Berlin — Over decades, together with her husband, Serge Klarsfeld, Beate Klarsfeld has forged a name for herself as a fearless Nazi hunter, one whose achievements include bringing to justice Klaus Barbie, the so-called “Butcher of Lyon.” During this time, she has also been a staunch defender of Israel.
But today, Klarsfeld is engaged in quite a different, seemingly quixotic campaign: running for the presidency of Germany under the auspices of the Left Party, the modern-day incarnation of the East German Communist Party and the only parliamentary faction in today’s unified Germany to take a stance strongly critical of Israel.
“You will say, why Die Linke?” Klarsfeld told the Forward, referring to the party by its German name. “But it’s the party that has the most sympathy for my work.”
Klarsfeld, now 73, noted that in 2009, the Left Party nominated her unsuccessfully for the Federal Cross of Merit, Germany’s highest civilian honor. “For me it was a great honor,” she said. “I had never been proposed for the Federal Cross by any other party except for Die Linke.”
Klarsfeld’s decision to stand as the Left Party’s candidate for president of Germany has raised eyebrows across the political spectrum. Other than the party’s nomination of Klarsfeld for the Federal Cross, the two don’t have much of a prior relationship. But Klarsfeld expressed enthusiasm for the Left Party’s staunch anti-fascism. “The work of Serge is mainly to remember the victims of Nazism, and this is a part of the party, too,” she said.
During her career, Klarsfeld has found that others in Germany and elsewhere in the West were sometimes much less supportive. In fact, her insistence on pursuing Nazi war criminals comfortably ensconced in powerful post-war positions has often won her nothing but scorn.
Beate and Serge Klarsfeld are perhaps best known for locating and identifying Barbie in 1972. The couple found Barbie, who shipped off 842 people — mainly Jews — to German concentration camps, living under a false identity in Bolivia. Barbie, who had been chief of the Gestapo in Lyon, worked in Bolivia as a paid informant for the West German intelligence service, the BND. In 2001, Robert Wolfe, a historian for the U.S. National Archives’ congressionally mandated research group into the Nazi era, found that Barbie’s escape to Bolivia was organized in 1951 by the U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps, which employed him after World War II for his purported anti-communist expertise.
The Klarsfelds were also instrumental in bringing to justice, among others, René Bousquet, a high-ranking French civil servant who was later close to French President François Mitterrand, and Maurice Papon, a French civil servant, industrial leader and postwar Gaullist politician who was convicted for crimes against humanity for his role in deporting more than 1,600 Jews to concentration camps during World War II.