May 11

This Day in History

General Interest

May 11, 1987:

Butcher of Lyon on trial

Klaus Barbie, the former Nazi Gestapo chief of German-occupied Lyon, France, goes on trial in Lyon more than four decades after the end of World War II. He was charged with 177 crimes against humanity.

As chief of Nazi Germany's secret police in Lyon, Barbie sent 7,500 French Jews and French Resistance partisans to concentration camps, and executed some 4,000 others. Among other atrocities, Barbie personally tortured and executed many of his prisoners. In 1943, he captured Jean Moulin, the leader of the French Resistance, and had him slowly beaten to death. In 1944, Barbie rounded up 44 young Jewish children and their seven teachers hiding in a boarding house in Izieu and deported them to the Auschwitz extermination camp. Of the 51, only one teacher survived. In August 1944, as the Germans prepared to retreat from Lyon, he organized one last deportation train that took hundreds of people to the death camps.

Barbie returned to Germany, and at the end of the war burned off his SS identification tattoo and assumed a new identity. With former SS officers, he engaged in underground anti-communist activity and in June 1947 surrendered himself to the U.S. Counter-Intelligence Corps (CIC) after the Americans offered him money and protection in exchange for his intelligence services. Barbie worked as a U.S. agent in Germany for two years, and the Americans shielded him from French prosecutors trying to track him down. In 1949, Barbie and his family were smuggled by the Americans to South America.

Assuming the name of Klaus Altmann, Barbie settled in Bolivia and continued his work as a U.S. agent. He became a successful businessman and advised the military regimes of Bolivia. In 1971, the oppressive dictator Hugo Banzer Suarez came to power, and Barbie helped him set up brutal internment camps for his many political opponents. During his 32 years in Bolivia, Barbie also served as an officer in the Bolivian secret police, participated in drug-running schemes, and founded a rightist death squad. He regularly traveled to Europe, and even visited France, where he had been tried in absentia in 1952 and 1954 for his war crimes and sentenced to death.

In 1972, the Nazi hunters Serge Klarsfeld and Beatte Kunzel discovered Barbie's whereabouts in Bolivia, but Banzer Suarez refused to extradite him to France. In the early 1980s, a liberal Bolivian regime came to power and agreed to extradite Barbie in exchange for French aid. On January 19, 1983, Barbie was arrested, and on February 7 he arrived in France. The statute of limitations had expired on his in-absentia convictions from the 1950s; he would have to be tried again. The U.S. government formally apologized to France for its conduct in the Barbie case later that year.

Legal wrangling, especially between the groups representing his victims, delayed his trial for four years. Finally, on May 11, 1987, the "Butcher of Lyon," as he was known in France, went on trial for his crimes against humanity. In a courtroom twist unimaginable four decades earlier, Barbie was defended by three minority lawyers--an Asian, an African, and an Arab--who made the dramatic case that the French and the Jews were as guilty of crimes against humanity as Barbie or any other Nazi. Barbie's lawyers seemed more intent on putting France and Israel on trial than in proving their client's innocence, and on July 4, 1987, he was found guilty. For his crimes, the 73-year-old Barbie was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison, France's highest punishment. He died of cancer in a prison hospital in 1991.

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