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Nazi War Crimes Trials: Klaus Barbie

(May 1987)

On May 11, 1987, after four years of legal wrangling, Klaus Barbie, the SS officer in charge of the Gestapo in Lyon, France from November, 1942 to August, 1944, would finally attend his long overdue meeting with justice. There was little doubt that Klaus Barbie, a frail old man sitting in the defendant’s box of a French courtroom, was the same Klaus Barbie who had been responsible for thousands of deaths forty years earlier. Of Barbie’s hundreds of crimes, including murder, torture, rape, and deportation, only those of the gravest nature, the “crimes against humanity,” would be pursued at the trial. Specifically, Barbie would be tried for his role as a perpetrator of Hitler’s Final Solution and the material evidence against him was staggering.

When the trial began, the forty-lawyer prosecution team, which represented Klaus Barbie’s myriad victims, opened its argument by reciting a list of Barbie’s crimes. The list turned out to be so long that the entire first day of the trial was devoted to its reading. Moreover, the prosecution had scores of witnesses, mainly those who had been tortured by Barbie because he suspected that they were members of the French Resistance or because they were Jewish.

While the prosecution was preparing its witnesses, the defense was preparing its own argument. To defend Barbie, who France already sentenced to death twice, in absentia, would be a daunting and unpopular task, but for a radical lawyer named Jacques Vergès, the Barbie trial was the moment for which he had spent most his entire adult life preparing. Vergès’ defensive strategy was in his own words to “attack the prosecution,” and almost as soon as the judges let him speak, he transformed Barbie’s trial into a trial of France and of something much greater, history itself.

Historical Background
The Occupation: The Years France Forgot
Criminal In Absentia (1945-1983)
Preparing Barbie's Defense (1983-1987)
The Courtroom (1987)

Historical Background

On April 6, 1944, three vehicles, two of which were lorries, pulled up in front of the children’s refuge in Izieu, a sleepy village nestled in the piedmont east of Lyon. The children, most of whom were Jewish, were hiding in Izieu in order to escape their hunter, the regional Gestapo, which was led by First Lieutenant Klaus Barbie. The lorries’ arrival signaled the end of this hunt and as a witness later recalled, Barbie’s Gestapo caught its quarry:

It was breakfast time. The children were in the refectory drinking hot chocolate. I was on my way down the stairs when I saw three trucks in the drive. My sister shouted to me: it’s the Germans, save yourself! I jumped out the window. I hid myself in a bush in the garden...I heard the cries of the children that were being kidnapped and I heard the shouts of the Nazis who were carrying them away...They threw the children into the trucks like they were sacks of potatoes. Most of them were crying, terrorized.1

Following the raid on their home in Izieu, the children were shipped directly to the “collection center” in Drancy by the Gestapo. Upon reaching Drancy, the children were put on the first available train “towards the East” and, of the forty-four children kidnapped by the Nazis in Izieu, not a single one returned.2 The most tragic aspect of the Izieu raid, however, was that Barbie would have never found the children had patriotic French citizens not volunteered to help him search for refugees.

When Klaus Barbie arrived in Lyon in November 1942, he was assigned two tasks, to dismantle the Resistance and rid the city of Jews.3 The city’s medieval architecture had earned Lyon the title of “Capital of the Resistance” by providing more than enough cul-de-sacs and long-forgotten basements in which guerrillas and refugees could hide.4 Barbie’s job, however, was not nearly as difficult as it sounded. For every résistant he encountered, Barbie found that there were equal numbers of French willing to collaborate with him. Many of the French who collaborated with Barbie did so out of greed or a lust for power, but many more collaborated simply because they believed what they were doing was good for France. The reason for this, as Barbie would soon discover, was that two completely different notions of what it meant to be French existed side by side. Such coexistence often led to violence, but more importantly, it both fed upon and nourished French society’s disregard for certain elements of its past. Barbie’s role in that nation-scale oversight was key; during the Occupation, he manipulated and reinforced it, and during his trial in 1987, he provided the means to destroy it. Destroying national amnesia, however, is no easy task considering how far into the past it reached.

The story of the Barbie trial begins not during World War Two, but with the Enlightenment, where the ideas that propelled both Barbie and those who judged him were born. Philip Potter, a pastor from the Antilles, knew as much when he was interviewed by Le Monde shortly after Barbie’s extradition to France:

In reality, Barbie and his like are the products of your [French] history. Hitler, Barbie, Eichmann, and company represent the end of the Aufklärung (century of Enlightenment) which produced four things: the Industrial Revolution, which subordinated man to the machine; the founding of the United States on a declaration of independence where liberty and equality were applied to all men -- except for blacks and Indians; the French Revolution of 1789 where liberty, brotherhood, and equality were indeed claimed by the bourgeoisie; and imperialism based on racism.5

It was the Enlightenment that proclaimed all men to be equal and that all equals be treated as equals; it was also the Enlightenment that allowed people to look at the world from a more rational, scientific perspective. Although this way of thinking transformed France into one of the world’s greatest democracies, it also made France into a breeding ground for a new, extremely dangerous form of racism. Thus, it was the Enlightenment’s dual nature that allowed France to become the first nation to grant full civil rights to all of its minorities and concurrently become the first nation in which racism was justified through scientific reasoning. As was demonstrated in the rise of guillotine following the French Revolution, all it took was a tweak here and a twist there to employ the newfound knowledge to making blood both boil and flow.

As liberty and equality became rationalized, so did hatred. It was this dual nature that brought suffering to those who benefited most from the principles of the Enlightenment when those same principles were distorted. No finer example exists of the Enlightenment’s dual nature than the fate of the European Jews. When France, in a fervor of putting the principles of the Enlightenment to good use, became the first nation to grant full rights to all of its minorities, including Jews, it also provided fertile soil for hatred to take seed and grow. As the Jews used their newfound civil rights to integrate into French society, they increasingly became the victims of a new form of racism, a scientific one. While democracy and equality were being rationalized, so were nationalism, xenophobia, and racism. Consequently, by the 1880s, those who continued to be anti-Semitic, despite the lack of a religious basis for doing so in a secular democracy, now had a whole new set of ideas on which to base their hatred.

Now, instead of being persecuted for religious reasons, Jews became the victims of economic and then racial discrimination. French Jews, who were well-integrated into French society by the 1880s, were disproportionately involved in the nation’s finance and capital markets. Whenever there was an economic downturn, the Jews got blamed and, this being the age of scientific reasoning, anti-Semites began looking for scientific explanations for the Jews’ place in society. If there was a “French national character” then there was also a “Jewish character,” and the new generation of French anti-Semites viewed the two as conflicting.6 Theories emerged that Europe was dominated by Jews, who through their heavy involvement in finance, academics, and culture managed to control a disproportionate share of power and wealth. The Jewish “character” was blamed by many rightist thinkers for the rise of socialism and the collapse of Europe’s monarchies. Everywhere the European Right saw their enemies they also saw Jews. It was Karl Marx, a Jew, who designed communism, and it was therefore the Jews who were destroying Europe’s status quo. If Marx was Jewish, then so was communism, and as the Right intensified its battle against Marx’s growing popularity, it stepped up its battle against the Jews as well. The new racial anti-Semitism was therefore neither a spontaneous nor an isolated event, and it often went hand-in-hand with nationalism, xenophobia, religiosity, and monarchism. Furthermore, the new wave of anti-Semitic nationalism would prove itself as only the tip of the iceberg of a much larger trend, one which earned Paris the title of “the spiritual capital of the European Right.”7

The turn-of-the-century marked a new age for French tolerance and a new age for French anti-Semitism as well. Religious tolerance was on the rise and by the 1890s, Jews were even allowed to serve as officers in the French Army, traditionally a bastion of conservatism and therefore anti-Semitism. The first modern test of the Jewish presence in France began in 1895 when Alfred Dreyfus, the first Jew to serve as an officer in the French Army’s General Staff, was stripped of his medals and denounced as a traitor and a spy. From this incident, which soon swelled into a decade-long national drama, French anti-Semitism got a major boost. Many French already distrusted Jews and the Dreyfus Affair gave them the perfect opportunity to continue doing so. In the minds of many French nationalists, especially the militarists on the monarchist Right, Dreyfus was a spy and a traitor because he was greedy and hated the French. Why would he be greedy and hate the French? Because he was a Jew. And why would a Jew be greedy and hate the French? Because that was his character, his essence, his inner-being, his Jewishness.

Rightists like Charles Maurras, the founder of Action Française, typified those who used the Dreyfus Affair to gain support for their attacks on the Jewish presence in France. As Erna Paris put it, “Maurras was no mass murderer, to be sure, but rather an aesthete, a snob, a worshiper of the ancient world, a masculinist...and an elitist in every sense of the word.”8 By 1889, La Libre Parole, the daily paper of Action Française whose sole purpose was to attack the Third Republic, boasted a circulation of about 300,000.9 Every time something went wrong on any level, papers like La Libre Parole blamed the policies of the Third Republic for whatever happened. Specifically, La Libre Parole attacked the Third Republic for its liberalness and its toleration of foreigners, especially Jews. Moreover, these papers frequently revealed Jews at the center of the Third Republic’s scandals and occasionally even called on the government to revoke the citizenship of Jews or at least put some restrictions on their involvement in French government, industry, and culture. Thus, when Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew, was denounced as a traitor, men like Maurras were ready to pounce. Even though Dreyfus was eventually pardoned, the uproar surrounding his trial and incarceration renewed the public’s traditional fear of France‘s Jewish population, and groups like Action Française were allowed to ease xenophobia into popular acceptance.

Along with their newfound popular acceptance, French anti-Semites found that their political base was expanding as well. During the Dreyfus trials, the anti-Semites held a great deal in common with conservatives and military leaders whose interests would be advanced by condemning Dreyfus. Both groups wanted to change or remove the Third Republic and both groups saw multi-culturalism as a threat to French society. In both groups, most members were ardent nationalists like Maurras, some were devout Catholics, and many were enemies of the Republic as well. They saw the Third Republic as a great hindrance to France for among other reasons, its tolerance of minorities and liberals. Armed with their new theories of French racial character, they were alarmed by the Third Republic’s willingness to taint French culture by allowing outsiders to settle there. As a result of the popularity of groups like Action Française and their association with the popular Right, many French began to believe that they could not be good nationalists without being at least mildly anti-Semitic.

Although groups like Action Française appealed to many by attaching anti-Semitism and xenophobia to the promise of a better future for France, they were not without opposition. While the French anti-Semites used the Dreyfus Affair popularize their cause, an equally vocal group defended Dreyfus, and indeed the whole Jewish presence in France, against false accusations made against them. When it became clear that Dreyfus had been framed, the journalist Emile Zola wrote his famous article entitled “J’Accuse” in which he pointed out the inconsistencies of Dreyfus’s enemies, most of whom were both conservative and anti-Semitic. For the Left as well as for the large non-socialist Republican Center, a conviction of Dreyfus would go against tolerance and justice, two values held dear by the Third Republic. Thus, by the time the Dreyfus Affair ended, France was completely polarized over the issue of Dreyfus’s role in the army and over the larger issues of the Jewish presence in France and the validity of what the Third Republic stood for. For the most part, the socialists and the Center supported Dreyfus while most conservatives, monarchists, and the military opposed him. Both sides refused the change their views, but for the time being the more liberal values of the Republic prevailed and the Right was forced to confine its anti-Semitism to a more tacit level. Although anti-Republicanism and the anti-Semitism went with it were buried, they certainly had not died.

Much of the xenophobia and anti-Semitism that was aroused during the turn of the century disappeared from the political arena during World War I. On the battlefields of Verdun, the Somme, and Ypres, French Christians and Jews fought and died side by side for France. Those who managed to survive the ordeal of the trenches were respected regardless of their creed or ancestry. Henceforth, all one had to do to refute the arguments of an anti-Semite was simply to point to one of France‘s many Jewish veterans. Consequently, anti-Semitism in France declined during the 1920s, and as the decade progressed, it faded from most aspects of life with the notable exceptions of social clubs and spousal choice.10 Moreover, French Jews were allowed to integrate more than ever and it would be fair to say that France during the 1920s was much more tolerant of Jews than the either the U.S. or the U.K. at the time.11

France‘s national mood of unity and toleration that followed the war was doomed for precisely the same reasons it came about in the first place. The 1920s attitude of toleration and unity hinged on a rebounding French economy and a stable society. As long as mouths were fed, pockets were full, and jobs were available, everybody was fairly happy, but this national mood of content quickly faded when France succumbed to the Great Depression in the early 1930s. Besides bringing mass unemployment and therefore mass unrest to France, the Great Depression brought Adolf Hitler to power in Germany. France not only had to worry about its internal upheaval, but it had to face the growing threat of yet another war with Germany as well. After World War One, the French were simply tired of war, especially given their atrocious losses and the fact that much of that war was fought on French soil. In the trenches on the Western Front, France lost a whole generation of young men and like most other nations that participated in the slaughter, France had no desire to repeat the experience ever again. Understandably, France‘s foreign policy reflected the popular pacifism brought about by World War One, and almost all French, from Communists to right-wing radicals, despised the idea of another war.

Such pacifism on the part of French society beckoned like a siren’s wail to Adolf Hitler, who from the start of his political career declared that the “mongrel” French stood firmly in the path of German progress.12 As one of primary forces behind the massive burdens heaped upon Germany at the conclusion of World War One and as a society unprepared for war, France provided an ideal target for the expansionist Nazis. To make matters worse, French pride in the Republic bitterly opposed fascism, with which Hitler had replaced the Weimar Republic. Nazi “philosophers” hurled invectives against the principles of the Enlightenment, which they viewed as responsible for the rise of the Republic and the Jews. Ironically, the Nazis owed their ideology of the Volksgemeinschaft, the organic people’s state, to the same principles of the Enlightenment that paved the way for the French Republics and their toleration of religious diversity.13 Just as French anti-Semites derived their science-based views from the Enlightenment, the Nazis drew their own brand of anti-Semitism from the same scientific principles.

As if a faltering economy and a looming war were not enough, France was flooded by a steady stream of refugees fleeing fascism and poverty. Most prominent, although not most numerous, were the Jewish refugees from the east. From Poland and other places in eastern Europe came a wave of poor, uneducated, and very unassimilated Jews. When these eastern Jews arrived in cosmopolitan France they spoke little or no French and placed a great strain on the French economy that was already facing record unemployment. Not only did these Jewish immigrants clash with French culture, they, like all immigrants, were viewed as threats to French job security. Thus, from fears of job displacement arose yet another kind of anti-Semitism, one in which Jews were, depicted as “predatory proletariats.”14 When anger towards Jewish immigrants expressed itself in renewed hostility, fully assimilated and highly successful French Jews were often lumped together with their poor immigrant counterparts. As a result, economic worries became blended with traditional anti-Semitism, and the word “Jew” began to mean “job stealer” as well as “exploiter.”

Although French xenophobia was on the rise in the early 1930s because of the socioeconomic problems brought about by the new wave of poor immigrants, the bulk of the French population was sufficiently liberal and open-minded to elect in 1936 the Popular Front headed by Léon Blum, a socialist and a Jew. The Popular Front’s main platform stood against the fascism that was on the rise in France‘s neighbors Germany, Italy, and Spain. Although the Popular Front had put a Jew in power, the same forces that persecuted Dreyfus were also returning. For the enemies of the Third Republic, many of whom were anti-Semitic, or became anti-Semitic once Blum took office, Blum’s role as Premier confirmed their fears that Jews were taking over France. They pointed to France‘s sluggish economy and deteriorating relationships with its fascist neighbors as sure signs that the Jews were out to ruin France. Many also feared that an enraged Blum and his “Talmudic Cabinet” would try to pick a fight with Germany because of Hitler‘s anti-Semitism.15 In reality, Blum’s administration made great efforts to appease Hitler, and ironically, that effort to make peace would soon bring unprecedented disaster to France.

When something went wrong in France during the Blum administration, and a lot did go wrong in the late Thirties, the Jews as a group were often blamed along with Blum’s government and the immigrants. To make matters even worse for Blum, France experienced the Refugee Crisis, its biggest-ever surge of refugees, between 1938 and 1941. When Germany began to expel political opponents and Jews en masse in 1938, many of them ended up in France, and soon other waves of political refugees swept in from fascist Spain and Italy. As if the sheer volume of refugees was not enough to test French tolerance of outsiders, many of the refugees were violent political extremists, not the type of people a society on the verge of turmoil wanted. Although the French tried to prevent the refugees from ending up in France, they had the misfortune of sharing the same landmass with the source of the refugees. From the Blum administration’s point of view, France was faced with the choice of paying for the refugees’ food, clothing, and shelter or letting them run amok in the streets. Either way, Blum would lose.

In the southern regions of France, massive camps de concentration were set up for the destitute refugees. The bill came to $6 million per month to run each of these camps and Blum got blamed for the whole thing.16 In the area where the camps were located, later to become the geographic heart of the Vichy regime, the locals had become thoroughly fed up with refugee situation. Henceforth, the cards were stacked against the refugees from the minute they entered France. Immigrants could not find work because there were no jobs, they could not integrate because they were unwanted, and they could not leave because they were trapped. Worse, to many native French, the refugees seemed like a lost cause. As evidence, they pointed out that the refugees, many of whom were Jews, were not working, were not assimilating, and were staying on French soil completely at France‘s expense. In short, the locals wanted the refugees out, immediately. They would have their wish granted much sooner than they expected.

Unfortunately for Blum, the situation went from bad to worse as the surge of refugees swelled due to the deteriorating situations in their homelands. After a decade of economic regression and social upheaval, the traditional Republican tolerance of refugees was pushed beyond its limit. As popular sentiment against the Jews intensified because of the Refugee Crisis and the apparent ineptness of Blum’s government, the distinction between assimilated French Jew and immigrant faded while the old distinction between Catholic Frenchman and Jew resurfaced. Many conservative and pacifistic French began to worry that the Refugee Crisis would drag France into war with her fascist neighbors and they often blamed the Jews for the growing tensions in Europe. The idea that it would be the Jews who dragged France into war was reinforced in 1938 when Herschel Grynszpan, a recent Jewish immigrant to France, shot and killed a German diplomat in Paris.17 In the minds of conservative pacifists, the Grynszpan incident was a worst-case scenario: a Jew, who was an unwelcome burden for France to begin with, had sabotaged the already delicate relationship between France and Germany.

When war between France and Germany finally broke out on September 3, 1939, it was certainly not because Blum had picked a fight with the Germans. Instead, it was Hitler‘s aggression and the Nazis’ fear that France would become a formidable foe if given enough time to build up its armies that prompted the Wehrmacht to sweep across the Low Countries into France.18 Before the German army even reached French soil, however, France was invaded by over a million refugees from Holland and Belgium who were fleeing the advancing armies. The wave of panic-stricken mobs that poured into France made the Refugee Crisis of the late Thirties seem like a picnic. For the French government, which was trying to fight a war at the time, this flood of refugees could not have come at a worse moment. Desperate times called for desperate measures and the government resorted to cramming thousands of refugees in boxcars and shipping them to already crowded camps. The camps were nothing like the camps the Nazis would soon run, but conditions were nevertheless wretched; a typical camp being the Velodrome d’Hiver, a huge indoor sports complex in Paris where up to 5,000 refugees lived in squalor for months. In the camps, families were split apart and disease ran rampant. Most refugees, however, did not end up in the government-run camps and when the hotels and boarding-houses filled up or when they ran out of money, they simply lived on the streets.19 In every public space in Paris there were refugees and where there were refugees there was chaos.

Many French citizens were so angry about refugee situation that they demanded an armistice with Germany just so that the refugees could be sent home. If the war between France and Germany would end, then so would the refugee problem. Those who wanted a quick end to the war got their wish as the combination of German innovation and French ineptness on the battlefield, caused mainly by poor leadership and outdated tactics, brought the “Phony War” to an end a scant two months after the Germans began their westward push. With the German troops on their way to Paris and with the French armies nowhere to be seen, there was absolutely nothing to stop Nazi Germany‘s occupation of its longtime enemy, France.

In the chaos following the German invasion of May-June 1940, the Third Republic collapsed. The death knell of the Third Republic occurred on June 14, 1940, when the Germans entered Paris. Two days later, with a swastika hanging from the Arc de Triomphe and German soldiers goose-stepping down the Champs-Elysees, the last remnants of the Third Republic collapsed. That day, in a last-ditch attempt to salvage traditional honor, the government gave full executive power to Marshal Philippe Pétain. What Pétain was supposed to do was be a savior. If Pétain could be a savior on the battlefields of Verdun where he overcame terrible odds to halt the German advance in 1916, then he could do it again in 1940. Pétain was no ordinary military leader though, he attained the status of a demigod: “On the army’s most glorious day, Philippe Pétain had been its most glorious leader and in the minds of those for whom the army was the nation, the Marshal had become the incarnation of France itself.”20

For rightist anti-Semites like Charles Maurras, Pétain’s ascension was a dream come true. Upon taking office, Pétain vowed to “take up a righteous sword against liberalism, communism, and ‘selfish capitalism’ and rid our country from the most menacing threat of all, that of money.”21 France, under Pétain’s nominal leadership and under the guidance of conservative nationalism would at once be proud, militant, and xenophobic. Thus, when Maurras boasted that he would prefer a German occupier to the Third Republic, he was deadly serious: “Our worst defeat has had the good result of ridding us of democracy.” 22 Within a week of its formation, Pétain’s rightist government settled in the resort town of Vichy and began to prepare a formal surrender to German. The Vichy government’s surrender to the German’s would not be a loss but rather a triumph, especially to those who disliked the Third Republic so much. In its quest to battle the evils of communism, a force that many, if not most, of Vichy’s leaders saw as France‘s true nemesis, Vichy found itself allied with the Nazis for more than just reasons of survival.

Although those who ran the Vichy regime would later claim that Vichy served to shield the French from the full wrath of the Nazis, most of them had far more in mind than deterring the Nazis when they first took charge.23 The leaders of Vichy, who had been enemies of the Republic before it fell, had always had their own visions for France and sought to implement them now that the Republic was gone. Who were these men who led Vichy? One trait they had in common besides hatred for the Third Republic was a strong sense of conservative nationalism. Common aspects of the sort of nationalism found in Vichy’s leaders were xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and anti-Leftism. They were the old Right who fought against Dreyfus forty years before and they were the old Right who had been denied any political say for decades.

Though one would think that people who were so ardently nationalistic would be the first the resist the invading Germans, in fact the opposite was true. Even though many of these nationalists were fiercely anti-German, their drive to purge France of what they called “subversive elements” overpowered their hostility towards the invaders.24 The Germans, after all, were fighting against the Communists and the Jews, two groups that rightist French nationalists traditionally hated. Consequently, more than a few Pétainists saw the German invasion as a blessing because it would for the first time give them a free hand in ruling France and in fighting their traditional enemies, the Communists and the Jews. Some French were so impressed by the Nazi zeal against Bolshevism that they volunteered to serve in the Waffen (“fighting”) SS. The 20,000 Frenchmen who fought in the “Charlemagne” division of the SS fought so well that several were awarded the Iron Cross for their actions on the Eastern Front.25 By keeping in mind the extremely nationalistic beliefs of men like Maurras one can understand that they were not collaborating with the Nazis because they admired Germans but because collaboration would be best way to obtain their vision of a “pure” France. Pierre Laval, the man who really ran the Vichy regime, was sure that the Germans would eventually conquer all of Europe and wanted to ensure that France would still be a major power when the Nazis prevailed.26 He sought to accomplish this by playing a dangerous game of diplomacy during which he tried to wheedle concessions out of the Germans in exchange for French cooperation.

Many times the interests of the Vichy regime and of the Nazis coincided. When the Nazis demanded that Vichy France deport its Jews, the Vichy government wholeheartedly complied. The Rightist xenophobes who ran Vichy were overjoyed that the Germans wanted to take the refugees off their hands and ordered the milice, state-sponsored militia units that did the dirty work for the Vichy government and ultimately the Nazis, to begin rounding up the Jews. Probably no two Vichy leaders had the same reason for supporting the deportation of the Jews, though. Populist leaders answered to the many inhabitants of southern France who wanted the foreign Jews deported because they were fed up with the refugees and the camps de concentration. Besides the popular backlash against the refugee camps, ultra-conservatives associated the Jews with communism and saw the deportations as a sign of the true France reasserting itself. Meanwhile, racial anti-Semites like Maurras who saw the Jews as a threat to French culture shed no tears when they were “excised.”27

The incarnation of the Vichy regime’s nationalistic ideology took the form of the Alibert law, which was perhaps the most blatant expression of anti-Semitism in France during the Occupation. The Alibert Law isolated and alienated Jews by excluding them from all state administration jobs, and forbade them to work in the press, cinema, radio, and theater. This law was applied mercilessly to all Jews, assimilated and non-assimilated, with the exception of war veterans. Though it is tempting to claim that the Vichy government passed such laws to appease their Nazi masters, those who drafted and enforced Vichy’s anti-Semitic policies asserted that such laws had nothing to do with Nazism. Xavier Vallat, Vichy’s Commissioner-General for Jewish Affairs proudly claimed from his prison cell that Pétain’s government was not a “servile plagiarist of the Nazis” and that the anti-Jewish legislation of Vichy never went beyond the “just limits set by the Church in order to protect the national community.”28 Revealingly, Vallat boasted that “The Alibert Law...owes nothing at all to Nazism,” and dispelling any doubt about the origins of the Alibert Law, continued: “...M. Raphael Alibert was only adhering to a policy which found not only its source in a long national tradition, but also its justification in the position taken throughout the centuries by the Church with regard to the Jewish problem.” 29

When Vallat claimed Vichy’s anti-Semitism was a product of French tradition rather than Nazi occupation, he also went to great lengths to defend Vichy’s anti-Semitism by pointing out the differences between it and Nazism. Vallat thus argued that the surfacing of French anti-Semitism during Vichy was part of the popular French Catholic tradition and not something forced upon the French by the Nazis. In defense of his claim, Vallat points out the similarities between Vichy’s anti-Semitism and that of the various popes throughout the ages. Following this logic, even the Vichy decree of forcing Jews to wear yellow stars did not come from the Nazis but rather from Pope Honorius III who introduced the idea in 1221.30 Such a distinction is echoed by historian Eric Hobsbawm who claims the Holocaust arose from the same “grassroots” anti-Semitism of eastern Europe that catalyzed pogroms as opposed to the more academic anti-Semitism of Western Europe.31 Furthermore, the Vichy government did not force Jews to live in ghettos or force them out of public areas. Nor did it forbid mixed marriages or social interaction between Jews and gentiles.32 Vichy’s anti-Semitism, concluded Vallat, was even milder than what papal legislation called for and therefore much weaker than Nazi legislation.

Vallat’s mentality is perhaps best illustrated in his attitude toward to the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jews. In his memoirs, Vallat also says that he knew of the Final Solution starting in January, 1941, but that he “had problems” with the Nazi plans.33 His main concern at that time was to protect the French “national community,” and he therefore wanted to rid France of all foreign Jews, regardless of their fate. Thus, Vallat was quite relieved when the Germans began to deport foreign Jews in large numbers as well as French Jews who “threatened the national community.” But as much as Vichy wanted to get rid of the Jews, it also wanted political leverage with the Germans and Laval unhesitatingly used trainloads of Jews as his bargaining chips. When the Germans did not grant Vichy the concessions it demanded in exchange for a given number of Jews or French laborers, or material goods, Laval would withhold all exportation of humans and materials until the Germans complied. Until his execution as traitor in 1945, Laval firmly believed that his collaboration with the Nazis was a patriotic act and he died shouting “Viva La France!”34 Those who shot him believed the opposite, that they were serving France‘s best interests by ridding it of collaborators like Laval. It is this duality that allowed the two sides of France to coexist during the Occupation (the subject of the next chapter) and it is this duality that determined the course of Klaus Barbie’s trial forty years later.

The Occupation: The Years France Forgot (1940-1945)

When the Germans invaded France, they only occupied the portions of France that provided them with what they thought would be worth the expense and trouble of occupation. The Germans therefore occupied Paris, the Channel Coast, and the Atlantic Coast. Paris was important because it was a capital and controlling it meant controlling the region. The North and West coasts were the front between the Germans and their main enemy at the time, the British. By being located between territory that the Germans firmly controlled and Mussolini’s Italy, the southeastern part of France was strategically negligible and thus not worth the trouble of occupying. Not wanting to waste their valuable resources guarding a secure region, the Germans left southern France complete in French hands. The Germans also had bigger plans than just occupying France. In 1940, Hitler was pooling every available resource the Reich had for his main attack, the one against his ideological enemy but then ally, the Soviet Union. If the French wanted to govern themselves and cooperate too, then why should the Germans waste any of their precious resources that they could be using in their fight to gain Lebensraum in the East.

Although the Vichy regime’s zeal for persecuting the Jews pleased the Nazis a great deal, it alienated and angered the bulk of the French population. While some Frenchmen were glad to see the foreign refugees get sent back East, many were horrified when Vichy began to deport French Jews. When Frenchmen saw other Frenchmen handing their compatriots over to the Nazis, they became disillusioned then infuriated. For many, the mistreatment of the Jews was the key factor that caused them to join the Resistance but resistance did not always take the form of fighting. While some French blew up railroad tracks or shot Nazis, many men and women resisted Vichy and the Nazis passively by refusing to collaborate or by hiding rèsistants and Jews. Perhaps the best illustration of France‘s dual nature can be found in the film, Au Revoir Les Enfants. In the film, which is based on a true story, a group of priests hide French-Jewish children in their boarding school, but their generosity ends in tragedy when someone on their own staff informs the Gestapo of their crime. When the Gestapo arrive to haul the Jewish children and the head priest off to their certain deaths, the informant, a young Frenchmen, seems quite proud of his work.

By 1942, the Vichy government was in full-swing and at the peak of its power. Under Vichy, order had been restored, the refugee problem solved (many of them were deported, never to be heard from again) and it looked as if France might be entering a special relationship with her patron and ally, Nazi Germany. In Germany, 1942 was also the year it achieved its greatest power. On January 20, 1942, the Nazis held the Wannsee Conference and worked out all of the details of the Final Solution and decided to put it into action. By choosing to exterminate the Jews, the Nazis had opened their war on three fronts; Russia, Western Europe, and Jewish civilians. In 1942, the Third Reich was at its maximum size: its territories stretched from the Urals in Russia to the Atlas mountains of Morocco, and its enemies either lay in ruins or had yet to assemble their armies. In 1942, it was also clear that Germany would not win its war nearly as quickly as everybody thought it would in 1940. Defying what both Hitler and Pétain called its fate, Britain stubbornly held out against German aerial attacks and was even beginning to strike back on the fringes of Hitler‘s vast empire. On a much larger scale, the Russians, with the help the of the “endless steppe” and an extremely harsh winter, had stopped to bulk of the Wehrmacht dead in its tracks. Meanwhile, the Americans and British in North Africa were beginning to set the trap in which they could catch and destroy Rommel’s Afrika Korps. In France, the Resistance, most violently carried out by the Communists, was hampering German control of the area and was growing.

The German military planners knew they would soon be on the defensive and wanted to make sure they had complete control over all of Europe before the Allies tried to invade it. One glaring exception to this complete control was Vichy France, and on November 11, 1942, the Germans entered the area under the Vichy regime’s control without meeting any resistance. The Vichy government was still allowed to function as it had before, but the Germans would keep a closer eye on it and would conduct operations of their own within Vichy’s territory.

Exactly twenty-four years after his native Germany surrendered to France, Oberssturmfüher (First Lieutenant) Klaus Barbie of the Gestapo entered the city of Lyon. Barbie’s orders were simple and strict: “...fight and kill the Resistance” and rid Lyon of Jews.35 When the Gestapo assigned Barbie to Lyon, an ancient city where both the Resistance and Jews could easily hide, they knew they would not be disappointed. Before being sent to Lyon, Barbie had proved himself an able and enthusiastic SS officer in Amsterdam where he earned a well-deserved reputation for being both especially cunning and especially brutal. One time, when he received orders to arrest two German-Jewish ice-cream peddlers, he decided that a mere arrest would not satisfy his Nazi ideology. Instead of arresting the two men, he decided to kill them on the spot. He killed one man by bludgeoning him with an ashtray and the other he shot. For his zeal, he was awarded the Iron Cross by his superiors.36 On a separate occasion, Barbie was given credit for rounding up and dispatching over 200 “Zionists” when he tricked the local Jewish Council into giving him the locations of hundreds of Jews who were hiding in Amsterdam.37 Thus, when the Gestapo needed to pick a man to head their office in Lyon, the “Capital of the French Resistance,” Klaus Barbie with his cunning, language skills, and special zeal was a natural choice.

When Barbie arrived in Lyon, he immediately set up shop in the elegant Hotel Terminus, which would serve as his base of operations throughout his stay in Lyon. Although Barbie was comfortable in his posh new headquarters, he had a tough job to do, and Lyon proved to be his biggest challenge yet. Lyon had earned the nickname “Capital of the Resistance” for several reasons: it had been under the relatively lax control of the Vichy regime for two years, it was near Switzerland, and it was a medieval city with more than enough winding streets, cul-de-sacs, and secret basements to hide in. The job of “cleansing” Lyon was far too large for the Gestapo to handle alone, but, as Barbie would soon discover, the natives had already started his work for him.

During his time in Lyon, Klaus Barbie was responsible for two of the most infamous acts the Nazis committed in France. First was the murder of Jean Moulin, Charles de Gaulle’s right-hand man, and the man who united the Resistance. Immediately after Moulin succeeded in uniting the various factions of the Resistance, he went to meet the leaders of Lyonnaise Resistance. Moulin was supposed to meet with several of his most important allies but he found himself sharing a park bench with none other than Klaus Barbie. Following his arrest, Moulin would spend his days in Montluc and his nights in a basement near Gestapo headquarters where he was tortured almost to the point of death by Barbie’s men, and probably by Barbie himself. After his final meeting with Barbie, a half-dead Moulin was unceremoniously dumped in the courtyard of Montluc Prison. As Christian Pineu, the prison’s barber describes, Moulin was in bad shape: “Moulin was unconscious, his eyes [were] pushed into his skull as though they had been pushed through his head. A horrible blue wound scarred his temple. A rattling sound came out of his swollen lips.”38 Within a week, Jean Moulin succumbed to his wounds, and in dying, made Klaus Barbie, his murderer, a name France would never forget. What makes Moulin’s death even more tragic is that he never would have been captured had he not been betrayed by his fellow résistants. Even Klaus Barbie later acknowledged that he would have never caught Moulin had it not been for the help of Réné Hardy, one of Moulin’s comrades.39

The other crime for which Klaus Barbie’s name should never be forgotten was the “liquidation” of a camp where Jewish children were hiding. The forty-four children, most of whom were immigrants and all of whom were under the age of fourteen, were living in an old boarding house in the tiny village of Izieu which lies in the foothills not too far from Lyon. The camp, where the children were being schooled while they were being hidden was run by the O.S.E. (Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants - “Children’s Welfare Organization”) , an organization that among other things ran camps to keep Jewish children away from S.S.-infested areas.40 Thus, it was not by chance that the O.S.E. picked Izieu, a sleepy little town a few miles east of Lyon, for the location of a modest children’s camp. The town seemed friendly enough to their presence and there were relatively few problems establishing a children’s home there in late 1943.41 For several months the children, under the guardianship of half-a-dozen adults, lived the bittersweet lives of homesick children. For the time being, the children and their guardians, tucked away in an isolated and friendly village, seemed perfectly safe from the goings on in the outside world. Then, on April 6, 1944, actually Maundy Thursday, four vehicles, three of which were lorries, pulled up in front of the house; from those vehicles emerged Klaus Barbie’s Gestapo. As a witness of the raid later recalled:

It was breakfast time. The children were in the refectory drinking hot chocolate. I was on my way down the stairs when I saw three trucks in the drive. My sister shouted to me: it’s the Germans, save yourself! I jumped out the window. I hid myself in a bush in the garden...I heard the cries of the children that were being kidnapped and I heard the shouts of the Nazis who were carrying them away...They threw the children into the trucks like they were sacks of potatoes. Most of them were crying, terrorized.42

Following the raid on their home in Izieu, the children were shipped directly to the “collection center” in Drancy by the Gestapo. Upon reaching the at Drancy, the children were put on the first available train “towards the East” and, of the forty-four children kidnapped by the Nazis in Izieu, not a single one survived the journey. One survivor of Auschwitz revealed during Barbie’s trial what happened to the children:

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. . . ?”43

As was the case in his capture of Jean Moulin, Barbie was able to locate and conduct a surprise raid on the Izieu house because a Frenchman saw it in his interests to help the Gestapo. Without collaboration, the Gestapo, which had never set foot in Izieu until the day of the raid, would have never known about, let alone found, the house where the Jewish children were staying. Someone, and nobody in the tight-knit community of Izieu wants to say who, had gone out of his or her way to inform the Gestapo that there were Jews staying in Izieu.

Although they are his most well-known crimes, the murder of Jean Moulin and the deportation of the forty-four children staying in Izieu were certainly not Klaus Barbie’s only crimes. During his eighteen-month reign of terror in Lyon, Klaus Barbie oversaw the deportation of thousands of Jews and résistants from Lyon. Most of those whom Barbie deported would never return, and, when Barbie signed the orders to send people to Auschwitz, he knew full well what would happen to them.44 One deportee distinctly remembered the Gestapo officer who was leading him and hundreds of others onto a train saying in broken French, “Where you’re going it will be worse than death.”45 For the prisoners who stayed in Lyon, life was not too much better. A trip to Lyon’s Montluc prison when Barbie was running it meant almost certain death. When Barbie wanted to discourage the Resistance, he took hostages, and when the Resistance ignored his warnings, the hostages were lined up in Montluc’s courtyard and shot.

Klaus Barbie did not just limit his activities to shootings and deportations. What made Barbie such an effective Gestapo officer, and what made people afraid to try to assassinate him for fear they would miss, was his use of torture. Most people who were tortured by Barbie had similar experiences. Following their arrest, the prisoners who had information or who had somehow angered the Gestapo, were taken the elegant fourth-floor lounge of the Hotel Terminus for “reinforced interrogation.” As the prisoners sat in the lounge waiting for their “interviews” with the Gestapo, those who arrived a few hours earlier were paraded in front of them. Often just seeing the mutilated bodies of one’s comrades was enough to make otherwise stubbornly brave people cooperate. Then, the prisoners were taken one-by-one into one of the hotel’s most luxurious suites where they were beaten by club-wielding Gestapo men.46 Once the Gestapo broke enough of the prisoner’s bones to make sure he or she would remain sedentary for the interrogation session, they would leave the prisoner alone for a few hours. For the most stubborn prisoners, Barbie resorted to whipping, amputations, starvation, and the infamous “baths.” A bath at the Hotel Terminus meant being held under water in one of the hotel’s elaborately decorated baths until one fainted, then being revived, then being asked questions, then being dunked again. As prisoners were being tortured, a normal office operated in the background. As André Frossard, a résistant captured by Barbie, the process of being torture often had a level of absurdity rivaling the best fiction of Sartre or Camus:

[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. 47

Barbie would have stayed in Lyon to the bitter end of the German occupation of the city in September 1944, but just before Lyon fell, Barbie contracted a venereal disease and had to be hospitalized in western Germany. As Barbie was being driven to the hospital, his men were carrying out his last order, emptying Montluc prison. Instead of fighting on the battlefield to defend Lyon, Barbie’s men rounded up their 70 remaining prisoners and shot them. Among the dead were two priests.48 Within a week, Lyon fell, but by time the Allies captured Lyon, Barbie was already in Germany and most of his victims dead. When Barbie recovered from his illness a few months later, he was released from the hospital, and that was the last time anyone officially saw him for almost forty years.49

When the war ended, the Vichy regime was dissolved and its leaders were tried as traitors. The beloved Pétain was convicted but then pardoned, but Laval was executed by a firing squad on October 15, 1945. Until the very end, Laval firmly believed that his collaboration with the Nazis was a patriotic act and he died shouting “Viva La France!”50 Laval’s view was held by many of his underlings and when the newly forming Fourth Republic incorporated those who ran the Vichy regime into its own administrative body, it chose to reconcile the two views of France by forgetting, not teaching or suppressing. By forgetting, the Fourth Republic dismissed the pain of those who suffered at the hands of Vichy and set a precedent for future inconsistencies. Each time it forgot though, the pain built, but more than forty years would pass before that pain would see the light of day.

Klaus Barbie: Criminal In Absentia (1945-1983)


Klaus Barbie was gone for almost forty years and in those forty years France changed a great deal. France had not only put the ambiguities of the Occupation behind her, but had done the same for the colonial wars in Indochina and Algeria. The transition back to democracy was not smooth, nor was the process of losing the empire, and France decided that the best way to cope with the inconsistencies of the past was to forget about them as quickly as possible. In the name of progress, France forgot and forgave the sins of the Occupation, Indochina, and Algeria. But, for each sin France forgave, there were victims. There were victims of the Occupation, there were victims of Indochina, and there were victims of Algeria. When the victims cried for justice, France, the land of the tricolor chose to ignore them. This, the victims neither forgave nor forgot.

Like France, Klaus Barbie experienced many changes during the forty years between his disappearance and his trial. It turned out that Barbie did not just disappear on his own, but had been smuggled out of Europe by the United States government. (See FBI document on U.S. role in hiding Barbie) Immediately following Germany’s surrender, Barbie became a leading figure in a clandestine “resistance” organization made up of other former SS officers who were at large and who wanted to prevent the former Reich from falling into the hands of the Communists. The group planned to approach the British and Americans and offer them “a strong experienced corps of post-war leaders, loyal to Germany and opposed to Communism.”51 In February, 1947, however, the American Counter-Intelligence Corps (C.I.C.) infiltrated the organization and arrested all of its senior members, except for Barbie, who eluded arrest by climbing out his bathroom window.52 The C.I.C., which was mainly concerned with countering Soviet espionage, wanted to force the S.S. men to work for the Americans by arresting them and then recruiting them through bribery and blackmail.53 Despite his escape, the C.I.C.’s offer of money and protection was too much for Barbie to resist and he surrendered himself to a C.I.C. agent in June, 1947.54 For the next two years Barbie would act as a U.S. agent in Germany where would live “very comfortably” and would receive “hundreds of dollars” for his anti-communist activities.55 Then, in 1949, Barbie disappeared again.

An investigation by Allan A. Ryan, Jr. of the U.S. State Department revealed that Barbie’s disappearance in 1949 was sponsored by the C.I.C., which wanted to use him as an anti-communist agent in Bolivia.56 By 1951, the transformation of Klaus Barbie from a Gestapo officer to an American agent was complete, and he was living under the assumed name of “Klaus Altmann” in Bolivia. In Bolivia, Barbie used his identity as a former Gestapo officer to his advantage; if the C.I.C. ever tried to prosecute him for his crimes during the war, he would embarrass the U.S. government by revealing that he and others like him were on their payroll. With the only people who knew of his identity and whereabouts silent, Barbie was a free man.

In order to secure his place in Bolivia, Barbie often performed services for Bolivia’s various military regimes. When Hugo “El Petiso” Banzer, one of Bolivia’s most oppressive leaders, came to power in 1971, he relied on Barbie’s expertise to maintain his unpopular rightist regime. That year, Banzer “gave total powers to Klaus Altmann [Barbie] to concentrate on the creation of internment camps for his [Banzer’s] political opponents...torture and executions were common in those camps.” Many of Banzer’s enemies were Communists and Barbie probably saw no discontinuity between his activities in Lyons and La Paz.”57 Between 1951 and 1983, Barbie also participated in drug-running schemes and even served as an officer in the Bolivian secret police for a few years. When he was not suppressing uprisings against Bolivia’s various military regimes, Barbie led a peaceful life as businessman and was an active socialite in some La Paz circles. Aside from his activities in Bolivia, Barbie also had a wife and children in Europe and he visited Europe on a regular basis throughout the Fifties and Sixties to see them. On one visit he even had the nerve to go on a sightseeing tour of Paris, where he had been sentenced to death twice in absentia, in 1952 and 1954, by French war crimes tribunals.

Klaus Barbie’s ID card from when he was an officer in the Bolivian secret police (Source: Children of Izieu).

As Barbie transformed from a Gestapo agent into an American agent and then into a businessman and henchman in Bolivia, he never gave up his Nazi ideology. Robert S. Taylor, an American intelligence operative who recruited Nazis to work for the C.I.C., described Barbie as “strongly anti-Communist and a Nazi idealist who believes that he and his beliefs were betrayed by the Nazis in power.”58 Not only was Klaus Barbie free, he was still a proud Nazi. Such a proud Nazi that in 1966 he was forcibly removed from the German club in La Paz for shouting “Heil Hitler“ to an envoy from the West German government.59

While Barbie roamed South American and Europe, his numerous victims and enemies began to look for him. Barbie’s principal adversary was Serge Klarsfeld, a French Jew who devoted much of his adult life to hunting Nazis and bringing them to justice. Klarsfeld himself was a survivor of the Holocaust but his survival would not have been possible had it not been for the fatal sacrifice made by his father, Arno Klarsfeld. When the SS swept through Nice on the night of September 30, 1943, to round up Jews, the Klarsfelds hid behind a false wall in their apartment’s coat closet. Arno Klarsfeld, knowing how thoroughly the S.S. searched for hidden people, realized that in order to save his family he had to prevent the Nazis from examining the apartment too closely. He knew that if the S.S. found his wife and children, they would almost certainly die, but, as a healthy man who spoke German fluently and who had years of experience as a manual laborer, he figured the Germans would put him to work instead of simply killing him. When the Gestapo arrived, Arno was waiting for them and surrendered himself while his family hid behind the closet. His gamble paid off and the SS left with their prisoner without bothering to thoroughly search the apartment.60 The family was saved, but it turned out that Arno Klarsfeld’s guess was only partially correct. He was right that his family would have been killed by the Nazis, and he was right that as an able-bodied man the Nazis would put him to work. He was wrong, however, to think he would survive. Arno Klarsfeld expected hard work ahead of him, but not even the heartiest of men could survive the notorious Furstengrube mines where he worked until his health was destroyed by 36-hour work shifts and malnutrition. When he was worn down to the point at which he could no longer work, Arno Klarsfeld was sent to Auschwitz, where he disappeared in March 1944.61 For the young Serge Klarsfeld cowering in a closet and knowing that he would never see his father again, the Nazis became his eternal enemies and he vowed never to rest until they had all been brought to justice.

The other person responsible for the end Klaus Barbie’s life as a free man was Beatte Kunzel, the wife of Serge Klarsfeld. Kunzel, a German whose father had served in the Wehrmacht, was enraged that Nazis could go free “because of the apathy of governments” and, like her husband, devoted her life to tracking down these criminals.62 The Klarsfelds’ strategy was simple; they would flush a hidden Nazi criminal out of hiding and then whip up public interest so that a trial could take place. The really tricky part was not finding the Nazis or getting the public enraged, but was getting the governments of the counties where the Nazis were hiding to cooperate. In 1972, the Klarsfelds got a lucky break when they stumbled across a secret report claiming that Klaus Altmann, a German living in Bolivia, and Klaus Barbie, the “Butcher of Lyons,” were one and the same.63 While Serge worked his way through the French legal system, Beatte went to La Paz and told the Bolivian press about Altmann/Barbie. Although she succeeded in creating an uproar and in getting to French government to ask formally for Barbie’s extradition, Barbie was again saved from answering to justice.

What saved Barbie in 1972 was the greed of Hugo Banzer, the military dictator who ran the Bolivian government from 1971 to 1978. Not only was Barbie one of Banzer’s most valuable henchmen, but he was also a potential form of currency. In essence, Banzer wanted to sell Barbie to France for increased political leverage, money, and weapons and because Barbie was valuable to both Banzer and France, the price was quite high.64 So high, in fact, that the Pompidou administration refused to play Banzer’s game. The relatively conservative Pompidou administration had another reason for not purchasing Barbie, they were perfectly content with Barbie staying in Bolivia where he could not dredge up any unwanted memories.

Favorable circumstances saved Barbie in 1972, but it was only a matter of time before both France and Bolivia saw it in their best interests to extradite him. Barbie’s time ran out in the early 1980s, when Banzer had been replaced by a leftist regime who wanted to get rid of Barbie, and when Pompidou was replaced by the liberal Mitterrand administration which was eager to take Barbie off of Bolivia’s hands. In late 1982, the Bolivians had lowered their demands but still wanted something in exchange for turning over Barbie and surely it was no coincidence that the Bolivian president received “a planeload of arms, three thousand tons of wheat, and fifty million dollars” on his visit to Paris in 1983.65 With Barbie’s “airfare” paid for, all that remained was the actual extradition, but even in 1983 France was not truly prepared for Barbie’s arrival, because with Barbie also arrived the past.

For the Mitterrand administration, Barbie’s return seemed like a no-lose situation. The administration figured that if they prosecuted Klaus Barbie, who was guilty beyond the shadow of a doubt of some of the most heinous crimes of the Occupation era, they would surely become more popular among their constituents. When France brought justice to Klaus Barbie, it would redeem all the wrongs and inconsistencies of the Occupation. Thus, it was not just Barbie who was on trial but France itself. By confronting Barbie, France would be confronting its past and by punishing him, France would be conquering the past. And most importantly, it was a trial the government thought it would certainly win.

For his victims and their relatives, Barbie’s return had even greater significance; justice finally seemed within grasp after almost forty years of painful waiting. In 1983, Klaus Barbie was the same man as forty years before. Never once over the past forty years had Barbie apologized for his crimes, nor did he ever show the slightest bit of remorse for them. Even in the late Seventies, Barbie bragged to a journalist that he was proud of his role in Lyons and he went so far as to claim he prevented France from falling to communism.66 Thus, the only cure for many of the wounds Barbie had inflicted and then his irreverent absence would be his punishment. Even the usually pessimistic French press was caught up in the excitement. “He is going to pay, at last!” boasted Le Monde’s front page on February 7, 1983, the day following Barbie’s arrival in France.67 No group was more optimistic than the Left, though. Daniel Voguet, lawyer for the Parti Communiste Française, was quite optimistic about the upcoming trial: “The entire trial will be an accusation of the Right. The French right-wing was in collaboration with the Germans.”68 The PCF thus saw the trial as a chance to highlight its role in the Resistance and for the first time ever it seemed as if the 150,000 Communists who died during the Occupation would be vindicated. Whatever their political outlook, most of the French media were looking forward to the trial and promised that trial would be “long and spectacular.”69 That was too true.

Although he did not know it when he was being taken to a Bolivian prison for failing to repay a debt, Klaus Barbie would play a key role in forcing France to confront her inconsistent past and present. What he did know was that chances were pretty slim that his arrest was solely for the failure to repay $10,000. To begin with, Barbie had already been sentenced to death in absentia in 1952 and 1954 for his crimes against the Resistance Under France’s Statute of Limitations, however, Barbie was no longer accountable for his past crimes and could not be punished for them. The logic behind this law is that, if twenty years passes between when a person is convicted for something and when he is punished for it, there have been so many changes in the political environment and the individual’s life that punishment would be futile. Over the course of twenty years a criminal might “go straight” and raise a family and try to leave the past behind; likewise, what was a crime twenty years ago, may not seem so bad in retrospect. Barbie, who was sentenced to death twice in absentia by French military tribunals, in 1952 and 1954, for his “war crimes,” and who twenty years after those trials, was still in Bolivia, could not be excluded from the Statute of Limitations should he be tried under French law.70 Although he had escaped being punished for his war crimes, Barbie was far from off the hook. Starting in 1972, when the Klarsfelds found Barbie living under the name of Altmann in Bolivia, there was a considerable push to try Barbie for a different set of crimes, those he conducted against humanity. The Klarsfelds’ success is illustrated by the shift in the French government’s attitude towards Barbie. In 1972, the French government attempted to extradite Barbie for war crimes, that is, for acts of violence against the Resistance, but by 1983 the Mitterrand administration extradited Barbie for his “crimes against humanity.” To admit that Barbie’s crimes were against humanity was to give a new and well-deserved weight to his crimes, but it was also to make any trial of Barbie that much more sensitive. Although distance and time had saved Barbie from paying for his crimes against the Resistance, the incircumscribability of the Nuremburg laws made it impossible for him to escape being tried for the torture, massacres, and deportation of civilians.

From his prison cell in La Paz, Barbie was taken to the airport and flown to French Guiana where was put on a military plane bound for Lyons. Once he figured out that the plane was going to France and not Germany as he had hoped, Barbie “walled himself in silence.”71 Maybe he thought that if he were quiet enough, the French would forget about him, just as they had so conveniently forgotten about their own past. He was not forgotten and when he arrived in Lyons on February 6, 1983, the whole world remembered who he was. Although the French military had tried to keep the details of Barbie’s flight secret, someone leaked Barbie’s itinerary to the press. By the time Barbie arrived in Lyons, the police were struggling to restrain the angry crowds that awaited Barbie at the airport. The emotions running through the crowd were at a fever pitch and more than one person had come to the airport with plans to kill Barbie. For instance, a woman who had been interned in Drancy for three months bought a 22-caliber rifle just for the occasion.72 Unluckily for those who wanted to continue forgetting about the past, she missed. Also, at the airport that day was another group of people, those trying to flee the memories brought back by Barbie’s return. For some, Barbie’s return triggered unbearable flashbacks to the Occupation, but many others feared that Barbie would denounce them collaborators and shatter the lives they had constructed for themselves over the past forty years.

When Barbie arrived back in Lyons, the memories of the Occupation began to return and the general public became nervously euphoric about finally getting the chance to confront one of the darkest, most tragic chapters of their history face on. As was the case with most trials of prominent Nazis, the trial of Klaus Barbie was surrounded by a swarm of misconceptions. Like the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Final Solution, the most prominent and most short-lived misconception was that the trial would be an easy victory for the prosecution.73 The problem was that what Barbie and his fellow Nazis had done had caused a great deal of pain and because that pain had gone unanswered for almost forty years, it became even deeper. Repressed agony on a massive scale makes for moral uneasiness and given the number of memories they repressed; it is fair to say that the French liked to avoid such uneasiness. To paraphrase Erna Paris, in order to convict Barbie, France would have to open the door of the closet into which the truth about Vichy had been so hurriedly shoved.74 Once that door had been opened, it would remain that way until all its contents had been exposed. Nervous or not, most French thought they were ready to finally confront their past. What they did not know was how much of the past they would confront, because far more than just the Occupation was going to be brought up during Barbie’s trial.

Preparing Barbie's Defense (1983-1987)

During the first few days following Barbie’s return, it seemed that his upcoming trial would run along the lines of France versus the forces of evil. On the day after Barbie’s arrival, Le Monde printed a special section intended to educate the public on who Barbie was and what he had done. The press emphasized two things the most: that Barbie was the murderer of Jean Moulin and that Barbie had been working for the Americans when he was in Bolivia. There was very little mention of Barbie’s role in the Final Solution and even less mention of the French collaborators. Once the papers tired of printing chronologies of Barbie’s whereabouts and the like, they opened up their pages to political writers and philosophers. Instantly the mood changed from nervous glee to just nervousness. In an article entitled “The Justice of Whom?” the prominent political writer Gilbert Comte worried aloud that the Barbie trial would “demoralize the youth of France more than it instructs them.”75 Opposite Comte’s article was a piece by Joseph Rovan, a former résistant and historian. Rovan complained that the trial came too late and the only thing that could come from it was pain. In Rovan’s opinion the French would try to place too much weight on the trial and act as if “Bolivia gave us Hitler himself.” Doing that, feared Rovan, would hurt Franco-German relations, and would ultimately hurt the French themselves.76 As the politicians and writers scrambled to have their views on Barbie printed, perhaps the most poignant statement on Klaus Barbie was one by Philip Potter, a pastor from the Antilles. Tucked neatly under the continuation of a huge article about Jean Moulin’s death, a tiny side column several pages deep into February 11th’s Le Monde quoted Potter as saying:

In reality, Barbie and his like are the products of your [French] history. Hitler, Barbie, Eichmann and company represent the end of the Aufklärung (century of Enlightenment) which produced four things: the Industrial Revolution, which subordinated man to the machine; the founding of the United States on a declaration of independence where liberty and equality were applied to all men - except for blacks and Indians; - the French Revolution of 1789 where liberty brotherhood, and equality were indeed claimed by the bourgeoisie; and imperialism based on racism. 77

It was racism, ironically justified by the principles of the Enlightenment that created the Nazis and that same racism was eternally bound to both the ideals of the Republic and the evils of imperialism. What Potter both hoped for and feared was that Barbie’s reappearance would make those who were products of the Enlightenment, that is, everyone, realize the pain their history had caused. Potter’s only mistake was that he spoke to soon, and three short days after Barbie’s arrival his voice was drowned in a sea of others.
When Barbie arrived in the Montluc Prison in Lyons, this time as a prisoner, he was greeted by his lawyer, Alain de la Servette, head of the Lyons Bar Association. De la Servette, a fairly liberal lawyer of “impeccable reputation” had, like many of his peers, volunteered to defend Barbie. For a young aspiring lawyer, the Barbie trial could be the chance of a lifetime, but de la Servette had already succeeded and though he stood to gain much respect from his peers for taking such a tough case, what he really wanted was a fair trial.78 De la Servette, who had a great deal of experience in criminal law was concerned that because the evidence was overwhelmingly against Barbie and because the charges were so serious, the accused would not be able to receive a fair trial in a country quite hostile to his presence. If Barbie was to be convicted under French law, then he must enjoy its benefits as well. Of all of France’s lawyers, de la Servette believed he was the one most qualified to defend Barbie because he had experience, because he avoided politics, and because he had a sense of judicial fairness. If justice were to prevail during the Barbie trial, claimed de la Servette, then that trial must be fair. Unlike all the others who volunteered to defend Barbie, de la Servette, as head of the Lyons Bar Association, was in charge of picking a lawyer for Barbie, so he picked himself for the job.

Keeping with his desire to see Barbie receive a fair judgment, de la Servette brought onto the defense team Robert Boyer, a nationally-renowned priest-turned-lawyer. Boyer, who had earned his reputation as a “champion of the wronged” by defending a man wrongly convicted of murdering a child, served a special purpose on de la Servette’s team.79 Specifically, Boyer would serve to counter-act the Church’s official condemnation of Barbie and his presence would boost national respect for de la Servette’s defense team.

Unfortunately for de la Servette and Boyer, the Barbie trial had far less to do with justice than it did with memory. It had not to do with just memories of the Occupation but with memories of all of France’s inconsistencies over the past forty years. It was not Barbie who was on trial but France, and had de la Servette and Boyer, two lawyers interested in only the legal process of Barbie’s trial, remained in charge of the defense team, the trial still would have been disturbing, but chances are that much of France’s past would have still remained hidden in its dark closet.

While de la Servette and Boyer ploughed through law books in search for a good defense for Barbie, the pressures of the trial’s true nature, a repressed past, begin to exert themselves on the two lawyers. Boyer, who joined de la Servette’s team in the face of Church condemnation of Klaus Barbie, was under enormous pressure from the Church to drop out of the case. On his part, de la Servette became increasingly disturbed by bad publicity, death threats, and ridicule he was receiving because he was Barbie’s lawyer. The main factor that made de la Servette uncomfortable, however, was the ever-growing pressure put on him by two groups: those who supported Klaus Barbie and those who saw in Barbie’s trial the enormous potential to make France answer to its past.

Those who supported Klaus Barbie because they admired him had very little in common with those who wanted the Barbie trial to catalyze France’s awakening to its past. Both groups, however, did share one interest, they did not want the “fair,” quiet trial de la Servette and Boyer were preparing for. Trouble for the defense team began when François Genoud, a Swiss businessman who was a Nazi both during and after World War Two, offered to bankroll Barbie’s defense and give advice to the defense team. Although de la Servette rejected Genoud’s offer once he figured out who Genoud was, he hesitantly allowed Genoud an advisory role on Barbie’s defense team.80 For Genoud, de la Servette was running the wrong sort of trial, and he worried that his enemies, the Jews, would benefit from such a trial. Genoud was convinced that the Jews as a group were trying to use the Barbie trial boost support for Zionism by drawing attention to the Holocaust, something whose existence he denied. From the minute he heard that Barbie had been extradited to France, Genoud was looking for a way to prevent him from being punished for doing his duty. What Genoud really wanted though, was the trial and punishment of those who were trying, judging, and convicting Klaus Barbie. As it turns out, this desire was shared by the least likely of allies.

On the far opposite end of the political spectrum from François Genoud was the man who held the key to the closet of France’s past. His name was Jacques Vergès, and he was the living, breathing icon of France’s inconsistencies, both past and present. The last thing in the world Vergès wanted was for the Barbie trial to run the way France wanted it to, that is, a trial that would glorify the Resistance and bring attention to the Holocaust. Such an outcome was intolerable for Vergès who was a sworn enemy of both the French Resistance and Israel. Although he could not have cared less about what happened to Klaus Barbie, Barbie and the Occupation were in the national spotlight, and he saw the perfect opportunity to push the rest of France’s history on stage as well. For Vergès, who had tried in vain since the mid-fifties to make France answer to its past, the Barbie trial was not only a battle against his enemies, but a once in a lifetime chance to make the world listen to what he thought was the truth. All he needed to do was to convince de la Servette that he, Jacques Vergès, a half-Vietnamese and wholly Leftist lawyer, was the man for the job or if that did not work, get rid of de la Servette.

With the help of the Nazi, Genoud, Vergès forced his way onto de la Servette’s team. Initially, de la Servette welcomed the help of such an intelligent, prominent lawyer, but when it became apparent that Vergès wanted far more than to defend an old man against the wrath of a nation, he began to worry. De la Servette feared mostly that Verges’ increased presence would turn the Barbie trial into a media circus. Just as Vergès had done to numerous other trials, he promised to do the same for Barbie’s trial and, in doing so, would potentially distract France from what de la Servette thought was the real issue, a fair trial. De la Servette’s fears proved correct; and no sooner had Vergès arrived than had the press. Unlike de la Servette and Boyer, Vergès was loud and did not hesitate to use the media to voice his opinions. In a matter of days, all of France knew that Vergès, who was already infamous for his courtroom tirades and his method of “attacking the prosecution,” promised to do the same for the Barbie case. With Vergès on the case, it would be France sitting in the box for the accused and not Barbie, and de la Servette and Boyer wanted no part of Vergès’ politicized courtroom shenanigans. On June 15, 1983, de la Servette and Boyer resigned as Barbie’s attorneys and handed the entire task of defending Barbie over to Vergès.81 With de la Servette gone, Vergès, “a man with a mission to create moral discomfort,” was free to run the show his way when he promised that “this trial will hurt France,” he would disappoint nobody.82

To understand Jacques Vergès is to understand the true nature of the Barbie trial, and all one has to do to understand Vergès is look at his life. From the moment of his birth in 1925, in Thailand, Vergès had experienced racial hatred firsthand. His father, Raymond Vergès, a French doctor and a diplomat, had lost his job because he married a Vietnamese woman, something Frenchmen were simply not allowed to do in those days. The same racism that cost Raymond Vergès his career would play an important role in shaping the personalities of his biracial twin sons, Jacques and Paul. For the Vergès twins, growing up half-Asian on the island colony of Reunion in the Thirties would be tough and they would be victims of the racism that went along with imperialism for their entire lives. Everywhere around him, said Jacques Vergès of his youth, he saw racism, and where he saw racism he saw the evils of unfairness, and when he saw unfairness, he became angry. When the young Jacques Vergès was treated as a second-class citizen, he became angry; when he saw native coolies being kicked by their white passengers, he became angrier; and when saw African men working fourteen hours a day on the docks for just a few scraps of food, he barely managed to contain his rage. One of the few political groups on Réunion that did not exclude non-whites was the island’s budding communist party, and Jacques Vergès, hater of imperialism and its racist colonial system, joined along with his father and brother. When news reached Réunion in 1940 that some French were actively resisting the Germans and the collaborators, Jacques Vergès wanted to help them. In 1942, even though he was only seventeen, he joined the Resistance but because France was blockaded, he wound up with the Free French in Britain under the command of General Charles de Gaulle.

Towards the end of the war against Germany, Vergès would discover the truth about the inseparability of French nationalism and French imperialism. For the French, the smooth transition from a war of liberation to a war protect the colonies seemed natural, but for Vergès it was not. When the natives of the Algerian city of Constantine rose up against the French just one week after Hitler’s suicide, the French reaction was swift and brutal. The Algerians counted 40,000 victims of the repression, but the French admitted to only 1,500.83 As Vergès later recalled, he was horrified by the repression of the Constantine revolt:

I was still in the Resistance and I was terribly shocked. I didn’t understand how they [the Resistance] could fight Hitler then turn around and do that. Two years later there was a similar repression in Madagascar. The Nuremburg 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.84

Even from the outset of France’s struggle to maintain its empire, Vergès was disillusioned. As the struggle became more intense, his disillusionment turned into same sort of anger he had experienced on Reunion as a child. He wanted to do something, but he did not want to end like his twin brother Paul, who, in 1945, was facing a lifetime in prison because he had assassinated the man whom his father was competing with for a minor political position.85 So Jacques Vergès decided to get an education. When Vergès was in Paris studying law, he became an active opposer of colonialism, and he joined the Communist party. For Vergès, the Communists seemed like the only ones who were trying to create a world in which imperialism and racism had no place. Surely it was no coincidence that the Communists actively supported colonial revolutionaries all around the world in their fight against economic exploitation and racism.

Besides having a passionate hatred for colonialism and racism, Vergès also had talent. While at the Sorbonne, Vergès discovered that he had a special flair for public speaking and for getting others to see things his way. In 1949, he became president of the AEC (Association for Colonial Students), and quickly turned the group into a militant organization. One of the more active members of Vergès’ student organization and one who influenced Vergès very much as over the years was the young Pol Pot, who was studying Radio-Physics at the Sorbonne. Pol Pot was so involved in the “revolutionary activities” of Vergès’ group that he was forced to leave Paris when he failed his exams.86 Although Pol Pot quickly moved to bigger and even more radical things than the AEC, he remained one of Vergès’ lifelong friends. As was the case for his friend Pol Pot, the AEC was but the first step in a journey that would take Vergès around the world and across the political spectrum.

The Communist Party knew Vergès had talent too and in 1950, they sent him to Prague to lead a youth organization there.87 For four years in Prague88 , Vergès was immersed in Party doctrine and on one occasion even met Joseph Stalin. Although he was influenced by Party training to a degree, perhaps the most important aspect of Vergès’ experience in Prague were the lifelong friendships he forged with other young Communists, many of whom were from Third World countries and many of whom would be active leaders and fighters over the decades to come. All Vergès needed now was something to struggle against and as France tried to tighten the grip on its empire, he found his calling.

Of all the post-war powers, it would be France that conducted the grandest struggle against those who were fighting to remove the shackles of colonialism. For the French, who were from recovering from the psychological wounds inflicted on them during the Occupation, reasserting France‘s stature in the world became a matter of utmost importance. The best way to recover from the spectacularly quick defeat by the Germans and from the shameful acts of the Vichy Regime, would be for the Fourth Republic to boost its esteem by reasserting France as a world power. In terms of world power, France, which was no longer an economic or military leader following World War Two, had only its crumbling empire. Unlike the British, the other big colonial power, the French considered their empire part of France and the colonized peoples potential Frenchmen. Thus, to lose part of that empire was to lose part of France on more the just an economic level. France may have lost World War Two twice, but it was not going to lose its empire.

Although the colonies were considered eternally bonded to France by many French, most of the colonized who were fed up with the oppression, exploitation, and racism of imperialism did not see things the same way. When the colonized began to revolt, the French reaction was swift and brutal. In 1945, when Muslims revolted in Algeria, tens of thousands were killed by French colonial authorities and the 1947 repression in Madagascar was even more violent. Ironically, the brutality of the colonial suppressions worked against their intended purpose of strengthening the empire and therefore France. Instead, the native populations became even more alienated from the French and massive reform would be required to save French imperialism. That reform was laid out in the Fourth Republic’s constitution when the empire was renamed the French Union and the colonial peoples were given a small amount of autonomy as well as a few seats in parliament. The “reforms,” however, changed none of the largest problems of imperialism, like racism or exploitation, and in the face of the lack of change, the colonized began to revolt.

The first war the French would fight to preserve their empire started in 1946 in Indochina (now Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia). From the outset it was apparent that the French were losing their grip on the region but it was not until 1954, when they were defeated by the Communist-nationalist Ho Chi Minh at their stronghold at Dien Bien Phu, that they official let go. What especially sickened Vergès about the Indochinese war was that much of the fighting and oppression was done not by the French themselves but by mercenaries from Senegal and the Congo. For Vergès, it was clear that the colonized had the moral upper-hand and that imperialism was only a destructive process that pitted whites against natives and natives against each other.89 Like many others who had suffered under and therefore opposed imperialism, Vergès knew Indochina was only the beginning.

While the French were still coping with the loss of Indochina, another, much larger and much more important revolt was taking form. This time the colony was Algeria, right across the Mediterranean; and this time both colonizer and colonized really had something at stake. Algeria, which was more important to France than the rest of the empire combined, had been a French colony for two hundred years and more than a million Europeans, mostly French, called it home. Economically, Algeria was both profitable and vital for France as the colonial system there yielded France enormous agricultural benefits and the recent discovery of oil in Algeria’s southern desert promised a very profitable future. If losing Indochina was regrettable, then losing Algeria was unthinkable.

What Algeria offered in terms of economic reward, it lacked in moral progress. The white regime in Algeria, which had openly sided with Vichy during the war, was a notoriously racist bastion of old French conservancy. To the dismay of most Frenchmen, the Algerian colonial government refused to yield any political or economic concessions to the overwhelming native majority. Faced with a refusal to give them even the most basic of rights, the natives had a choice, submit to imperialism or fight. When it came apparent that the white colonists, or pieds noirs (literally “black feet”), would never give them more than a few superficial rights, bombs began to go off.

When the Algerian Muslims revolted in 1954, the obvious response was to for France to protect the colonial regime in the name of preserving the empire and therefore France itself. Many of those who fought in Indochina and Algeria had also served in the Resistance and saw the colonial wars and the Resistance as part of a larger battle to protect France. Thus, for the men and women who fought for Algerie Française, the war to keep Algeria was no different than the war fought to liberate France from the Nazis, and by fighting to preserve the empire, they were fighting to preserve France. Although many French, especially the generation of the Resistance, supported the colonial wars at first, there was also a large segment of the population, mainly young people, who opposed using violence and economic oppression to maintain an empire. When résistant Vergès, however, saw France sending her armies off to yet another war of racism and oppression, he knew on which side of the line he fell. As Erna Paris put it, “Jacques Vergès was set on a collision course with his former [Resistance] comrades who now defended colonialism.”90

With years of pent-up anger towards colonialism and with his Communist training and ideals, Jacques Vergès the attorney was from the start a firebrand. Vergès did not take just any case, he took just the ones he wanted and those were the controversial ones. In France, in 1954, where political parties of all kinds flourished, where the men who ran Vichy were running the Fourth Republic, and where the veterans of the Resistance were calling for wars in the colonies, there was no shortage of controversy. Vergès’ first major case was to defend a group of communist militants who had tried to disrupt the departure of a trainload of draftees headed for Algeria. He fought passionately and won.91 But just as he seemed headed for a fruitful career as a politicized attorney for the Communists, Vergès got a taste of the PCF politics, and was sorely disappointed. Specifically, as Vergès identified more and more with the Moslem rebels, who like himself were treated as second-class citizens in their own country, the PCF pulled the rug out from under him by conforming to the Fourth Republic’s foreign policy and therefore supported the colonial war with Algeria. For the Communists, conforming to the Republic was just another turnabout in a long series of political maneuvering, but for Vergès it amounted to betrayal.92 Thus ended Vergès’ career as a French Communist.

By mid-1956, the various factions of the Algerian nationalists who launched guerrilla attacks against the French presence in Algeria were united by the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN). Even though the French had tried to make concessions to appease those responsible for the guerrilla attacks, the FLN was not appeased when it discovered the superficial nature of those concessions. As the rebel attacks intensified, French troops began to pour into Algeria and by 1958 over 500,000 French troops had been deployed to protect French interests. What had started as an expedition to protect French interests soon became a war of attrition, and both sides used tactics that can only be described as barbaric. For the FLN revolutionaries, war often meant planting bombs in crowded cafés and firing mortar shells into open-air markets. The French, however, were no less brutal in their efforts to stop the guerrilla attacks and many French military commanders used torture to interrogate their prisoners and, more importantly, as a means of intimidation. The use of torture was widespread and as personal diaries of many French soldiers in Algeria recall, Vergès’ remark that “the French were Nazis in Algeria”93 was not too far off the mark: “The captured terrorist...was to expect harsh treatment from the French army if he did not give the ‘requested information,’ in which case ‘specialists must force the secret from him.”94

As pitched battles were being fought on the streets of Algiers, Vergès brought the war into the courtroom. During the Algerian war, Vergès made his name by defending men and women accused of terrorism against France. His strategy was to “disrupt” and his goal was public attention, not legal victory. The case that transformed Vergès into a nationally-known figure was his defense of Djamila Bouhired, a twenty-year-old Algerian woman accused of planting bombs in two cafés in Algiers that were popular with European young people.95 Instead of trying to defend Bouhired, Vergès used the occasion to publicly attack the French army, the government, and the judicial system. During his defense speeches, in which he was trying to get his audience to understand why Bouhired hated the French enough to blow up their cafés, Vergès condemned the atrocities conducted by the French army in Algeria and the inherent unfairness of the imperial system that the government supported. As passionate as Vergès’ speeches were, they could not save his client and Bouhired was sentenced to death. Soon after the trial, however, several journalists demanded that Bouhired be released on the account of her youth. The rabble-rousing worked, and by 1962 Bouhired was freed.

By defending Bouhired, Vergès became one of the first of a growing number of people who devoted themselves increasing public awareness about the Algerian War. When Vergès spoke, he often shocked people, and when people are shocked, they tend to listen. Soon whole publishers, most notably Les Editions de Minuit96, devoted themselves to printing anti-war books and Vergès was one of the most successful authors of this genre.

As the ranks of those who opposed the Algerian War both grew in size and prestige, Vergès’ reputation grew as well. The increased attention made Vergès even more bold, but his disruptive tactics earned him a two-month stint in prison for “attempting to undermine the security of the state” and cost him his license to practice law.97 In November 1960, Vergès, fresh out of jail and chomping at the bit, made his second major public appearance. This time Vergès, with or without an official license, would defend members of the Jeanson network, a group of intellectuals who openly and actively opposed French control of Algeria. Building on the success of his previous strategy, Vergès and his clients used the case to voice their views to the international press and, as the attention mounted, Vergès knew exactly how to use it. In the glare of the spotlights and with all eyes on him, Vergès was at his best. Vergès was only at his best when he was angry and, in 1960, just as the war in Algeria was reaching its peak, he was furious. It was during Vergès’ ferocious cross examinations that Paul Teitgen, secretary general of the police in Algiers, publicly admitted to the use of torture. And it was Vergès, who after his tirades against the French military and government, got to produce a letter from Jean-Paul Sartre denouncing the French presence in Algeria.98 With the letter from Sartre, France became polarized, much like the U.S. became polarized during the Vietnam War, and in the glow of political chaos basked Jacques Vergès.

In France, the Algerian crises wreaked havoc in the Fourth Republic’s administration. As the war intensified and the losses mounted, an increasingly vocal minority within the National Assembly began to push for negotiations between the French and the FLN. Negotiation, for the most part, was unpopular because of Algeria’s perceived importance to France, and this unpopularity was spearheaded by the Right’s harsh opposition to any sort of compromise regarding France‘s sovereignty over Algeria. When it became clear that those who favored negotiation were gaining power, extremist Right-wing groups, most notably ones with close ties to pied noirs, hatched a plot to overthrow the Fourth Republic and replace it with a military regime. Like the general public, the government contained groups that both violently opposed and violently supported the French presence in Algeria. In May 1958, the Cabinet openly confronted the National Assembly, and in response, Right-wing extremists took to the streets. With the Right-backed military growing politically bolder by the day, a coup seemed imminent, and just as France had turned to Joan of Arc and Marshall Pétain in its times of need, it turned to its newest great figure, Charles de Gaulle. With the approval of the National Assembly, de Gaulle took full powers on June 1, 1958, and in putting an end to the Fourth Republic, he put an end to the threat of a military coup. With the end of the Fourth Republic also came the end to the French empire because de Gaulle believed that stability could only be achieved by ending the war in Algerian and order to end the war, one had to negotiate.

When France gave independence to Algeria, de Gaulle faced yet another crisis, recovering from the loss of Algeria. One the first effects of Algeria’s loss was the flood of pied noirs and pro-French Arabs into France, and as a result of France‘s painful withdrawal from Algeria, many groups felt betrayed. De Gaulle had a simple solution: pardon everybody, both Algerians and French, for what they did in Algeria, and move on. Just as the Fourth Republic forgot the ambiguities of the Occupation to preserve itself, the Fifth Republic quickly forgot the trauma of Algeria for the same reason. By pardoning everyone, including the torturers, the controversy of what took place in Algeria was ignored and because it was ignored, it could create no instability. Although France could ignore what had happened in Algeria for the sake of French unity just as it pardoned many of those responsible for the Vichy regime, the democratic nature of French society ensured the France would eventually have to face the past.

While France was busy forgetting Algeria, Jacques Vergès was making it his mission to make sure France never forgot anything. He saw the French crimes in Algeria as comparable to those the Nazis committed during the Holocaust, and when the Fifth Republic dismissed those crimes just for the sake of political unity, Vergès became furious. The national push to bury the memories of Algeria, however, created an atmosphere where it was impossible for even Vergès to attack. He would have to wait, and as he waited for the right moment to strike, his rage built.

By 1962, the war in Algeria was over. The Fourth Republic of Pierre Mendès had fallen and in its place arose the Fifth Republic of General de Gaulle. When Algeria finally won its independence, Vergès chose to move there and convert to Islam. In 1963, Vergès, now a Muslim, married Djamila Bouhired, whom he made his name by defending. For their honeymoon, the couple went to China to visit Chairman Mao and Vergès returned an avid Maoist and officially dropped out of the PCF.99 The reason for his break with the PCF was simple, they did not support his battle against colonialism whereas the Maoists did, and without that battle, Vergès would have nothing.

Just as soon as his old enemy, colonialism, had fallen in Algeria, Jacques Vergès had acquired a new enemy, Israel. In the aftermath of the Algerian war, Vergès began to grow closer to radicals in the Third-World who opposed the remnants of imperialism in their region. These radicals represented all parts of the political spectrum and came from dozens of ethnic groups, but one thing almost all of them agreed on was that Israel was a growing bastion of imperialism in a world where imperialism was supposed to be collapsing. In order to stop imperialism, the Third-World radicals believed they had to stop Israel because they feared its “the real ambition...was to annex the entire Middle East.”100 With Israel around, imperialism would never die, and when many Third-World leaders began to oppose Israel, Jacques Vergès, anti-colonialist extraordinaire joined them. To consider Jacques Vergès an anti-Semite is probably a mistake, but it is absolutely true that he opposed Israel’s existence body and soul, and like others who opposed Israel, he often blurred the line distinction between “Zionist” and “Jew.” Thus, it should have been no surprise that when PFLP terrorists were being tried for hijacking El Al planes in 1969, Vergès appeared as their attorney. Again, Vergès employed his strategy of disruption by claiming the terrorists’ acts were political, not criminal, and that Israel was to be blamed for the El Al passengers’ deaths, not the Palestinians.101 As in his previous cases, his defendants were found guilty, but in the process of their trial, their cause was well publicized thanks to their provocative attorney.

By 1970, Jacques Vergès was one of the most formidable lawyers in the world. Vergès, however, was more than just an outspoken lawyer, he was a man with a cause and there seemed no shortage of battles for him to fight. No matter where he went, Vergès was followed by a hoard of eager reporters waiting to hear his newest accusation and, for the first time, when he spoke, even his enemies listened. In short, he had it all. Then, the strangest thing happened. Vergès, one of the world’s most active and most prominent anti-colonialists, just disappeared off the face of the earth. Naturally, there was much speculation that one of Vergès’ numerous enemies had finally decided to do away with him. Perhaps some pieds noirs blamed him for the loss of Algeria. Maybe the Mossad, Israel’s secret service, had decided he was too much a nuisance. Or perhaps one of myriad other groups decided the world was better off without him. But in truth, nobody knew what happened and for the next eight years, his fate remained a mystery.

Then, just as suddenly as he disappeared, Jacques Vergès reappeared. In 1978 he was spotted buying groceries in Paris but when reporters asked about his missing years, he remained uncharacteristically silent. Even in 1983, all he had to say about his disappearance was, “I am a discreet man. I stepped through the looking glass, where I served an apprenticeship...”102 Whatever the reason for Vergès’ absence, it did not change him much and he returned the same disruptive anti-colonial, anti-Israel lawyer that he had been eight years before.

Just as he did in the in fifties and sixties, Vergès took up political cases and his specialty soon became defending terrorists and just as in the fifties and sixties, most of Vergès’ clients were found guilty of the crimes of which they were accused. Over the next five years, Vergès defended terrorists from both ends of the political spectrum. He defended Neo-Nazi bombers and Armenian plane hijackers alike.103 As long as the case was political, and as long as his clients were fighting against either the French establishment or Israel, Jacques Vergès was happy to provide his services. As was reflected by a low win rate so low that he earned the nickname “Monsieur Guillotine,” Vergès’ priorities in the courtroom had little to do with protecting the freedom of his clients. When he defended his radical clients, he used his well-known “attack the prosecution” method of defense and even if he did not win the case, he would bring attention to his client’s and ultimately his own cause. Another important aspect of Vergès’ cases during the early 80s was that they revealed and bond between groups on the far left and on the far right. Although Neo-Nazis and Third-World leftists should have hated each other with a passion, they had one goal in common, the destruction of the status quo, and because of that goal they often cooperated. It was through this merger of the extreme ends of the political spectrum that Neo-Nazis gave weapons to African and Asian militants while anarchists smuggled white-supremacists in and out of various countries. It was also through this merger that Vergès made connections with the neo-fascists and ex-Nazis. Thus, there was nothing awkward about the request for help Vergès received from the Swiss Nazi François Genoud about a week after Klaus Barbie‘s forced return to France in 1983. Genoud wanted Vergès’ help defending Barbie and Vergès instantly complied. Within an hour, Vergès was on a plane to Geneva and after a brief meeting with Genoud, he flew to Lyons to meet his client.

When Klaus Barbie realized that the half-Asian man who came to visit him in Montluc Prison was going to be his lawyer, he was shocked. Barbie simply could not understand why anyone but another Nazi would want to defend him. As Vergès later recalled, Barbie’s first words to him came in the form of a question: “Why is it that you are defending me today?”104 Vergès, of course, knew exactly why. For Vergès, the Barbie case presented the chance to tie all the loose ends that had been accumulating over the years. Unlike cases involving contemporary terrorists, Barbie’s trial concerned crimes that took place forty years earlier and, because of that, promised to delve deep into national history. If the court could examine crimes from the 1940s, then bringing up crimes from the 50s and 60s would not be too difficult. It was the crimes of the 50s and 60s, specifically those the French committed in Indochina and Algeria, the Vergès wanted to address. Furthermore, there was an added bonus in the Barbie trial; the defendant was being accused against crimes against humanity. If France could accuse Barbie of such an immense crime, then Vergès, using the same logic, could apply equal weight to what happened in France‘s struggle to maintain its empire. Thus, the immensity of the Barbie trial finally provided Vergès with the means to do what he had long dreamed of, to topple imperialism and all of its facets, especially French society and Israel, in the courtroom.

The Courtroom (1987)

After more than four years of legal wrangling, the trial of Klaus Barbie was ready to take place. The date for Barbie’s trial was originally set for some time in 1984 but because of enormous legal obstacles in the path to trying him, the trial did not take place until May 11, 1987. Over the four years between Barbie’s return and that date, both tensions and frustrations had been slowly mounting. The nervous euphoria that surrounded Barbie’s return in 1983 quickly turned to a more contemplative anxiety. By 1987, that feeling had turned to pure dread. There was dread of what Barbie’s lawyer, Jacques Vergès, might do; if this was truly to be the fight of Vergès’ life, then the prosecution and Barbie’s victims, if not all of France, were in for some rough times. There was dread of the pain evoked by those who would testify against Barbie. There was dread that the trial would bring back memories France was not ready for. And most of all there was dread that somehow, against all odds, Klaus Barbie would walk away from the trial a free man. Should that happen, it would not just be Barbie who was cleared of all charges, but whole Third Reich as well. To set Barbie free would require only one thing: forgetting the Holocaust. In a country that was able to forget Vichy, Indochina, and Algeria, it seemed a distinctly real possibility that France could push the Holocaust into the dark closet in which her other dark memories lay hidden.
To those following the trial, it was crystal clear by 1987, that “the historical show trial originally desired by both the Resistance and the Jews would probably not take place.”105 Over the previous four years, the seemingly simple process of bringing Klaus Barbie to justice turned into a quagmire of legal problems. Ironically, those problems were brought about on the most part by quarrels within the prosecution rather than the usual antics of defense lawyers. There were two large obstacles for the prosecution to clear before it could formally try to convict Barbie. First was choosing the crimes for which Barbie should be tried and the second, stemming from the first, was figuring out if French law would permit Barbie to be tried for those crimes.

The problem of choosing the crimes for which Barbie was to be tried was so severe that it came close to preventing the trial from ever taking place. When Judge Christian Riss, the young magistrate whose job it was to prepare the government’s case against Barbie, asked if anyone would be willing to press personal charges against Barbie, he got plenty of responses. Too many responses, in fact. A total of forty-two different lawyers, each representing a different group with a different charge against Barbie, appeared before the judges in Lyon to file their claims. There were lawyers representing various factions of the Resistance, there were lawyers representing Jews, and there were lawyers representing the citizens of Lyon. Each group believed it had the right to see Barbie tried for his crimes against them, and each group would be sorely disappointed if Barbie were not to answer to the pain they had to live with for forty years. To address each and every complaint against Barbie, however, would require a resource neither the prosecution nor France had, time.

When Judge Riss began selecting the crimes for which he sought to prosecute Klaus Barbie, his goal was to win as quickly and as solidly as possible. For the dozens of groups and individuals who wanted Barbie brought to justice for his crimes against them, there would be disappointments. What started as disappointment soon turned to anger and, before long, the prosecution had split into two camps. There were those who wanted Barbie tried for the murders, torture, and coercion he used against the Resistance, and there were those who wanted Barbie punished for his role in the Final Solution. On one hand, many former members of the Resistance, especially those who had experienced Barbie’s tortures firsthand, did not view his deportations of Jews as his real crimes. The deportations, they argued, were conducted by Barbie as part of his administrative work, and not something of own his initiative. On the other hand, the Jews argued that Barbie’s acts against the Resistance were merely part of his duty as a police officer and that his real crimes were sending whole families to die in the gas chambers. As Elie Wiesel put it, there lay in the trial the potential for a crime even worse than the Holocaust, forgetting the Holocaust.106 Thus, before Barbie had even entered the courtroom, he had already managed to turn his two most dangerous enemies, the Resistance and the Jews, against each other.

For a while it seemed as if the prosecution would be torn apart by the two groups, but fortunately cooler heads on both sides prevailed. They pointed out that many Jews were active résistants and that many résistants were packed in the same trains that carried the Jews to near-certain death. The two sides declared a truce, albeit uneasy, since many still quietly blamed the other side for preventing Barbie from being brought to “full” justice. For the time being, though, the desire to see Barbie punished for something substantial was enough to keep the various factions of the prosecution united. Moreover, there was the fear that Klaus Barbie, this man who had so many victims that they fought each other to decide who got to punish him, would escape all justice by dying of old age before his victims could decide on his punishment.

While Barbie’s victims were bickering over how to try and punish Barbie, the prosecution was facing an even more formidable challenge, navigating the minefield of the French penal code. When he arrived in France, Barbie faced eight charges:

The massacre of 22 hostages in the basement of the Gestapo building during the summer of 1943.
The arrest and torture of 19 people during the summer of 1943.
The roundup of 86 people from the U.G.I.F. offices on February 9, 1943.
The shooting of 42 people (40 of whom were Jewish) as reprisal killings during the years of 1943 and 1944.
The roundup, torture, and deportation of SNCF railway workers on August 9, 1944.
The deportation to Auschwitz of 650 people (50% Jews, 50% résistants ) on the last train to leave Lyon.
The shooting of 70 Montluc prisoners at Bron on August 17, 1944 and on August 20, 1944. Two of those executed were priests.
The arrest and deportation of 55 Jews (52 of whom were children) from the children’s refuge at Izieu.

Notably absent from the list of charges was the murder of Jean Moulin and the reason for its absence ties in with the trial’s true nature as a trial of all aspects of the past.

After passing the charges through the rigors of the French legal system all but three were dropped. All charges against Barbie that could be considered “war crimes” had to be dropped under the Statute of Limitations because Barbie had been gone for more than twenty years. Another dimension of the Statute of Limitations is that it is a convenient tool by which to amnesty people. The Fourth Republic’s bureaucrats used it to forget Vichy. The Resistance used it to forget Algeria. And Barbie would use it to forget Lyon. Thus, the very law the French had passed in order to amnesty their own war criminals had backfired. The result was paradoxical: not only had Klaus Barbie escaped two death sentences, but he would also not be punishable for the crimes for which he had been sentenced to death because of those same death sentences. The Statute of Limitations did not, however, include “crimes against humanity,” and it would be for those crimes that Barbie was tried.

Nuremburg distinguished between “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity.” Crimes designated as “crimes against humanity” were, because of the grave nature of their intent, deemed incircumventable. Consequentially, in the fifty years since the Nuremburg trials, Nazi criminals like Barbie have consistently been brought to trial once they were flushed out of their hiding places. Most, but certainly not all, of those accused of crimes against humanity were given extremely heavy sentences. Therefore, if the prosecution could prove that Barbie had the intent of following an “ideological hegemony”107 when he killed, tortured, and deported, then he could be found guilty of “crimes against humanity.” Ironically, Barbie’s defense team was centering its case around the same sort of crime, but in the defense’s view, the perpetrator was not Barbie.

At one o’clock in the afternoon on May 11, 1987, the trial of Klaus Barbie finally began. André Cerdini, the leader of the court’s three judges, or “President of the Court,” as the French called him, sat down and asked for the accused to be brought forward. Below Cerdini were seated the lawyers for both the prosecution and the defense. Of the forty-five lawyers present in the court, five represented Klaus Barbie. The defense team, led by Jacques Vergès, consisted of lawyers from Third-World countries “In this trial made in the name of humanity,” explained Vergès, “it was important that the defense was made of the colors of the human rainbow: black, white, brown, and yellow.”108 Barbie probably approved of having a multi-racial defense team because he thought their presence would discredit his reputation as a diehard racist. His Asian, African, and Arab lawyers, however, had completely different reasons for being present at the trial.

The other forty lawyers represented the various parties of the prosecution. Some represented the French government, others the city of Lyon, but the largest group, including Serge Klarsfeld, represented the victims. In the benches normally reserved for the public sat the one hundred witnesses who would be called to give testimony over the next few weeks. The best seats in the house were occupied by the most important group, the fourteen jurors109 who would be called upon to judge Klaus Barbie, the Third Reich, and ultimately France. As one reporter pointed out, the jurors were much younger than most of the other people in the courtroom: “The jurors are fairly young men and women, the oldest being fifty-one years old, all the others being born after 1940.”110 The age gap between the jurors and the accused was regarded by the press as one of the most significant aspects of Barbie’s trial. The jurors were hand-picked and approved by both the defense and the prosecution. Vergès hoped that the young jurors, who not adults during the Occupation, would have a more objective view of Barbie’s crimes and, more importantly, of what France did in the forty years that Barbie was absent. The prosecution approved of the young jurors for the same reason. Their logic was that Barbie’s punishment would have even more weight if he were tried by those who never suffered at his hands. Appropriately chosen or not, Barbie’s young jurors were irremovable once in place.

Next to the jury box was the witness stand and the first person to be called forth for testimony was Klaus Barbie. For weeks, the French general public had been prepared by the press for this very event. During those weeks, the daily papers had published haunting recollections of Barbie’s crimes and passionate essays on the necessity of condemning Barbie. Along with almost every article about Klaus Barbie appeared another name, that of Jacques Vergès, who made no effort to hide what he planned for the upcoming trial. The French would put Barbie on trial and Vergès would put France on trial. For every crime attributed to Klaus Barbie, Vergès found a corresponding crime attributed to the French. “French society is sick,” exhorted Vergès in an interview in the popular weekly, L’Evènement, “it does not want to recognize the lies on which it constructed its existence.”111 From his tirades in the press it became evident that if Barbie were to be convicted, France would have to judge itself in the process. With Vergès, the very epitome of the history France so badly wanted to forget, as Barbie’s lawyer, there was no way around it. The trial thus took on yet another dimension, not only was it going to be about Klaus Barbie, the Third Reich, and France, it would be about memory and memory’s legacy, history. In the same issue in which it interviewed Vergès, L’Evènement issued a warning about the role history would play in Barbie’s trial: History is not and will not ever be objective. It is and will always be a contestable reconstruction and it exists without ceasing to be modified to the demands of the circumstances...”112

The trial would be about the intertwining questions of morality and history. Were the French any different than Nazis? Were the Jews any different than Nazis? Was anyone any different than the Nazis? Down to his very core, Jacques Vergès believed the answer was “no.” Supporting him were “Revisionist” historians who argued that the Holocaust was merely one in a long string of human catastrophes brought about by the nature of humanity and the nature of war.113 Thus, to get their client off the hook the defense sought to prove that his crimes were no different than the crimes of those who judged him. By that logic, all Vergès had to do was compare the crimes of Barbie, “a small criminal against humanity,” with the crimes of French imperialism.114 If Vergès could convince the French that they had no right to judge a little old man just doing his job because of the corrupt nature of their society, then Klaus Barbie would walk free. If Vergès failed to convince the French that the crimes of their society were essentially no different than those of Klaus Barbie, he could provide concrete evidence for his long-held claim that French society was fundamentally corrupt.

There were many ways Vergès could have defended Klaus Barbie. Vergès could have tried to diminish Barbie’s importance by comparing his crimes with those of higher-ranked Gestapo and S.S. officials. Barbie was only a Lieutenant, and he had certainly not thought of the Final Solution all by himself. Just as easily, Vergès could have demonstrated that Barbie was a man who obeyed orders without questioning them. Vergès could have also showed how much Barbie had changed over the past forty years, because very little evidence existed of Barbie’s activities during the 50s and 60s. Vergès could have done all those things, but he did not and, in failing to do so, he revealed the true nature of his presence at the trial. The truth is that Vergès could not have cared less about the fate of his client. Thus, when Klaus Barbie was called sit in the box of the accused, Vergès did not defend, he attacked. Vergès did not attack to defend, he attacked to harm French society because he wanted to the French to answer to their past and because he wanted make people stop thinking of the Holocaust whenever they heard the word “Israel.”

Opposing Vergès were the victims of Barbie’s actions against the Resistance and of the role he played within the greater framework of the Final Solution. Like the defense, the prosecution saw that Barbie’s trial was about history and not just a lone henchman. When Barbie’s victims heard what Vergès had in mind for the trial, many were outraged and scared, because just as Vergès believed he had a broader historical perspective on the trial, so did they. Vergès was an elegant speaker and many of the victims feared that he would use the occasion to make a mockery out of the French judicial system and more importantly out of Resistance and the Holocaust. An editorial in Le Nouvel Observateur entitled “Why do you menace us so, Vergès?” captured the anxiety of the victims quite well: “For the last few weeks, Jacques Vergès, whose dramatic genius must be saluted, and who takes from that one of the lead roles, has succeeded in putting France in a state of hypnosis.”115 A state of hypnosis, it must be kept in mind, is the product of illusion and many of the victims took solace in that. What kept victims’ hope from collapsing was their belief that they had on their side the undeniable truth. It is true that Klaus Barbie shattered lives and it is true that the Holocaust happened, but it is also true that when faced with the truth, justice does not always prevail. Their hope was that nothing, not even a vengeful Jacques Vergès, could prevent the world from hearing their testimony and, in the process, recognize their pain. They figured not even Vergès’ most ferocious attack could withstand their sincerity: “So, compare, denounce, dear monsieur Vergès,” challenged Le Nouvel Observateur, “it will not discomfort us, well to the contrary, because you will surely find...enough men and women will want to return to the essential; to explain.”116

The entire first day of the trial of Klaus Barbie, France, and history itself, was devoted to just one thing, reading off the list of crimes Klaus Barbie‘s crimes. Ordinarily, specifying the crime takes only a few minutes, but the Klaus Barbie was no ordinary criminal. For hours on end, the prosecution recited the list of all the crimes Barbie had been accused of before specifying for which ones they were seeking charges. In Plantu’s political cartoon on the “Une” of the next day’s Le Monde, the list of Barbie’s crimes is so ludicrously long it extends beyond of the cartoon’s frame, falls down the rest of the page and spills over onto the next page. Of Barbie’s hundreds of crimes, including murders, torture, rape, deportation, and more, only those of the gravest nature, the crimes against humanity, would be pursued.

After the recitation of the list of crimes was finished, midway through the second day of the trial, Vergès got to his feet and demanded that his client be set free immediately. He claimed Barbie had been kidnapped illegally by France and was being tried twice for the same crimes, something not legal in the French judicial system, which he proceeded to claim was corrupt. Truche, the head prosecution attorney, fired back, “...Barbie will not be condemned for the same deeds ‘54, the word ‘deportation’ hadn’t been pronounced.”117

Vergès was ready with a disruptive response, “‘Deportation?’ The word is employed today with audacity. The people who left, left for Drancy, the trains left Lyon...for Paris.”118 Technically, Vergès was correct, being sent from Lyon to Paris was not deportation in the strictest sense of the word, but everyone knew the eventual fate of the passengers aboard those trains. Vergès’ transparent claim had been crafted to shock his audience, and it worked. In a mere thirty seconds, Vergès had established the tone for the entire trial.

Vergès would question everything, and when he could, he would accuse. As waves of distressed murmurs swept through the audience, Klaus Barbie‘s confidence began to build. Probably he perceived that his lawyer was trying to establish that his crimes were merely part of a soldier’s duty and therefore not testable under the aegis of Nuremburg’s “crimes against humanity.” Barbie’s confidence had built so much in the tense atmosphere Vergès had created that he chose to speak for the first time. Like his counterparts who were tried at Nuremburg thirty-seven years before, Barbie claimed that he was only taking orders. He was only a cog in the machine and why should he be punished if he was only doing his job. But before he could say anything more that could possibly incriminate him, Barbie was silenced by his own lawyer.119 Normally, a lawyer is supposed to let his client do as he pleases, but Vergès was no average lawyer, and he did not want Barbie spoiling his case. Barbie’s little speech on how he was only executing orders had enormous potential to ruin Vergès’ whole strategy of disruption. If Barbie incriminated himself, as he was doing whenever he spoke, then the trial would not drag on as Vergès hoped it would. Barbie was stealing his lawyer’s spotlight and after all, the trial belonged to Vergès, not Barbie.

The next day, Vergès had solved the problem of the outbursts from his client. Following the interrogations on Barbie’s background, in which Barbie again revealed that he was still “an honest Nazi” and emphasized that he just “doing his job” during the Occupation, Vergès handed Barbie a statement to read.120 The written statement was a surprise, even to Barbie, given that he read it silently before reading it aloud in German. As the translation came through, it appeared that Vergès’ savvy had seized the day once again:

Mister prosecutor, I would like to say that I am a Bolivian citizen and that if I am present here it is because I have been deported illegally...And I ask of you, your honor, the president to take me back to the Saint Joseph’s Prison. I place it fully in the hands of my lawyer to defend my honor in front of justice, despite the climate of vengeance [and] the lynching campaign set forth by the French media.”121

In accordance with French law, Barbie possessed the right not to be present at his own trial, so when he asked to be excused from courtroom for the remainder of the trial, the judge was forced to oblige. That day, Barbie was returned to his cell in Saint Joseph’s Prison, but, with or without him, his trial went on. Following Barbie’s departure, when the defense spoke, it was only through the voice of Jacques Vergès. Thus, in one fell swoop, Vergès was back in full control. He had silenced his client and he had gotten permission to run the show the way he wanted. All he had to do now was wait for the perfect moment in which to release the rage that had been building within for the past four decades. In a trial centered around repressed memories, that moment was inevitable.

While Vergès was waiting for the ideal time to strike, the prosecution began interviewing its witnesses. Over the next three weeks, the prosecution called forth and extensively interviewed fifty-eight different witnesses. The prosecution limited the number of witnesses, of which there were probably several hundred, because they wanted to avoid conflicting stories between witnesses. If one witness’ account conflicted with any other’s, then the whole trial could be thrown out. Besides being limited in numbers, the prosecution witnesses were usually victims of Barbie’s lesser atrocities. The thousands who bore the full brunt of Barbie’s crimes were dead and as one paper put it, each witness represented about fifty victims.122 Many witnesses were also selected because they had confronted Barbie personally at one time or another and could point their fingers at him in the courtroom.

Although they were spared death, did not mean many of the witnesses did not suffer. One witness, thirteen years old when she was interrogated by Barbie, recalled the trauma of the water torture Barbie frequently employed: “‘You’ll talk,’ said Barbie. In the bath, when he pulled up my head, I was thinking, ‘what would happen if I didn’t speak?’...It was said that you must swallow right away in order to drown yourself. I couldn’t. I never recovered from the torture.”123 Another women who was interrogated by Barbie at least nineteen times refused to give the court the full details of her torture session: “It was there [at Gestapo headquarters] that I had my back cut open with a stick that had on its end a ball with spikes. I excuse myself from recollecting the rest.”124

According to those present at the trial, the court was visibly shaken by many of the testimonies. Often the air was filled with a heavy silence as yet another witness, whose aging was accelerated by the trauma of his or her encounter with Barbie, had to stop in order to regain enough composure to continue speaking. “Her eyewitness account made the courtroom cry,”125 recalled one journalist after the testimony of a women who was forced to watch Barbie’s men beat her father to death before she would face an even greater nightmare in the death camps.

As witness after witness recollected the horror of their encounters with Barbie, the evidence mounted against the accused. Moreover, the prosecution was still weeks away from resting its case. During the third week of the trial, the prosecution began its attack on Barbie in earnest. But before they brought forth their most powerful witnesses and most powerful accusations, the prosecution attempted to defuse Jacques Vergès by interviewing a witness who was hand-picked to give Vergès a taste of his own medicine by questioning his morals. The witness was André Frossard, a Catholic résistant who was arrested by Barbie in 1943 and who we last saw hanging over a bathtub during a “reinforced interrogation” session. When Frossard was sent to Montluc, he wound up in the “Jewish Barracks” and during his incarceration he discovered the difference between “war crime” and “crime against humanity.” Besides being an intelligent writer and an eloquent speaker, Frossard had crossed paths with Jacques Vergès before. This is where the plot thickens, for it turns out that that Vergès owed Frossard an enormous debt. Specifically, Vergès owed Frossard the life of his wife, Djamila Bouhired. When Bouhired was condemned to death in 1956 for planting two café bombs, her execution seemed imminent. Her attorney had been a young Jacques Vergès and, although Vergès proved more than able to disrupt the court, he could not prevent his client from being sentenced to death. Then, a few days after her condemnation an article entitled “No, no, no!” appeared in L’Aurore, the same paper in which Zola wrote “J’accuse.”126 The author of the article was André Frossard, and he pleaded against the death penalty for the young woman and tried to fill in the gaps that her lawyer had missed while he was busy “attacking the prosecution.” The article was well-received and because of the public uproar caused by it, Bouhired was spared execution and eventually released. If anyone in the courtroom had any sort of moral control over the loose cannon Vergès, it was Frossard, and perhaps, hoped the prosecution, Frossard could talk some sense into him.

As a witness at the Barbie trial, Frossard’s mission was to force Jacques Vergès to spell out exactly how he viewed history and how that history related to Barbie’s trial. Specifically, Frossard asked Vergès to distinguish between “crime of war” and “crime against humanity.” Vergès said there was no difference between the two but Frossard countered by relating his own experience as an inmate in Montluc Prison.127 Jews, claimed Frossard, were special victims of the Occupation, but Vergès would not budge, and when the interview was over, neither man had changed. After his confrontation with Frossard, Vergès was still unfazed. If anything, the prosecution’s plan of throwing Vergès off balance by forcing him to confront Frossard had backfired. During his encounter with Frossard, Vergès got the opportunity to refine his argument that Klaus Barbie‘s crimes were no different than those of France or Israel. From then on, Vergès would weave his way through even the most imposing evidence against his client. Consequentially, when the prosecution began to present their trump card, the “liquidation” of the children’s home at Izieu, Vergès with was ready to put up a real fight.

One by one, every living witness of the events that took place in Izieu on April 22, 1944, was interviewed by the prosecution. Even before the first witness reached the stand, everyone in the court and probably most of France knew exactly what they were going to hear. Ever since the 1985 publication of “The Children of Izieu,” a narrative written by the Klarsfelds about how the children hiding in Izieu were so brutally torn away from their young lives, the forty-four “martyred children” had acquired an international following. The smoking gun linking the Izieu tragedy with Klaus Barbie was a single scrap of paper, found by Serge Klarsfeld, which read:

“Forty-four children, ages three to thirteen years have been captured in Izieu. In addition, the entire Jewish personnel there were arrested...The transport to Drancy will take place the 7th of April on my orders.”128

The note, printed on the bureaucratic form paper that the Gestapo used was dated April 6, 1944, and was addressed to Roem, the Gestapo head in Paris. Near the bottom of the page the note was signed “Barbie, SS-Ostuf.”129 Before the note could even be presented in court, however, Vergès had already claimed it was a fake. It was, according to Vergès, yet another part of the Zionist plot to justify Israel’s existence and its oppression of the Palestinians by morally blackmailing the world with the sufferings of the Jewish people during the Holocaust. The note, claimed Vergès, was therefore a fabrication by the “Zionist and hitman,”130 Serge Klarsfeld. For its part, the prosecution did not stand by quietly as Vergès tore apart one of their primary pieces of evidence. Experts were called in. From Germany came historians and ex-Nazi bureaucrats who claimed the coding on the note matched that of similar Gestapo deportation orders. From France and the U.S. came handwriting analysts who proved that the signature at the bottom of the page belonged to Klaus Barbie because it matched his signatures on dozens of other forms. After almost a full day of testimony from the expert witnesses, the obvious had been established as true beyond the shadow of a doubt. Vergès, however, was far from giving up.

Keeping with his true purpose for defending Klaus Barbie -- to inject into the mainstream of public thought his views on French society, Israel, and the Third World -- Vergès launched a ferocious attack on the seemingly unquestionable popular account of what had happened at Izieu on April 22, 1944. According to Vergès, it was not the Nazis who were responsible for the deaths of the forty-four children, it was the Jews. Instead of blaming the deaths of the children on the Third Reich’s racial policies or on Klaus Barbie‘s own cruelty, Vergès had placed the entire blame on the victims. The courtroom was shocked but Vergès did not stop there. It was the U.G.I.F., the agency that placed the children in the home in Izieu in the first place that should take the blame, not Klaus Barbie, said Vergès.131 It was the U.G.I.F. that doomed the children by putting them in an unsafe region. It was the U.G.I.F. that kept track of all of those they hid by keeping easy-to-read files. It was the U.G.I.F. that openly collaborated with both Vichy and the Nazis to protect itself. And who ran the U.G.I.F.? The Jews.

Following this logic, what Klaus Barbie had committed was not an act against humanity, but merely a political act, just as Vergès claimed terrorists who blow up airplanes do so only for political reasons. In a political act, there is neither aggressor or victim, but just two (or more) struggling points of view. Following this logic further, if one views the raid at Izieu as a political act, then one can view the whole Holocaust as a political act against Zionism and nothing more. If one can view the Holocaust as a mere political act, then Israel, the land given to the victims of the Holocaust, had absolutely no moral basis. With no moral basis, Israel would become nothing more than a tool of imperialism and of the oppression of Third World peoples. That, argued Vergès, was the true nature of Israel.132

There was, however, a major flaw in Vergès’ argument that the Holocaust was essentially a political act; he failed to take into account both how and why the Nazis conducted their war against the Jews. Had he done so, anyone could have seen how the Final Solution transcended mere politics. Nazism was more than just politics; it was an ideology. Unlike politics, Nazism gave its followers a whole new set of morals, one in which killing “subhumans” was not only necessary but praiseworthy. Like religion, ideology relies on faith, thus even when its morals seem illogical, men like Barbie could circumvent ethical dilemmas through their faith in the Nazi ideology. Thus, it was the combination of the ideology and the Third Reich’s administrative machine that caused the Holocaust to happen, not political drive. Eventually it was soul-wrenching accounts of the victims that deprived Vergès’ argument of its validity. Witness after witness proved that the Holocaust was encompassed far more than just political beliefs and taking orders. It was about unprovoked brutality, cold-hearted inhumanity, and endless suffering. It was pain at its highest form and humanity at its lowest. As Sabin Slatin, the sole surviving adult of the raid in Izieu, put it, “Barbie said that he made war on the résistants and maquisards but the forty-four children of Izieu were neither résistants nor maquisards. They were innocents. Neither pardon nor forget.”133 By the middle of the trial, the public knew that the Holocaust was more than a mere political crime and despite of Vergès’ claims to the contrary, the papers portrayed him as a desperate buffoon rather than a voice of reason. Vergès, however, was only beginning to bring forth the full implications of what happened at Izieu.

Also to blame for the murder of the Izieu children were the French. Although the villagers in Izieu claimed they wholeheartedly supported the children, a great deal of evidence pointed to French collaboration as the source of information for the Gestapo men who actually performed the deed of arresting the children. As was evident in the popularity of groups like Action Française and the bond between anti-Semitism and the conservative nationalism of the Vichy regime, there were plenty of French who did not view the deportations as entirely negative. Vergès did not hesitate to point this out and from there he began to mount another attack on the seemingly unquestionable. This time, the French bore the responsibility of the children’s deaths, and if Vergès could prove to the French that they were responsible for the suffering of the children at Izieu, then he could proceed to bigger things like Indochina and Algeria. By forcing the French to take at least part of the blame for what happened at Izieu, Vergès would be prying open the door to the closet in which hid Vichy and the rest of France‘s forgotten history.

With national attention focused on the hearings about Izieu, Vergès had the chance to force the French to face not only the ambiguities of the Occupation but the ambiguities of their entire modern history. Thus, when the prosecution called forth its witnesses to recall what happened at Izieu and in the death camps, Vergès protested at every step of the already painful tale. Vergès did not just protest though, he put on a show. He accused, he shocked, he threatened, and he warned. And it worked. Although Vergès did not get the revolts in the streets that he wanted, there was a great deal of public response to his accusations about the role the French played in the Holocaust. In the week following the calling of the witnesses of the Izieu tragedy, gallons of ink were spilt trying to reconcile France’s actual history with the myths of the past. For Philippe Brunet-Lecomte, a writer for the Lyon Figaro, a sole conclusion loomed: “The French have fear of looking the truth in the eye. That is to say collaboration, the denunciations... and all of those who permitted the Gestapo to do their ‘work’ so well.”134

The testimony of André Frossard and the evocation of Izieu had created quite an uproar, but the climax of the Barbie trial was still to come. It was not until June 2nd, during the fourth week of the trial, that the prosecution called forth its star witness, Elie Wiesel. Although Wiesel had not personally been a victim of Klaus Barbie, he had experienced Auschwitz firsthand and had lost most of family during the Holocaust. Since the war, Wiesel had become an internationally-renowned writer and a leading authority on the Holocaust. In 1982, less than a year before his appearance at Klaus Barbie‘s trial, Wiesel had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in enlightening the world about the Holocaust. Thus, wherever Elie Wiesel went, there was attention, and Jacques Vergès was certainly not going to miss this golden opportunity to make the most of that attention.

When Wiesel was called to the witness stand, Vergès was ready to pounce. After Wiesel answered several questions from the prosecution about the nature of the Holocaust and about the significance of trying Klaus Barbie, it was the defense’s turn to question the witness. Vergès got straight to the point and asked Wiesel if he had done anything for the thousands of Algerian children who died in French internment camps before and during the Algerian War.135 Wiesel responded that he was in America at the time and had not heard about it, but had he been in Paris at the time, he would have acted. Vergès seized the opportunity and began his attack: “I conclude from it that the deaths of these children were silent, their cries did not cross the Atlantic let alone the Mediterranean...You are an American citizen, what do you think of the fate of the children of Mai Lai, of whom the murderer is today still free?”136 Vergès had at once attacked Wiesel, France, and imperialism, but Wiesel saw what Vergès was trying to do and fighting for the moral upper ground he responded, “When I see an injustice, I protest, and have done it.” To quote Lyon Liberation , Vergès “applied the accelerator” and snapped back: “Have you heard talk of the massacre of children at Deir Yassin? [Palestinian village razed by the Israelis during their war of independence in 1947]”137

At this point, Cerdini, sensing the increased tensions not only on the courtroom floor but all around the chamber, tried to intervene, but he was about forty years too late. Both Wiesel and Vergès had things to say and nothing was going to stop them from having it out if they wanted to. When calm was restored to the room, Wiesel in a calm voice replied to Vergès’ accusation: “Yes, I stand with Israel. I’m proud of it. It’s the only country in the world that was ready to recognize a Palestinian Arab. The Arabs did not want to. They wanted to make a war with Israel...That does not justify the brutalities. I am against such things, wherever they occur.” Vergès, unlike Wiesel, was letting his fury build and continued to press his attack: “One cannot be unconditionally for Israel. I asked a question about Deir Yassin and nobody answered it!”138 Wiesel had no immediate reply.

By cracking Elie Wiesel, Vergès could unravel the entire prosecution, and given Wiesel’s loss of composure after that last question it looked as if he had succeeded. After a long pause, Wiesel, this time his voice trembling, had an attack of his own: “I find it especially regrettable that the lawyer of the defense dare accuse the Jewish people of the very crimes committed against them. Is that all he has to say today in 1987?”139 Cerdini, seeing that the argument was going to spin out of control, and wanting to avoid national embarrassment over what might happen next, shouted, “We are getting distracted from our trial...!” But in mid-sentence the much louder voice belonging to Jacques Vergès took over, “...[our trial] that all peoples are considered the same!”140

What followed was described by the papers as a “heavy silence.”141 The silence that followed Vergès’ last outburst was not the empty stillness of shock but the pensive silence of reflection and understanding. From that moment on, the court understood. They understood what Vergès was trying to do, even if they did not agree with him. They understood the difference between a crime of war and a crime against humanity. And they understood how little the trial had to do with Klaus Barbie. For every new understanding gained from the encounter between Vergès’ and Wiesel, there were also new questions. Did the French legal system have right to try a man like Klaus Barbie, let alone convict him? Could the charge of “crime against humanity” be levied against France for what it had done, both to foreigners and her own citizens, over the past fifty years? Was imperialism a crime against humanity? Was the Holocaust unique or just another “consequence” of war and human nature? Was history a victim too?

When the silence lifted several minutes later with the calling of a new witness, the trial continued with these new understandings and new questions. As the trial stretched on, a seemingly endless stream of witnesses continued to relate their experiences in France during the Occupation. As he did before, Vergès continued to attack the Collaboration and evoke images of French atrocities in Algeria and the other horrors of colonialism, but something had changed. As was reflected in the French newspapers that were printed over the next few weeks, the public had grasped what Vergès was trying to do and in that understanding shifted their focus to what they thought was the real issue, the fate of Klaus Barbie and his victims. Vergès had therefore lost in his quest to make France acknowledge the full weight of its crimes by putting them on the same level as the Holocaust, but before the trial ended he would make one last attempt to gain recognition for those who died at the hands of imperialistic oppression.

On the final day of the trial, when Vergès walked onto the courtroom floor to plea for his defendant, he was not alone. By his side were Nabil Bouaita, an Algerian attorney, and Jean-Martin M’Bemba, a Congolese attorney. Bouaita, an old friend of Vergès from his Algerian days, claimed he was present at the trial for only one reason, to “plea for the Arab people.” Likewise, M’Bemba, an active “Third-Worldist” was present to “plea for the African people.”142 What was supposed to be a plea for Barbie’s freedom had little or nothing to with the defendant at all. Instead, it was the moment Vergès had been waiting for all his life, the chance to “attack the prosecution” while the world listened. If anything, France was the true defendant and, with this in mind, Vergès began his plea:

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?143

No sooner than Vergès had finished than his Congolese comrade, B’Memba, began his own “plea.” B’Memba, in the name of all of those who suffered at the hands of colonialism, began to recall the “crimes against humanity” that took place in French colonial Africa. For the construction of a mere 140 kilometers of railway, said B’Memba, at least 8000 natives died at the hands of their white bosses. Why did the natives die? “Because they were black.”144 B’Memba finished by accusing France of “lagging” behind other nations in terms of addressing humans rights and racism and in the same tone asked: “Do you [the French] have a tranquil enough conscience to judge Barbie?”145

After B’Memba finished his attack on the French colonial system in Africa, the third major defense lawyer, Nabil Bouaita stepped forward to give his “plea.” Just as B’Memba’s mission was to condemn the French for the suffering brought about by their colonialism, Bouaita’s mission was to condemn the “Zionists” for their crimes against the Arab. He began by comparing Israel’s acts in Lebanon with America’s aggression in Vietnam and France‘s war in Algeria. “The Israelis,” he claimed, “were just as guilty as the Nazis.”146 The key piece of evidence supporting Bouaita’s claim was the massacre at Sabra and Shatila where “between 3500 and 5000” Palestinian refugees were killed by a Lebanese militia who “acted under the benevolent eye of Israelis stationed only 200 meters away.” Unlike Vergès or B’Memba, Bouaita did not shield his argument in any Barbie-related rhetoric, he just kept attacking Israel until Cerdini silenced him for moving off the subject. Thus ended the defense’s plea. In three swift and furious attacks, the defense attorneys, led by Jacques Vergès had managed to speak publicly against all of their traditional enemies. Their argument was simple, what right did the French, or the Jews, have to judge Klaus Barbie if they themselves had committed atrocities of a similar nature? All that remained now was for the jury to decide the fate of Klaus Barbie. And of France, the Holocaust, “crimes against humanity,” and history itself.

In the hours after the defense pleaded its case, the jurors would have to decide whether Klaus Barbie was guilty and if so, to what degree. What had started as a simple trial of a man who was blatantly guilty had turned into a four-year war of legal attrition and, in the process, had acquired an entirely new nature. On the night of the verdict, it seemed as if the original issue, the justice of Klaus Barbie, had been lost in a sea of unwanted questions and discomforting moral dilemmas. Vergès had created a paradox, if the French were going to punish Barbie for what the Nazis did to them, then they could not continue going on without facing their own history of inconsistencies starting with the persecution of Dreyfus and continuing through the Algerian War. In order for France to punish Barbie, it would have to permanently prop open the door to its closet full of inconsistencies, and after a century of remaining closed, that closet was bound to have more than a few skeletons in it. Thus, the price for punishing Barbie would be high; either facing the ambiguities of the past head-on or facing decades of moral discomfort. The question that remained was, would France be willing to the price of finally facing its past in order to satisfy its craving for justice?

Ten minutes after midnight on Saturday, July 4, 1987, the jurors emerged from their chamber with a verdict. After more than six hours of deliberations the jurors found Klaus Barbie guilty of “crimes against humanity” and for that act sentenced him to spend the rest of his life in prison, France‘s highest punishment. Vergès immediately protested the verdict, calling the whole trial a “farce,” but before he could say any more, a new, previously unheard voice, silenced him. The voice belonged to Klaus Barbie, who after hearing the verdict, addressed the court in French for the first time: “I have some words to say, in French,” began Barbie, “ I did not commit the raid in Izieu. I fought the Resistance and that was the war and today the war is over. Thank you.” Despite Barbie’s appeal, all of the evidence was against him. Vergès tried to “plea” one more time, but as one reporter put it, “he was talking only to himself” and nobody even bothered to record what he said.147 The verdict stood and the trial was over, but neither the prosecution nor the defense walked away satisfied.


What was supposed to have been a triumph for the prosecution had turned into a nightmare of legal difficulties followed by a grueling trial in which the prosecution, France, and the victims, the résistants and the Jews, found themselves being judged instead of Klaus Barbie. Had it not been for ferocious counter-attacks launched by Jacques Vergès, however, the prosecution would have walked away from the trial with nothing more than the conviction of a man already twice condemned to death by French courts. As a consequence of Vergès’ controversial approach to crime and its relationship to memory, the prosecution was forced to prove and reprove what distinguished the Holocaust from ordinary acts of war or criminality. Thus, from the testimony of dozens of witnesses, the prosecution was able to clarify like never before that the Holocaust was real and that its special kind of horror placed it in a unique category.

With the recognition of the full significance of the Holocaust came another realization; that of the French role in implementing the Final Solution. When the truth about French collaboration finally emerged after more than forty years of repression, its teachings were often painful. No longer could the Resistance be viewed as the sole French role during the Occupation and no longer could its glories serve to shelter France from the shame and guilt of its other past. As Raymond and Lucie Aubrac, the “couple vedette” of the French Resistance, put it during an interview following the Barbie trial, “The French are now capable of understanding what happened in their country.”148 Thus, by understanding France‘s whole history, that is, taking the bitter with the sweet, the French were able to realize both the full depth of the collaboration and the full glory of the Resistance.

By exposing France to its history’s true nature, the Barbie trial proved that history could be rewritten, and this upset many supporters of the prosecution. Instead of simply rewriting history, the Barbie trial, especially through Vergès’ reinterpretations of the Occupation and the colonial wars, provided a health environment for anyone who wanted to reinterpret any part of history. Nothing was sacred. Instead of viewing what was revealed about France during the Barbie trial as the truth, many viewed such revelations as interpretations. As soon as the voices of Elie Wiesel and the hundreds of other victims died down, historians were revising the past. Overnight, history was rewritten: when people spoke of the “deportations” they longer meant the thousands of French men Laval shipped to Germany where they would work in factories, they meant the one-way train rides from Drancy to Auschwitz. If history could be revised one way, then it could be revised another, and before the new view of French history could be accepted, it was already being challenged.

Although Vergès claimed that his defense of Barbie would “hurt France,” the pain he inflicted by attacking the very foundations of French society was probably the only way the old wounds that had scarred France for so many decades could begin to healed. In essence, Vergès had forced the French to discuss publicly the taboo subject of the past. From 1987 on, whenever the French would think of crimes against humanity, they would think of more than just the Holocaust. Now, the French would conjure up the atrocities in Algeria alongside those of the Nazis and take a leading role in trying to avert genocide wherever they saw it start to happen.

Judging by the amount of coverage such events get in the French media as opposed to their American counterparts, the French public pays a great deal of attention to genocide or even the potential of genocide in any region of the world. The importance of preventing another Holocaust or even another Algeria has also made itself prominent in French foreign policy. When the U.N. called for nations to step forward to help stop the hatred-based war in former Yugoslavia, it was the French who sent the most economic aid and troops to the region. In 1996, when the ethnic conflict between the Hutu and Tutsi erupted in Africa, it was again the French who were among the first to make an effort to bring peace to their former colonies.

Although the healing process commenced by the Barbie trial has had a significant impact on almost all aspects of French life, it is still very far from complete. The fury of the Barbie trial may have changed the way people think about the potential danger of racism more, but it was not a change without backlash. Probably the most dramatic instance of backlash against the Barbie verdict would be the rise in popularity of Jean-Marie Le Pen after the trial. Le Pen, a proud nationalist and xenophobe, would have been right at home in the Vichy government, and his ultra-conservative party, le Front National, won a record 14.44 percent of the vote in the presidential elections of 1988.149 In the ranks of his political party stood many ex-Pétainists who lashed out at the Barbie trial for questioning, or even worse, attacking what they thought were the pillars of French society, the French “character” and France‘s role a world leader. They were sick of being criticized for what they thought was protecting French culture from the outside and they succeeded in maintaining an atmosphere in France that can be downright hostile to immigrants and ethnic minorities. Thus, the same racism that scapegoated Dreyfus and that drove the anti-Semitic policies of the Vichy regime was still alive and well.

Perhaps the greatest triumph of the nationalistic, xenophobic Right after the Barbie trial came in 1992 with the dismissal of all charges against former milice leader Paul Touvier. Like Barbie, Touvier murdered both Jews and résistants, and like Barbie, Touvier hid from justice for decades, but unlike Klaus Barbie, Touvier was French to the very core. As the leader of a collaborationist militia unit in Vichy France, Touvier openly collaborated with the Nazis, but, unlike many of his peers, he did not stop there. While many of his peers balked at rounding up French Jews or stealing their property, Touvier gave himself to the task “body and soul.” One of Touvier’s best-known acts was the cold-blooded murder of the president of the League for the Rights of Man, Victor Basch, along with Basch’s wife, Hélène. The Basches were both octogenarians when they were arrested by Touvier on January 10, 1944, for the crime of being Jewish. Touvier then drove the couple to a secluded spot and shot each of them in the head.150

When France was purging itself of Vichy’s most grotesque collaborators during the late 1940s, Touvier should have been among the first up against the wall. After the war, Touvier was hidden and protected by the Church for almost fifty years. Due to lack of evidence against him, Touvier escaped death sentences in 1946 and in 1947, a trial in 1973, and another trial in 1992. In the 1992 trial, Touvier was accused of hurling grenades into a synagogue but, as in the previous cases, there were conflicting accounts by eyewitnesses and the case was therefore thrown out.151 For the fourth time in four decades, Paul Touvier had escaped justice by the grace of the French legal system which found it either too difficult or too painful to try him, let alone convict him.

Throughout the entire four decades that Touvier escaped French justice, he was being sheltered by the Church. Although many officials within the Church had aided the Resistance and sheltered Jews, many openly collaborated with the Vichy regime. They collaborated not because they were afraid, but because they thought Vichy was going to revive Catholicism in France. Thus, when Touvier, a Vichy fanatic, was accused of collaboration and therefore treason, enough Church officials were still sufficiently pro-Vichy to hide Touvier, a fairly devout Catholic. In order to attack Touvier, the prosecution, that is the Fifth Republic, would therefore have to attack the Church, but doing that could create new rifts in society by pitting the Church directly against the State. The solution was simple, just forget about the whole thing and move on. The press was outraged, but after the years of talk about “the Holocaust” and “crimes against humanity” and “collaboration” that surrounded the Barbie, the public was tired examining its history. Thus, during the Touvier “Affair,” as it was called in a sick mockery of the Dreyfus Affair almost a century before, France proved that although it had come a long way, it had not completely conquered the shadows of the past.

In the background to both the Barbie trial and “L’Affaire Touvier,” lurked yet another ghost from the past, Maurice Papon. As Secretary General of the prefecture of Gironde during the Occupation, Papon was the principal liaison between his constituents and the Vichy government. After the war, Papon claimed he had protected his prefecture through ingenious bureaucratic maneuvering within the Vichy command structure and after being hailed as a hero, he went onto a prosperous career as a high-ranking civil servant in the Fourth and Fifth Republics. However, as would soon be discovered, Papon’s past would come back to haunt him. During the Second World War, Papon served as the General-Secretary of the Prefecture of the Gironde region, in which he was responsible for overseeing Jewish affairs. As a result of his civic duties, and his position as senior police official in the Vichy regime, Papon had the opportunity to come into contact with various Nazi SS soldiers and to be privy to a lot of high-level information; thus, leading many to believe he was, if not well, at least partially informed as to what was going on with the Jewish situation in Germany and his contribution to their deportation. It was not until the late 1970s that Papon’s associations would come back to haunt him. Throughout the years more and more information was accumulated in relation to the 1,560 Jews, including 223 children, that Papon deported to such concentration camps as Auschwitz. It was not until 1981 that pieces of paper detailing the arrest and deportation of hundreds of Jews, were found containing Papon’s personal signature. For seventeen years, Papon tried to battle the charges make against him for crimes against humanity, claiming he was not aware of the Final Solution, and that he was merely acting as a civil servant, who in fact keep his job so he could try and aid the Resistance movement and help the Jews. Although Papon was willing to overlook some of his past indiscretions, his victims were not. They argued that because”...[Papon] knew full well that it [his orders] concerned the deportation and extermination of members of the Jewish community, chosen uniquely in accord with religious or racial criteria,”152 he should be tried for “crimes against humanity. His case was finally brought to trial in October 1997, and Papon was charged with complicity of crimes against humanity. He was convicted in 1998 and sentenced to ten years in prison, only to serve three and be released on the basis of a 2002 law, which calls for the release of ill prisoners so they can seek quality care.

Whether he was found guilty or innocent, Papon’s trial reinforced the teachings of the ordeal of the Barbie trial. With a guilty verdict, Papon will incriminate the collaborators even more, and with an innocent verdict, he will incriminate Vichy for its “political killings” and the Fifth Republic for finding him innocent. Either way, the Papon trial will be another rendezvous with history.

With the publicity from the Papon trial and with billboards declaring “Victory for the Revisionists!” it appears that the Barbie trial’s offspring are beginning to make themselves known. On one side, there are the supporters of the prosecution, who claim with confidence that what Papon did was a “crime against humanity” by reflecting on the lessons of the Barbie trial. On the other side there are the spiritual heirs to Jacques Vergès, who claim that Papon should not have even been tried because of the pettiness of his crime compared to more modern ones in Africa and the Middle East.

Whatever its impact on the Papon trial and beyond, the Barbie trial was, more than anything, a lesson. For Marcel Merle, the trial was a history lesson. Not a lesson of history, a lesson about history: At a time when a certain history tries to deny the evidence and when the stench of racism seeps insidiously to the surface, a healthy history lesson has been administered to the public opinion, particularly to the youths who are tempted to hide themselves behind the slogan, “Hitler, I didn’t know him.” 153

Other lessons were even more important. When Télérama magazine asked Claude Lanzmann, author of Shoah, a documentary on the Holocaust, to tell them what the most important lesson of the Barbie trial was, he responded to four years of agonizing soul-searching and moral discomfort on a national level with a single phrase: “Fiction is a crime.”154


Source: The Trial of Klaus Barbie

1. Pierre Bois, “D’Izieu à Auschwitz, le martyre de 44 enfants,” Le Figaro, (May 28, 1987).
2. Philippe Brunet-Lecomte, “Les trois traîtres français d’Izieu,” Lyon Figaro, (June 2, 1987).
3. Erna Paris, Unhealed Wounds, (New York, Grove Press: 1985), p. 78.
4. Raymond and Lucie Aubrac, “Un Entretien avec Raymond et Lucie Aubrac,” in Bernard-Henri Lévy, Archives d’un Procès, (Paris, Globe: 1986), p. 207.
5. Alain Woodrow, “Le Pasteur Potter: ‘Il sommeille en chacun de nous,’” Le Monde, (February 11, 1983).
6. Michael R. Marrus and Robert O. Paxton, Vichy France and the Jews, (New York: Basic Books, 1981), p. 28.
7. ibid, p. 29.
8. Erna Paris, Unhealed Wounds, (New York, Grove Press: 1985), p. 56.
9. Marrus and Paxton, Vichy France and the Jews, (New York: Basic Books, 1981), p. 31.
10. Ted Morgan, An Uncertain Hour, (New York; William Morrow and Co., 1990), p. 92.
11. Marrus and Paxton,  p. 33
12. William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany, (New York: Fawcett Crest Books, 1960), pp. 387-388.
13. Benjamin Sax and Dieter Kuntz, Inside Hitler’s Germany: A Documentary History of Life in the Third Reich, (Lexington, MA: DC Heath, 1992), p. 189.
14. Marrus and Paxton, p. 37.
15. ibid, p. 45.
16. ibid, p. 64.
17. ibid, p. 36.
18. Shirer,  pp. 944-945.
19. Morgan, p. 108.
20. Paris, p. 60.
21. ibid, p. 61.
22. ibid, p. 57.
23. René de Chambrun, Pierre Laval, Traitor or Patriot? (New York, Charles Scribner: 1984), pp. 128-136.
24. Edwy Plenel, “Le piège Touvier,” Le Monde, (April 22, 1992).
25. Paris, p. 88.
26. de Chambrun, p. 134.
27. Alain Finkielkraut, Remembering in Vain: The Klaus Barbie Trial and Crimes Against Humanity, Trans. Roxanne Lapidus with Sima Godfrey, (New York, Columbia University Press. 1992), p. 53.
28. Philip W. Whitcomb (trans.), France During the German Occupation, 1940-1944, Vol. 2, (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1957), p. 628.
29. ibid, p. 628.
30. Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991, (New York, Vintage Books: 1994), p. 120.
31. Whitcomb, p. 629.
32. ibid, p. 636.
33. de Chambrun, p. 134.
34. Paris, p. 78.
35. Paris, p. 45.
36. Paris, p. 45.
37. Paris, p. 106.
38. In 1974, Barbie bragged to a journalist that he had saved France from Communism by killing Moulin, who had leftist leanings. In 1983, when Barbie was extradited to France, he changed his mind about Moulin. Barbie claimed that he and Moulin became fast friends upon Moulin's arrest and that he never abused Moulin in any way. Moulin's death, according to Barbie, was a suicide. If one is to believe Barbie, then Moulin committed suicide by repeatedly bashing his head against a blunt object, and in the process, somehow breaking his ribs, arms, and legs. Agence France Presse, “Jean Moulin s’est tué lui-même,” Le Monde, (February 11, 1983).
39. Serge Klarsfeld, The Children of Izieu: A Human Tragedy, (New York: Abrams, 1984), p. 17.
40. Klarsfeld, pp. 31-32.
41. Bois, Le Figaro, (May 28, 1987).
42. Brunet-Lecomte, Lyon Figaro, (June 2, 1987).
43. Klarsfeld, p. 15.
44. Françoise Rolland, “‘Aucun Nazi ne pouvait ignorer le sort des déportés,’” Le Progrès, (June 11, 1987).
45. Morgan, p. 202.
46. Morgan, p. 247.
47. Paris, p. 106.
48. Allan A. Ryan, Jr., “Klaus Barbie and the United States Government: A Report to the Attorney General of the United States,” (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of Justice, Criminal Division, 1983), p. 29.
49. de Chambrun, p. 134.
50. Ryan, p. 28.
51. ibid, p. 31,
52. ibid, pp. 30-35,
53. ibid, p. 40,
54. Philippe Brunet-Lecomte, “‘Barbie n’a jamais rompu avec les anciens SS,’” Lyon Figaro, (May 15, 1987).
55. Ryan, pp. 159-160.
56. Jean-Marc Théolleyre, “Nazi impénitent, agent américain, homme d’affaires bolivien,” Le Monde, (May, 16, 1987).
57. Ryan, p. 39.
58. Paris, p. 21.
59. ibid, p. 188.
60 ibid, p. 188.
61. ibid, p. 188.
62. ibid, p. 189.
63. Edmond Frédéric, “De La Paz à Lyon, Muré dans son silence,” Le Monde, (February 8, 1983).
64. Morgan, p. 16.
65. Paris, p. 108.
66. P. J. Franceschini, “Klaus Barbie est expulsé vers la France: Le criminel-enseignant,” Le Monde, (February 6-7, 1983).
67. Paris, pp. 208-209.
68. Jean-Marc Théolleyre, “Un vaincu impénitent,” Le Monde, (February 8, 1983).
69. Jean-Marc Théolleyre, “Le sens d’un procès,” Le Monde, (May 3, 1987).
70. Frédéric, Le Monde, (February 8, 1983).
71. Théolleyre, Le Monde, (February 8, 1983).
72. Eichmann’s trial, which took place in Jerusalem in 1961, lasted nine months and caused considerable controversy. His kidnapping in Buenos Aires jeopardized Israel’s relationship with Argentina and his defense strategy, claiming that he was a Zionist because of the role he played in forcing the Jews out of Europe, caused an uproar. He was executed in Tel Aviv in May 1962.
73. Paris, p. 14.
74.Gilbert Comte, “La justice de qui?” Le Monde, (February 10, 1983).
75. Joseph Rovan, “Ce procès vient trop tard,” Le Monde, (February 10, 1983).
76. Woodrow, Le Monde, (February 11, 1983).
77. Paris, p. 132.
78. ibid, p. 134.
79 ibid, p. 131.
80. ibid, p. 139.
81. Finkielkraut, p. xx.
82. Paris, p. 149.
83. ibid, pp. 149-150.
84. ibid, p. 148.
85. Encyclopedia Britannica Online (1996).
86. Paris, p. 130.
87. Vergès actually traveled constantly back and forth between Prague and Paris so that he could lead a youth organization and study law simeoltanaously.
88 Jacques Vergès, Je Defends Barbie, (Paris: Jean Picollec, 1988), pp.175-178.
89. Paris, p. 155.
90. ibid, p. 152.
91. ibid, p. 152.
92. Vergès, pp.175-178.
93. Rita Maran, Torture: The Role of Ideology in the French-Algerian War, (New York: Praeger, 1989), p. 82.
94. Paris, p. 155.
95. Recently Les Editions de Minuit has published several works of “revisionist” history, most notably Roger Garaudy’s popular essay that refuted the existence of the Holocaust.
96. Paris, p. 165
97. ibid, p. 161.
98. ibid, p. 166.
99. ibid, p. 169.
100. ibid, p. 175.
101. ibid, p. 176.
102. ibid, p. 181.
103. Vergès, p. 163.
104. Paris, p. 210.
105. Eliane Begue, “Elie Wiesel, l’autre mémoire,” Lyon Matin, (June 3, 1987).
106. Claude Bourdet, “Pourquoi Juger Barbie,” Témoinage Chrétien, (May 11, 1987).
107. Vergès, p. 13.
108. Nine primary jurors and five alternates.
109. Jean-Marc Théolleyre, “Nom, prénom? Altmann, Klaus,” Le Monde, (May 13, 1987).
110. André Chambraud, “L’Histoire, cette garce qui nous rattrape,” L’Evènment du Jeudi, (May 14, 1987).
111. ibid.
112. Some “revisionists,” most notably Roger Garaudy, take their argument even further and claim that the Holocaust never occurred at all.
113. J.J., “Mais de quoi nous menace donc Vergès?” Le Nouvel Observateur, (May15, 1987).
114. ibid.
115. ibid.
116. Françoise Rolland, “L’Ombre de Jean Moulin s’ se précise,” Le Progres, (May 13, 1987).
117. ibid.
118. Patrice Burnat, “Le procès Barbie sans Barbie,” Le Matin, (May 14, 1987).
119. ibid.
120. ibid.
121. Odile Cimetière, “Pourquoi sont-ils venus témoigner?” Le Progres, (May 21, 1987).
122. Françoise Rolland, “‘Je me suis sentie sale avec ce matricule,’” Le Progres, (May 23, 1987).
123. ibid.
124. Jean-Jacques Billon, “Temoins du jour: Mme Simone Kaddosche-Lagrange,” Lyon Matin, (May 23, 1987).
125. Françoise Rolland, “Le S.S. faisait répéter au juif ‘Le juif est un parasite,’” Le Progres, (May 27, 1987).
126. Yves-Michel Gillet, “Questions à André Frossard,” Le Figaro, (May 28, 1987).
127. Bois, Le Figaro, (May 28, 1987).
128. Klarsfeld,  p. 94.
129. Jacques Vergès, Je Defends Barbie (Paris, Jean Picollec: 1988), p. 26 – Vergès was referring to Klarsfeld’s ‘hands-on’ role in Barbie’s capture and extradition.
130. Vergés, pp. 87-123.
131 Vergés, p. 12.
132. Bois, Le Figaro, (May 28, 1987).
133. Brunet-Lecomte, Lyon Figaro, (June 2, 1987).
134. Pierre Mangetout, “Elie Wiesel face à Me Vergès,” Lyon Libération, (June 3, 1987).
135. ibid.
136. ibid.
137. ibid.
138. Patrice Burnat, “Le témoignage d’Elie Wisel a été le grand moment d’émotion de la 15e audience du procès Barbie,” Le Matin, (June 3, 1987).
139. Mangetout, Lyon Libération, (June 3, 1987).
140. Burnat, Le Matin, (June 3, 1987).
141. Laurent Greilsamer, “Les deux ‘frères’ de Me Vergès,” Le Monde, (July 3, 1987).
142. Jean-Marc Théolleyre, “La défense evoque les crimes contre l’humanité avant et après le nazisme,” Le Monde, (July 3, 1987).
143. ibid.
144. ibid.
145. ibid.
146. Sorj Chalandon, “Klaus Barbie sort reclus à vie,” Lyon Libération, (July 4, 1987).
147. Raymond and Lucie Aubrac, “Un Entretien avec Raymond et Lucie Aubrac,” in Bernard-Henri Lévy, Archives d’un Procès, (Paris: Globe, 1986), p. 20.
148. Finkielkraut, p. 90
149. Plenel, Le Monde, (April 22, 1992).
150. ibid.
151. A.F.P, “Maurice Papon sera jugé pour ‘crimes contre l’humanité,’” Le Monde, (September 20, 1996).
152. Marcel Merle, “Le procès Barbie. Ou la fin du droit de la guerre?” Etudes, 367/5 (1987), pp. 459-467.
153. Jean-Claude Raspiengeas, “La Mémoire de l’Holocauste,” Télérama, (June, 24, 1987).
154. ibid