The Butcher of Lyon
By Noel Anderson
He was called The Butcher of Lyon. He had the “eyes of a monster.” He tortured prisoners. He murdered children.
He tortured children.
Klaus Barbie was an astonishingly cruel and vile man. For the crimes he committed as a Nazi officer, Barbie was sentenced to death not once but twice. Yet, he was not executed. With the aid of the United States of America, Barbie lived out the next three decades in South America, remaining wholly unrepentant. In 1979, at the age of sixty six, Barbie reflected, “I regret each Jew I did not kill.” So how did Barbie escape justice, and why did the United States of America help him do it?
Klaus Barbie’s story begins unremarkably. Born October 25, 1913 to a Roman Catholic family in Godesburg, Germany, Klaus Barbie was the son of two teachers. Barbie was expected to join the seminary or become an academic, but when his father died in 1933, the family could not afford tuition. Instead, Barbie joined the Nazi party. In 1935, he began working for the Schutzstaffel, or SS: the Nazi party’s secret police force and intelligence network which reported directly to Hitler. It was then that Barbie’s story began to grow dark: the SS would go on to oversee the concentration camps, where so many innocent people died.
Barbie was well-regarded in the SS, and he quickly attained the rank of Captain. He received glowing reviews from his commanding officers, who commented that he was “especially hardworking and responsible,” and that his “SS bearing on duty and off [is] irreproachable.” They wrote that he was “completely and intensively [dedicated to our] work.” What was that work? Barbie was initially trained in interrogation, and his commanding officer described him as “one of the best [interrogators]” in the organization. Posted in Amsterdam before being stationed in Occupied France, Barbie was given command of foreign intelligence and the Gestapo, with the task of “fight[ing] Communists… Jews,” and the French resistance. It was in this post that Barbie acquired the title The Butcher of Lyon.
After the war, an extensive record of Barbie’s crimes came to light. The Dutch believe that Barbie oversaw the deportation of over 300 Jews to the Mauthausen concentration camp. Between 1942 and 1945, Barbie had over 4,000 people executed and deported more than 7,500 French Jews and other “undesirables” to concentration camps. Numerous stories emerged of Barbie’s personal role in violent interrogations and torture.
In April 1944, Barbie ordered the Gestapo to raid an orphanage in Izieu which was doubling as a safe house for French Jewish children. The Gestapo abducted forty four children between the ages of five and seventeen, as well as seven teachers. Eighty six people at the General Union of French Jews in Izieu were also abducted. Every one of the abductees was sent to concentration camps. One of the teachers abducted from Izieu was sent to Auschwitz but survived. After the war, they described what happened to the children from Izieu: “I asked myself where were the children who arrived with us? In the camp there wasn’t a single child to be seen. Then those who had been there for a while informed us of the reality. ‘You see that chimney, the one smoke never stops coming out of … you smell that odor of burned flesh … ?’” None of the children survived.
Barbie did not limit himself to oversight and command, as many of his victims testified. He would often personally interview and torture detainees in the hope of obtaining information on the French resistance. “[He] had the eyes of a monster,” said Ennat Leger, a survivor of one of Barbie’s interviews. “He was savage. My God, he was savage! It was unimaginable. He broke my teeth, he pulled my hair back. He put a bottle in my mouth and pushed it until [my] lips split from the pressure.”
“I was tortured by him for eight days,” recalled Simone Lagrange, a French Jew whose family was arrested after a neighbor turned them in to the Gestapo. All the other members of Lagrange’s family were killed. In the weeks after her capture, Lagrange was hauled out of her prison cell each day, and under Barbie’s supervision, men would yank on her hair, beat her and punch her open wounds in an attempt to extract information. Lagrange was thirteen.
The French resistance fighter André Frossard described the almost surreal experience of one of Barbies interrogations: “[I] was strung up by the hands and feet, then suspended by a pole and immersed in cold water. And the strangest thing was that everything was normal. Here you were hanging naked over a bathtub while a secretary typed, and people told jokes, and someone smoked, and someone munched on a sandwich, and someone else looked out the window.”
Lise Lesevre was tortured by Klaus Barbie for nine days. Barbie beat her and nearly drowned her in a bathtub, a tactic Barbie used frequently. Many victims described how he would force their heads underwater in a bathtub. They felt like they were drowning. Only when they passed out would Barbie revive them, demanding answers to his questions. Then he would repeat the process. Lise Lesevre also described how Barbie would hang her from the ceiling using handcuffs with spikes inside. Then he would beat her with a rubber bar. She was ordered to strip naked and forced into freezing water. During Barbie’s last interrogation of her, Lesevre was ordered to lie down on a chair. Barbie struck her back with a spiked ball attached to a chain. It broke Lesevre’s back.
In September 1944, allied forces took Lyon and began to round up the Nazi officers, but Barbie was gone. Just days before the allied forces arrived, Barbie had been hospitalized for a venereal disease and moved to West Germany for treatment.  As Germany fell, Barbie realized that he was likely to face charges for the atrocities he committed. He burned off the SS tattoo that identified him as a nazi officer. This was when his involvement with the United States began: Barbie joined a clandestine group of former Nazi intelligence and military officials who were seeking protection from the US and England in exchange for their services in fighting Soviet Communism. The plan was only partly successful because the clandestine group was infiltrated by the United States. Many of the former-Nazi members were arrested, but Barbie escaped by climbing through his bathroom window. The arrests were strategic, intended to give US negotiators an upper hand in dealing with the former Nazis. Most of those who were arrested went on to work for the US and receive their protection. 
Barbie also wound up finding employment with the US. Paid $1,700 a month, Barbie was assigned two missions. First, to “[seek] out as many old Gestapo and SS informants as possible, and especially those whose mission was KPD [German Communist Party] penetration under the Nazi regime.“ And second, to infiltrate the French administration in the French occupied zone of Germany. Barbie gave weekly reports on Communist activity in US-occupied Germany and began to endear himself with the US Army’s Counterintelligence Corps (CIC) agents. A report by Barbie’s commanding officer in the CIC described him as “an honest man, both intellectually and personally, absolutely without nerves or fear. He is strongly anti-Communist and a Nazi idealist who believes that he and his beliefs were betrayed by the Nazis in power.”
In 1949, French authorities were closing in. They had been searching for Barbie since the end of the war when he had been sentenced to death twice for his crimes in Lyon. Aware that the US was harboring Barbie, French authorities demanded his extradition. At the time, Barbie and his family were living in a US safe house in Osberg Germany. Worried they would lose a valuable asset and wishing to avoid awkward questions by the French about US covert action in Europe, US authorities lied to the French, saying they were unaware of Barbie’s whereabouts. A CIC report from the time acknowledged, “Because of Barbie’s activities with CIC… during 1947, it is not deemed advisable to intern him for his affiliation with the… SS. His knowledge as to the mission of CIC [specifically that of infiltrating the French administration], its agents, subagents, funds, etc. is too great.”
The CIC decided to resettle Barbie to Bolivia. According to a US Justice Department report, the CIC was impressed with Barbie’s anti-Communist work and hoped he could be used to combat the Reds overseas. To facilitate Barbie’s escape from Europe, the CIC turned to the Croatian priest Krunoslav Stjepan Draganović. Variously described in US intelligence reports as a “fascist” and “war criminal,” Father Dragonović had made a name for himself in the intelligence community by running a very successful ratline: a clandestine network of intelligence agents, ex-Nazis, Nazi sympathizers and Catholic priests who organized the escape of wanted war criminals from Europe.
Father Dragonović focused primarily on helping right-wing Croatian nationalists leave Europe to avoid prosecution. But he was happy to assist in Barbie’s escape in exchange for large sums of money. Using his contacts at the International Red Cross, and with the help of Giuseppe Siri, the Archbishop of Genoa, Father Dragonović procured immigration documents and passports for the fictional Klaus Altmann, his wife Regine Altmann, and two children. On March 9, 1951, a CIC agent accompanied Altmann, his wife and two children from Augsburg to Salzburg by train. From Salzburg, they continued to Genoa, where Father Dragonović took over. And on March 23, the Altmann family boarded the Italian ship, Corrientes, leaving Genoa for Buenos Aires, Argentina. On April 10, 1951, Barbie set foot in Argentina, a free man.
Klaus Barbie’s flight to South America was far from unique. Throughout the late 1940s and 50s, many Nazis found their way to Latin America. Why Latin America? Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Germany had strong diplomatic and financial ties to many Latin American countries. A substantial portion of the colonial elite in Latin America was well-connected and sympathetic to fascist Europe. German businessmen operated airlines across South America, drilled oil in Mexico and oversaw rubber plantations in Brazil. These extensive business and diplomatic connections meant that even before the war, sizable German populations could be found in many Latin American cities. In fact, at the beginning of World War II, German communities in Latin America became primary destinations for German Jews fleeing persecution. After the war, the same German communities that had appealed to German Jews now became the destinations for fleeing Nazis. As in Barbie’s case, the US was often involved in facilitating this travel.
As World War II wound to a close, top brass within the US military and intelligence communities were already making preparations for the next great conflict: the Cold War. One task of paramount importance was to recruit as many former Nazi scientists and intelligence personnel as possible before the Soviet Union either recruited or executed them. Nazi scientists would be tasked with accelerating US weapons development and the space program. Nazi intelligence agents would allow the US to tap into the extensive Nazi spy network and prevent Communism from gaining a foothold in Western Europe. Under the Third Reich, this spy network — which extended across Europe and included the Gestapo as well as foreign intelligence agents — had targeted Communists extensively. Now they would continue this mission, on behalf of the US.  The US “enlist[ed] thousands of Gestapo, Wehrmacht, and SS veterans.” “Even the vilest of the vile — the senior bureaucrats who ran the central administrative apparatus of the Holocaust” — could find employment and safety with the US. Emil Augsburg, for instance, found a home in the CIA as an expert on Soviet affairs. And in 1952 a CIA Report described Augsburg as, “Honest and idealist… enjoys good food and wine” and of “unprejudiced mind.” During World War II as an SS officer, Augsburg had been placed at the Wannsee Institute: the think tank which brainstormed much of the Final Solution. Augsburg was tasked with “special duties,” a code for exterminating Jews and other “undesirables.” But for the US, Augsburg’s anti-Soviet credentials were more important. While many of the Nazi recruits stayed in Europe, others, like Barbie, eventually left for Latin America.
In addition to the US supported emigration, Juan Perón, Argentinian president and Nazis sympathizer, also ordered his government to create secret channels to spirit Nazis out of Europe and into Argentina. Perón drew primarily from the upper middle class of Germany. Under the Third Reich, they were not in charge of armies or great matters of state, but they were not simply following orders either. Well-to-do, but not rich, they were the middle-management of Nazi Germany.
On arrival in Bolivia, Barbie purchased a sawmill, but by the 1960s he had returned to what he knew best: torture and murder. Barbie was hired to train the Bolivian military and special forces in “enhanced” interrogation and torture techniques. Barbie formed a group of assassins made up of former Nazis, Italian fascists, and a few Bolivians and Argentinians. They called themselves the “Grooms of Death” and performed targeted killings across Latin America. During the anti-Communist regime of René Barrientos Ortuño, Barbie claimed to have been involved in the capture and execution of Che Guevara, the ardent Communist and hero of the Cuban Revolution.  Then when General Hugo Banzer took power in a military coup, Barbie found employment in the Office of the Interior. He helped create concentration camps and torture centers. Barbie was stationed at headquarters in La Paz where he organized the persecution of leftist and Communist opposition. And beneath Barbie’s office in La Paz was a secret basement detention center where countless Bolivians were tortured and executed.
Barbie also made a name for himself as a successful businessman; he dealt in weapons. Barbie’s weapon dealing put him in contact with cocaine traffickers. In 1980, these associations led Barbie to take part in the “Cocaine Coup”: a violent coup d’etat where Luis Garcia Mesa, backed by cocaine money, installed himself as the dictator of Bolivia.
Barbie also helped facilitate Operation Condor: a coordinated operation between US-backed dictatorships in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay. Operation Condor allowed military and police forces to pursue targets across national borders. During the 1970s and 1980s, Operation Condor was responsible for the assassinations, kidnappings, tortures, sexual abuses, and “disappearances” of numerous journalists, political opponents, leftists, and Communists. It was common for Operation Condor to dispose of their victims by dropping them into the ocean from airplanes, weighing them down with rocks or concrete, and drugging them. There is little physical evidence, apart from the occasional mass grave, of the number of victims of Operation Condor, but estimates put the number of civilians killed somewhere between 10,000 and 100,000.   
Throughout this period, Barbie frequented the social scene in La Paz, Bolivia, where he became known for shouting “Heil Hitler” and giving Nazi salutes.  It was this blatant display of Nazi behavior that eventually led to his capture in 1971. He was recognized by the Klarsfelds, a couple of French Nazi hunters. But it wasn’t until after Bolivia had become more democratic in 1983 that officials agreed to extradite Barbie to France to face trial. In 1987, French courts sentenced Barbie to life in prison. He died four years later in 1991.
The scope and horror of Barbie’s actions from his time in Lyon to his extensive work throughout Latin America seem to put him in a class of his own. It’s hard to imagine a better example of pure evil than Klaus Barbie. But according to Neal Ascherson, the author of The Nazi Legacy, “Barbie does not belong in the first rank of Nazi criminals.” “He was not a Himmler, a Heydnch or even an Eichmann.” He was, rather, just “an average specimen of fascism.” He never rose above the rank of captain and was one of many who carried out the violence of the regimes for which he worked: “Barbie was a field officer, one of those who used the guns, who hunted, murdered and tortured for their masters. And, as such, he was only one among thousands.”
How many other former Nazis landed in Latin America? Pinning down a number is surprisingly difficult because most of Barbie’s compatriots were much more discrete, and the migration routes were clandestine by design. The purpose, after all, was to evade the notice of authorities. Most estimates put the total migration of Nazis to Latin America in the “tens of thousands.” But we know surprisingly little about most of them. However, if Ascherson is to be believed, and Klaus Barbie was only “an average specimen of fascism,” the Nazi legacy in Latin America is likely difficult to imagine.
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