By Georg Bönisch and Klaus Wiegrefe
The BND's Department 934, which handled such cases, decided to recruit the former SS captain. They were interested in the good contacts that Barbie bragged about, such as with the Bolivian interior minister and his deputy, as well as with the head of one of the country's intelligence agencies and the mayor of La Paz.
Barbie's handler Solinger traveled to the Chilean capital Santiago in May 1966 to officially hire the new man and provide him with "intensive" training. The two men agreed that important information would be disguised as economic news from the lumber industry. Barbie was to note the information on special paper -- "leaving a 3 cm (1.1 inch) margin all around, with no punctuation, and with no writing on the centerfold" -- and send it to a teacher in Bad Bevensen in northern Germany, who would then forward the letters, unopened, to a post office box in Hamburg.
Barbie was officially classified as a "political source." The exact content of his reports is not known, however. Perhaps he merely observed developments in Bolivia, or his work may have been focused on the German military, the Bundeswehr. A few weeks after being recruited, he became the Bolivian representative for Merex AG, a Bonn-based company that sold Bundeswehr military surplus materials worldwide on behalf of the BND. According to BND records, Barbie was to notify the Merex people whenever the Bolivians lacked weapons or ammunition.
It is clear that the BND was very satisfied with Barbie's work. Agent 43118 was described as "intelligent," "very receptive and adaptable" and "discreet and reliable."
BND Denied Knowing Barbie's Identity
After Barbie was identified by the Klarsfelds in 1972, the people at the BND who had been involved with Barbie claimed internally that they had only learned Altmann's real identity from the press. The administration at the time had apparently "neglected to obtain official information about Altmann, even though this would have been appropriate in light of his past."
It is highly likely that this version of events was a lie. Even Altmann's explanation to Holm that he had fled directly from East Germany to Bolivia should have triggered an extensive background search. Indications of that search can be found in the Barbie files, which are clearly incomplete.
Most of all, however, Solinger made notes about Barbie's past at their first meeting. Based on this information, it was clear that the new agent worked during the war for the Reich Security Head Office, the SS organization that organized the Holocaust. It was also clear that he was being sought by the French for alleged war crimes. It is hard to believe that Barbie did not take this opportunity to reveal his true identity, or that the BND staff did not at least do the relevant research after the fact.
A few intelligence officials who were not in the loop became suspicious when agent V-43118 refused to travel to Germany for training. "Could it be that there is some evidence against him -- SS?" one official wrote in a handwritten comment on Sept. 13, 1966. A few weeks later, everyone involved knew that the public prosecutor's office in Wiesbaden was searching for Barbie on the basis of a preliminary investigation by the Central Office for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes in Ludwigsburg.
Request to East Berlin
At this point, it also became apparent that, in the meantime, Barbie had had a run-in with Günther Motz, the German ambassador in La Paz. Barbie had accused Motz of "putting the interests of German Jews ahead of the interests of the other members of the German colony."
Through a middleman, he had contacted a propaganda official with the East German communist party, the SED, in East Berlin, with a request to search the East German archives for incriminating information about Motz from the Nazi era. Such actions were "not exactly indicative of an appropriate attitude," according to the BND files.
In the fall of 1966, the agency decided to part ways with Barbie, "to avoid later complications and difficulties." It was, it turns out, wishful thinking.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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