Monsieur Guillotine: Jacques Vergès and the Trial of Klaus Barbie

    By Noel Anderson

    In 1987, after years of extradition disputes and legal wrangling, the trial of the Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie was ready to begin. The trial would be held in the French city of Lyon where, during World War II, Barbie had been a captain in the Gestapo and oversaw the deportation of thousands of French resistance fighters, Jews, and others to concentration camps.

    The prosecution was hoping for a quick and easy victory. This was not to be. After some confusion as to the leadership of Barbie’s defense team, Jacques Vergès was named head lawyer. Vergès was a strange pick for the position. Not only had he fought with the French resistance against the Nazis, Vergès was also a Communist and avid anti-imperialist.  Communists were notorious in their stand against Nazis, so how is it that Verges came to defend Klaus Barbie?

    Jacques Vergès was born in a French colony in Thailand. His father, a French doctor and diplomat, was ostracized by the French community when he married a Vietnamese woman. Verges was half French and half Vietnamese.  The experience of growing up in the French colony and experiencing racism firsthand had a strong influence on Vergès, and he would vehemently oppose imperialism and colonialism throughout his entire life. At the age of 17, Verges joined the French resistance fighting, under the leadership of Charles DeGaulle. After the war, Verges was horrified when the leadership of the French resistance brutally suppressed an uprising in the French colony of Algeria. Forty thousand Algerians died. While Vergès had been fighting for freedom, many in the resistance were French nationalists and wished to hold onto the French Empire. Vergès later recalled:

    “I was still in the Resistance and I was terribly shocked. I didn’t understand how [the Resistance] could fight Hitler then turn around and do that. Two years later there was a similar repression in Madagascar. The Nuremberg trials were taking place at the time. I simply could not understand how nations could hold these trials so that the sort of thing the Germans did would never happen again. It was clear that the victorious colonial nations were doing exactly what the Germans had done in France.”

    In addition, the fourth republic, the new French government, pardoned — or in many cases simply turned a blind eye on — many French collaborators who had helped the Nazis during World War II. Later, when Algeria as well as other French colonies finally won independence, France pardoned many of the French authorities who committed war crimes in the colonies. For Verges, this selective forgetting of French atrocities was unacceptable.

    Through the 1950s and 1960s, Vergès made a name for himself as a fire brand lawyer. He took on political cases, defending clients accused of political acts of violence against the French empire. Verges was rarely successful in defending his clients, so much so that he acquired the nickname “Monsieur Guillotine.” However, his clients were often satisfied.  For many of them, the guilty verdict was inevitable; the best they could hope for was to gain publicity for their cause.  And Verges obliged; his goal was not actual defense but to use the trials to showcase the brutality of French imperialism and France’s war crimes.

    So in 1987, Verges decided to defend the Nazi Klaus Barbie. While France planned to put Barbie on trial, Vergès planned to put France on trial. Rather than defend Barbie, Verges posed the question: if the French courts could prosecute Barbie for crimes committed almost 40 years ago, what stopped the courts from prosecuting the French collaborators who helped the Nazis and the French who oversaw the persecution of freedom fighters in French colonies?

    Throughout the trial, Verges compared the crimes of Barbie to those committed by French colonial power. In his final remarks at the trail, Verges said:

    “In the name of the defense, I humble myself before the struggle of the Resistance, and nobody can contest that right because the Algerian, African, Malagasy peoples were engaged in the fighting. I humble myself before the suffering of the Jews and the martyrdom of the children of Izieu because of racism… and because of that same racism we take with us the grief of the Algerian children killed by the thousands in French ‘regroupment camps.’ Does crime against humanity only force emotion or merit commemoration if it hurt Europeans?…Would there be in death a hierarchy that made the distinction between the dead dignified by memory and those dignified by being forgotten?”

    Verges was ultimately unsuccessful in defending Barbie, who was sentenced to life in prison.  However, defending Barbie was really never Verges’s goal. And while Verges was unable to bring prosecution against the French colonialists in the way he hoped, the trial did have a major impact on France. Through the trial, Verges forced the French public to reckon with parts of French history which in many ways had been forgotten. He publicized French collaboration with Nazis and shed new light on the atrocities committed in French colonies. So while many of these crimes went unpunished, through Verges they will be remembered.

    By Noel Anderson In 1987, after years of extradition disputes and legal wrangling, the trial of the Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie was ready to begin. The trial would be held in the French city of Lyon where, during World War II, Barbie had been a captain in the Gestapo and oversaw the deportation of…

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