How Real Nazis Came to the Americas: the Recruitment of Klaus Barbie

Klaus Barbie’s ID card for the Bolivian secret police.

By the time Klaus Barbie went on the payroll of an American intelligence organization in 1947, he had lived several lifetimes of human vileness. Barbie sought out opponents of the Nazis in Holland, chasing them down with dogs. He had worked for the Nazi mobile death squads on the Eastern Front, massacring Slavs and Jews. He’d put in two years heading the Gestapo in Lyons, France, torturing to death Jews and French Resistance fighters (among them the head of the Resistance, Jean Moulin.) After the liberation of France, Barbie participated in the final Nazi killing frenzy before the Allies moved into Germany.

Yet the career of this heinous war criminal scarcely skipped a beat before he found himself securing entered on the US payroll in postwar Germany. The Barbie was shipped out of Europe by his new paymasters along the “ratline’ to Bolivia. There he began a new life remarkably similar to his old one: working for the secret police, doing the bidding of drug lords and engaging in arms trafficking across South America. Soon, his old skills as a torturer became in high demand.

By the early 1960s, Barbie was once again working with the CIA to put a US-backed thug in power. In the years that followed, the old Nazi became a central player in the US-inspired Condor Program, aimed at suppressing popular insurgencies and keeping US-controlled dictators in power throughout Latin America. Barbie helped organize the so-called “Cocaine Coup” of 1980, when a junta of Bolivian generals seized power, slaughtering their leftist opponents and reaping billions in the cocaine boom, in which Bolivia was a prime supplier.

All this time, Klaus Barbie was one of the most wanted men on the planet. Even so, Barbie flourished until 1983, when he was finally returned to France to face trial for his crimes. In the whole sordid history of collusion between US intelligence agencies, fascists and criminals, no one more starkly represents the evils of such partnerships than Klaus Barbie.


On August 18, 1947, three men sat over drinks in a café in Memmingen in American-occupied Germany. One was Kurt Merck, a former officer in Nazi Germany’s military intelligence agency, the Abwehr. Merck had worked in France during the war and had been scooped up by American intelligence, who debriefed him and who soon put him on the payroll. The second man was Lieutenant Robert Taylor, an American officer in the Army’s Counter-Intelligence Corps (CIC). The third man was Klaus Barbie, at that time on the run from the French and the Soviets, and number three on a US/British list of wanted SS men. Barbie had already been roughly interrogated by the British and did not care to repeat the experience.

Merck was an old friend of Barbie’s. Despite interservice rivalries between the Gestapo and the Abwehr, the two had worked together in France and had gotten along well. Merck was more than willing to vouch to the American officer that Barbie would be a good hire. Merck had been recruited by the Counter-Intelligence Corps in 1946, at a time when US intelligence agencies were trying to recruit Nazi talent. CIC’s cover story for this unwholesome bit of head-hunting was the need to root out and suppress a supposed network of Hitler Youth, whose fanatical detachments had pledged to fight on, no matter what official terms of surrender had been signed.

But CIC’s real interest in Barbie had nothing to do with the so-called Werewolves of the Hitler Youth. Barbie’s hiring as an agent of the CIC was contingent on his willingness to impart information about British techniques of interrogation and about the identities of SS men the British might have tried to recruit as their own agents. Barbie was only too happy to comply, particularly as this enthusiastic torturer had been slightly bruised when he was questioned by the British.

For the next four years, the third most wanted SS man in Germany worked for the US Army’s Counter-Intelligence Corps. The Americans set up Barbie in a hotel in Memmingen, brought his family from Kassel and partly paid him in commodities–cigarettes, medicines, sugar and gasoline–that he sold for a handsome price on the black market. After initial debriefings about the intentions and techniques of the British, Barbie’s main assignment, as described in a CIC memo, was to file reports on “French intelligence activities in the French Zone and their agents operating in the US Zone.”

By 1948, the French government had received information that Barbie was living under the protection of the US somewhere in Germany. The French were more eager than ever to get their hands on Barbie, who had already been sentenced to death in absentia for his war crimes. Barbie was needed to testify in the upcoming trial of René Hardy, the Resistance man who saved his own skin from Barbie’s torture by turning in Jean Moulin. But the CIC had no intention of handing over its prize catch to the French, even on loan for the Hardy trial.

Barbie’s handlers at the CIC, who saw the French as allies of Stalin, had nightmares about Barbie spilling the beans on his American employers. Eugene Kolb, the US Army Intelligence officer who had worked with Barbie for a year, said that the Gestapo man couldn’t be returned to the French because he “knew too much about our agents in Europe and the French intelligence agency was saturated with communists.” Kolb’s opinion is backed up by CIC memos, which suggest that the French Sûretė’s intention was to “kidnap Barbie, reveal his CIC connections and embarrass the US.”

So it transpired that in December 1950, the US decided to trundle Barbie and his family down the ratline, an escape hatch from Europe for Nazi agents created by CIC officers Lt. Colonel James Milano and Paul Lyon. Lyon and Milano had been shuttling Nazis out of Germany, Austria and eastern Europe since 1946, sending them to Argentina, Chile, Peru, Brazil and Bolivia. The tour guide for this operation was himself a war criminal, Father Krunoslav Draganovic, a Croatian priest who oversaw the relocation of several hundred thousand Jews from Yugoslavia to their deaths in Nazi concentration camps. As the fascist government in Croatia began to crumble at the end of the war, the priest made his way to the safety of the Vatican. Then Draganovic exploited the cover of his position with the Red Cross and with the Vatican and shuttled hundreds of war criminals out of Europe.

Many of Draganovic’s first recruits were members of the Ustashi regime, the deaths squads under the control of Croatian dictator Ante Pavelic, who supervised one of the bloodiest killing sprees of the war. Hundreds of thousands of Serbs–on some estimates more than two million–were slaughtered by Pavelic’s forces to fulfill his insane desire to make Croatia a “100 percent Catholic state.” Pavelic would show his favorite trophy to visitors at his office: a forty-pound jar of human eyeballs extracted from his Serbian victims. After the war, Draganovic helped Pavelic secure safe passage to Argentina, where he became a frequent dining companion of Juan and Eva Peron.

Some of the other notable Nazis who Draganovic helped escape Europe for South America included Colonel Hans Rudel, who went to Argentina, where he headed Peron’s air force and became a leader of the international neo-Nazi movement; Dr. Willi Tank, a chief designer for the Luftwaffe; and Dr. Carl Vaernet, who had overseen surgical experiments on homosexuals at Buchenwald, castrating gay men and replacing their testicles with metal balls. Vaernet was adored by the Perons, who made the Nazi doctor head of Buenos Aires’s public health department.

In 1947, the Counter-Intelligence Corps contracted with Father Draganovic to help them dispose of some their own problematic agents and recruits, namely Nazi scientists, doctors, intelligence operatives and engineers. The deal was brokered in Rome by CIC officer Paul Lyon, who noted that Draganovic had established “several clandestine evacuation channels to various South American countries for various types of European refugees.”

This priest Draganovic was not an altruist, even on behalf of his Nazi colleagues. He demanded from the American intelligence agencies $1,400 for each war criminal who passed through his doors, and the US intelligence agencies were glad to pay his price.

A memo from an intelligence officer working at the US State Department explained that

“the Vatican justifies its participation by its desire to infiltrate not only European countries, but Latin American countries as well, [with] people of all political beliefs, as long as they are anti-communists and pro-Catholic church.”

Fearing that Barbie might slip through their fingers, the French protested directly to John J. McCloy, the US High Commissioner in Germany. McCloy icily replied that the US would not hand over Barbie to the French for possible execution, “because the allegations of the citizens of Lyons can be disregarded as being hearsay only.”

McCoy knew this to be untrue. In 1944 Barbie’s name was prominently displayed in McCloy’s own office on a list called CROWCASS (the Central Registry of War Criminals and Security Suspects), where Barbie was identified as being wanted for “the murder of civilians and the torture and murder of military personnel.”

Barbie was hardly the only SS man whom McCloy and his cohorts endeavored to shield from justice. Another was Adolf Eichmann’s righthand man, Baron Otto von Bolschwing. This SS officer was hired by the CIC in 1945, where he quickly became one of the agency’s most productive assets, recruiting, interrogating and hiring former SS officers. Von Bolschwing was later traded to the CIA, where he plied his tradecraft in East Germany. Like Barbie, von Bolschwing was a top-rank war criminal, having been one of Eichmann’s ideological gurus on Jewish matters, helping to script the plan to “purge Germany of the Jews” and rob them of their wealth. It was von Bolschwing who had directed one of the most vicious slaughters in the war, the murder of hundreds of Jews in Bucharest. The Bucharest pogrom is described in detailed by historian Christopher Simpson in his remarkable book, Blowback. Simpson writes:

“Hundreds of innocent people were rounded up for execution. Some victims were actually butchered in a municipal meat-packing plant, hung on meathooks, and branded as ‘kosher meat’ with red-hot irons. Their throats were cut in an intentional desecration of kosher laws. Some were beheaded. ‘Sixty Jewish corpses [were discovered] on the hooks used for carcasses,’ US ambassador to Romania Franklin Mott Gunther wired back to Washington after the pogrom. ‘They were all skinned… [and] the quantity of blood about [was evidence] that they had been skinned alive.’ Among the victims, according to eyewitnesses, was a girl no more than five years old, who was left hanging by her feet like a slaughtered calf, her body bathed in blood.”

In 1954, von Bolschwing was brought to the United States. Richard Helms, who had helped recruit many of these criminals, defended the protection and use of people like von Bolschwing, saying: “We’re not in the Boy Scouts. If we’d wanted to be in the Boy Scouts we would have joined the Boy Scouts”–a typically flippant way of rationalizing his recruiting practices.

Barbie’s Counter-Intelligence Corps handlers went to extraordinary lengths to protect their recruit. Eugene Kolb rejected the idea that Barbie might have physically tortured people on the grounds that he “was such a skilled interrogator, Barbie did not need to torture anyone.” In fact, it’s pretty clear that Klaus Barbie was a sadistic monster whose vocational priorities were the infliction of pain and ultimately death, rather than the subtle extraction of information.

Barbie’s expertise as a torturer relied on the use of bullwhips, needles pushed under fingernails, drugs, and, most uniquely, electricity send by nodes attached to the nipples and testicles. His upward career path at the SS, heralded by games of volleyball with Heinrich Himmler in Berlin in 1940, came to an abrupt end when he beat Jean Moulin to death without getting any information out of him. Even so, a generation later, Barbie and his CIA operatives would happily cooperate in applying his old techniques to left oppositionists in Bolivia and elsewhere.

When it came to Barbie’s anti-Semitism, his American intelligence patrons once again sprang to his defense. Lieutenant Robert Taylor contended that Barbie “was not an anti-Semite. He was just a loyal Nazi.” Another CIC memo held that Barbie “showed no particular enthusiasm towards the idea of killing Jews.” In fact, Klaus Barbie got his start as an officer for the SD, a subunit of the SS charged by Reinhard Heydrich with solving the Jewish “problem” as rapidly as possible.

In an early purge in Holland, Barbie led the infamous raid on the Jewish farm village of Wieringermeer, where Klaus and his men used German shepherd dogs to round up 420 Jews, who were sent to their deaths in the stone quarries and gas chambers of Mauthausen.

From the training grounds of Holland, Barbie was transferred in July 1941 to the Eastern Front, where he joined one of the SS’s so-called “special task forces,” the Einsatzgruppen. These mobile killing units were assigned the task of murdering every communist and Jew they could find in Russia and the Ukraine, without regard–in Heydrich’s phrase–“to age or sex.” In less than a year, these roving death squads under command of men such as Barbie killed more than a million people. Here was the model for the CIA’s death squads in Vietnam–William Colby’s Phoenix Program and cognate operations– and in Latin America, where CIA-sponsored hit teams in Guatemala, El Salvador, Chile, Colombia and Argentina applied similar methods of brutal terror, killing hundreds of thousands. There’s nothing, in terms of ferocity, to separate a Barbie-run slaughter in Russia from later operations at My Lai or El Mozote.

Rewarded with a new promotion for his work on the Eastern Front, Barbie headed to Lyons in 1942. One of his tasks was to help fulfill Himmler’s recent order that the SS in France deport at least 22,000 Jews to concentration camps in the east. Barbie took up the task with enthusiasm. His crew raided the offices of the Union Générate des Israelites de France in Lyons, seizing records showing the addresses of Jewish orphans and other children hidden In the countryside. Later that day, Barbie arrest one hundred Jews, sending them off to their deaths at Auschwitz and Sobibor. Next Barbie descended upon the Jewish orphans’ home at Izieu, rounding up forty-one children aged three to thirteen, along with ten of their teachers. All were trucked off to the Nazi death camps. Reporting on this raid of the schoolhouse to his supervisor, Barbie noted, “Unfortunately in this operation it was not possible to secure any money or valuables.”

During his time in Lyons, Barbie was excitedly alert to the sufferings of the prisoners he held in Montluc prison. The SS man apparently derived a sadistic pleasure from locking his prisoners in cells for days at a time with the mutilated corpses of their friends. He would reassemble captured members of the French Resistance before mock firing squads, apply hot irons to the soles of their feet and palms of their hands, repeatedly plunge their heads into toilets filled with piss and shit and entice his black Alsatian dog, Wolf, to snap at their genitals.

Klaus Barbie’s torture of Lise Leserve was particularly horrific. He shacked her naked body to a beam and beat her with a spiked chain. But despite his “great skill” as an interrogator, Barbie never got Leserve to talk. She survived her torture and a year in Ravensbrück work camp to testify against him at his trial in 1984.

With the Allies advancing on Lyons, Barbie prepared to flee France in 1944. But before he left, he ordered the remaining 109 Jewish inmates of Montluc machine-gunned to death and had their bodies dumped in bomb crater near the Lyons airport. Barbie also endeavored to wipe out the last of the French Resistance leaders under his control. On August 20, 1944, Barbie’s mean loaded 120 suspected members of the Resistance on covered lorries and drove them to an abandoned warehouse near St. Genis Laval. The prisoners were led into the building, where they were quickly machine-gunned. The mound of corpses was drenched in gasoline and the building was destroyed by phosphorus grenades and dynamite. The explosion sent body parts flying into town 1,000 feet away.

Such were the highlights on the resumé of the man who was dispatched in 1951 along with his family by US military intelligence to a Counter-Intelligence Corps safehouse in Austria. There the Barbie family was given a crash course in Spanish and furnished with $8,000 in cash. Barbie was provided, courtesy of in-house forgers, with his new identity: Klaus Altmann, mechanic. In a sinister jest, Barbie picked the name Altmann himself, after the name of the chief rabbi in Barbie’s hometown of Trier. The Rabbi Altmann had been one of the luminaries of the anti-Nazi resistance until 1938, when he went into exile in Holland, where he was tracked down in 1942 and sent to his death at Auschwitz.

From Vienna the Barbies were passed via Draganovic’s ratline to Argentina and then on to Bolivia. A CIC internal memo triumphantly noted about the rescue of this war criminal that “the final disposal of an extremely sensitive individual has been handled.”

To be continued…

Booked Up
What I’m reading this week…

Under a White Sky: the Nature of the Future
Elizabeth Kolbert

Bland Fanatics: Liberals, Race and Empire
Pankaj Mishra
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

White Market Drugs: Big Pharma and the Hidden History of Addiction in America
David Herzberg
(University of Chicago)

Sound Grammar
What I’m listening to this week…

Manhattan Samba
Hendrik Meurkens
(Height Advantage)

An Overview on Phenomenal Nature
Cassandra Jenkins
(Ba Da Bing Records)

(KTBA Records)

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3