The Rat Line

Christopher Driver

By chance, the evening I took this book to bed for the painful reading expected, I jabbed the tooth of a comb down a fingernail and cried out. As a reminder of what Klaus Barbie was about, not just at the Hotel Terminus in Lyon forty years ago but at the Bolivian Joint Chiefs of Staff headquarters in La Paz as late as 1980, the moment served. An inkling of the more enduring wounds for which Barbie was proud to share responsibility can be gathered from Claudine Vegh’s I didn’t say goodbye, a labour of love rather than literature in which the surviving children of French Jewish deportees talk to a psychiatrist who shared their experience: ‘I didn’t have a youth, I no longer have a mother, I have a sister who needs treatment, a father who hasn’t been able to lead a normal life since he came back. An entire existence ruined.’

The Fourth Reich has not, however, been written to sear the sensibilities. A few notorious atrocities – in 1944, the massacres of Jewish and Resistance prisoners at Montluc, the emptying of the Jewish orphanage at IzieuAin, en route for the Auschwitz departure lounge at Drancy – are described with restraint and a few telling details: ‘It was a month before I dared enter the house. On the table I found baskets of bread and 43 bowls with the coffee and milk that nobody had time to drink that morning.’ But after all this time publishers do not pay big advances to teams of investigative journalists for details like those. The Fourth Reich is a book about the present, disclosed by the past for which Klaus Barbie was arrested. Its stage-sets include Italy and Spain, Germany and the Americas; its characters a Croatian Catholic priest called Draganovic and Major Robert d’Aubuisson of Salvador. If British involvement and documentation seem minimal, this may simply be because that famous repository of guilty secrets, the Foreign Office, ‘deliberated for six months, then announced that no papers would be released, on the grounds that events which took place in 1946 might yet endanger national security.’ The authors, by contrast, ‘relied heavily on documents supplied to us by the US Army, the US Justice Department, whose report on Barbie’s connections with the US Counter-intelligence Corps after the war was a seminal source, and, eventually, the CIA’. A lethal American blend of inexperience and realpolitik is rightly blamed for prolonging the life and liberty of Barbie, but at least in Washington, unlike Whitehall, there are enough people who realise that democracies die by non-disclosure.

The story falls into three distinct phases, and it seems reasonable to assume that Isabel Hilton, who covers Latin America for the Sunday Times, dug round the Bolivian period, while Neal Ascherson, an old German hand, accumulated the material about Barbie’s youth in Trier, the ancient city on the Mosel whose venerated rabbi, Adolf Altmann, was further insulted after his death by Barbie’s surely malicious borrowing of that surname for the passport that took him to South America. The central section of the book describes Barbie’s relationship with rival Intelligence officers and organisations in the American Zone of Occupied Germany between 1945 and 1951. Here, with so much depending on the individuals who decided to talk – above all, on the unwilling colláboratrice Andrée Rivez, who has since died – it seems unlikely that the balance of praise and blame has been precisely distributed. Journalists, unlike historians, talk to their subjects and are drawn to some and repelled by others, whether or not their impressions correspond with the roles played at the relevant time.

If Barbie had simply been the ‘butcher of Lyon’, the factotum who committed the murders for which the French are putting him on trial, he would scarcely have been worth a book. When one thinks about his early life, it is almost possible to pity him. He was the son of a rigid, bullying school-teacher, Nikolaus Barbie, whose 1914-18 war wounds could plausibly be blamed for his fits of drunken violence. Klaus Barbie came of age emotionally with the Nazi Party, and does not seem to have left it even in his second childhood. In 1930, aged 16, he was living in a Catholic hostel and attending the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Gymnasium, Karl Marx’s alma mater. The Nazis won 16 per cent of the vote in the Trier elections that year: not enough to frighten the majority party, the Catholic Zentrum, but quite enough to provide the street credibility and clout on which Hitler’s rise to power depended. It was 1 April 1933 before Barbie actually joined the Hitler Youth as one of the ‘Marzgefallenen’ (‘March casualties’, as they came to be called), and by then Hitler was Chancellor, his status legitimated. But some time before that Barbie had begun to worm his way into the secret places of the new apparat, by acting as a schoolboy informer on his Catholic superiors. ‘In his clumsy miming of Nazi jargon there can be sensed the sweatiness, the eager servility of a real convert.’

The Church, in any case, was already divided about the new secular force. Nazi wreckers had broken chairs over heads at Zentrum party meetings – a technique eagerly adopted in London by the friends of Oswald Mosley – but by 1933 the local Catholic bishop, Bornewasser, was eating out of Hitler’s hand. He staged a public showing of the Holy Robe, one of the most famous relics in Catholic Europe, in the regime’s honour and so drew over four hundred thousand foreign visitors into Trier to admire the new-found good manners of the SA. Then, as now, Roman churchmen defied generalisation. It is only fair to set the collusion of Bornewasser against the courage of Cardinal Gerlier in Lyon ten years later. At the height of the terror, Gerlier sheltered the Grand Rabbi of France from the Gestapo, despatched a pastoral letter to churches urging them to extend help and protection to Jews, and was rewarded by a Vichy newspaper’s demand for ‘the head of Gerlier, cardinal, mad Talmudist, traitor to his faith, his country and his race’. There are even now plenty of people in France who have a great deal to fear from the inquisition surrounding Barbie’s forthcoming trial.

After May 1945 Barbie had some trouble, but not much. He knew he would be relatively safe as long as he could keep out of France and out of Amsterdam, his previous posting, where the present authors collected a vivid description from the 80-year-old daughter of one of his victims, General van Tongeren:

Barbie was a small man, with a healthy look and a smooth face. His face was square, but rounded at the corners. The most striking thing about that face was the bitter, tight lips, like a thin slash across his face from which now and then a cutting, sarcastic remark emerged. And his laugh was mocking.

On the run in rubble-strewn post-war Germany, Barbie could scarcely have imagined, even in his most optimistic moments, that he would shortly be employed by the American Counter-intelligence Corps to spy on the French, among others. Officer after officer in CIC, long after they had been forced to admit to themselves that they had hired and up to a point trusted an efficient little war criminal, hid him – often literally – from visitors who had the best of reasons for wanting to interview him.

By 1950 the moment of truth was near. CIC either had to surrender Barbie to the French, with the certain prospect of his telling all he knew in an attempt to save his own skin, or it would have ‘to lie consistently and perhaps continuously to its own supreme authorities, army command in Europe and the US High Commission in Germany’. True to bureaucratic form, a five-man committee in Frankfurt, later supported by the High Commission under John McCloy, chose the latter option. But that deception, too, eventually ran out on them, and they then fell back on a CIC invention, The Rat Line to South America, originally conceived by James Milano and Paul Lyon for the virtuous purpose of rescuing former Allied agents from the rapid fall of the Iron Curtain. The Line was soon controlled by Dr Krunoslav Draganovic: a Croatian priest and scholar, employed by the Red Cross and admired by Pius XII, who was deeply implicated, with other Catholic priests, in the officially-sponsored genocide by Ustase troops of over two million Orthodox Serbs in 1941. ‘ “Paul Lyon found Draganovic,” Milano recalled. “He came to me and said: ‘Jeez, there’s a priest who works for this refugee organisation and is getting hold of all these Red Cross documents’ ... We called him ‘the Good Father’. ” ’ A Red Cross passport, and a priest’s signature to an affidavit swearing that you were a Catholic (and hence an anti-Communist) was all that an emigrating Fascist needed to see him into the New World. By January 1951, Barbie and his family were rapidly learning Spanish, and relearning the faith of their fathers. Bolivia called, and Latin America’s reunion of the damned in La Paz soon blossomed in a skein of imaginatively christened organisations: the Black Orchestra, the Fiancés of Death. Conditions could not have been better for a freelance crusade against progressive politicians and trade-unionists: i.e., in American parlance then and now, against ‘Communism’.

One of the few benign consequences of the Falklands War, from a British point of view, was the media elevation of Latin America from a joke to a nuisance whose political and geographical boundaries were worth noticing and whose be-medalled generals could inflict real wounds. British mercantile and missionary endeavour, reflected in primary-school geography, had happened to go in the other direction round the globe, and had stayed there. The wide spectrum of Germanic flavours in Bolivia will surprise most readers of The Fourth Reich. Hitler’s own Third Reich had made a strenuous propaganda effort with the large and prosperous German community which had been established in La Paz since the beginning of the century – at one time the ambassador was Himmler’s brother-in-law and the chief adviser to the army was Ernst Röhm. Although, ironically, an ‘open-door’ policy during the 1930s made Bolivia one of the few countries in the world capable of accommodating Jewish refugees by the thousand (at $200 a head for a visa), they found on arrival that hospitality was relative: ‘one immigrant recalled going into the German Club in La Paz on his first visit to the capital and finding a sign saying “Dogs and Jews not allowed. ” ’ Bolivia’s Nazis lay low during the war – they could not prevent their country from joining in on the American side – but rehabilitation after 1945 was easy, and by 1951 the 39-year-old ‘mechanic’ Klaus ‘Altmann’ already had his hand in the national till – milking the proceeds of a patriotic project dreamt up to give Bolivia (which has no access to the sea) a merchant navy.

The rest of the book is straight reporting: of Altmann’s later, even more profitable connection with the cocaine trade, as ‘security consultant’ (that is, private army recruiter) to its immensely rich controller, Roberto Suarez; of his alliance with the right-wing terrorist Stefano della Chiaie, organiser of the 1980 Bologna railway station bombing; and of the gradual unpicking of Altmann-Barbie’s carefully accumulated cover. He owed his exposure to the dogged campaign by Serge and Beata Klarsfeld, but also to his own greed, to his overtly Nazi loyalties (he once invited a journalist to drink champagne with him on the anniversary of the day Hitler appointed him to the SS), and to sharp eyes here and there. When Klaus junior married a Frenchwoman, the French Embassy registrar noticed the similarity between the names and birth dates of the parents and those of the long-hunted Barbie family. Identification was complete by 1973: legal kidnapping took another ten years.

At the end of their disjointed, discursive account of a man who in more placid times might well have confined his sadism to the classroom, the authors of this book allow themselves to suggest that the verdict and sentence on Klaus Barbie, and whether or not he lives to hear them, do not matter very much. Justice has reached him, a line can be drawn under the account. Let us now, they implicitly argue, make life a little tougher for the younger men – both terrorists and bureaucrats – who aided and abetted him. After all, the world knows – much better than it did when the early batches of war criminals appeared at the Nuremberg trials – that there were plenty of respectable citizens on the Allied side waiting for similar opportunities to be presented in Vietnam, Algeria and elsewhere. Nor should it surprise anyone that, in an age of instant communication, counter-revolutionary violence, like the revolutionary kind, has gone global. It was certainly worth while to bring out the organic connections between the state-authorised mass murders of the Forties and the freebooting, small-scale but formidable terror of the Eighties.

It is also true, however, that the deeds of Barbie and his confederates, then or now, in Europe or in South America, are ultimately less interesting than the climate of opinion and the mechanisms of social control that make these deeds either easy or difficult. In this sense, too, there is something to be learnt from the impending trial, because it is not often that different individuals are tried for substantially the same crimes over a gap of forty years. Iniquity and its antidote are both, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder. The French will be trying the murderer of the legendary Jean Moulin, the only politician and Resistance leader who might have disputed the primacy with Charles de Gaulle as the war ended. Other countries, more easily destabilised by the time-bomb and the sub-machine-gun, and less certain where the loyalties of their policemen lie, will have other memories – some of them even more horrible – of the firm Barbie belonged to in La Paz. Contrary to the demonology of the Left, which assumes the worst about Washington’s role in Latin America, on this occasion armed intervention by Ambassador Corr in Bolivia helped to get the gang dispersed.