🔒 RW Johnson – The saga of the simply extraordinary Robert Badinter

RW Johnson reflects on the life of the extraordinary Robert Badinter, who passed away at 95. Badinter witnessed the horrors of the Holocaust when the Nazis, led by Klaus Barbie, rounded up 86 Jews in Lyon in 1943. Badinter, surviving Auschwitz, became a human rights advocate and, as France’s Minister of Justice, abolished the death penalty in 1981. His relentless pursuit of justice led to Barbie’s conviction. In his later years, Badinter co-authored a book accusing Putin of Ukraine atrocities. France honours him in the Pantheon, alongside champions of human rights, commemorating his enduring legacy.

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By RW Johnson

The death this week of Robert Badinter at the age of 95 closes an epoch. Badinter’s Jewish family fled to France to escape pogroms in their native Bessarabia (Moldova/Ukraine) but the pogroms followed them: when the Nazis invaded France in 1940 the family fled south to Lyon. For the south remained under Vichy rule until 1942 when the Allied landings in North Africa caused the Germans to take over the south as well. This ushered in the appalling reign of Klaus Barbie, the Gestapo “butcher of Lyon”.  ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Badinter’s father, Simon, was one of those summoned to Rue Sainte Catherine in Lyon on 9 February 1943, to the office of the Union Generale des Israelites de France (UGIF) which operated under the notional protection of the Vichy regime. Barbie knew that every Tuesday the UGIF gave free medical treatment and distributed food to poor Jews so he and his men moved in and got the UGIF receptionists to ring around to invite as many Jews as possible to attend, thus enlarging his “catch”. Barbie – a man who enjoyed torturing his prisoners personally – arrested 86 Jews that day, sending them off to the Auschwitz and Sobibor extermination camps. Only three survived. Simon was murdered in Sobibor after only two weeks.

Robert survived and became a human rights lawyer and a legal academic at the Sorbonne. In 1972 he defended a man who had escaped from prison. He hadn’t hurt anyone but his fellow escapees had killed two people and all the escapees were guillotined as accomplices as a result. Badinter was deeply shocked and in 1973 wrote a book, The Execution – recalling “the sharp snap” when the guillotine severed the head from his client’s body. He became a passionate opponent of the death penalty and when Francois Mitterrand became President in 1981 he made Badinter the Minister of Justice. Within five months he had abolished the death penalty. I shall never forget visiting him in his ministerial office soon afterwards, along with my great friend, Philip Williams. On the mantelpiece stood the copy of the bill abolishing the guillotine, signed by Mitterrand. Badinter proudly handed it to me and I marveled at it, thinking of 1789, Robespierre and the terrible history of Madame Guillotine. 

Meanwhile Klaus Barbie had made himself useful to the Americans and was now in Bolivia, teaching torture techniques to the secret police, though under another name. Badinter enlisted the help of the famous Nazi-hunter, Serge Klarsfeld, who tracked Barbie down and brought him to France. (Crucially Klarsfeld had managed to lay his hands on the UGIF files and thus had a complete list of the 86 Jews taken away from the Rue Sainte Catherine on Barbie’s orders.) At which point a man called Michel Kroskof-Thomas was of crucial importance. He had been in Rue Sainte Catherine on that February day in 1943 but had had false ID documents on him and managed to persuade Barbie that he wasn’t a Jew but simply a painter who’d arrived to give the UGIF office a lick of paint. So he had survived and, forty years later, was able both to identify Barbie and also to witness the fact that Barbie had been personally in the Rue Sainte Catherine on that day and that the notorious “round-up” had been entirely his work. Amazingly, the prosecution had also found one of the women who had been working as receptionists in the UGIF office that day. She too had somehow managed to convince Barbie that she wasn’t Jewish (though she was) and had survived. She could recall exactly being ordered by Barbie to ring as many Jews as possible to attend at the UGIF office on that fatal day.

This was crucial. Barbie was convicted of crimes against humanity. Thanks to the abolition of the death penalty he got a life sentence but died of cancer in jail some four years later. One can only imagine how Robert Badinter felt about that. He had tracked down the man who had murdered his father and brought him to a justice far more merciful than the fate Barbie had inflicted on so many. No doubt he shared his thoughts with Serge Klarsfeld, for Klarsfeld’s Romanian Jewish family had also fled to France and his father too had died in Auschwitz.

When I met Badinter he was frank that he was no politician – although he was a minister in Mitterrand’s Socialist government, I am fairly certain that he never joined the Socialist Party. He believed passionately that lawyers and judges must be independent of all party considerations. While Minister of Justice he also de-criminalised homosexuality and carried out other liberal reforms, including a great improvement in prison conditions. But he resigned in 1986 and then served as president of the Constitutional Council until 1995 when he became a Senator, serving in the magnificent Palais de Luxembourg until 2011. But he never gave up. In 2023 he co-authored a book called Vladimir Putin: The Accusation, in which he argued that Putin was personally guilty of the atrocities committed in the Ukraine. President Macron has ordered that Badinter’s remains should be placed in the Pantheon alongside such other great advocates of human rights as Emile Zola, Voltaire, Jean Jaures and Victor Hugo. 

Serge Klarsfeld, who is now 88, has devoted his life to bringing to justice the German and Vichy officials responsible for the deaths of thousands of French and foreign Jews in France. In 1979 Klarsfeld survived an assassination attempt by the Nazi Odessa movement. His work was acknowledged with the award of the Legion d’Honneur in 1984. He and his wife, Beate, have continued their activism – they played a role in exposing Kurt Waldheim, the (ex-Nazi) former UN Secretary-General. But in latter years they have broadened their activities to a more general concern for human rights. One marvels at the sheer tenacity of both Klarsfeld and Badinter: they were and are driven men.

Every year in Lyon there is a special commemoration of the Rue Sainte Catherine Roundup and a plaque has been erected with the names of all the Jews who were victims that day.  In 2019 this plaque was defaced by anti-semites who tried to blot out half the names with black ink. 

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