Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

From the Archives: Klaus Barbie's Self-Serving Counterfactual

In the course of my ongoing research into the history of the Fourth Reich, I came across a chilling counterfactual uttered by the former SS officer and Lyon Gestapo chief, Klaus Barbie, in 1974 (as reported by Michel Goldberg and cited in Brendan Murphy's book, The Butcher of Lyon), p. 291:

In falsely denying having perpetrated any crimes against Jews during World War II, Barbie bragged about his role in arresting the head of the French resistance, Jean Moulin, noting:

"By arresting...Moulin, I changed the course of history.  Jean Moulin, de Gaulle's man in France, was so intelligent that had he lived, it would have been he and not de Gaulle who would have presided over the destiny of France after our departure.  France would probably have become communist."

In fact, Barbie is probably wrong about France going communist after 1945.  If one accepts the inevitability of the cold war, then there is little likelihood that the Americans would have worked any less actively to weaken communist forces in France (the PCF received the largest share of the vote in the first postwar elections in 1945).  There likely would have been no communist regime in France in after 1945.

Barbie's comment is more disturbing for helping him claim that his arrest, torture, and murder of Moulin helped spare the world a more robust communist movement by eliminating one of its hypothetical postwar leaders.  By imagining the course of history turning out "worse" (from his Nazi perspective), Barbie sought validate the world as it came to be.

His comment is a reminder that counterfactuals can serve immoral as well as moral ends.

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