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Klaus Barbie Trial: 1987
Great World Trials. 1994. From World History In Context.
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Defendant: Klaus Barbie

Crimes Charged: War crimes, crimes against humanity

Chief Defense Lawyer: Jacques Vergès

Chief Prosecutor: Pierre Truche

Judge: André Cerdini

Place: Lyons, France

Dates of Trial: May 11-July 4, 1987

Verdict: Guilty

Sentence: Life in prison

Significance: The trial and conviction of the German SS functionary Klaus Barbie reaffirmed and further refined the principle that there can be no statute of limitations, literal or moral, on crimes against humanity.

Klaus Barbie, a one-time functionary of the German SS, torturer of French resistants, and deporter of Lyons Jews to the Auschwitz death camps, struck most observers as a decrepit old man, with ordinary features and a vacant, even befogged expression on his worn face. "Criminals rarely achieve the dimensions of their crimes," the journalist Jane Kramer wrote, "and Barbie was no exception." One French periodical dissented slightly: Klaus Barbie showed to the world "the emaciated face of a predatory bird," its correspondent thought.

One of his French interrogators asked Barbie what Nazism had meant to him.

"Camaraderie," he replied.

"The Butcher of Lyons"

Barbie served as the head of a section of SS police in Lyons, France, in 1943 and 1944, a minor official in what one of the French prosecutors at the Nuremberg war crimes trials had defined as a "criminal public service." In that job, Barbie tracked down, arrested, and tortured members of the French Resistance to the German occupation. The best known of the Resistance martyrs, Jean Moulin, died at Barbie's hands in Montluc Prison in 1944. Barbie also rounded up 44 Jewish children from their orphan asylum in the village of Izieu near Lyons and sent them on a journey to oblivion. In August 1944, he arranged for the deportation to Auschwitz of 630 Jews and resistants.

Barbie achieved local notoriety as "the Butcher of Lyons." Even so, at war's end, with the assistance of U.S. Army Intelligence, Barbie made good his escape. The Americans evidently prized him for his knowledge of French Communists who were prominent in the Resistance. There is no evidence, however, that the United States knew about his role in the deportation of French Jews--or, for that matter, any evidence that they had looked into any aspect of his past with care. In any case, the Americans helped Barbie leave Genoa, Italy, for South America in 1951. The French tried, convicted, and sentenced him to death in absentia in proceedings in 1952 and 1954.

The former SS torturer established a new life in Bolivia as the German emigrant Klaus Altmann. He hardly bothered to cover his past, and the Nazi hunters Serge and Beate Klarsfeld eventually tracked him down in La Paz, the Bolivian capital, in 1974. In negotiations with Barbie's hosts, the French bought his extradition. The price: $50 million and 3,000 tons of wheat. He was taken to Lyons in 1983. Four years and 23,000 pages of testimony later, Barbie went to trial on charges of war crimes (acts against the resistants) and crimes against humanity (the deportation of Jews).

Double Charges Blur Issues

The double charge created something of a problem. By the 1980s, the statute of limitations for carrying out the death sentence handed down in absentia had expired. Since those first trials, too, capital punishment had been abolished in France. The minister of justice at the time of abolition was Robert Badinter, a Jew whose father had been murdered at Auschwitz. Klaus Barbie had sent him there in 1943. The charge of crimes against humanity had been encoded in French law in a 1960s statute, derived from the Nuremberg trial, that also made possible Barbie's prosecution for crimes against the Resistance.

The problem lay in a blurring of the meaning of Barbie's acts. It is counted a war crime to torture or kill enemy soldiers after they have been taken captive. It is a crime against humanity to arrest, deport, and murder civilian men, women, and children--in this case Jewish men, women, and children--as part of a state policy of extermination. There is a difference, critics of the proceeding argued, between dying for what one did and dying for what one happens to be.

Barbie's Victims Recount His Crime

The trial became something of a media event, partly a consequence of the sensational antics of Barbie's attorney, Jacques Vergès. "The next thing you know," Vergès remarked after a glance at the thick sheaf of the indictment, "they'll say he stole the Eiffel Tower." The son of a French colonial officer who had been forced from the service for marrying a Vietnamese, Vergès hated colonialism. He achieved a certain notoriety in the 1950s and 1960s with his aggressive and unapologetic defense of members of the Algerian independence movement. Vergès argued that the French had no right to try Barbie because they themselves had committed crimes in Algeria and other former colonies and, stretching the analogy taut, because Israel had committed crimes against Palestinians. The prosecutor, Pierre Truche, dubbed this a défense de dérivation--the argument that, in an evil world, Barbie's crimes graded no worse than many others.

Media critics claimed that journalists--some 400 were accredited to the trial--showed more interest in Vergès' outrageous defense strategies than in the testimony of survivors of Barbie's torture sessions and of the Auschwitz deportations. Possibly the reporters were bored. To be sure, there was no question, ever, of Barbie's guilt, though he did issue a sort of blanket denial of the worst of the charges:

"I never committed the roundup in Izieu," he said. (His henchmen had.) "I never had the power to decide on deportations." (He had carried them out, though.) "I fought the Resistance, which I respect, with toughness, but that was war and the war is over."

The proceedings opened at a few minutes past 1 o'clock on May 11, 1987, in the Palace of Justice in Lyons. Barbie, 73 years old and unrepentant, signaled at the outset that he did not intend to cooperate; he insisted on his La Paz alias, Altmann. "I can understand why the name of Barbie must be heavy to bear," the presiding judge, André Cerdini, told him. On May 13, Barbie announced he would no longer attend the sessions, claiming he had been extradited illegally. He appeared in court only three more times, twice so victims could identify him, and at the last for the summations, verdict, and sentencing. His absence, of course, deprived his victims of their chance to confront him.

Cerdini questioned one woman about her arrest.

"It was the difference between seeing an accident and being in an accident," she answered.

A man who identified Barbie during one of his brief, forced appearances in court burst out:

"Look at him. He told me, 'You will be N and N [nacht und nebel, meaning "night and fog": liquidated]' with the same expression he has now!"

Testifying on June 3, Alice Vansteenberghe reconstructed the day Barbie tortured her and left her a cripple for life, then recounted an incident a few weeks later: August 11, 1944, the day that 331 Jews and 298 others were deported to Germany--the non-Jewish men and women to different concentration camps, the Jews to the Auschwitz death camp.

That morning I had left my home in the full euphoria of my living body; I never regained that feeling; I have never been able to walk again. We in the Resistance knew the risks we were taking, and I accept everything that I suffered. But in the cell where I was thrown there were other people. I saw a Jewish woman and her child, well-groomed, very blond, with a barrette in her hair. Well, one day Barbie walked in to take this mother from her child. This is not warfare--it's something unspeakable, beyond all bounds.

The train, dodging Allied bombs and detouring around torn-up track and blown bridges, reached Auschwitz after a nightmare trip of 11 days. Twenty-three deportees died en route. On September 7, 1944, 128 out of the surviving 308 Jews were gassed. The others went into the work camp, many of them to endure a long, lingering death.

On July 3, 1987, at 5:38 in the afternoon, the jury of nine women and three men began deliberations. In accord with French legal practice, the three-judge tribunal sat in on the discussions and voted with the jurors. The group reached a verdict a little after midnight on July 4: guilty. Cerdini sentenced Barbie to life in prison.

The French seemed let down by the affair, though perhaps relieved as well: The myth of unbending heroism of the French Resistance remained more or less intact, for Vergès had supplied absolutely no evidence to support his pretrial claim that the Resistance cells were riddled with traitors and that Jean Moulin had died not from the effects of torture but from his own hand, out of despair when he learned his comrades had betrayed him to the SS.

Piece by unsavory piece, the sorry record of the Vichy government's complicity in the destruction of French Jews had come to light in the years before the Barbie trial. Many Frenchmen perhaps hoped the prosecution would clear the record somehow, provide catharsis and a cure. Those who were disappointed in the outcome tended to blame the media for trivializing the issues. Jane Kramer, summing it up for The New Yorker, viewed the matter another way:

"The French expected Justice in Lyons. They got justice instead."

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
"Klaus Barbie Trial: 1987." Great World Trials, Gale, 1994. World History in Context, Accessed 21 Nov. 2018.

Gale Document Number: GALE|BT2307000087