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The secret files of the spy dogs who helped hunt down Hitler’s most wanted man
“My name is Klaus Barbie. I was born in 1913 and, at the age of 17, I was already a German secret agent.” These words were written by the “Duke of Death”, Klaus Barbie, on a blackboard. In this secret file from the Nazi era, this notorious spy and serial killer, who claimed he was one of the “Gladios” (hit men of the Gestapo), was pictured proudly displaying his SS badge.
It was in the heart of a Paris suburb, in August 1959, in the headquarters of the Service de Documentation Extérieure et de Contre-Espionnage (SDECE), the French foreign intelligence service, that Klaus Barbie began his first interrogation. Two days later, he signed a deal with the French authorities, in which he admitted to having worked as a secret agent for the Gestapo, the German secret service, in Paris between 1943 and 1944. At the end of the war, the Allies captured him. In 1947, Barbie was found guilty of war crimes, was sentenced to life imprisonment and, for 10 years, lived under a veil of secrecy in a prison for dangerous criminals.
When, in August 2011, Barbie’s secret files were published online, it was only one of a number of documents recently declassified by the French National Archives. In a country where it is impossible to forget, the publication of such documents is a very welcome and important step. They tell us the truth.
For the most part, the documents published by the SDECE have been released with no comments or explanations. However, they also contain the name of a French journalist – Jean-Charles Brisard, who has dedicated decades to the study of Nazi archives. In a book published in 2002 – La Quête de Barbie (Search for Barbie), co-authored with the Belgian historian and journalist, Olivier Wieviorka – he describes the role played by the German secret service in the search for the most wanted Nazi fugitive.
He writes that Barbie, born in Strassbourgh, Austria, on 26 March 1913, was “the best-paid Gestapo agent of all time”. He was the head of the French department for counter-espionage (or the Gladio service, as it was called in Italy), and he was involved in the hunt for General Charles de Gaulle, one of the key figures of the French Resistance. But his most dangerous work came at the end of the war.
At the end of April 1945, Barbie was in charge of hunting down the former leader of the French Resistance, Pierre Laval, who was then living in London. He was also involved in rounding up more than 100,000 Jews and “politically unreliable persons”. He is believed to have personally taken part in the deportation of at least 4,000 Jews. He died in 1986. The Gestapo files, which contain his correspondence with his superior officers and with members of the French and British intelligence services, as well as many notes and reports he wrote himself, testify to the man he really was.
But who was Klaus Barbie? What was the “Duke of Death”? A serial killer, a murderer and torturer. A hero of the German resistance and of the French intelligence services. A great manipulator of people. A man who, for the rest of his life, denied his role in the Nazi genocide.
The origins of Klaus Barbie
Barbie was born Klaus Pohl, but the name he carried when he joined the Nazi Party was Klaus Pöhler. He was the first of three children born to a carpenter. His father was an Austrian who, in 1927, took refuge in Germany when he discovered he had contracted tuberculosis. He would die the next year in the German city of Strassbourgh, where Klaus was born in March 1913. His mother became a midwife.
In 1929, after the death of his mother, Klaus was sent to live with his grandmother. Her son was called “Vereker” (an occupational title for carpenters in Nazi Germany). In the 1930s, Klaus moved to Berlin, where his uncle, who worked for the Nazi party, offered him work as a carpenter in the German capital. It was in Berlin, in October 1934, that he joined the Nazi Party.
He began his career as a spy. During the Second World War, he joined the Wehrmacht and the SS and became a member of the German secret service, the Sicherheitsdienst (SD). Barbie is a very common surname in Germany. According to the SD, he used the alias “Klaus Pohl”.
At the end of the war, he joined the French branch of the SD, known as the Service de Documentation Extérieure et de Contre-Espionnage (SDECE), which was under the direct control of the French foreign intelligence service, the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure (DGSE).
In June 1944, during the Liberation of Paris, he was made head of the Gestapo in Paris. It was there that, on 25 August, he met the head of the French branch of the SDECE, Pierre Gallet, and they agreed on a deal. Gallet would hand over Barbie and two colleagues, the “Barbiers” (Barbies), to the Germans in return for the names of other Gestapo agents. It was a deal of dubious legality, and Barbie and the Barbiers were immediately transferred to the custody of the US intelligence service.
From the SDECE to the SD
During the war, Barbie became the head of a group of German secret agents, the Gladios. He was responsible for recruiting and training them, and for providing the money, supplies and weapons they needed to work. He was also involved in the hunt for a certain Charles de Gaulle, one of the key figures of the French Resistance.
At the end of the war, Barbie