Germany has no shortage of war criminals and villains in its history. Most famous of these is, of course, Adolf Hitler, but readers may also have heard of Joseph Mengele or Adolf Eichmann. One of the less well-known World War II war criminals was Klaus Barbie, or the Butcher of Lyon.
Klaus had joined the SS in 1935 after serving two years as a conscript in the labor service. In 1937 he joined the Nazi Party and began working for the SS security service. During World War II he was first assigned to Adolf Eichmann’s staff in Amsterdam where he led operations arresting and deporting Jews and Freemasons to concentration camps. In November of 1942 he was made the chief of the Gestapo in the City of Lyon. As Gestapo Chief, he orchestrated anti resistance efforts and efforts to hunt down and either kill or deport the Jewish population. He is estimated to have been responsible for the death of 14,000 people. He personally engaged in the torture of both adults and children. Most notably, he captured Jean Moulin, leader of the French Resistance, in 1943 and had him beaten to death. He was also involved in the Rue Sainte-Catherine Roundups. In April of 1944 he organized the roundup of 44 Jewish children from an orphanage and their deportation to Auschwitz. In August of that year, as the Germans prepared to retreat from Lyon, Barbie sent a final train of deportees to German death camps. After the war, Barbie worked for US army intelligence as an anti communist agent. However, the French discovered this and asked the US to turn him over. The Army Counterintelligence Corps helped Barbie flee to Bolivia. While in Bolivia, he assumed the name of Altmann and worked as an advisor to the Bolivian Army. He engaged in the arms trade and taught soldiers how to use torture and suppress leftist groups. When General Banzer came to power in 1972, he assisted in the regime’s illegal arrests and interrogations. He remained a committed Nazi and anti-Semite, and was connected to several Neo Nazis in Bolivia. Barbie was identified in 1971, but the Bolivian government refused to heed the call for his extradition. However, in 1983 the elected government of Hernan Zuazo arrested Barbie and had him deported to France. On May 11th, 1987, the trial of Barbie began. Barbie’s defense was based on the argument that his actions were similar to those of the French colonial system. However, this was rejected and on July 4th he was sentenced to life in prison. He died in prison of cancer four years later.
Klaus Barbie is a shameful case for Germany and also for the world at large. The United States especially bears responsibility for his not being captured for nearly 40 years. In order to prevent a political incident, the United States smuggled Barbie to Bolivia and in doing so the US aided a war criminal. Bolivia also bears some responsibility, although once the Bolivian people were able to elect a new leader he was extradited quickly. Short-term political objectives should not overrule such fundamental moral concerns as ensuring that barbaric criminals are caught. Someone who made special effort to ensure that orphans were sent to Auschwitz should not have been protected by various governments for forty years. Klaus Barbie’s example encourages others like him, and the nations of the world must not let similar men live free for so long.