The trial of former Nazi Klaus Barbie, which begins May 11 in the southeastern French city of Lyons, could well be the last great courtroom drama resulting from the Holocaust. It could also foster a period of soul-searching in a nation that, some say, has not yet come to terms with its World War II past.
The trial, which is expected to last six to eight weeks, threatens to bring up the grim ghosts of France's past - a past that includes not only the fighters of the French resistance, but also Frenchmen who collaborated with the German occupiers and Vichy government officials who sometimes were as eager as the Nazis to persecute Jews.
Barbie was Gestapo chief in Lyon from 1942 to 1944. He is charged with crimes against humanity, for which there is no statute of limitations. He has been tried twice before in France, in absentia (in 1952 and 1954), and sentenced to death by military tribunals for war crimes, including the responsibility for the arrest, torture, deportation, and murder of thousands of Jews and resistance members. The crimes earned Barbie the title ``butcher of Lyons.'' This time, the charges are quite specific. They include:
The deportation of 84 people in February 1943, following a roundup at the headquarters of Lyons' General Union of French Israelites. Among those deported was the father of former Justice Minister Robert Badinter who helped bring about Barbie's expulsion from Bolivia in 1983.
The deportation of 44 children and their teachers in April 1944 from the Jewish orphanage in the village of Izieu. Only one, a teacher, survived.
The deportation from Lyons of about 300 Jews and 300 resistance members to concentration camps in August 1944, during the final hours of the German occupation there.
Other arrests, executions, and deportations of resistance members classified as crimes against humanity.
Nearly 100 witnesses, including people who say they were victims of Barbie's interrogation techniques, are expected to be called during the trial.
Barbie's controversial lawyer, Jacques Verges, who will be pitted against about 35 attorneys for civil parties, says his strategy will be to put France, not his client, on trial. He intends to reveal that Jean Moulin - the leader of the resistance, Gen. Charles Degaulle's representative in France, and allegedly tortured virtually to death by Barbie - was denounced by his comrades in arms. Mr. Verges also plans to detail French collaboration and to suggest that the French, during the Algerian war in the early 1960s, were no better than the Nazis, using torture extensively to get suspects to talk.
Many French people are afraid such tactics will sully the memory of the resistance and sow confusion. They worry that Verges will trivialize the issues, diverting attention from what they believe should be the only focus of the trial, the horror of the Holocaust and Barbie's role.
``The only thing that strikes me as important,'' says Simone Veil, a former health minister and Auschwitz survivor, ``is that the trial be an occasion to remember that millions of [people] were exterminated in a systematic and scientific way, not because of what they did but because of who they were.''
If Veil is wary about the trial, others apparently are not. Writer Marek Halter believes France will have a chance to learn and to remember. Halter, who has become a spokesman for the Jewish community in Lyons during the trial, has been encouraged by a recent public opinion poll. It shows that 68 percent of the French believe the trial is necessary because Nazi crimes should not go unpunished.
``The French,'' says Halter, ``are perfectly capable of reflecting on their history and confronting it with intelligence and seriousness.''
Prime Minister Jacques Chirac has asked French schools to devote time this month to what he calls the ``black pages of history'' so that students can review the mass deportations and anti-Semitic legislation enacted by the Vichy government 45 years ago.