Tuesday, September 25, 2007

September 25

In the pantheon of sadists who emerged from the second World War, the SS officer Klaus Barbie was among the worst. In his capacity as head of the Gestapo in German-occupied occupied Lyon, France, Barbie oversaw the interrogation, torture, deportation and murder of thousands of French civilians.

When he arrived at Lyon in 1942, Barbie was tasked with breaking the Resistance and liquidating the city of its Jewish population. Aided by right-wing French citizens who deplored Jews and communists with equal relish, Barbie settled into his mission with a zeal that had already made him notable within the ranks of the SS. While serving in his previous post in Amsterdam, for instance, Barbie had personally executed two ice cream peddlers, one of whom he bludgeoned to death with an ashtray.

In France, Klaus Barbie presided over the torture and murder of Jean Moulin, one of the great leaders of the Resistance; his men also captured nearly four dozen Jewish children who had found refuge in Izlea, a small village near Lyon. The children, whose location was disclosed by a French informant, were seized while drinking their morning chocolat and immediately shipped to the concentration camp in Drancy, where all of them perished in the ovens. Those two episodes were simply the of notorious of his crimes. More numerous, of course, were the mundane, daily atrocities that turned Barbie into a human monster. His unit’s police work was defined by “reinforced interrogation” techniques, carried out in the appropriately named Hotel Terminus. There, members -- alleged or real -- of the Resistance were beaten mercilessly in the interest of gathering intelligence; when physical violence (including rape) did not work, detainees were sometimes left alone with the mutilated bodies of previous “suspects.” Barbie himself participated directly and enthusiastically in the proceedings. He often brought his pet cat with him.

As one of Barbie’s victims recalled later,
[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.
As Vichy France collapsed, Barbie contracted a venereal disease that quite likely saved his life. While Lyon fell and Barbie’s associates were captured, the Gestapo chief himself was bound homeward for treatment.

After the war, Barbie was put to use by the British as well as by the United States, whose CIA helped the war criminal escape to Bolivia, where he lived for more than three decades before at last being extradited in 1983. After standing trial for crimes against humanity, Barbie received a conviction and life sentence in 1987. A little more than four years later, on 25 September 1991, Klaus Barbie died of leukemia.

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