Books of The Times; Klaus Barbie and French Memory

Publié le par The New York Times by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

An Uncertain Hour The French, the Germans, the Jews, the Klaus Barbie Trial and the City of Lyons, 1940-1945 By Ted Morgan Illustrated. 416 pages. Arbor House/ William Morrow. $21.95.

Books of The Times; Klaus Barbie and French Memory

In 1987, Ted Morgan, the journalist and biographer (''Maugham,'' ''Churchill,'' ''F.D.R'' and ''Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs'') was sent to the French city of Lyons by The New York Times Magazine to cover the trial of Klaus Barbie, the fugitive Gestapo official responsible for the deaths of thousands of Jews and Resistance fighters. He wrote the present book as a result of his experiences. It is not what one expected.

Instead of starting with the man and his crime and building to the climax of the trial, Mr. Morgan tells the story more or less the other way around. He begins with a perfunctory account of how in 1974 Klaus Barbie was discovered to be living in Bolivia, how he was finally deported in 1983, how he was eventually brought to trial in 1987, and how he refused to appear in court on the not wholly unjustified grounds, or so the author believes, that he had been kidnapped and that the trial was rigged.

Mr. Morgan then reviews the crimes against humanity charged to Mr. Barbie that had survived the 20-year statute of limitations. He brings in the jury to pronounce Mr. Barbie guilty. In passing he points out ''the irony'' that Mr. Barbie was saved from the guillotine because the son of one of his victims had been instrumental in abolishing the death penalty. ''He was sentenced to life imprisonment, which in France means 20 years, and he would be freed when he was 93 years old, if he lived that long.''

Then Mr. Morgan goes back and tells the history of World War II, or more precisely the history of what some regard as the 100-year war between France and Germany. He tells of French collapses of the past and the flight from reality that constituted the Maginot line. He analyzes the decision by certain Frenchmen like Marshal Henri Philippe Petain and Pierre Laval to cooperate with the occupying Germans, and finds some tiny residues of rationality lying in attempts to undermine the Nazis by collaborating with them.

By degrees he narrows his focus to the ''Sonderbehandlung,'' or ''special treatment,'' as Nazi euphemism put it, with which the Germans undertook the extermination of France's Jews, particularly in Lyons, where Klaus Barbie rose to command the local office of the Nazi intelligence service, the SD or Sicherheitdienst. And in his concluding chapter, ''Last Train to Auschwitz,'' Mr. Morgan describes in detail the experiences of a group of Jews shipped to Auschwitz in 1944, some of whom survived to tell the horrific tale.

Mr. Morgan's history is compelling in its way. He is a skilled storyteller with an eye for the significant anecdote. But you keep waiting for it all to build to some point - to a fuller account of Mr. Barbie's trial, perhaps; or to some insight to the banality of his evil. But it never does. The focus of the book - or lack of it - is aptly summed up by its title, ''An Uncertain Hour: The French, the Germans, the Jews, the Klaus Barbie Trial and the City of Lyons, 1940-1945.'' Not necessarily in that order, Mr. Morgan might well have added.

Indeed, the effect of it all is disturbing. One's emotions are worn to shreds, especially by the plight of the many small children who were sent off to the camps and exterminated. Yet at the same time you feel numbed and impotent, because you have read it all before and there is no new lesson to be learned from Mr. Morgan's version of the horror. The most profound calamity does not permit much variation. And then, needless to add, there is the guilt that gnaws at you for feeling so helpless.

Publié dans Articles de Presse

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