Even by the low standards of Nazi officers, Klaus Barbie was a monster. He earned the sobriquet the ‘Butcher of Lyon’ for torturing French prisoners when he was stationed in the city. After World War II, instead of being executed as a war criminal, Barbie was used as a CIA ‘asset,’ and the American intelligence agency helped him escape to South America.
Barbie the Nazi
Klaus Barbie was born in Bad Godesberg, Germany in 1913 and suffered abuse at the hands of his father who served in World War I. A twist of fate changed his life completely in 1933. He was supposed to become an academic, but when his father and brother died in the same year, Barbie changed direction and ultimately joined the Nazi labor service while unemployed. In 1935, he became a member of the SS security service before officially joining the Nazi Party in 1937.
He was assigned to Amsterdam in 1942 after the Germans occupied the Netherlands, but switched to Dijon and then Lyon in November of that year. It was here where Barbie’s infamy grew as he took pleasure in brutally torturing captured French prisoners, including children. Barbie’s biggest achievement was arresting one of the leaders of the Resistance, Jean Moulin. In 1943, he received the Iron Cross First Class for his activities in France. Barbie also deported a group of Jewish children to Auschwitz in 1944.
Like many other Nazi ranking officers, Barbie went on the run in 1945 when it was clear the Germans would lose the war. Details about his initial capture are unclear (it is suggested the British recruited him first in 1947), but instead of facing prosecution for war crimes, Barbie was instead used as an agent by the U.S. Army Counterintelligence Corps (CIC). Historians believe Barbie was directly responsible for up to 14,000 deaths, yet the United States decided to use him and other members of the Nazi Party to help them fight communism.
The French had sentenced Barbie to death for war crimes, and once they found out he was in American hands, they appealed to the U.S. to hand him over for execution. Apparently, the U.S. High Commissioner in Germany, John McCloy, refused. It is alleged that the CIC helped Barbie flee to Bolivia in 1951 and gave him a new identity where he became known as Klaus Altmann. It isn’t known why the CIC took this course of action. Perhaps the agency was suspicious of alleged communist sympathies within the French Government, or maybe it was embarrassed by their decision to recruit him. Whatever the reason, it was a disastrous mistake, as their ‘asset’ eventually assisted in the illegal drug explosion in South America.