Nikolaus "Klaus" Barbie was born on 25 October 1913 in Godesberg, later renamed Bad Godesberg, which is today part of Bonn. The Barbie family came from Merzig, in the Saar near the French border. His patrilineal ancestors were likely French Roman Catholics named Barbier who had left France at the time of the French Revolution. In 1914, his father, also named Nikolaus, was conscripted to fight in the First World War. He returned an angry, bitter man. Wounded in the neck at Verdun and captured by the French, whom he hated, he never recovered his health. He became an alcoholic who abused his children. Until 1923, when he was 10, Klaus Barbie attended the local school where his father taught. Afterward, he attended a boarding school in Trier, and was relieved to be away from his abusive father. In 1925, the entire Barbie family moved to Trier.
In June 1933, Barbie's younger brother, Kurt, died at the age of eighteen of chronic illness. Later that year, their father died. The death of his father derailed plans for the 20-year-old Barbie to study theology, or otherwise become an academic, as his peers had expected. While unemployed, Barbie was conscripted into the Nazi labour Service, the Reichsarbeitsdienst. On 26 September 1935, aged 22, he joined the SS (member 272,284), and began working in the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), the SS security Service, which acted as the intelligence-gathering arm of the Nazi Party. On 1 May 1937, he became member 4,583,085 of the Nazi Party. In April 1939, Barbie became engaged to Regina Margaretta Willms, the 23-year-old daughter of a postal clerk.
After the German conquest and occupation of the Netherlands, Barbie was assigned to Amsterdam. In 1942 he was sent to Dijon, France, in the Occupied Zone. In November of the same year, at the age of 29, he was assigned to Lyon as the head of the local Gestapo. He established his headquarters at the Hôtel Terminus in Lyon, where he personally tortured adult and child prisoners: breaking extremities, using electroshock and sexually abusing them (including with dogs), among other methods. He became known as the "Butcher of Lyon". The daughter of a French Resistance leader based in Lyon claimed her father was beaten and skinned alive, and that his head was immersed in a bucket of ammonia; he died shortly afterwards.
Historians estimate that Barbie was directly responsible for the deaths of up to 14,000 people. He arrested Jean Moulin, one of the highest-ranking members of the French Resistance and his most prominent captive. In 1943, he was awarded the Iron Cross First Class for his campaign against the French Resistance and the capture of Moulin, by Adolf Hitler.
In April 1944, Barbie ordered the deportation to Auschwitz of a group of 44 Jewish children from an orphanage at Izieu. He then rejoined the SiPo-SD of Lyon in its retreat to Bruyères, where he led an anti-partisan attack in Rehaupal in September 1944.
Barbie's defence attorney, Vergès, had a reputation for attacking the French political system, particularly in the historic French colonial empire. His strategy was to use the trial to talk about war crimes committed by France since 1945. This had less to do with the trial than with Verges' Desire to undermine the French Fifth Republic. He got the prosecution to drop some of the charges against Barbie due to French legislation that had protected French citizens accused of the same crimes under the Vichy regime and in French Algeria. Vergès tried to argue that Barbie's actions were no worse than the supposedly ordinary actions of colonialists worldwide, and that his trial was tantamount to selective prosecution. During his trial, Barbie said, "When I stand before the throne of God, I shall be judged innocent."
In 1947, Barbie was recruited as an agent for the 66th Detachment of the U.S. Army Counterintelligence Corps (CIC). The U.S. used Barbie and other Nazi Party members to further anti-Communist efforts in Europe. Specifically, they were interested in British interrogation techniques which Barbie had experienced firsthand, and the identities of SS officers the British were using for their own ends. Later, the CIC housed him in a hotel in Memmingen, and he reported on French intelligence activities in the French zone of occupied Germany because they suspected that the French had been infiltrated by Communists.
In 1965, Barbie was recruited by the West German foreign intelligence agency Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), under the codename "Adler" (Eagle) and the registration number V-43118. His initial monthly salary of 500 Deutsche Mark was transferred in May 1966 to an account of the Chartered Bank of London in San Francisco. During his time with the BND, Barbie made at least 35 reports to the BND headquarters in Pullach.
Barbie was identified as being in Peru in 1971 by the Klarsfelds (Nazi Hunters from France) who came across a secret document that revealed his alias. On 19 January 1972, this information was published in the French newspaper L'Aurore, along with a photograph of Altmann which the Klarsfelds obtained from a German expatriate living in Lima. Despite global outcry, Barbie was able to return to Bolivia where the government refused to extradite him, stating that France and Bolivia did not have an extradition treaty and that the statute of limitations on his crimes had expired.
The testimony of Italian insurgent Stefano Delle Chiaie before the Italian Parliamentary Commission on Terrorism suggests that Barbie took part in the "cocaine coup" of Luis García Meza Tejada, when the regime forced its way to power in Bolivia in 1980. In 1983, the newly elected democratic government of Hernán Siles Zuazo arrested Barbie on the grounds of owing the government ten thousand dollars for goods he was supposed to have shipped but did not and extradited him to France to stand trial.
The court rejected the defense's argument. On 4 July 1987, Barbie was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. He died in prison in Lyon four years later of leukemia and cancer of the spine and prostate at the age of 77.
The West German Intelligence Service later recruited him and he may also have helped the CIA capture Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara in 1967. Barbie is suspected of having had a hand in the Bolivian coup d'état orchestrated by Luis García Meza Tejada in 1980. After the fall of the dictatorship, Barbie no longer had the protection of the Bolivian government and in 1983 was extradited to France, where he was convicted of crimes against humanity. He died of cancer in prison on 25 September 1991.