Barbie Is Tried for Nazi War Crimes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After living for years in South America, Klaus Barbie, who served as head of the Nazi Gestapo in Lyon, France, during World War II, was extradited to France, where he was tried and convicted of crimes against humanity.

Summary of Event

Early in World War II, German armies overran northern France, forcing the government of Marshal Philippe Pétain Pétain, Philippe to sign an armistice pact with the Nazi regime. Under this armistice, northern and western France remained under German military occupation while Pétain’s government, relocated from Paris to Vichy, observed military neutrality in the war but retained authority over the southeastern part of the country. In 1942, in response to Allied military successes in North Africa, German and Italian forces swept southward through Vichy France, eventually bringing the entire national territory under Nazi occupation. War crimes trials;World War II Butcher of Lyon Nazi war crimes [kw]Barbie Is Tried for Nazi War Crimes (May 11, 1987) [kw]Nazi War Crimes, Barbie Is Tried for (May 11, 1987) [kw]War Crimes, Barbie Is Tried for Nazi (May 11, 1987) [kw]Crimes, Barbie Is Tried for Nazi War (May 11, 1987) War crimes trials;World War II Butcher of Lyon Nazi war crimes [g]Europe;May 11, 1987: Barbie Is Tried for Nazi War Crimes[06480] [g]France;May 11, 1987: Barbie Is Tried for Nazi War Crimes[06480] [c]Terrorism, atrocities, and war crimes;May 11, 1987: Barbie Is Tried for Nazi War Crimes[06480] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;May 11, 1987: Barbie Is Tried for Nazi War Crimes[06480] Barbie, Klaus Klarsfeld, Serge Vergès, Jacques Truche, Pierre

Wherever German forces consolidated control, the official agencies of the German government and of the Nazi Party quickly set up operations. The most notorious of these were the black-shirted “defense echelon,” or SS (Schutzstaffel), SS (Schutzstaffel) and the infamous state secret police, the Gestapo. Gestapo Klaus Barbie served as head of the Gestapo in the French city of Lyon from the date of the German invasion, November, 1942, through 1944. During this period, he was responsible for the deaths of some four thousand French citizens and the deportation of some seventy-five hundred others, including women and children, mostly to their deaths. His personal involvement in torture, his reputation for brutality and sadism, especially in the treatment of Jews and French Resistance fighters, and his forced deportation of forty-four Jewish children, ages three to thirteen, to the Auschwitz death camp Auschwitz death camp earned him the nickname of “Butcher of Lyon.”

Under traditional rules and laws of war, the establishment of military security in occupied territory often requires the occupying forces to maintain order and to conduct ordinary administrative business. In addition, the occupying administration legitimately may be required to execute a counterinsurgency against local resistance fighters. In occupied France, the collection of intelligence regarding and eventual neutralization of the Resistance fell largely to the Gestapo. This sort of counterinsurgency activity is itself bound by certain rules and norms, codified in international treaties such as the Geneva Convention. Among these norms are rules regarding respect for the human rights of civilians and noncombatants, the treatment of prisoners and incarcerated civilians, and prohibition of torture and other forms of physical or mental abuse.

Barbie was directly and personally involved in the violation of these norms. His crimes included supervision of and participation in the torture, sometimes to death, of prisoners during interrogation, and the execution of captured civilians. These tortures included protracted beatings to extract information, suspension of prisoners by the thumbs until death, extended immersion in ice water to the point of near drowning, flaying and subsequent application of ammonia to the wounds, sexual tortures, and the use of spiked manacles. Sometimes victims were tortured in the presence of their family members. Such acts are considered criminal violations of laws of war under both international and municipal law, and they fall under the jurisdiction of both military tribunals and civilian courts. Barbie was convicted in absentia of these crimes in 1952 and 1954 and was twice sentenced to death.

Klaus Barbie just before the start of the trial on May 11, 1987.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Following the German defeat in the war, however, Barbie was able to exploit his knowledge of French and other European intelligence sources to render himself useful to the American occupying forces. The U.S. government at the time was preoccupied with the threat of communism in France and elsewhere. During the occupation, French communists had been at the heart of the Resistance, and in the context of the emerging Cold War, U.S. intelligence agencies feared the possible influence of these communist heroes in postwar French politics. Barbie’s extensive files on and knowledge about communist networks, gathered during his counterinsurgency efforts against the Resistance, provided the bargaining chips he needed to ensure his safety from prosecution for his war crimes. With the help of U.S. intelligence agencies, he was spirited from Europe and allowed to resettle in Peru under an assumed name, Klaus Altmann. He later moved to Bolivia, where he remained safe from extradition back to France. After several years, the statute of limitations ran out on his sentences in France.

In Peru and Bolivia, Barbie was involved in local profascist activities, drug trafficking, and financial swindles. He served as a lieutenant colonel in the Bolivian army and was involved in the torture and killing of persons opposed to the Bolivian military government. He developed close ties with local intelligence and police agencies affiliated with successive military governments and assisted them in establishing concentration camps for opponents of the regime. He also sold arms to international drug traffickers, some of whom were affiliated with South American intelligence and security agencies. When these military regimes were replaced in the 1980’s with democratic governments, Barbie’s police agency contacts could no longer protect him from extradition, and he was deported to France in February, 1983.

Amid heavy publicity, Barbie was tried in a French court for “crimes against humanity”; the trial began on May 11, 1987. The specific crimes for which he was convicted included ordering and participating in the torture and execution of hundreds of Jews and Resistance fighters from November, 1942, to 1944, and ordering the deportation of hundreds of French Jews and Resistance fighters to the Auschwitz death camp. The Nazis had initially set up concentration camps with the intent of using the prisoners as slave labor, but they later employed many of these camps in an effort to exterminate systematically the entire population of European Jews as well as others—including Gypsies, communists, and homosexuals—deemed by the Nazis to be either socially corruptive elements or threats to the Nazi vision of world Aryan supremacy. The name given by the Nazis to this campaign of purification by extermination was the “final solution.” The program was deemed genocidal, and thus a crime against humanity, by postwar international legal tribunals. Barbie’s war crimes were considered to be “crimes against humanity” under French law because they were a part of this “final solution.”

Barbie’s defense attorney, Jacques Vergès, sought to discredit some of the prosecution’s witnesses and raised the issue of atrocities committed by Israel, by France in Algeria, and by the United States in Vietnam to suggest that his client was being used as a scapegoat to expiate the imperialist and colonialist crimes of Europeans in the Third World. Barbie himself admitted fighting a vigorous campaign against the Resistance but denied participating directly in the “final solution.” He excused his crimes as the products of a war context and argued that he simply had been following orders and policies dictated by his superiors. He argued that laws are enforced only by the victors in war, and that he was being prosecuted because his country lost the war. He was nevertheless convicted, and, on July 3, 1987, he was sentenced to life imprisonment. He died of cancer four years later, at the age of seventy-seven.

The specific crimes for which Barbie was convicted stemmed from three separate incidents and several individual cases. In total, 340 separate charges were filed against him; he was found guilty of all. The charges included having participated in the torture and execution or deportation to their deaths of some 60 French Resistance fighters and individual Jews; organizing the roundup and deportation to their deaths of 86 Jews from a French Jewish organization office in February, 1943; arranging a last-minute death convoy of 650 people, the majority of whom were Jewish women and children, just before the liberation of Lyon by Allied troops; and the deportation to their deaths in Auschwitz gas chambers of 44 Jewish children and 7 adults from the Izieu home for children outside Lyon.


The life in exile, arrest, trial, and conviction of Klaus Barbie highlighted several human rights issues in addition to those brought back to the surface by revelations of his crimes. Barbie was convicted both of war crimes (in 1952 and 1954) and of crimes against humanity (in 1987). One of the most important human rights breakthroughs of the twentieth century was the recognition that individuals are criminally and legally responsible for their own actions and decisions even when following orders or carrying out prescribed policies. This is true in wartime as well as peacetime. Soldiers and officials have a right and a duty to refuse illegal orders.

Barbie’s defense, that he was only following prescribed policies, is no longer recognized as a legitimate defense against accusations of war crimes. The establishment of international human rights tribunals, the legal enforcement of war crimes codes in national civilian and military courts, and the incorporation, through treaties and other mechanisms, of internationally recognized standards of human rights into the legal codes of most nations have dramatically reduced the force of the argument that only war victors enforce war crimes laws. The inculcation into the members of the world’s armed forces of such central human rights notions was provoked largely by the obvious inhumanity of the particular crimes perpetrated by Nazis such as Klaus Barbie.

Barbie’s trial also underscored the nature of criminal participation in crimes against humanity, especially the crime of genocide (that is, the intended extermination of an entire people). Barbie’s case reinforced earlier judgments that even simple active cooperation in a genocidal program, such as ordering deportations to death camps, can constitute criminal behavior.

In addition, Barbie’s case raised disturbing issues regarding the willingness of postwar Western governments, especially that of the United States, to condone or overlook even horrible human rights violations by their clients and human “assets.” Not only had Barbie been employed by the U.S. postwar occupying forces, but he had also been smuggled out of France and hidden by human rights-violating Latin American governments that were themselves sustained directly by the United States as part of Cold War regional policy. Barbie’s continued activities in exile illustrated the international collaboration among right-wing movements and governments concerned with stopping communism no matter what human rights cost needed to be paid and underscored the tremendous costs of the Cold War for human rights on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

Finally, the Barbie case resurrected long-standing guilt feelings in European countries over their own populations’ complicity in the Nazis’ genocidal program against the Jews, as it became clear during the trial that many local citizens of Lyon had either cooperated or collaborated with Barbie’s Gestapo—although many others resisted, some paying with their lives. War crimes trials;World War II Butcher of Lyon Nazi war crimes

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bower, Tom. Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyons. New York: Pantheon, 1984. Provides a good general introduction to and overview of the Barbie case. Covers the basic issues and facts well.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Finkielkraut, Alain. Remembering in Vain: The Klaus Barbie Trial and Crimes Against Humanity. Translated by Roxanne Lapidus with Sima Godfrey. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992. Examination of Klaus Barbie’s trial by a French reporter who covered the case. Includes glossary and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kahn, Annette. Why My Father Died: A Daughter Confronts Her Family’s Past at the Trial of Klaus Barbie. Translated by Anna Cancogni. New York: Summit Books, 1991. Disturbing and moving personal account by the daughter of a Jewish French Resistance leader who was executed under Barbie only a few months before the liberation of France by Allied forces. Traces the human impact of the occupation through the postwar era.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morgan, Ted. An Uncertain Hour: The French, the Germans, the Jews, the Barbie Trial, and the City of Lyon, 1940-45. New York: Arbor House/William R. Morrow, 1990. Presents an informative general chronicle of the Barbie case and the impact of the trial in France. Contains much personal and anecdotal information and testimony.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Paris, Erna. Unhealed Wounds: France and the Klaus Barbie Affair. New York: Grove Press, 1986. Places the Barbie affair in the context of the evolution of the history of French political factions, especially the ideological divisions between Left and Right that date back before the Revolution, and shows how the trial of Barbie led to the resurfacing and redefinition of old political divisions. The author is a Canadian journalist who lived for a decade in France as a French citizen and knows the country’s political secrets.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Russell, Lord of Liverpool. The Scourge of the Swastika: A Short History of Nazi War Crimes. London: Greenhill Books, 2002. Well-documented and concise survey of German war crimes during World War II. The author served in both world wars and was a legal adviser to war crime prosecutors.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ryan, Allen A. Klaus Barbie and the United States Government: A Report to the Attorney General of the United States. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, 1983. Definitive report by the U.S. Justice Department lawyer assigned to document the postwar ties between American intelligence operatives and Klaus Barbie. Clearly demonstrates the U.S. government’s role in arranging Barbie’s escape from Europe despite French efforts to apprehend him and Barbie’s role in providing anti-Soviet and anticommunist intelligence for occupying forces. Ryan’s excellent research led to an official apology by the U.S. government to France.

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