This Day In History: The Nazi Klaus Barbie Is Arrested (1983)

On this day in history Klaus Barbie, in 1983 the former Nazi Gestapo chief of Lyons, France,  was arrested on charges relating to mass murder and crimes against humanity. Barbie had terrorized Lyons some four decades previous. He was a leading figure in the Nazi regime in occupied France and was personally decorated by Hitler for his role in the capture and killing of prominent French Resistance figures.

Barbie was instrumental in transporting thousands of Jews to concentration camps. Barbie was especially ruthless when it came to the French resistance. He ordered the torture and execution of many French Resistance fighters.  Barbie and his subordinated became notorious for the gruesome tortures they developed to extract information from suspected Resistance fighters.  It has been claimed that he personally tortured many people in the most barbaric ways. Barbie is believed by some experts to be responsible for around 14,000 people.

In 1945, after Germany’s defeat, he hid out in Germany under an assumed name. He later joined a clandestine anti-communist group, but it was soon discovered by Allied intelligence and they broke it up. American intelligence recognized that Barbie could be useful to them and they employed him as an agent. Barbie was given money and protection. He was to work as a US agent in Germany for two years and then in 1949 he used his Nazi connections to escape to Latin America. His relationship with American intelligence did not end. He settled in Bolivia under the assumed name of Klaus Altmann. Barbie was a formidable intelligence operative and the Bolivian government employed him. Bolivia was under several military dictatorships for several decades.

The most notorious Bolivian dictator was  Hugo “El Petiso” Banzer, who came to power in 1971. He was a virulent anti-communist and he needed the expertise of Barbie. Barbie used his experience to help the Bolivian dictator to quell the opposition. Banzer had Barbie help him to set up a series of camps where opponents of the military regime were tortured and killed.

One of the Jewish victims of Barbie

It seemed that the Americans at this time knew all about Barbie, his history, and his activities in Bolivia. However, the American intelligence services were so concerned with communism that they turned a blind eye to him and allowed him to remain free. They recognized that Barbie could be useful to them in preventing a communist revolution in Bolivia.  However, the famous Nazi hunters Serge Klarsfeld and Beatte Kunzel discovered Barbie. France demanded his extradition from Bolivia, but the military dictator  Banzer refused to extradite him to France.

Memorial to victims of Barbie

Barbie was protected by Banzer. In the 1980s there were dramatic changes in Latin America and military regimes handed over power to democratic governments. A new more liberal government in Bolivia had Barbie arrested and had him extradited to France. Paris had influenced the La Paz government’s decision by offering Bolivia one of the world’s poorest countries a generous aid package.  Barbie was sent for trial, but it was delayed for four years because of legal wrangling. Barbie cleverly employed lawyers who argued that Barbie had done no more than what France and Israel had done. This strategy failed and the court found Barbie guilty and sentenced him to life imprisonments and he died in prison at the age of 77 in 1991.

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