Serge Klarsfeld: "The only lesson of history is that totalitarian demagogues have brought nothing but unhappiness and catastrophe"

Memoirs of two tireless fighters for justice and human rights presented in Spain


The French Jewish couple Serge and the German Beate Klarsfeld were labelled "Nazi hunters" from very early on, a label they themselves and those who know them well reject. Their struggle, in fact, began at the end of World War II, when they saw the impunity and the placid life in which former Nazi criminals had settled in post-war Germany, and who, for Cold War imperatives, had ceased to be prosecuted. However, their horizons broadened to include a motley compendium of actions against dictators and totalitarian criminals whose record was littered with injustice and human rights abuses. Five decades of this struggle are recounted in his "Memoirs" (Ed. Berg Oceana-Aufklarung-Institut; 738 pages), which in its Spanish edition includes a foreword by Antonio Muñoz Molina.

The presentation of the Memoirs, organised by the Centro Sefarad and the Berg Institute in the Centro Centro Auditorium of the Madrid City Hall, thrilled an audience that witnessed the vitality of two young elders, who have not lost one iota in their determination to continue fighting to the end of their days against injustice, impunity and the crushing of human rights. 

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"My only lesson learned from history is that totalitarian demagogues have brought nothing but catastrophe and unhappiness to all the peoples who have enthroned them," says Serge, who never tires of warning about the fragility of democracy and the stupidity of the new generations, who believe that democracy and freedom are inalienable and eternal rights, and allow themselves luxuries such as refraining from fulfilling their obligation to vote, in reference to the two-thirds of French people who omitted this duty and right in the recent regional elections.

The complicity is evident between this French Jew, born in Bucharest, orphan of a father murdered in Auschwitz, and Beate, the German born in Berlin, Protestant and indomitable. Love and the conviction that one cannot remain impassive in the face of injustice and totalitarianism - they themselves explain - is the secret of the longevity of this marital relationship, of work and struggle.

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The difference between justice and revenge

Atalayar asks them what differentiates them from the renowned Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal. The answer is in unison: "The method, fundamentally. Wiesenthal, who did not disguise a monumental ego, did not move from his office, where he compiled his dossiers, which were very commendable. The difference is that we have travelled the world in search of the criminals, we have carried out all kinds of actions to kidnap them, often with no success, and we have established clandestine relations with countless agents to facilitate the arrest and extradition of the criminals, for example Klaus Barbie, the butcher of Lyon. We have not limited ourselves to shutting ourselves up in an office, we have been on the ground, and we have suffered beatings at demonstrations and imprisonment, especially Beate, for denouncing impunity and injustice".

Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Nicaragua, but also many countries in Africa and Asia, and of course Europe, especially France and Germany, have welcomed their presence as uncomfortable witnesses to so many human rights violations. Their diversity of actions and tactics ended up having a social, ethical and legal impact, and their courage arouses curiosity and admiration for the life force, complicity and imagination of this unusual post-war couple. Their legacy of active citizenship and commitment to the values of democracy show us the inherent relationship between historical memory and the right to truth, and its intrinsic relationship to access to justice for victims. 

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Serge and Beate confess that at first the Jewish community was very distant, considering them mere adventurers. They only began to recognise their merits after the publication of "The Memorial of the Deportation of the Jews of France", a book that provoked a brutal emotional shock in a France that General de Gaulle had wanted to spare from the shame of its many Nazi collaborators. A later book, “Vichy's Role in the Final Solution”, would become a reference book for all historians of the Shoah.

Neither extreme right, nor extreme left, nor demagogic nationalism

In order not to be typecast, the two men declare themselves firmly opposed to the extreme right, but at least on the same level as the extreme left and terrorism. "We must be wary of demagogic nationalists", Serge stresses, who makes a fierce defence of the European Union: "It is the guarantee of our freedoms, nothing less. Let those who unwittingly fail to vehemently oppose any attempt to curtail them bear this in mind".

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Serge and Beate Klarsfeld are two living monuments of what it means to fight for freedom and dignity. In their pursuit of unpunished criminals, they were never tempted to kill them. "We had many opportunities to do so, but that would have provided only a momentary taste of revenge. The important thing, and this is what we did when we could, was to bring them before the courts, and let the courts, especially the German courts, dispense justice".

And, among many others, a very profound reflection: "Justice is always symbolic, since you cannot bring the dead back to life. However, it allows families to mourn and honour their dead, and societies to move forward reconciled, leaving behind a past that would otherwise re-emerge with renewed hatreds".