|Birth name||Nikolaus Barbie|
25 October 1913|
Bad Godesberg, Germany
|Died||23 September 1991
Lyon, France (incarcerated)
|Allegiance|| Nazi Germany
|Years of service||1933–1945|
|Awards||Iron Cross First Class|
Nikolaus "Klaus" Barbie (25 October 1913 – 23 September 1991) was an SS-Hauptsturmführer (rank equivalent to army captain) and Gestapo member. He was known as the "Butcher of Lyon" for having personally tortured French prisoners of the Gestapo while stationed in Lyon, France. After the war, United States intelligence services employed him for their anti-Marxist efforts and also helped him escape to South America. The Bundesnachrichtendienst, the West German intelligence agency, recruited him, and he may have helped the CIA capture Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara in 1967. Barbie is suspected of having had a hand in the Bolivian coup d'état orchestrated by Luis García Meza Tejada in 1980. After the fall of the dictatorship, Barbie no longer had the protection of the Bolivian government and in 1983 was extradited to France, where he was convicted of crimes against humanity and died in prison of cancer.
Early life and education
Nikolaus "Klaus" Barbie was born on 25 October 1913 in Godesberg, later renamed Bad Godesberg, which is today part of Bonn. The Barbie family came from Merzig, in the Saar near the French border. His patrilineal ancestors were likely French Roman Catholics named Barbier who had left France at the time of the French Revolution. In 1914, his father, also named Nickolaus, was conscripted to fight in the First World War. He returned an angry, bitter man. Wounded in the neck at Verdun and captured by the French, whom he hated, he never recovered his health. He became an alcoholic who abused his children. Until 1923 when he was 10, Klaus Barbie attended the local school where his father taught. Afterward, he attended a boarding school in Trier and was relieved to be away from his abusive father. In 1925, the entire Barbie family moved to Trier.
In June 1933, Barbie's younger brother Kurt died at the age of eighteen of chronic illness. Later that year, their father died. The death of his father derailed plans for the 20-year-old Barbie to study theology or otherwise become an academic, as his peers had expected. While unemployed, Barbie was conscripted into the Nazi labour service, the Reichsarbeitsdienst. On 26 September 1935, aged 22, he joined the SS (member 272,284) and began working in the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), the SS security service, which acted as the intelligence-gathering arm of the Nazi Party. On 1 May 1937 he became member 4,583,085 of the Nazi Party. In April 1939, Barbie became engaged to Regina Margaretta Willms, the 23-year-old daughter of a postal clerk.
Second World War
After the German conquest and occupation of the Netherlands, Barbie was assigned to Amsterdam. In 1942 he was sent to Dijon, France in the Occupied Zone. In November of the same year, at the age of 29, he was assigned to Lyon as the head of the local Gestapo. He established his headquarters at the Hôtel Terminus in Lyon, where he personally tortured prisoners: men, women and children alike, breaking extremities, using electroshock and sexually abusing them (including with dogs), among other methods. He became known as the "Butcher of Lyon". In Marcel Ophüls's Oscar-winning documentary film Hôtel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie, the daughter of a French Resistance leader based in Lyon recounts her father's torture by Barbie – her father was beaten, skinned alive and his head was put in a bucket of ammonia; he died shortly after.
Historians estimate that Barbie was directly responsible for the deaths of up to 14,000 people. He arrested Jean Moulin, one of the highest-ranking members of the French Resistance and his most prominent enemy figure. In 1943, he was awarded the "Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Swords" for his campaign against the French Resistance and the capture of Moulin by Adolf Hitler.
In April 1944, Barbie ordered the deportation to Auschwitz of a group of 44 Jewish children from an orphanage at Izieu. After his operations in Lyon, he rejoined the SiPo-SD of Lyon in Bruyères, where he led an anti-partisan attack in Rehaupal in September 1944.
US intelligence and Bolivia
In 1947, Barbie was recruited as an agent for the 66th Detachment of the U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC). The U.S. used Barbie and other Nazi Party members to further anti-Communist efforts in Europe. Specifically, they were interested in British interrogation techniques, which Barbie had experienced firsthand, and the identities of SS officers that the British were using for their own ends. Later, the CIC housed him in a hotel in Memmingen and he reported on French intelligence activities in the French zone of occupied Germany because they felt the French were infiltrated with Communists.
The French discovered that Barbie was in U.S. hands and, having sentenced him to death in absentia for war crimes, made a plea to John J. McCloy, U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, to hand him over for execution, but McCloy allegedly refused. Instead, the CIC allegedly helped him flee to Bolivia with the help of "ratlines" organized by U.S. intelligence services and Croatian Roman Catholic clergy, including Father Krunoslav Draganović. The CIC asserted that Barbie knew too much about the network of German spies the CIC had planted in various European Communist organizations and were suspicious of the Communist influence within the French government, but their protection of Barbie may have been as much to avoid the embarrassment of having recruited him.
In 1965 Barbie was recruited by the West German foreign intelligence agency Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) under the codename "Adler" (Eagle) and the registration number V-43118. His initial monthly salary of 500 Deutsche Mark was transferred in May 1966 to an account of the Chartered Bank of London in San Francisco. During his time with the BND, Barbie made at least 35 reports to the BND headquarters in Pullach.
Barbie emigrated to Bolivia, where he lived under the alias Klaus Altmann. He had less embarrassment being employed there than in Europe, and enjoyed excellent relations with high-ranking Bolivian officials including Bolivian dictators Hugo Banzer and Luis García Meza Tejada. "Altmann" was known for his nationalist and anti-communist stance. While conducting his arms trade operations in Bolivia, he was appointed to the rank of Lt. Colonel within the Bolivian Armed Forces.
Reviews of the 2007 documentary My Enemy's Enemy by British director Kevin Macdonald, note that it suggests Barbie helped the CIA orchestrate the 1967 capture and execution in Bolivia of Che Guevara, who was active in South America at the time. In 1966 a disguised Guevara had arrived in Bolivia to organise the overthrow of its military dictatorship and its replacement with a Communist government. According to the film, the CIA used Barbie for his knowledge of counter-guerrilla warfare.
Álvaro de Castro, a longtime confidant of Barbie, was interviewed for the film. He said:
He (Barbie) met Major Shelton, the commander of the unit from the US. (Barbie) no doubt gave him advice on how to fight this guerrilla war. He used the expertise gained doing this kind of work in the Second World War. They made the most of the fact that he had this experience.
De Castro added that Barbie "had little respect for Che Guevara". In the film, journalist Kai Hermann says, "[Barbie] always boasted – though I cannot prove it – that it was he who devised the strategy for murdering Che Guevara."
Extradition, trial and death
Barbie was identified as living in Bolivia in 1971 by the Klarsfelds (Nazi hunters from France). The Testimony of the Italian insurgent Stefano Delle Chiaie before the Italian Parliamentary Commission on Terrorism suggests that Barbie took part in the "Cocaine Coup" of Luis García Meza Tejada, when the regime forced its way to power in Bolivia in 1980. On 19 January 1983, the newly elected government of Hernán Siles Zuazo arrested Barbie and extradited him to France to stand trial.
In 1984, Barbie was indicted for crimes committed while he directed the Gestapo in Lyon between 1942 and 1944. The jury trial started on 11 May 1987, in Lyon, before the Rhône Cour d'assises. Unusually, the court allowed the trial to be filmed because of its historical value. A special court room with seating for an audience of about 700 was constructed. The head prosecutor was Pierre Truche.
At the trial Barbie was supported by financier François Genoud, and defended by the lawyer Jacques Vergès. Barbie was tried on 41 separate counts of crimes against humanity, based on the depositions of 730 Jews and resistance figures, who cited his torture practices and murders.
Barbie gave his name as Klaus Altmann (the name he used while in Bolivia). Claiming his extradition was technically illegal, he asked to be excused from the trial and returned to his cell at Prison Saint-Paul. This was granted. He was brought back to court on 26 May 1987 to face some of his accusers, during which time he stated that he had "nothing to say".
Vergès had a reputation for attacking the French political system, particularly in the historic French colonial empire. His strategy was to use the trial to talk about war crimes committed by France since 1945. This had less to do with the trial than with Verges' desire to undermine the French Fifth Republic. The prosecution dropped some of the charges against Barbie due to French legislation that had protected French citizens accused of the same crimes under the Vichy regime and in French Algeria. Vergès tried to argue that Barbie's actions were no worse than the supposedly ordinary actions of colonialists worldwide, and that his trial was selective prosecution. During his trial, Barbie said, "When I stand before the throne of God I shall be judged innocent".
The court did not accept the defence argument. On 4 July 1987, Barbie was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. He died in prison in Lyon of leukemia and cancer of the spine and prostate four years later, at the age of 77.
- Operation Condor
- Operation Bloodstone
- Glossary of Nazi Germany
- French Resistance
- List of Nazi Party leaders and officials
- List of SS personnel
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- Klaus Barbie (Character) at the Internet Movie Database
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