Klaus Barbie was born in Bad Godesberg, near Bonn, on October 25, 1913. Barbie was born to a Roman Catholic family. His parents were both teachers. Until 1923 he went to the school where his father taught. Afterward, he attended a boarding school in Trier. In 1925, his whole family moved to Trier. In 1933, Barbie’s father and brother both died. The death of his abusive, alcoholic father derailed plans for young Barbie to study theology or otherwise become an academic, as his peers had expected. While unemployed, Barbie was drafted into the Nazi labor service (Reichsarbeitsdienst); membership was compulsory for all young German men and women.
In September 1935, he joined the SD or Sicherheitsdienst (security service), a special branch of the SS and the intelligence gathering arm of the NSDAP (Nazi party). In 1940, he was sent to The Hague (Den Haag), where his main task was to arrest Jews and German political refugees who fled to the Netherlands. In 1942, he was sent to Dijon and in November of the same year (after November 11, when German forces took over the unoccupied part of France, the so called “zone libre” or free zone) he was sent to Lyon, where he became the head of the local Gestapo, which included 25 officers who covered an area comprising Lyon as well as the Jura and Hautes-Alpes police departments and Grenoble.
While in France, his duty was to fight Communists, prevent sabotages and persecutre Jews. He was to penetrate and destroy the resistance in Lyon, and he indeed carried out his task with unmatched brutality.
Simone Lagrange, a soft-spoken Holocaust survivor whose family was exterminated, later recalled the arrest of her father, mother and herself on June 6, 1944. Denounced by a French neighbor as Jews, Simone and her parents were taken to Gestapo headquarters where a man, dressed in gray and caressing a kitten, said Simone was pretty.
“He was caressing the cat. And me, a kid 13 years old, I could not imagine that he could be evil because he loved animals. I was tortured by him for eight days.”
During the following week, the man hauled her out of a prison cell each day, he yanked her by her hair, beating and punching at her open wounds in an effort to obtain information.
Another survivor, Lise Lesevre, recalled how Klaus Barbie tortured her for nine days in 1944, beating her, nearly drowning her in a bathtub. She told how she was hung up by hand cuffs with spikes inside them and beaten with a rubber bar. She was ordered to strip naked and get into a tub filled with freezing water. Her legs were tied to a bar across the tub and Barbie yanked a chain attached to the bar to pull her underwater.
During her last interrogation, Barbie ordered her to lie flat on a chair and struck her on the back with a spiked ball attached to a chain. It broke a vertebrae, and she suffered the rest of her life.
Another survivor, Ennat Leger, said Klaus Barbie “had the eyes of a monster. 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 the lips split from the pressure.”
He personally tortured prisoners and is blamed for the deaths of 4,000 people. A dedicated sadist, responsible for many individual atrocities, including the capture and deportation to Auschwitz of forty-four Jewish children hidden in the village of Izieu, Klaus Barbie owed his postwar notoriety primarily to one of his “cases”, the arrest and torture unto death of Jean Moulin, one of the highest ranking member of the French Resistance.
Jean Moulin was mercilessly tortured by Klaus Barbie and his men. Hot needles where shoved under his fingernails. His fingers were forced through the narrow space between the hinges of a door and a wall and then the door was repeatedly slammed until the knuckles broke.
Screw-levered handcuffs were placed on Moulin and tightened until they bit through his flesh and broke through the bones of his wrists. He would not talk. He was whipped. He was beaten until his face was an unrecognizable pulp. A fellow prisoner, Christian Pineau, later described the resistance leader as “unconscious, his eyes dug in as though they had been punched through his head. An ugly blue wound scarred his temple. A mute rattle came out of his swollen lips.”
Jean Moulin remained in this coma when he was shown to other resistance leaders who were being interrogated at Gestapo headquarters. Barbie had ordered Moulin put on display in an office. His unconscious form sprawled on a chaise lounge. His face was yellow, his breathing heavy, his head swathed in bandages. It was the last time Moulin was seen alive.
On behalf of his cruel crimes and specially for the Moulin case, Barbie was awarded, by Hitler himself, the “First Class Iron Cross with Swords.”
After the war, Klaus Barbie was recruited by the Western Allies and worked for the British until 1947, then he switched his allegiance to the Americans. He was protected and employed by American intelligence agents because of his “police skills” and anti-Communist zeal - he penetrated communist cells in the German Communist Party.
With the aid of the Americans, he fled from prosecution in France in 1950 and relocated to South America together with his wife and children.
He lived in Bolivia as a businessman under the name Klaus Altmann from 1951 onward. Though he was identified in Bolivia at least as early as 1971 by the Nazi hunters Beate and Serge Klarsfeld, it was only in February 1983 that the Bolivian government, after long negotiations, extradited him to France to stand trial. This caused the U.S. to offer a formal apology to France in August 1983.
Klaus Barbie, nicknamed the “Butcher of Lyon,” responsible for the torture and death of thousands of people. On January 19, 1983, that the newly elected government of Hernán Siles Zuazo arrested and extradited him to France.
In 1984, Barbie was put on trial for crimes committed while he was in charge of the Gestapo in Lyon between 1942 and 1944. At the trial Barbie received support not only from Nazi apologists like François Genoud, but also from leftist lawyer Jacques Vergès. He had a reputation for attacking the French political system, particularly in French colonial territories. Vergès’ strategy at the trial was to use the trial to expose war crimes committed by France since 1945. Indeed, many of the charges against Barbie were dropped, thanks to legislation that had protected people accused of crimes under the Vichy regime and in French Algeria.
His trial started on May 11, 1987, in Lyon — a jury trial before the Rhône Cour d'assises. In a rare move, the court allowed the trial to be filmed because of its historical value. The lead defense attorney was Jacques Vergès, who argued that Barbie’s actions were no worse than the ordinary actions of colonialists worldwide, and that his trial was selective prosecution. The head prosecutor was Pierre Truche. During his trial, Barbie famously stated that: “When I stand before the throne of God I shall be judged innocent.”
On July 4, 1987, Barbie was sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity, and died in prison of leukemia four years later, at the age of 77.