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Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Devil's Agent: Life and Crimes of the Nazi Klaus Barbie

The Devil's Agent: Life and Crimes of the Nazi Klaus Barbie was written by my friend and colleague Peter McFarren and Fadrique Iglesias, and published last year in English and Spanish. It was just reviewed by The Times of London. 
Barbie, aka Klaus Altmann ( lived in La Paz, Bolivia for many years and I met him during a chance encounter. I wrote the Introduction to the book. With respect to the copyright holders, I'm copying on this blog what I wrote for the book. 

The Devil's Agent: Life and Crimes of the Nazi Klaus Barbie
Introduction, by John Enders
One afternoon in mid-1982 Luis Arce Gomez, the interior minister in Bolivia’s rightwing military dictatorship led by Gen. Luis Garcia Meza and formerly the regime’s dreaded head of Army intelligence and its secret paramilitary police, left his office for a ceremony at the Army’s ‘Estado Mayor,” or general staff headquarters, inside the Miraflores Army building in central La Paz. It was a ceremony closed to the public and the press, and included all then-current officials of Army intelligence (known as G-2), as well as past officials who had served during the decades following World War II. I had just finished interviewing Arce Gomez, and he invited me to accompany him. The event at Army headquarters was to decorate an ailing, septuagenarian general for his many years of work in the country’s intelligence apparatus. The chiefs of Bolivian intelligence and all its branches were there, as were several less presentable creatures who normally never left the basement of the Interior Ministry, where the torture rooms were located.

       Klaus Barbie, known in Bolivia as Klaus Altmann,  was a guest of honor at this event.
Barbie’s presence in the country, and his role in advising Bolivia’s military and intelligence officers in interrogation techniques and other practices, were widely known and had been for years. He was of great interest to the Nazi hunters in France and Israel.

Arce Gomez introduced me to Barbie as “my so-called instructor.” Then Barbie began talking about the allegations that he had committed crimes against humanity during the time he headed the Gestapo unit in Lyon, France. He ranted against journalists who were attempting to expose him to international publicity, including several who he said had cheated him out of book rights or had otherwise hoodwinked him. He talked openly about his connections to other former Nazis living in the Southern Cone region of South America, without naming them.  

       It was clear then that Barbie felt no remorse for his wartime actions. “I was a man of war in a time of war,” he told me.

       The personal affection and close professional ties between Arce Gomez and Barbie were clear. They had worked together closely over the years, particularly after the military seized power in a July 1980 coup d’etat and during the months of severe and brutal repression against Bolivia’s labor union, campesino and leftist political leaders and journalists that followed.

       Everything comes to an end, however. Eventually, Barbie lost the protection afforded him by his friends in the Bolivian military. At the end of 1982, a liberal democratic regime returned to power in Bolivia and the military leaders who had led the coup, including Arce Gomez and Garcia Meza, were disgraced and eventually jailed. The rest of the army returned to their barracks, where they have remained. All of a sudden, Barbie had nowhere to hide and no one to hide behind. The world knew where he was and who he was, and he had no one to protect him any longer.

       Barbie, after the war, had entered first Argentina and later Bolivia with false documents under the Altmann name, and he lived for many years in relative prosperity and comfort. By the 1970s, however, largely due to investigations by the Klarsfeld brothers, his real identity and whereabouts had become known. France first requested his extradition from Bolivia in 1973.

       Today, Barbie’s activities during World War II, his ties to right-wing military dictatorships in South America and the thugs who ran them, and to the illicit traffic in cocaine are all known.       It has always astonished me that Barbie (and other Nazis) lived freely for so many years in South America, and that even after he was unmasked and France had requested his extradition, it still took a decade to bring him to trial. It wasn’t until 1983 that he was finally returned to France, where he was tried, convicted and sentenced to life in prison, and where he died a pathetic old man in a prison cell in 1991.

Barbie’s ties to military leaders in Bolivia had first paid off during the 1971-78 regime of Gen. Hugo Banzer Suarez, himself a descendant of German immigrants. Banzer ruled Bolivia as an iron-fisted, anti-communist dictator. Not surprisingly, France’s extradition request was denied in 1974 by Bolivia’s military-appointed  Supreme Court. It ruled that Barbie could not be extradited because he was a Bolivian citizen, even though it had clearly been shown that his citizenship was fraudulently obtained.

During the extradition proceedings Barbie spoke to the local press and seemed un-awed by the possibility that he might lose his freedom or his comfortable place in Bolivian society. And comfortable it was. During the 1970s and early 1980s he was regularly seen walking the streets of La Paz, sipping café at his regular corner table at the Club La Paz with a bodyguard and friends. After his extradition was denied in 1974, Barbie later said he had made a deal with Banzer. In exchange for a ruling in his favor, he would keep his mouth shut and keep a low profile. Apparently, he agreed.

In the three decades that have passed since my brief encounter with Barbie in La Paz much has been learned, and published, about how high-level Nazis escaped Germany and resettled in several South American countries after the war. The involvement of Roman Catholic, International Red Cross, U.S. military intelligence and other officials is a dark stain on the history of justice, human rights and the rule of law. Barbie’s postwar connections, the interconnectedness of Nazi networks in South America, and their usefulness to rightwing militaries throughout the continent -- in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay, Bolivia – constitute a shameful chapter in Latin American history.  

With the elaboration of The Devil's Agent: Life and Crimes of the Nazi Klaus Barbie, the extent of those connections, relationships and collaborations is now available. It is for this reason that the book you are reading is unique. The work of Peter McFarren and Fadrique Iglesias is a significant contribution to the historical literature regarding Nazis in South America, and specifically the history of Barbie’s role during the corrupt and brutal rightwing regimes that ruled Bolivia in the 1970s and early 1980s. And it offers a fascinating glimpse inside a fascinating country’s complex social and political fabric.

       How is it possible for a Nazi butcher, on the run, to survive – even thrive – in a foreign land for 35 years? In The Devil's Agent: Life and Crimes of the Nazi Klaus Barbie, the reader will find answers to that vexing question.


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