Trial of Klaus Barbie keeps World War II memories alive

''The trial will be that of a man, but also of the attitude of the French people.'' This remark by a French television commentator sums up sentiments here on the impending trial of former Nazi official Klaus Barbie.

Forty years after allegedly directing the torture and execution of thousands of Frenchmen in Lyons' Montluc Prison, the so-called ''Butcher of Lyons'' awaits trial at the same prison. He was brought to France over the weekend after being expelled from Bolivia.

This is the first trial of a major Nazi official since that of Adolf Eichmann. It is sure to bring to the surface deep emotions aroused by French collaboration with Nazis.

Mr. Barbie was the head of the Gestapo in Lyons from 1942 to 1944. In that post he allegedly organized a brutal crackdown on the French underground, which was centered in the Rhone Valley city in central France. He also is accused of participating in the execution or deportation to concentration camps of about 11 ,000 Jews and others.

But what has most fascinated and horrified the French is his alleged murder of their resistance heroes, especially the underground leader Jean Moulin in 1943. In an interview last week on French television, Mr. Barbie denied murdering Mr. Moulin, insisting that he turned him over to the French authorities of the Vichy government.

That contention has been challenged by Mr. Moulin's associates. But it raises perhaps the essential question of the whole affair: How much help did Barbie receive from the Vichy police?

In 1972, Mr. Barbie told journalists that if he returned to face trial, ''It would be a very bad thing for France.'' He explained that he ''would implicate some very well known French figures.''

The second difficult issue expected to come up in the trial is the validity of Barbie's contention that his actions were merely ''acts of war.''

Mr. Barbie has already been sentenced to death twice in French courts in absentia, the second time in 1954. This time, though, Mr. Barbie will not be tried for ''war crimes,'' but under a new statute for ''crimes against humanity.'' Commentators here say that is essential.

''We must make a clear distinction between crimes against humanity and crimes of war,'' said Alfred Grosser, professor at Paris' Institut des Sciences Politiques. ''Only the first are legally indefensible.'' What should be shown, Grosser said, is that Barbie's acts were not motivated by war but by political, racial, and religious motives.

For most here, then, the return of Mr. Barbie is not so important in achieving vengeance or even justice, but to keep memories alive of the atrocities of World War II.

Keeping memories alive was also the major reason Nazi hunters Serge and Beate Klarsfeld tracked down Mr. Barbie in Bolivia. They identified Klaus Altmann as Klaus Barbie in 1972 after Mr. Barbie had lived in Bolivia for 21 years.

The most important thing is to judge Barbie, said Serge Klarsfeld, so that the entire ''final solution in France can be judged.''

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