Klarsfeld, Beate (1939—)

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Klarsfeld, Beate (1939—)

German-born French Nazi-hunter who, with her husband Serge Klarsfeld, exposed former Nazis, including the infamous Klaus Barbie. Born Beate Auguste Künzel in Berlin, Germany, on February 13, 1939; daughter of Kurt Künzel and Helene (Scholz) Künzel; married Jewish Holocaust survivor Serge Klarsfeld, in 1963; children: Lida Klarsfeld ; Arno Klarsfeld.

In 1968, at a time when Germany had barely begun the process of coming to terms with its Nazi past, Beate Klarsfeld first came to world attention. She provoked several incidents directed against the West German chancellor, Kurt Georg Kiesinger, a man who had until that time largely succeeded in hiding the details of his career as a propaganda official in the Third Reich. Klarsfeld had come from an unlikely background for a Nazi-hunter. Born Beate Auguste Künzel in Berlin in 1939, on the eve of World War II, she was raised a Lutheran and knew little about the horrors of those years. Her father Kurt served in the Wehrmacht during the war and was one of the fortunate few to return home to his family. In 1960, she went to Paris to work as an au pair, ignoring her father's warning that if she left Berlin for Paris she would end up as a woman of the streets.

Soon after arriving in Paris, she met the young Frenchman Serge Klarsfeld on a Métro platform. Beate and Serge, who was then entering law school, fell in love, and he shared with her his family's past. His parents Arno and Raïssa Klarsfeld were Rumanian-born Jews who attempted to escape the Nazi dragnet that swept through occupied France during World War II. Until the summer of 1943, the Klarsfeld family escaped capture by living in the city of Nice. That summer Adolf Eichmann sent a Sonderkommando team headed by one of his "best men," Alois Brunner, to Nice. Brunner, commandant of the Drancy transit camp, was a notorious Jew-hater who had no regrets, he told an interviewer from the German magazine Bunte (1985), for "getting rid of all that garbage." On the night of September 30, 1943, one of Brunner's agents knocked on the door of Arno Klarsfeld's apartment. Arno told them that his children had been sent to the country because they suffered from head lice and that the apartment had been disinfected, ensuring that it would not be searched too closely. He then left with the Nazis, who did not detect that hidden behind a false closet wall were his wife, daughter, and eight-year-old son Serge, all of whom survived the Holocaust. Arno Klarsfeld saved his family and was murdered in Auschwitz.

Beate and Serge were married in November 1963. Beate took a job in Paris with the French-German Youth Service, an organization founded jointly by West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer and French president Charles de Gaulle. Serge earned his law degree and found a job with the French National Radio and Television System. For several years, life was rewarding for the Klarsfelds; they enjoyed their careers and were raising two children, son Arno and daughter Lida. In their leisure time, however, the couple continued to ponder the historical events that had shaped their lives. By the mid-1960s, only two decades separated Europeans from the horrors of fascism, World War II, and the Holocaust, yet few seemed to know or care about the events. Most Europeans wished to forget, and others, who had crimes of commission or omission to conceal, had good reason to let the past slip into oblivion. The capture and trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel in the early 1960s had brought the Holocaust to world attention, but this too had started to fade from the public's consciousness. During these years, the Klarsfelds felt isolated from the rest of humanity as they struggled to make sense of a world that was seemingly indifferent to appalling injustice.

Their puzzlement over Germany's unresolved past turned to anger in December 1966, when Kurt Georg Kiesinger, a leading Christian Democratic politician and a strong advocate of improved French-German political and cultural relations, became the third chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany. A lawyer, Kiesinger had joined the Nazi Party in 1933 "in the hope that it would become a good thing" and by 1940 was working for the radio department of the German Foreign Ministry; his assignment was to advise Joseph Goebbels' Ministry of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment as to the most effective means of spreading the Nazi message overseas. After the war, Kiesinger was interned by American occupation authorities as a Nazi leader for 18 months, but he was never formally charged with crimes or sentenced to a prison term. Incensed by the fact that a former Nazi now occupied the highest political post in West Germany, Beate Klarsfeld ignored the fact that her employer was effectively the West German government and penned a series of highly critical articles on Kiesinger's Nazi links in the Paris newspaper Combat. Her articles, which appeared over a period of eight months, described the chancellor as a Nazi and "murderer." In one of them, she asserted that if Adolf Eichmann represented the banality of evil, then "to me, Kiesinger represents the respectability of evil."

Not surprisingly, Beate's superiors thought ill of her strongly expressed opinions, and she was fired from her job at the French-German Youth Service in late August 1967. Serge's career at the national radio-television system was flourishing, however, so the Klarsfeld family was able to keep a roof over their heads. Beate's job loss served neither to discipline nor frighten her. The fact that she, now a French citizen, had been fired for "calling a Nazi a Nazi" set a dangerous precedent.

On the day she was fired, August 30, 1967, the Klarsfelds met in a café on the Rue des Saussaies. Recalled Beate, "We made up our minds then and there to fight. It was a decision reached in a moment and with scarcely a word spoken. But it was a total commitment. We would fight not to ease our conscience, but to win. Serge's career, our family life, our material security, all would take second place."

Klaus Barbie, known as the "Butcher of Lyons"">

All my troubles began when that Klarsfeld woman came to Bolivia.

—Klaus Barbie, known as the "Butcher of Lyons"

The Klarsfelds undertook a systematic campaign to "out" Chancellor Kiesinger as a dyedin-the-wool Nazi. They considered his guilt in the functioning of the Nazi regime to be at least as damning as that of any concentration camp official. "Clean" Nazis (Edelnazis) like Kiesinger, bureaucrats who carried out their deeds by signing documents in their offices, had ordered or inspired the inhuman cruelties of the Third Reich. When the Klarsfelds made their decision, it was almost impossible to find evidence to counter Kiesinger's claim that he had made a spiritual break with the Nazi state as early as 1934. Little in the way of negative documentation appeared to have survived in West German archives. Serge was convinced, however, that incriminating documents on Kiesinger were to be found in the East German archives in Potsdam, and he took the initiative to discover this data. He was aided by the Potsdam archivists. The fact that the East German government defined West Germany as "a neo-fascist state" doubtless induced the archivists to help track down as many incriminating documents as possible. Back in Paris with this material, which included Kiesinger's Nazi Party membership number (2,633,390), the Klarsfelds analyzed the information and concluded that Kiesinger had in fact been an ardent Nazi and willing disseminator of anti-Semitic hatred, particularly in his role as director of Interradio, a Nazi propaganda agency that broadcast such items as "the Jew Roosevelt aspires to worldwide Jewish supremacy." Also found in the Potsdam files were Kiesinger's postwar de-Nazification records, which revealed the curious fact that he had been cleared by a panel that included his own father-in-law.

Determined to expose Kiesinger, Beate began to make overnight train trips to West Germany to speak in front of students and other Germans who at that time were asking harder questions about the older generation's unexamined past. With a suitcase bulging with documentation on Kiesinger, she campaigned against the distinguished-looking, silver-haired chancellor, pursuing him as if he had "a mongrel on his cuff." She spoke at countless New Left and labor rallies, relying on facts rather than slogans. Klarsfeld was a good, rather than a dramatic, speaker, and her audiences were at first strongly affected by her relentless pursuit-by-document of Kiesinger. In time, however, both she and her audiences tired of the thematic repetition. The press eventually also lost interest. Understanding the power of the media in modern society, Klarsfeld searched for a more dramatic approach to keep the issue alive.

Already well known by her married name, she used her maiden name to obtain a pass to the visitors' gallery of West Germany's Parliament, the Bundestag. There, one afternoon in April 1968, while Chancellor Kiesinger was delivering an address, she leapt up and shouted "Nazi! Nazi! Nazi!" at him until she was bodily removed from the chamber. Although most observers labeled her a born firebrand, she later claimed that this act went against her nature and that it had been incredibly difficult for her to get out the first shout. The incident was reported in the press, but she knew this action alone was insufficient. Then, Klarsfeld made a public promise that sometime in the future she would slap the chancellor in the face, the purpose being not to vent her own emotions but rather to express the conviction of many Germans that they were unwilling to accept a man like Kiesinger as their nation's head of government.

Beate was determined to make good on her word, but the idea proved to be a divisive one. Her mother-in-law Raïssa, a strong supporter of the Klarsfelds' work until now, wavered in her belief that such a deed could be effective. Raïssa pleaded with her daughter-in-law to drop the idea, but Beate was convinced that the only way to dramatize the issue of Kiesinger's Nazi past—and that of many other West German politicians and business leaders—was to humiliate him. On several occasions in the fall of 1968, she attempted to carry out her plan. At one campaign rally, the pro-Kiesinger crowd seemed to her to be so strongly partisan that her own fear prevented the action. But the time finally came. At 10:55 am, on November 7, 1968, at a meeting of the Christian Democratic Party in West Berlin, she slapped Kiesinger full in the face, screaming once again, "Nazi!" Dragged away by security men, Klarsfeld did not learn until later that one of Kiesinger's security staff had drawn his gun but was unable to fire because the chancellor had blocked his line of sight. Although the chancellor played down the incident at an initial press conference (the slap had caused his left eye no more than a superficial injury), a few hours later Kiesinger apparently changed his mind, deciding to press charges. Later the same day, a summary trial took place. Charged with slander as well as assault and battery, Klarsfeld asserted that the reason for her action was Kiesinger's "continuing fascist attitude." By 8 pm, the highly unusual summary court handed down its verdict: one year's imprisonment. Klarsfeld was unrepentant and noted: "A summary court during the Nazi period could not have been very different." She also asserted that she was more convinced than ever that German courts were "protecting the Nazis" and vowed to the court that she would lodge a complaint with the French city commandant in Berlin.

The slap administered to Chancellor Kiesinger was heard around the world. The incident was reported in most of the international press and proved to be a public-relations disaster for Kiesinger and his party. His politically unwise decision to press charges, and the remarkably harsh punishment decreed by the summary court, served to dramatize the charges made by Klarsfeld and her husband, namely that West Germany was still harboring unrepentant exNazis in the highest offices of the land. Important voices of the West German press, including the influential newsmagazine Der Spiegel, gave the event broad coverage, noting that, while Beate Klarsfeld had been sentenced to a year in prison, only a few weeks earlier the would-be assassin of student radical leader Rudi Dutschke (who had been almost fatally wounded in 1967) had received a mere fine of 200 marks for an infinitely more serious crime. The disparity between the two sentences was obvious and disturbing.

In a series of court appearances that followed the Berlin incident, Klarsfeld caused further consternation in government circles by bringing up the chancellor's Nazi past at every possible opportunity. Asked at one point why she had decided "to use violence against the Chancellor of our country?," her response was "Violence, your honor, is the imposition of a Nazi Chancellor on German youth." Kiesinger's attempt at damage control came much too late in June 1969, when, after he failed to appear in court in support of his own complaint, the case was dismissed. Running for reelection in 1969, he was unable to repair the damage he had inflicted on himself and his party because of the incident. In September of that year, Kiesinger and his party were defeated at the polls by Social Democrat Willy Brandt, a political leader who had fled Nazi Germany in 1933 and had risked his life throughout the Third Reich era as an anti-fascist emigre.

Refusing to rest after bringing down Kiesinger, Klarsfeld and Serge began orchestrating a publicity campaign against another West German politician with a Nazi past. Ernst Achenbach, an influential lawyer and Bundestag member, was being considered for the important

post of West Germany's representative to the European Economic Community (EEC). Although Achenbach admitted to having been chief of political affairs at the German embassy in Paris during the war, he also insisted, as had Kiesinger, that he had no connection with the evils of Nazism. Assiduous searches in several Paris archives by the Klarsfelds revealed otherwise. They found documentation that linked Achenbach with crimes against humanity, including memos signed by him authorizing the deportation to death camps of at least 2,000 French Jews. Armed with these documents, they went to most of the capital cities of EEC member states, making it clear that if Achenbach were to be linked to that well-regarded international body, its reputation would be grievously harmed. Soon a storm of negative publicity appeared in the European media on the Achenbach nomination. Bowing to the pressure, he withdrew his name.

The Klarsfelds then turned to the arduous task of seeking justice in the cases of over 1,000 Nazi bureaucrats who had been tried, but not punished, for crimes they committed in France during the war. From 1945 to 1954, the French had tried 1,026 Nazis in absentia, under the assumption that they were back on German soil. Even if German courts had been inclined to prosecute these individuals, the Allies did not allow them to, arguing that, since many postwar German judges had also been Nazi Party members, in such trials ex-Nazis would be judging other ex-Nazis. Post-1945 France, increasingly conservative and anti-Communist, made no moves to return the former Nazis still on its soil, and in fact many were hired by French intelligence agencies because wartime Nazi knowledge of the Communist-led resistance made them useful agents in the Cold War. When the West German constitution was written in the 1950s, the Allies did not object to a provision forbidding extradition of German citizens. As a result of this, the 1,026 Nazis tried in absentia could neither be prosecuted in Germany nor punished in France. Although most were without a shadow of a doubt involved in war crimes and crimes against humanity, they remained free. This was the legal obstacle the Klarsfelds faced in the late 1960s, while working to show the public that so many men who had directly participated in genocide were neither punished nor in hiding. Not until 1975, after many years of agitation by the Klarsfelds, did West Germany and France ratify an extradition treaty making it possible for the French to punish Nazi war criminals.

Until the appropriate legislation was in place, the Klarsfelds hunted for former Nazis who were enjoying their lives in West Germany. In the case of Kurt Lischka, who had been an SS Obersturmbannführer and Gestapo chief in Paris during the war, Beate simply called information in Cologne to get a telephone number and address. Serge then traveled to Cologne, where he and a television photographer confronted Lischka with copies of documents he had signed in Nazi-occupied Paris. On that day, Lischka read the papers without emotion, but when Klarsfeld and the photographer caught Lischka two days later the old Nazi ran and zigzagged out of camera range, causing Beate to observe how strange it was to see this man behave like a trapped animal when chased by nothing more than a camera. In March 1971, the Klarsfelds and three trusted men attempted to kidnap Lischka; they planned to sedate him, put him in their car trunk, and take him back to France. The plot misfired when the wielder of the blackjack did not hit hard enough, and Lischka screamed for help from a passing policeman. Despite this setback, the Klarsfelds kept up their campaign against him. For her participation in the bungled kidnap attempt, Beate was sentenced to two months in jail in Cologne in July 1974. She served her sentence, realizing the immense publicity value of both the trial and her conviction. Eventually, Lischka was tried and sentenced to a long period in prison.

Also in 1971, the Klarsfelds began the complicated process of bringing the notorious Klaus Barbie to justice. Barbie, a member of the security service of the SS, was sent to Lyons in November 1942, where he eventually became head of the local Gestapo and was responsible for torturing and murdering members of the French resistance as well as deporting thousands of Jews and anti-fascists to concentration and death camps. To many then and later, Barbie was known simply as the "Butcher of Lyons." He had also authorized the rounding up on April 6, 1944, of 44 Jewish children at their place of refuge, the village of Izieu near Lyons; all were killed at Auschwitz. Initially eluding the Allies after the war, in 1947 Barbie began working for the U.S. Counter Intelligence Corps, because his knowledge of French Communists was deemed of vital interest in the early days of the Cold War. Shielded by the Americans until 1951, Barbie was permitted that year to flee first to Peru and then to Bolivia, where he took the name Klaus Altmann (originally Klaus Altmann Hansen) and became a prosperous businessman. By 1971, the Klarsfelds had tracked "Altmann" down to La Paz.

Although Beate realized that it might be years before he appeared before the bars of justice, a start had to be made. Again ready to use the power of publicity, she decided to go to Bolivia to draw attention to Barbie and the failure of the world to punish him for his crimes. She enlisted as an ally Ita-Rosa Halaunbrenner , a survivor of a Jewish family that Barbie and the Lyons Gestapo had almost totally wiped out. Murdered were her husband Jacob, son Léon, and daughters Claudine and Mina . Only Ita-Rosa, her daughter Monique and son Alexandre survived the Holocaust. Beate and Ita-Rosa left Paris on February 20, 1972. Although frustrated in La Paz in their efforts to initiate legal proceedings against Barbie, with Halaunbrenner pressing charges as an individual for the murder of four members of her family, the two women were nevertheless able to generate a great deal of publicity when, on March 6, 1972, they chained themselves for six hours to a bench on the Prado, the busiest street in La Paz. Opposite the bench were the offices of the Transmaritima Boliviana, of which Barbie was the managing director. A crowd formed and news of the event was broadcast on the local radio. A sympathetic Bolivian woman said to the chained women, "There is no such thing as justice in Bolivia. Kidnap him or kill him."

News of the La Paz demonstration appeared in the world's press, and Klaus Barbie would never again be free of the fear of being apprehended. In November 1972, anticipating that Bolivia would turn down France's request for the extradition of Barbie, the Klarsfelds, assisted by the radical French philosopher Régis Debray, devised a plan to kidnap Barbie in Bolivia with the assistance of army officers who were opponents of the current dictatorial regime. The idea was to smuggle Barbie to Europe through Chile. The plan was never carried out, however, because in March 1973 Barbie was taken into custody by the Bolivian authorities who feared he might flee the country. When he was released that October, it was too late to carry out the Klarsfelds' plan. There had been a change of government in Chile. Salvador Allende's democratic socialist administration had been over-thrown in a bloody coup led by General Augusto Pinochet and the sympathetic army officers were no longer available.

Almost a decade passed and most of the world forgot about Klaus Barbie. But the Klarsfelds kept agitating for a change in the situation. This took place in the early 1980s, when a more liberal regime emerged in Bolivia. In 1983, Barbie was imprisoned in La Paz, ostensibly over a matter of tax delinquency. In reality, France had bought his extradition from Bolivia for $50 million and 3,000 tons of wheat. He was taken to the scene of his crimes, Lyons, and it took four years to prepare a case of 23,000 pages of testimony against him. The trial, which lasted from May 11 through July 4, 1987 (see alsoAubrac, Lucie ), resulted in Barbie being found guilty on charges of both war crimes and crimes against humanity. His conviction was a significant milestone in the evolution of international law, both reaffirming and refining the principle that there can be no statute of limitations, legal or moral, on crimes against humanity. Klaus Barbie died a prisoner in Lyons in September of 1991.

By the last decade of the 20th century, few Nazi-era war criminals remained alive, free, or unpunished. One of these was Alois Brunner, who had joined the Nazi Party in 1931 and started working for Adolf Eichmann in 1938, specializing in the deportation of Austria's Jews. Eichmann once described Brunner as "one of my best men." Among his crimes were the deportation of Berlin Jews in 1942, the virtual extinction of Salonika Jews in Greece, and the brutal regime he maintained at the Drancy transit camp outside of Paris. Historian Mary Felstiner has written that Brunner's "policy, his practice, and his personality constituted one unit, with no preoccupation but genocide." The Klarsfelds also had personal reasons for bringing Alois Brunner to justice. It was Brunner who was responsible for the death of Serge's father. As far back as 1954, Brunner had been sentenced to death in absentia in France for his crimes. In the late 1950s, Viennese Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal tracked Brunner to Damascus, Syria, where he was living under the alias "George Fischer." Unlike Klaus Barbie, however, who was eventually betrayed by his host nation, Brunner remained safe in Damascus. On several occasions, nonetheless, the old Nazi suffered from acts of retribution. In 1961, Israel's Mossad (intelligence agency) sent Brunner a letter bomb which exploded, costing him four fingers on his left hand. Very likely Mossad was again at work in 1980 when a parcel from Vienna exploded, this time injuring Brunner's left eye.

Several times in the 1980s, Beate Klarsfeld traveled to Syria to find and perhaps even arrest Alois Brunner. On each occasion, she was recognized and not allowed to leave the Damascus airport. In December 1991, however, she was more successful. Using the passport of Gertrude Baer , one of her Jewish friends in Paris, Beate donned "a mousy brown wig" to cover her own red hair, wore black-framed eyeglasses, and was made up to look about a dozen years older. Normally a stylish dresser, Klarsfeld wore a shapeless car coat over baggy slacks. The ruse worked, and she was able to pass Syrian airport security. Immediately after unfurling her protest poster, she was arrested. While being interrogated, she explained the nature of her mission to Damascus: "Syria must stop protecting Alois Brunner, the last major Nazi war criminal at large. He must be delivered to justice." Although she was treated courteously by her Syrian captors, she did not get the interview she hoped for with President Hafez al Assad , and she was put on a plane back to Paris.

Not unexpectedly, 50 or more members of the press were on hand when Beate arrived back at Orly Airport. Serge Klarsfeld kissed his wife in the glare of television lights, then stood aside while she responded to the press. He held her hand tightly on the taxi ride back to their apartment, where she was greeted by the two family collies. More or less like many working women home from the office, she then examined her husband's shirts to decide which ones needed to be washed and put on her apron to make dinner from leftovers. Then the BBC called for a radio interview; they wanted to know more about Alois Brunner.


Billig, Joseph. La Solution finale de la question Juive: Essai sur ses principes dans le IIIe Reich et en France sous l'occupation. Edited by Serge and Beate Klarsfeld. Paris: CDJC, 1977.

Binder, David. "Woman Hits Kiesinger in the Eye in Berlin and Gets Year," in The New York Times. November 8, 1968, pp. 1, 5.

Bower, Tom. Klaus Barbie: Butcher of Lyons. Rev. ed. London: Corgi Books, 1987.

Finkielkraut, Alain. Remembering in Vain: The Klaus Barbie Trial and Crimes Against Humanity. Translated by Roxanne Lapidus. NY: Columbia University Press, 1992.

"Ganz hübsch," in Der Spiegel. Vol. 22, no. 46. November 11, 1968, p. 30.

"Gaol for Slapping Kiesinger," in The Times [London]. November 8, 1968, p. 6.

Hellman, Peter. "Serge and Beate Klarsfeld: Nazi-Hunting is Their Life," in The New York Times Biographical Service. November 1979, pp. 1556–1560.

——. "Stalking the Last Nazi," in New York. Vol. 25, no. 2. January 13, 1992, pp. 28–33.

"The Just and the Unjust," in Time. Vol. 104, no. 4. July 22, 1974, pp. 47, 53.

Kent, George O. "Klaus Barbie, the United States Government, and the Beginnings of the Cold War," in Simon Wiesenthal Center Annual. Vol. 3, 1986, pp. 261–276.

Klarsfeld, Beate. Wherever They May Be! Translated by Monroe Stearns and Natalie Gerardi. NY: Vanguard Press, 1975.

Klarsfeld, Serge. The Children of Izieu: A Human Tragedy. Foreword by Beate and Serge Klarsfeld. Translated by Kenneth Jacobson. NY: Harry N. Abrams, 1985.

Lang, Kirsty. "Son of Nazi Hunter Puts France on Trial," in The Times [London]. September 28, 1997, p. 22.

Mauz, Gerhard. "'Den Bundeskanzler misshandelt,'" in Der Spiegel. Vol. 22, no. 46. November 11, 1968, p. 32.

Morgan, Ted. An Uncertain Hour: The French, the Germans, the Jews, the Klaus Barbie Trial, and the City of Lyon, 1940–1945. NY: Arbor House, 1990.

"Nazi Leader Brunner is Dead and Buried," in Agence France Presse. December 7, 1999.

Phillips, Ian. "How We Met: Serge and Beate Klarsfeld," in The Independent [London]. March 16, 1997, p. 58.

Proteus. "Two German Women," in Midstream. Vol. 21, no. 2, 1975, pp. 67–71.

Saxon, Wolfgang. "Klaus Barbie, 77, Lyons Gestapo Chief," in The New York Times Biographical Service. September 1991, pp. 998–999.

Wiss-Verdier, A. "Beate Klarsfeld, ou la Chasse aux Nazis," in Documents. Vol. 29, no. 5, 1974, pp. 6–13.

related media:

Hanley, Jim, and Lee David. Beate Klarsfeld: A Portrait in the First Person (videocassette), Princeton, NJ: Films for the Humanities & Sciences, 1994.

Klarsfeld, Beate. "Wherever They May Be! One Woman's Moral Crusade Against Nazism" (videocassette), Ninth Annual Lipman Lecture, Colby College, April 29, 1987.

"Nazi Hunter: The Beate Klarsfeld Story," ABC-TV television drama, first aired November 23, 1986.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia