Dragonovich, a shadowy Croatian priest, it placed Barbie in a so-called "rat line" that had previously been used to help Soviet and Eastern bloc citizens who had spied on behalf of the United States.
Aided by false papers that Dragonovich obtained from the International Red Cross under the name of "Klaus Altmann," the Army delivered Barbie to Genoa, Italy. Here he and his wife and two young children boarded an Italian liner to Buenos Aires, Argentina. The "Altmann" family quickly moved to the mountainous city of La Paz, Bolivia, where Barbie supported himself as an auto mechanic.
Barbie Spies For Bolivia
His skills as a spy did not go unnoticed in the military government of Bolivia, and before long Barbie became a confidant of high-ranking generals. It is likely that he served as an adviser to that country's secret police; it is known that he became the director of Transmaritima Boliviana, a company organized to charter ships to bring supplies to land-locked Bolivia. He lived openly as any prosperous businessman might and was often seen in La Paz' cafes and restaurants.
True Identity Discovered
The past began to catch up with Barbie in 1971, when Beate Klarsfeld, a German-born homemaker married to French lawyer Serge Klarsfeld, discovered from a German prosecutor's files that Barbie was living in Bolivia under the name of Altmann. In a dramatic move, she went to La Paz and chained herself to a fence, demanding that "Altmann" be tried for his crimes.
Although her initial effort was unsuccessful—she was hustled to the airport by indignant Bolivian police—the spotlight of publicity was on Barbie to stay. For over a decade, "Altmann" denied that he was Barbie, but his identity was no secret to Bolivian military regimes. Finally, in 1982, a civilian government came to power, and in February 1983 it arrested Barbie and turned him over to French officials.
Barbie's return to France created tremendous publicity and soul-searching in that country, which had never fully come to terms with its mixed record of collaboration with, and resistance to, the Nazis. Shortly after his return, the prosecutor in Lyon announced that Barbie would stand trial on several charges of "crimes against humanity"— including the deaths of the French children from Izieu.
Barbie's expulsion to France had ramifications in America as well. The U.S. Department of Justice, following a five-month investigation, revealed Barbie's post-war role for U.S. intelligence and issued a formal apology to France for "delaying justice in Lyon" for nearly 33 years.
Like nearly all others who committed horrifying atrocities under the Nazi regimes, Barbie showed little remorse for his crimes. "There are no war crimes," he said. "There are only acts of war." When he was expelled from Bolivia, he seemed indifferent: "I did my duty. I have forgotten. If they (the French) have not forgotten, that is their business."
The French had not forgotten, but three years after his return, Barbie languished in a jail cell in Lyon, with no date set for his trial. A further postponement came in 1986 when the French Court of Indictments ruled that he could be tried for crimes against resistance fighters as well as for "crimes against humanity." Barbie was imprisoned for life in 1987 for crimes including the murders of at least four Jews and Resistance Workers and 15,000 deportations to death camps. He was the last German war criminal of rank to be tried. Barbie died of cancer in a prison hospital in Lyons, France on September 25, 1991.
Further Reading on Klaus Barbie
A recent biography of Barbie, which devotes considerable attention to the impact of his return on France, is Unhealed Wounds: France and the Klaus Barbie Affair, by Erna Paris (Methuen, 1985). Serge Klarsfeld's The Children of Izieu (1985) contains the full story of that tragic crime. A chapter on Barbie's affiliation with the United States is found in Quiet Neighbors: Prosecuting Nazi War Criminals in America, by Allan A. Ryan, Jr. (1984). The complete Justice Department report was published in 1983 by the Government Printing Office under the title Klaus Barbie and the United States Government. See also, Voices From the Barbie Trial by Ted Morgan in the August 2, 1987 edition of the New York Times Magazine and Gestapo Chief Dies In Prison by Paul Webster in the September 26, 1991 issue of The Guardian.