Klaus Barbie, the former Gestapo chief in Lyon responsible for the deportations of hundreds of French Jews to Nazi death camps and the killings of French resistance leaders, died of cancer in a Lyon prison hospital, authorities said Wednesday. He was 77.
Barbie, known as the "Butcher of Lyon," was convicted of crimes against humanity in a celebrated 1987 trial and sentenced to life in prison.
He was a 29-year-old SS (elite force) captain when he was appointed commander of the Gestapo, or Nazi secret police in Lyon, France's second-largest city, in 1942. There and in the surrounding countryside, he and his men ruthlessly hunted down Jews and Resistance fighters, killing thousands and sending thousands more on to Nazi extermination camps, including 44 Jewish children from the town of Izieu.
Barbie was twice convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death in absentia in the 1950s but by 1987 the statute of limitations had expired, preventing his retrial for those crimes. Accordingly, he was tried for "crimes against humanity."
"The fact that he is dead means nothing to me," Alexandre Halaunbrenner, a French Jew who testified in the trial against Barbie, said Wednesday on hearing the news of his death. "The only thing that bothers me is that he never showed remorse for what he did."
Halaunbrenner's father was shot to death by Gestapo troops under Barbie's command, and two sisters and a brother died with the other children rounded up in Izieu in April, 1944.
Among those killed in Barbie's custody was Jean Moulin, legendary hero of the French Resistance.
After the end of the war, Barbie was first allowed to leave France and return to Germany where he was employed as an agent of U.S. and allied occupation forces hunting down Communist organizers inside Germany.
Later, using a passport provided by the Red Cross, with the approval of American authorities at the time, he fled to Italy and South America. French Nazi hunters Serge and Beate Klarsfeld, who mounted a campaign over several decades to bring Barbie to justice, located him first in Lima, Peru, in 1971 where he was living under the alias Klaus Altmann.
They pursued him to Bolivia where, under French government pressure in 1983, he was stripped of his Bolivian citizenship and expelled to France.
"I am a citizen of Bolivia, victim of a kidnaping," Barbie insisted at the time.
The pursuit and trial of Klaus Barbie was the subject of an Academy-award winning documentary "Hotel Terminus" by Marcel Ophuls that takes the U.S. government to task for having employed Barbie immediately after the war and initially blocking his return to France for trial on war crimes charges, specifically for Moulin's death under torture.
Throughout the marathon trial in Lyon, Barbie showed little emotion and smiled often as witnesses testified to his many crimes.
In a 1985 interview, Agence France-Presse reported, Barbie justified his actions as being wartime acts.
"In times of war there are no goods and no bads," he said in the interview. "I am a convinced Nazi. I admire the Nazi discipline. I am proud of having commanded one of the best corps of the Third Reich. If I should be born 1,000 times I would be 1,000 times what I have been. I am not a fanatic. I am an idealist."
The son of a Catholic schoolteacher in Bad Godesburg, near Bonn, Barbie joined Nazi youth organizations and rose quickly through party ranks. In the early stages of the war, he served in Amsterdam. He was decorated by SS commander and Nazi Interior Minister Heinrich Himmler for his courage and loyalty.
Since 1983, Barbie was held in the St. Joseph Prison in Lyon. Three weeks ago, he was moved the prison section of Lyon hospital. Suffering from cancer of the blood, spine and prostate gland, Barbie was described earlier this month as terminally ill by his attorney, Jacques Verges.