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'Nazi hunter' Klarsfeld honored in Germany

May 14, 2015

Beate Klarsfeld and her husband Serge will receive the Federal Cross of Merit, in honor of their efforts to bring Nazi war criminals to justice. Klarsfeld once notoriously slapped former Chancellor Kurt Georg Kiesinger.

Frankreich Serge und Beate Klarsfeld
Image: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Beate Klarsfeld once joked that the reason she had twice been nominated for the Federal Cross of Merit, but was passed over, probably had something to do with her slapping a sitting German chancellor in the face on stage at his own party congress. However, at the third time of asking, the Franco-German journalist and her Jewish husband Serge, a French man whose father was murdered at Auschwitz, will receive the award for their efforts against former Nazi war criminals.

Germany's presidential office confirmed on Wednesday that President Joachim Gauck had already signed the pertinent documents, following a report in the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger newspaper. Klarsfeld and Gauck's own paths famously crossed in 2012, when the German Left party put her forward as the sole rival to Gauck for the vacant post as German president. Gauck, supported by a cross-party alliance apart from the Left, comfortably won the vote by 991 to 126.

Orden für Beate Klarsfeld Frankreich Nicolas Sarkozy
Klarsfeld received a similar French award, The Legion of Honor, in 2007Image: Gonzalo Fuentes/Afp/Getty Images

Left party politician Gesine Lötzsch welcomed the award late on Wednesday, calling it an "overdue step" 70 years after Germany was rid of Hitler's fascism. Lötzsch said that while the German justice system "is well known not to have made any great efforts" towards locating and prosecuting Nazi war criminals, Beate and Serge Klarsfeld "put their lives on the line" for the cause.

Nazi hunter

Klarsfeld made global headlines in 1968 at the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party congress in West Berlin. As Chancellor Kurt Georg Kiesinger took to the podium to begin his keynote address, Klarsfeld climbed onto the stage and slapped Kiesinger, shouting "Nazi! Nazi! Nazi!" This was her third attempt to bring international attention to Kiesinger's past; a 1967 investigative article had only succeeded in getting Klarsfeld fired from her job, and heckling Kiesinger from the viewing gallery in parliament earlier in 1968 ended in her ejection from the chamber.

Beate Klarsfeld Bundestag 1968 Kiesinger
Klarsfeld was restrained in the Bundestag, but would raise her hand to Kiesinger againImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Klarsfeld was initially sentenced to a year in prison, but avoided jail because of her French citizenship. Later, the sentence was reduced and suspended.

Like many German establishment figures of the post-war era, Chancellor Kiesinger found his way back to the political mainstream despite having joined Hitler's NSDAP party in 1933. He had served in the German foreign office during the war, finishing as deputy head of its radio department. Klarsfeld demonstrated his close connections in this role both to Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and the Nazi's propaganda guru Joseph Goebbels.

Deutschland Geschichte Kurt Georg Kiesinger nach Ohrfeige von Beate Klarsfeld
Kiesinger was checked for injuries after the fabled 'Ohrfeige'Image: picture alliance / dpa

In 1945, Kiesinger joined the CDU, rising to lead the southwestern state of Baden Württemberg and later West Germany. Klarsfeld dubbed him a "Schreibtischtäter," which one might translate as a pen-pushing [war] criminal.

Klarsfeld's journalistic work also helped uncover several other high-profile former Nazis, not least Kurt Lischka, Alois Brunner and Klaus Barbie. Barbie had served as the former Lyon Gestapo chief. Lischka had led the Gestapo in Paris but was living, safe from extradition to France under the laws of the time, in Cologne. Klarsfeld even tried, in vain, to kidnap him and deliver him to authorities across the border. Although the efforts failed, they sped up the ratification of a Franco-German accord on cooperating to prosecute former Nazi criminals; the law came to be known as "Lex Klarsfeld."

Klarsfeld's life and works were the subject of a 1986 US film (Nazi Hunter: The Beate Klarsfeld Story), with Farrah Fawcett playing Beate Klarsfeld and Tom Conti playing Serge Klarsfeld. The Klarsfelds' son, Arno, is a lawyer holding Israeli citizenship who is also working to combat anti-Semitism in present-day France.

msh/mz (AFP, epd, KNA)