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“The Butcher of Lyon”

On May 11, 1987 nobody was laughing. After four years of legal wrangling, Klaus Barbie, the SS officer in charge of the Gestapo in Lyon, France from November, 1942 to August, 1944, would finally attend his long overdue meeting with justice. There was little doubt that Klaus Barbie, a frail old man sitting in the defendant's box of a French courtroom, was the same Klaus Barbie who had been responsible for thousands of deaths forty years earlier. Of Barbie's hundreds of crimes, including murder, torture, rape, and deportation, only those of the gravest nature, the “crimes against humanity,” would be pursued at the trial. Specifically, Barbie would be tried for his role as a perpetrator of Hitler's Final Solution and the material evidence against him was staggering.

When the trial began, the forty-lawyer prosecution team, which represented Klaus Barbie's myriad victims, opened its argument by reciting a list of Barbie's crimes. The list turned out to be so long that the entire first day of the trial was devoted to its reading. Moreover, the prosecution had scores of witnesses, mainly those who had been tortured by Barbie because he suspected that they were members of the French Resistance or because they were Jewish.

While the prosecution was preparing its witnesses, the defense was preparing its own argument. To defend Barbie, who France already sentenced to death twice, in absentia, would be a daunting and unpopular task, but for a radical lawyer named Jacques Vergès, the Barbie trial was the moment for which he had spent most his entire adult life preparing. Vergès' defensive strategy was in his own words to “atack the prosecution,” and almost as soon as the judges let him speak, he transformed Barbie's trial into a trial of France and of something much greater, history itself.

See also: Alain Finkielkraut, Remembering in Vain: The Klaus Barbie Trial and Crimes Against Humanity Trans. Roxanne Lapidus with Sima Godfrey. (New York, Columbia University Press. 1992.)

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