The Barbie File
THE TRIAL OF KLAUS Barbie is to open tomorrow in the French city of Lyons, and when it does, it will take an act of will to reconcile the frail 74-year-old man in the dock, whom one might imagine stooped over a flower bed in the garden of his retirement home, with the crimes he is accused of committing. What, this kindly looking and rheumy-eyed old widower, whose voice can barely rise above a whisper, was the S.S. captain in Lyons who signed the order sending Jewish children to their deaths at Auschwitz? This senior citizen personally tortured men and women, was responsible for sending thousands of Jews and members of the French Resistance to concentration camps, and earned the sobriquet ''Butcher of Lyons''?
It is because it does not seem possible that this trial is so important. Klaus Barbie is one of the last of a species the world will be glad to be rid of - the Nazi war criminal. Glad to be rid of, yes, but only after Barbie and the conspiracy to do evil that once masqueraded as a system of government in France are held accountable.
France is placing itself on trial and facing for the first time the ugly truth, the until now unthinkable truth, that not only did the collaborators far outnumber the Resistance fighters, and not only did the collaborators fully accept the idea of the ''final solution,'' but that within the ranks of the Resistance, there were traitors who sold out their colleagues. In this sense, the trial will be like the poultices of my French childhood, bringing to the surface the poisons of the body.
Since Barbie was extradited to France from Bolivia four years ago, his trial has been delayed numerous times, prompting charges that prominent Frenchmen in business and government are afraid of what may be revealed about their collaborationist pasts. But a key element in the Barbie case - though one that will scarcely surface during the trial - is the American involvement with Barbie at the close of the war, itself the principal reason it has taken almost 44 years to bring the ''Butcher of Lyons'' to justice. For Barbie was recruited as an agent by the United States Army Counter Intelligence Corps in 1947, and worked for the C.I.C. until 1951, when Americans arranged his escape to Bolivia.
The ''crimes against humanity'' that the jury of 12 will hear of in Lyons's refurbished Palais de Justice are subject to no statute of limitations. Yet there are limitations set by the passage of time. Who is left, whether victim or accomplice, to testify about these distant events? It will soon be with World War II as it was with the American Civil War, when articles were written about the last Confederate and Union veterans. The day is coming when the last living witnesses will be gone, when that time of suffering will be as remote and abstract as the plague years, when our children will not be familiar with its vocabulary - place names like Auschwitz, personal names like Eichmann and Barbie, will mean little to them. BUT IF BARBIE HAS survived, so have some of his accusers. Perhaps their will to live has been nourished by the hope of one day facing their torturer.
One of the witnesses to be called is 86-year-old Lise Lesevre, a Resistance courier who was arrested in March 1944 and has testified to being tortured by Barbie himself. Unlike Adolf Eichmann, who, with his bureaucratic remoteness from events, epitomized what Hannah Arendt called ''the banality of evil,'' Barbie was directly involved in the torture of prisoners. Testimony that Lise Lesevre has given in two previous trials, in 1952 and 1954, in which Barbie was sentenced to death in absentia, reveals a man who accepted torture as a norm. According to that testimony, she was hung by her wrists and beaten in the basement of Montluc prison in Lyons. When she fainted, Barbie summoned a doctor to revive her and offered her a drink as if they were having a friendly chat.
According to the prison diary she still possesses, the torture lasted for 19 days, which seems unimaginable. But apparently Barbie alternated the torture sessions with conversations in which he expressed admiration for his prisoner's courage, in the tradition of the nice-cop, tough-cop routine, with Barbie playing both roles. She was tied to a chair and struck by one of Barbie's henchmen with a ball and chain device, which broke her vertebrae. When she awoke, Barbie was leaning over her, stroking her hands and saying, ''What you have done is magnificent, my dear. Nobody has held on as long as you. It's nearly over now. I'm very upset. But let's finish. Who is 'Didier'?'' Lise Lesevre said nothing. Like a child throwing a tantrum, Barbie struck her in the face and shouted, ''I don't want to see this stupid woman anymore. Get rid of her.''
Through Lise Lesevre's eyes, we see Barbie as an interrogator who alternately brutalized and cajoled, but inexplicably gave up trying to break a known member of the Resistance after nearly three weeks of torture. IN 1940, SEVERAL YEARS BEFORE these events, I was an 8-year-old living in a Basque village occupied by the Germans, and I saw first-hand that soldierly mix of brutality and friendliness (my mother told me not to accept the chocolate they offered). Then, the mentality of a Barbie was impenetrable to me, and yet later, I had a private reason for wanting to understand him: My father, Gabriel de Gramont. (Ted Morgan is an anagram of de Gramont; I changed my name when I became an American citizen in 1977.) After the fall of France in June 1940, my father crossed the Channel and joined Gen. Charles de Gaulle. He was a bomber pilot in the French squadron of the Royal Air Force and flew eight missions over Germany before being killed in a training accident in 1943.
By the time of my father's death, I was living in Washington, and in July 1944, I was taken to meet de Gaulle, who was on his first trip to the United States. I stood in the reception line at the French Embassy and found myself gazing up at a human column in a two-star general's uniform with a kepi atop a head that was a trifle small in proportion to the body. When I shook his hand, he said in his portentous voice: ''J'ai connu votre pere,'' and I was furious at myself because I could not keep the tears from welling in my eyes. I thought, ''You are here in front of me, but where is he?'' A man did the right thing, and all it got him was killed. As I grew older, I saw the men of Vichy, or worse, attain high office in the fullness of their years. The lesson of the war, it seemed, was the futility of commitment.
I have often asked myself whether my father was foolish or heroic, whether in wartime situations one should become involved or sit on the sidelines, if given the chance. For me, the Barbie trial seems to mark the juncture of several strands of my life, a chance finally to grasp the reasons that could have driven a person to join the Resistance, or the Gaullists, or the S.S. as Barbie did, going on to head a command of S.S. and Gestapo officers charged with wiping out the Resistance. WHY HAS the American role in Barbie's postwar life been so little understood?
His 1947 recruitment by the Counter Intelligence Corps was first formally disclosed in 1983, in a Department of Justice report by Allan A. Ryan Jr. entitled ''Klaus Barbie and the United States Government.''
What did not come out in that report, though their names were included, were the personal recollections of the young soldiers who had been Klaus Barbie's ''handlers.'' They are now retired and living in various parts of the country.
They were not hard to find; most have listed telephone numbers and those that did not responded to my letters. I found them willing to reminisce about that strange, chaotic, un-real postwar period when Germany was divided into four occupation zones, when the enemy was no longer Germany but Russia, and the so-called Allies in the four zones had become part of one vast espionage supermarket, where former members of the S.S. and the Gestapo - wandering Nazis who preferred employment to arrest - were peddling their services from zone to zone. In conversation, these men reconstructed an atmosphere in which the French, the British, the Russians and the Americans all drew on a pool of Nazi intelligence officers, each of whom attempted to manipulate his employer to his own advantage.
On the eve of the Barbie trial, I was curious to know something of these Americans who had represented a Government willing to overlook past atrocities in the interests of gathering intelligence. The guilt of the French, it is said, will finally be aired. But what of the American role in the Barbie affair? It is a chapter in the collision between the guile of the old world and the assumed innocence of the new, where the circumstances of war encourage the use of deceit and people are taken at face value, as Barbie's many years at liberty attest. BY JANUARY 1945, BARBIE HAD left Lyons. (In preparation for his departure, he had organized a ''clearing'' operation at Montluc Prison in which 109 prisoners, mostly Jews, were shot to death. Next, he had ordered the murder of more than 20 of his French collaborators, who could have testified about his crimes during his 21 months in Lyons.) He went to Berlin, to Hitler's bunker, where he saw a scene that disturbed his sense of reality - senior Nazi officials lecturing 14-year-old members of the Hitler Youth about their duty to protect the Fuhrer to the last man. Barbie was not of the ''we must all die in the bunker'' school, and he got himself posted to Dusseldorf.
From Dusseldorf, Barbie's unit moved to Essen, the headquarters of the Krupp factories. There, the forced laborers had risen up and were refusing to work in the coal mines. ''I had a great idea,'' Barbie told a Brazilian journalist many years later, perhaps as an example of gallows humor. ''We could throw them all down into the pits and drown them.'' But the Allies had already crossed the Remagen Bridge and moved into Essen, and Barbie fled, still looking for S.S. leadership, still looking for orders that made sense.
After Germany's unconditional surrender in May 1945, Barbie's name was on two Allied lists of wanted war criminals. Knowing that he might be picked up, he used the alias ''Becker'' and stayed on the move. In 1946, he was arrested in Marburg, in the north of the American zone, but jumped out of the Jeep that was taking him to an internment camp when it slowed down to let a tram pass. He moved into the British zone and was arrested that November in Hamburg, but escaped by filing the lock on his cell. Back in the American zone, he was the target of a ''swoop'' operation against an S.S. underground group. But when agents came to arrest him in Kassel on Feb. 23, 1947, he jumped out a bathroom window and escaped. AT THE TIME OF the Kassel incident, Robert S. Taylor, who had been part of a United States Counter Intelligence Corps team searching for Gestapo records in county seats, was working as operations officer in the C.I.C. subregion of Memmingen, near Munich. He was to be the first of Barbie's American handlers, and he recalls the day in March 1946 that events were set in motion. A man named Kurt Merk, who had been a lieutenant in the Abwehr (German military intelligence) came to his office to volunteer his services. Native intelligence talent was in short supply, and Merk was an avowed anti-Communist who, later on, often told Taylor that the Americans and the Germans should have teamed up and finished off the Russians.
In the months that followed, Merk traveled into the Eastern Bloc to collect intelligence, building up an impressive network of informants. In Memmingen, he and Taylor spent pleasant evenings drinking together. Taylor, like many other American soldiers who had fought in Europe and were now in occupied Germany, much preferred the Germans to the French. The French were prickly and sullen, whereas the Germans, as a vanquished people, went out of their way to be friendly and accommodating.
''I was far too loose,'' Taylor, a 68-year-old former dean of information studies at Syracuse University in New York, recalled recently. ''In military terms, it was improper to be that close to an agent.'' But in human terms, for an inexperienced young soldier who was glad to find a friend in the ingratiating Merk, it seemed only natural. Then, on April 10, 1947, Merk told Taylor that he had met an old friend from wartime service in France, a man named Klaus Barbie who was available for intelligence assignments. Taylor recognized the name as a target of the recent ''swoop'' operation; Barbie was the only former S.S. officer who had escaped arrest.
On April 14, Taylor informed the commander of his C.I.C. region in Munich, Lieut. Col. Dale Garvey, of Barbie's availability, and they agreed that he would be a valuable asset, in spite of his ''wanted'' status. On April 18, Taylor met Barbie at Merk's apartment in Memmingen. In order to establish his value as an intelligence source, Barbie gave Taylor a written account of his capture of the Resistance leader Jean Moulin in Lyons in 1943, including several newspaper clippings about Rene Hardy, a Resistance leader who was accused of having betrayed Moulin to Barbie.
Taylor recalls that he was left with a favorable impression of Barbie, who presented a sanitized version of himself, omitting mention of his actions in Lyons. On May 27, Taylor sent the following report to C.I.C. headquarters in Frankfurt: ''Barbie impressed this agent as an honest man, both intellectually and personally, absolutely without nerves or fear. He is strongly anti-Communist and a Nazi idealist who believes that he and his beliefs were betrayed by the Nazis in power.'' MAJ. EARL S. BROWNING JR., WHO was operations officer for the C.I.C. headquarters in Germany, located in Frankfurt, recalls the shock he felt at learning that Barbie had been recruited as an agent. In April 1945, as a C.I.C. officer, Browning had taken part in the capture of Munich and had visited the Dachau concentration camp a day or two after its liberation. Nothing in the life of this young man from Iowa City had prepared him for such a sight. Sitting in the book-lined basement recreation room of his home in Fairfax, Va., Browning, now 69, recalled the day in October 1947 that his assistant, James H. Ratliff, had burst into his office and said: ''Garvey's double-crossed us. After having us chase after Barbie, he is sitting in Munich using him as an agent.''
On Oct. 29, Browning directed the Munich region of the C.I.C. to arrest Barbie and send him to the European Command Intelligence Center at Oberursel, near Frankfurt, for ''detailed interrogation.'' There ensued a two-month tug-of-war between Browning and Garvey, who argued that arresting Barbie would impair the trust that informants placed in the C.I.C. It was performance that mattered, not what a man might or might not have done during the war years. This was 1947, the year Rumania went Communist; the year Moscow began in earnest to use local Communist parties to spread its influence; the year George Kennan, as ''Mr. X,'' proposed the policy of containment.
The Munich region complied with Browning's orders in mid-December. Barbie was arrested and questioned until the following May. Elusive as ever, Barbie sidestepped all damaging admissions, telling only what was already known - that he had been a member of the S.S. Significantly, the subsequent report included the first appearance of the ''he-knows-too-much'' argument that would loom ever larger in the Barbie case: ''Because of Barbie's activities with Region IV C.I.C. during 1947, it is not deemed advisable to intern him for his affiliation with the Waffen S.S.,'' it stated. ''His knowledge as to the mission of C.I.C., its agents, subagents, funds, etc., is too great.''
Barbie returned to his intelligence activities in Memmingen. In June, he found he had been assigned to a new handler, Erhard Dabringhaus, a Ger-man-born American soldier. Barbie benefited from the fact that his C.I.C. handlers kept changing while he remained in place, so that, in some cases, he came to know more about the C.I.C.'s espionage operations than they did. Barbie told Dabringhaus, for instance, that his main activities were penetrating the German Communist Party in Augsburg and French intelligence in Baden-Baden, in the French zone. ''Why are we spying on the French?'' a puzzled Dabringhaus asked. ''They're our allies.'' Barbie patiently explained that in the 1947 National Assembly elections, the Communists had won 35 percent of the vote, and that there were Communists at every level of the French Government.
Dabringhaus moved Barbie from Memmingen to a C.I.C. ''safe house'' in a suburb of Augsburg. There, Dabringhaus found an office in the same building as the municipal swimming pool, where comings and goings would not be noticed. Barbie and Kurt Merk were there every morning at 9, writing reports.
Sitting by the side of his pool in Sarasota, Fla., Dabringhaus, a 70-year-old retired college professor, remembered Barbie as a ferret-faced man about 5 feet, 9 inches tall, with thin lips, a scar on his right cheek and eyes so dark brown they verged on black. He looked to Dabringhaus like a shoe salesman, though he spoke German in a clipped, military manner.
Dabringhaus recalls that on one occasion, a Communist recruited by Barbie took them to a party meeting in the back of a beer hall. They were sitting around tables smoking, and Dabringhaus was about to crush his butt in an ashtray when Barbie poked him in the ribs - the others were carefully extinguishing their cigarettes and putting them back in their pockets, to be used as currency. (In those days, one could take two cartons of Camels to Berlin and return with a silver table service for 12.) At the end of the meeting, when the group rose and sang the Internationale, Dabringhaus was surprised to see that Barbie knew the words and was energetically singing: ''Arise ye prisoners of starvation.''
Dabringhaus remembers Barbie pressing him for American dollars to cover travel expenses. As time went on, the situation between Barbie and Kurt Merk seemed to deteriorate over the allotment of funds; Barbie was getting cash, while Merk was being paid in cigarettes and coffee. ''If the Americans found out what Barbie did in France,'' Dabringhaus remembers Merk telling him, ''the atrocities he committed - not even your General Eisenhower could protect him.''
''What was he doing?'' Dabringhaus asked.
''He was the head of an Einsatzkommando with 120 men,'' Merk said. ''I once visited him in Montluc prison in Lyons, and in the basement he had some French Resistance fighters hanging by their thumbs, day after day, until they died.'' Dabringhaus reported what Merk had told him to his superiors in Munich. No trace of his report has survived, but he says he was told: ''Don't get excited. We'll turn him over when he's no longer useful.''
''At first, I was glad to work with Barbie,'' Dabringhaus recalls. But as time passed, he grew to dislike his arrogance and bragging. ''I was the best interrogator in the German army,'' Barbie would say. Once, after watching Dabringhaus interrogate an illegal border crosser, he said: ''God, you spent an hour with that guy? I would have had him talking in 15 minutes.''
In October, in keeping with the pattern of rotation so advantageous to Barbie, Dabringhaus was reassigned after serving as handler for only four months. In Frankfurt, Major Browning, the operations officer, was still urging the Munich region to drop both Barbie and Merk. In April 1949, after three years as an agent, Merk was dropped, but Barbie was allowed to stay on, focusing on Communist Party activities. (Merk moved to the Berlin area, where he found other United States intelligence work. He died a bizarre death in 1951, at the age of 36, as the result of a wasp sting that led to a lung embolism.) BARBIE'S HAN-dler now was Eugene Kolb, who had interrogated German POWs as a C.I.C. officer during the Battle of the Bulge. Kolb found Barbie shrewd and competent; he spoke freely of his work in Lyons against the Resistance, but he impressed Kolb as being ''clean.''
In May, a clipping from a Paris newspaper, with the headline ''Arrest Barbie Our Torturer,'' was brought to Major Browning's attention. ''During the Occupation,'' the article said, ''he burned his victims with an acetylene torch to make them confess during interrogations which lasted more than 48 hours.'' Browning showed the clipping to his commanding officer, Col. David Erskine, who dismissed it. Kolb, like Erskine, did not give the article much weight. The sources were former Resistance fighters, most of them left-wing if not outright Communists, and from what he knew of Barbie, the use of a blowtorch was not in character. Kolb had watched Barbie conduct interrogations with Czech couriers and other suspects and had admired his skillful technique - his way of repeating the same question and then pouncing on a slightly different answer; his pretense of knowledge (''Come on, we already know this''); his adroit use of threats (''Tell us now and you can go home; if you don't, we're going to be here quite a while'').
Major Browning, however, ordered Kolb to interrogate Barbie about the article, which Kolb did. Kolb reported on July 20, 1949, that Barbie had been ''discreetly interrogated . . . with negative results.'' Barbie, Kolb went on, ''is intelligent and skillful enough to accomplish a successful interrogation by use of his head and consequently did not require the use of his hands.'' The irony was that Kolb, who felt remorse for once having used his fists on a German POW during the Battle of the Bulge, could not bring himself to believe that Barbie, the more experienced interrogator, was capable of torture.
Although Kolb's report silenced Major Browning, after the publication of the Paris article, Barbie was dropped from C.I.C. records as a precaution. In every practical respect, however, his situation remained the same. He continued to live in the C.I.C. safe house in Augsburg as a paid informant.
IN THE SUMMER OF 1949, meanwhile, pressure in France to find Barbie was mounting.
Resistance groups clamored for his arrest.
Newspaper articles charged that Barbie was being shielded by American intelligence in the American zone, and in March 1950, the French asked for Barbie's extradition.
The Barbie case now entered diplomatic channels.
At a May 4 meeting at C.I.C. headquarters in Frankfurt, Colonel Erskine decided that Barbie should not be placed in the hands of the French. Once more, events conspired to aid Barbie, for Major Browning, who would have objected to the decision, had been replaced as operations officer by a new man who was not familiar with the case.
Again, the reasoning was that Barbie knew too much. As Eugene Kolb wrote in one report: ''Due to his long association with C.I.C., Subject [ Barbie ] knows more about C.I.C. targets, modus operandi, etc., than most C.I.C. agents. Subject also knows the identity of most KPD [ German Communist Party ] penetration sources used by this office, due to the fact that he either handled those sources . . . or because he recruited or turned such sources.'' Kolb was telling headquarters that if Barbie were turned over to the Communist-infiltrated French intelligence services, their first question would be: ''What did you do for the C.I.C.?'' His answers would rapidly find their way back to Moscow - the Moscow of Stalin and Beria. The sources would be blown, and the informants would be tracked by the Russians and killed.
A curious situation arose, in which the C.I.C. single-handedly blocked Barbie's extradition by professing not to know where he was. By this time, the State Department was getting ''strong notes'' from the French demanding that Barbie be surrendered. The American Embassy in Paris was embarrassed by charges that the Americans were harboring him. The United States High Commission for Germany, under John J. McCloy, suddenly had the Barbie case dumped in its lap. But when the high commission queried the C.I.C. about Barbie's whereabouts, the C.I.C. said his employment had been discontinued in May 1949 and that his whereabouts were unknown. In fact, Barbie remained in Augsburg through the summer and fall of 1950, recruiting Communist agents and conducting interrogations.
But the C.I.C. had painted itself into a corner. With the extradition process underway, if Barbie was picked up, the deception would be found out. Barbie became, in C.I.C. parlance, a ''difficult disposal case.''
Differing solutions were proposed, including one in which Barbie would be given a severance payment and new identity papers and sent to a refugee camp as an illegal border crosser. Another proposal was that he be summarily dumped and left to find a way out of Augsburg on his own. One thing was clear: The C.I.C. could no longer be his protector.
At length, the C.I.C. decided to use a ''rat line'' developed by its unit in Austria to spirit compromised agents and defectors from the Eastern bloc to South America, via Italy. This procedure was as complicated as it was illegal, involving several sets of forged travel documents, visas to a Latin American country - Bolivia, in Barbie's case - and the cooperation - unwitting, in this instance - of such agencies as the Red Cross and the Allied Combined Travel Board. The Italian connection was a Vatican-based Croatian priest, Father Krunoslav Dragonovic, who had good contacts with the Red Cross and the Catholic Welfare Organization. (Dragonovic's pro-Fascist background was overlooked in the interest of successful operation of the rat line; his sympathies were with the pro-Nazi Croats who had set up a puppet state during the war - massacring the Serbs and the Jews - and who were now being rounded up by Tito.) As the C.I.C. arranged for his escape, Barbie remained in Augsburg, learning Spanish and, perhaps, congratulating himself on having so thoroughly outfoxed his naive American handlers. Despite the objections of Major Browning and others, he had managed to work steadily for American intelligence for four years, experience he had succeeded in parlaying into a safe passage out.
On Feb. 21, the Combined Travel Board issued to one Klaus Altmann a temporary travel document ''in lieu of passport for stateless persons,'' valid for travel to Austria and Italy. The Italian Consulate in Munich gave him a transit visa for travel through Italy. On March 9, two C.I.C. agents accompanied Barbie; his wife, Regina; their 9-year-old daughter, Ute, and 4-year-old son, Klaus-Georg, by train from Augsburg to Genoa, arriving March 12. There, the family waited in a hotel room while Father Dragonovic obtained their immigrant visas to Bolivia and their substitute passports from the International Committee of the Red Cross.
On his visa application, ''Altmann'' listed his profession as ''mechanic,'' and his resources as ''U.S. $850.'' He added: ''I plan to reside in Bolivia indefinitely.'' Barbie and his family boarded the Italian vessel Corrientes, bound for Buenos Aires, on March 23, joining what Marcel Ophuls has called ''the diaspora of the torturers.'' Then Barbie and his family took a train to La Paz, Bolivia. He remained in South America for 32 years. IT WAS NOT UNTIL 1983, after publication of the Department of Justice's report, that the United States formally apologized to France for having engineered the escape of its No. 1 war criminal.
During those years, Barbie led a normal businessman's life as a member of La Paz's large German colony, under the protection of successive Bolivian regimes. Normal, except for the fact that he was an unrepentant Nazi, who in 1966 was expelled from the German Club in La Paz for shouting ''Heil Hitler'' in the presence of the West German ambassador.
In France, the generation that had known the war did not forget Barbie, and when it became known in 1983 that he had finally been extradited, thanks to the cooperation of the first civilian Government in Bolivia in many years, and would stand trial on the very ground where the blood of his victims had been spilled, there was rejoicing. But there was also an uneasy feeling, which helps to explain why it has taken four years to bring him to trial.
The Socialist Government of Francois Mitterrand was in no hurry to stage a trial that might compromise friendly politicians, and under the system of the juge d'instruction, it can take a prosecutor years to prepare a case. Motions from Barbie's headline-grabbing lawyer, Jacques Verges, further delayed matters. (Verges, pro-Palestinian, anti-Zionist, recently defended the Lebanese terrorist leader Georges Ibrahim Abdallah in a trial in Paris that, despite his efforts, ended with Abdallah's conviction on charges of complicity to murder.) The uneasiness in the Barbie case stems from the likelihood that the trial will tear France apart. Barbie, according to his lawyer, won't go down alone, but will turn his trial into the trial of all France. The extent of French involvement in Nazi crimes is, in fact, such that 90 percent of the more than 76,000 Jews deported during the German occupation were arrested by the French police, not the Germans. When the trial begins, the circle will close, with Barbie standing in the dock as both accused and accuser.
Ted Morgan, whose most recent book is ''F.D.R. - A Biography,'' is covering the Barbie trial for this magazine