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The Barbie case: reigniting debate on WW II history. Former Nazi's trial renews bitter memories for French

The ghosts of the Nazis will not go away. This morning, a frail old German will sit down in the defendant's box in Lyon's Palais de Justice. Klaus Barbie, Gestapo chief in Lyon between 1942 and 1944 is charged with crimes against humanity for his part in the murder, torture, and deportation of French resisters and Jews.

The trial promises to ignite a national debate over France's wartime history, with its tangled memories of defeat and collaboration, resistance and victory. It is a period of history many French would prefer to forget, and indeed during three years of pretrial proceedings, many doubted Mr. Barbie would ever be tried. For his part, Barbie's lawyer Jacques Verges recently told the Monitor that he hopes to turn the occasion into a ``trial against France'' by showing that millions of French cooperated with the Germans.

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These memories of regret and conflict are not limited to France. In neighboring West Germany, where the Nazi legacy naturally is strongest, German historians and philosophers are engaged in a new, divisive front-page debate about the ``uniqueness'' of Hitler's crimes. For Austria, allegations of President Kurt Waldheim's involvement in Nazi activities continues to cause difficulties on the international front; only recently, the United States barred Mr. Waldheim from entering the US.

In Italy, scholars and critics are quarreling over the propriety of displaying art works commissioned by and for fascist leader Benito Mussolini. And in Israel, the trial of John Demjanjuk, who is accused of being a concentration camp guard, has turned into a national passion.

Even the US has been unable to escape the wave of critical self-examination. A small stream of books have appeared in recent years documenting and criticizing Washington's indifference and failure to act against the Holocaust, which killed an estimated 6 million Jews.

The Barbie case spotlights another long-simmering topic: postwar collaboration between Nazi war criminals and US intelligence operations. Barbie worked with the US Counter Intelligence Corps, supplying information about communist activities in Germany and Austria, and the CIC aided Barbie's flight to South America.

Some 600 journalists are expected to cover the proceedings, which are expected to last about six weeks.

Another element that helps to understand why the trial is causing a crescendo of anguished debate is that more than half the Europeans and Americans alive today were born after the fall of Berlin. The war's remaining survivors fear that the hard-earned lessons of World War II are in danger of dying with them.

Barbie's trial, writes Nobel Peace Prize winner Eli Weisel, who has devoted his life to keeping the Holocaust memory alive, ``can serve a vital purpose for future generations and for our own. Certain witness have to be heard; certain truths have to be uttered, repeated.''

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It took a long time to come to this opinion. For years, even the survivors kept silent, out of horror and fear.

In France, the war years became shrouded in a powerful myth. It said, in simple terms, that the ill-prepared French Army was overpowered by the German blitzkrieg, that Frenchmen suffered through four years of oppression under the occupation forces, and that the country's strong anti-Nazi feelings finally crystallized in a country-wide Resistance effort.

In recent years, historians have gradually sought to confront France with a more realistic picture of the war. American historian Robert Paxton, in particular, has written two volumes telling how France under its own leadership handed Jews over to the Nazi executioners, the French police even organizing roundups. French reaction to the Barbie trial will show how the country is dealing with this less-exalted view.

On the one hand, there is now a steady output of histories on the period and the well-known French collaborators. Prime Minister Jacques Chirac has asked schools to make special mention this month of the anti-Semitic laws of the Vichy regime which controlled unoccupied France. President Fran,cois Mitterrand, who convinced Bolivia to extradite Barbie in 1983, said he hoped the trial would serve as ``a lesson for our young people about the horrors of the Nazi camps.''

On the other hand, many remain hesitant about the trial. Mr. Verges told the Monitor that his client would expose many well-known Frenchmen, including present-day politicans. This past weekend, a German newspaper claimed that the father of former foreign minister Jean-Fran,cois Poncet worked with Barbie.

Even some French Jews are apprehensive. They fear that the decision to try Barbie for his anti-Resistance as well as his anti-Jewish activities will divert attention from the unique horror of the Holocaust. ``In my opinion, it is a catastrophe,'' says former Health Minister Simone Veil, herself a survivor of a Nazi prison camp. ``It is the banalization of everything that happened.''

These views aside, the prosecution does not lack for heavy ammunition. Barbie does not deny his identity and his signature appears on documents and telegrams ordering the arrests and deportation of French Jews and Resistance leaders. Witnesses are expected to describe how they and their families were sent to concentration camps and tortured by Barbie and his men. In the end, the evidence is likely to be enough to convict Barbie - and remind the world of World War II's atrocities.

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