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Barbie Trial: French Heart of Darkness

July 05, 1987|Paul L. Montgomery | Paul L. Montgomery is an American journalist based in Brussels

LYON, FRANCE — France has never been a country to doubt itself. Through the triumphs and debacles of the centuries, the motto for the French has been "my country, right or wrong."

The trial of Klaus Barbie in this ancient city, the birthplace of the Roman Emperor Claudius 1,997 years ago, was the first war-crimes proceeding in France since 1956. More than that, since the concept of crimes against humanity was introduced into French law in 1945, Barbie is the only person to be tried under it. On Friday he was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. It is nearly 43 years now since the last victim was taken to the Gestapo headquarters Barbie commanded, and then never came home again.

Barbie, of course, is German, but there are those who think that the French reluctance to look back at World War II except in admiration at the Resistance applies to him. As the prosecutor, Pierre Truche, pointed out in his summation two weeks ago, there were 208 people working in Barbie's Gestapo office and only 29 were German SS members. The rest were French collaborators, including some of the most enthusiastic torturers.

There were some in France who believe that the country had lessons to learn from the Barbie trial, and there were many others--probably the majority--who believe that history is a matter of people acting in a certain way at a certain time, with no moral to be drawn from it. In the latter view, those who were not there, or who were not born, have no right to judge.

France is not alone among the countries that would rather forget. There is no country occupied by Nazi Germany that does not hold people who fought or worked for fascism and who now lie about it, beginning with the president of Austria. Estimates are difficult, but it is known that there were at least 860,000 Europeans outside Germany who enlisted to fight in the Waffen-SS, and several million workers who volunteered to help the German war effort. One French historian, regarded as reliable, has said that, for Paris alone in 1944, there were 171,000 Parisians working in Germany and another 420,000 directly employed by the occupier in the city.

The French system of justice, based on the Napoleonic Code, is far from the adversary proceeding of the English system. In its nature, it confirms the judgment of the state rather than raising challenges. As the eight weeks of the Barbie trial unrolled, the sessions each afternoon came to seem more like performances than presentations of information; newspaper accounts read like reviews of a play.

The lobby of the Lyon Palace of Justice, an ungainly classical building on the bank of the Saone, was transformed into Barbie's courtroom with tight rising rows of seats for the hundreds of journalists, dozens of lawyers, clusters of judges and jury. In the French fashion, the lawyers wore black robes and white bibs, the prosecutor and judges red robes with ermine collars. As the wet and chilly European spring turned to hot summer, the place became stifling, everyone sitting elbow to elbow. Two weeks ago, during the summations by the 39 lawyers representing Barbie's victims, so many people had left by midafternoon that the speeches gave off echoes.

Outside the justice palace, in the narrow streets of the old city, tourists peered at the menus in the windows of the famous restaurants. Few tried to penetrate the intricate security to sit in the court. Those who did saw an empty glass box built for Barbie, who chose not to attend. In his prison cell the defendant watched tennis on television until his guards protested and the set was taken away.

It is difficult to say whether Barbie's case has had any long-term effect. He is 73; many of the witnesses against him were even older. A man who was a Hitler youth leader in his teens, a Gestapo commander in his 20s, an associate of neo-Nazi gunmen and drug runners in his old age in Bolivia could incite few feelings of ambiguity.

At the beginning of the trial the prime minister of France, Jacques Chirac, announced that an hour's lesson would be taught in high school history courses on the infamous anti-Jewish laws of the Vichy regime. There is still a furious dispute among historians about whether the laws were forced on Vichy by the Germans or the government elaborated the laws themselves to please their masters. In any event, of the 350,000 Jews living in France before the German invasion, about 90,000 died in the Nazi camps. Almost all the victims were foreign-born Jews; the government protected the French-born.

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