LYON (May. 10)
The trial of Klaus Barbie, the “butcher of Lyon,” will open here Monday in a blaze of global media attention unprecedented for this city of 457,000 in east central France which he ruled by terror 45 years ago as the regional Gestapo chief.
The apparent world-wide fascination with this trial, however, does not stem from the nature of Barbie’s crimes. The litany of Nazi horrors has been unfolded many times, in many places over the past four decades; Barbie’s contribution to the Holocaust was smaller in scope and scale than many others. He was, after all, only a local chieftain.
What has drawn 800 accredited reporters from all over the world to Lyon this week — five American television networks, three from West Germany, two from Japan, three French, one from Turkey and at least a dozen more from other countries — are stunning revelations expected about collaboration with the Nazis of high-ranking Frenchmen, including members of the resistance, and the American role in protecting Barbie after the war and spiriting him to safe haven in Bolivia where he lived as a prosperous businessman until expelled in 1983.
Barbie’s lawyer, Jacques Verges, a fiercely controversial maverick, described as “brilliant” by some, a past master of media manipulation by others, has promised to reveal “new names, new facts,” linking highly respected persons, many still living, with Barbie’s Gestapo activities.
There is, in addition, the suspenseful drama of confrontation, not only in the courtroom, but already building up in the streets between Holocaust survivors and neo-Nazi activists for whom the “butcher of Lyon” is a hero.
On the eve of the trial, members of the Jewish community and of various associations of deportees, joined by Holocaust survivors and prosecuting attorneys representing the families of victims, made a tragic pilgrimage to Izieu, a village southeast of Lyon, where 44 Jewish children were arrested at an orphanage and deported to the gas chambers of Auschwitz at Barbie’s orders.
The pilgrimage also visited the Jewish community building in Lyon and then stood with bowed heads at the local prison and tobacco factory, buildings used by the Gestapo for torture. Jews and non-Jews alike took part in the silent demonstration.
In another part of Lyon, several hundred neo-Nazis gathered to chant “Barbie is innocent” and to sing Nazi wartime marches. Thousands of letters, some claiming the Holocaust was a hoax, others brazenly threatening prosecution lawyers with “just retribution,” have been circulating in Lyon for days before the trial.
As Marck Halter, the French Jewish writer, author of the international best-seller, “The Book of Abraham,” and Holocaust survivor, remarked, “The trial is a must, but it runs the risk of turning into a catastrophe.”
FORMAL CHARGES AGAINST BARBIE
Barbie will be formally charged with “crimes against humanity” for which the maximum penalty is life imprisonment. He is 73. The charges are based on the deportations from Izieu; the arrest and deportation of 86 Jews in a raid on the Jewish community offices in February 1943; and the organization of the last convoy of deportees from the city while Allied armies battered at its gates.
Barbie is also charged with arrests, maltreatment of prisoners, torture and deportation to certain death in hundreds of cases.
Barbie was taken into custody in January 1983 after his ouster from Bolivia at a time when the rightwing military junta was briefly displaced by a civilian regime. He has been incarcerated at the Lyon prison, the same one used by the Gestapo, for four years. During that period, trial dates were announced and then postponed. Some observers believed the French were reluctant to place Barbie in the prisoner’s dock for what he might reveal about France under the collaborationist Vichy regime.
VOWS A SCANDALOUS EXPOSE
Verges has vowed a scandalous expose. The Gestapo and pro-German French militia archives found after the war disclosed a revolting record. While many of the French Jews who survived owe their lives to the humanity and courage of their non-Jewish neighbors, the archives record over a million denunciations against Jews and resistance fighters.
Verges is expected to use these documents to shatter the myth of a uniformly brave and united France opposed to the German occupation. He may also try to raise the case of Jean Moulin, France’s wartime resistance leader who was betrayed to the Gestapo by some of his associates and died under torture. If the court prevents him from entering those documents, Verges said “I shall do so on the court steps in front of the television cameras.”
His revelations could also embarrass the United States. Barbie worked for American military intelligence in Germany during the immediate postwar years. He and other Nazi war criminals were recruited for their alleged knowledge of Communists as the cold war between East and West began almost the moment the war against Hitler ended.
It is believed that Verges may try to put on the stand the American secret services to expose their amoral use of Barbie; and pro-Western Latin American dictators as well. Barbie served as advisor to at least two Presidents of Bolivia.
Verges himself has long been a favorite media subject. He gives it what it wants. (Recently he posed in a bubble bath for Paris Match). He has built a reputation for defending reprehensible “lost causes.”
His clients included the notorious Hilarion Capucci, the Greek Catholic Archbishop of Jerusalem who served a prison term in Israel for smuggling arms to terrorists. Last winter he defended a Lebanese terrorist, Ibrahim Abdullah, who was charged with masterminding a wave of bombings in Paris last fall.
Barbie himself, arrogant, unrepentant, paces in his cell. The few outsiders who have seen him say he is as defiant as he was when arrested four years ago. He is also reported in poor health.
PRECAUTIONARY MEASURES TAKEN
Meanwhile, as the climactic opening of the trial approaches, the city’s monumental Palais de La Justice has been renovated for the occasion. A special hall has been built to accommodate the hundreds of journalists, victims’ families and a small army of prosecution lawyers and court clerks.
Barbie will sit in a dock protected by bulletproof glass. He will face nine jurors and the three magistrates who will preside at the trial. He will travel from prison to court and back each day in a specially built armored car.
The trial is expected to last 8-10 weeks. It will hear 93 witnesses for the prosecution, the most notable perhaps being Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel and Simone Veil, former President of the Parliament of Europe. Both are Auschwitz survivors.