January 19

This Day in History

General Interest

Jan 19, 1983:

Butcher of Lyons arrested in Bolivia

Klaus Barbie, the Nazi Gestapo chief of Lyons, France, during the German occupation, is arrested in Bolivia for his crimes against humanity four decades earlier.

As chief of Nazi Germany's secret police in occupied France, Barbie sent thousands of French Jews and French Resistance members to their deaths in concentration camps, while torturing, abusing, or executing many others. After the Allied liberation of France, he fled to Germany, where under an assumed identity he joined other ex-Nazi officials in the formation of an underground anti-communist organization. In 1947, the U.S. Counter-Intelligence Corps (CIC) broke up the organization and arrested its senior members, although Barbie remained at large until the CIC offered him money and protection in exchange for his cooperation in countering Soviet espionage efforts. Barbie worked as a U.S. agent in Germany for two years and in 1949 was smuggled to Bolivia, where he assumed the name of "Klaus Altmann" and continued his work as a U.S. agent.

In addition to his work for the Americans, he performed services for Bolivia's various military regimes, especially that of Hugo "El Petiso" Banzer, who came to power in 1971 and became one of the country's most oppressive leaders. Barbie provided a similar expertise for Banzer as he had for the Nazis, torturing and interrogating political opponents and dispatching many of them to internment camps, where many were executed or died from mistreatment. It was at this time that Nazi hunters Serge Klarsfeld and Beatte Kunzel discovered Barbie's whereabouts, but Banzer refused to extradite him to France. In the early 1980s, a liberal regime came to power in Bolivia and agreed to extradite Barbie in exchange for French aid to the destitute nation. In January 1983, Barbie was arrested, and he arrived in France on February 7.

Legal wrangling, especially between the groups representing his Jewish and French Resistance victims, delayed his trial for four years. Finally, on May 11, 1987, the "Butcher of Lyons," as he was known in France, went on trial for 177 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 were more interested in putting France and Israel on trial than in actually proving their client's innocence, and on July 4, 1987, he was found guilty. For his crimes, Klaus Barbie was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison, France's highest punishment. He died in prison of cancer on September 25, 1991, at the age of 77.

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