22 September 1906|
Dresden, Saxony, German Empire
|Died||1 September 1967
Aichach, West Germany
Ilse Koch (German: [kɔχ]; née Margarete Ilse Köhler; 22 September 1906 – 1 September 1967) was the wife of Karl-Otto Koch, commandant of the Nazi concentration camps Buchenwald (1937–1941) and Majdanek (1941–1943). She was one of the first prominent Nazis to be tried by the U.S. military.
After the trial received worldwide media attention, survivor accounts of her actions resulted in other authors describing her abuse of prisoners as sadistic, and the image of her as "the concentration camp murderess" was current in post-war German society. She was accused of taking souvenirs from the skin of murdered inmates with distinctive tattoos. She was known as "The Witch of Buchenwald" (Die Hexe von Buchenwald) by the inmates because of her alleged cruelty and lasciviousness toward prisoners. She is also called in English "The Beast of Buchenwald", "Queen of Buchenwald", "Red Witch of Buchenwald", "Butcher Widow" and, more commonly, "The Bitch of Buchenwald".
Koch was born in Dresden, Germany, the daughter of a factory foreman. She was known as a polite and happy child in her elementary school. At the age of 15 she entered an accountancy school. Later, she went to work as a bookkeeping clerk. At the time the economy of Germany had not yet recovered from Germany's defeat in World War I. In 1932 she became a member of the rising Nazi Party. Through some friends in the SA and SS, she met Karl Otto Koch in 1934, marrying him two years later.
In 1936 she began working as a guard and secretary at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin, which her fiancé commanded, and was married the same year. In 1937 she came to Buchenwald when her husband was made Commandant.
In 1940, she built an indoor sports arena, which cost over 250,000 reichsmarks (approximately $62,500), most of which had been seized from the inmates. In 1941 Karl Otto Koch was transferred to Lublin, where he helped establish the Majdanek concentration and extermination camp. Ilse Koch remained at Buchenwald until 24 August 1943, when she and her husband were arrested on the orders of Josias von Waldeck-Pyrmont, SS and Police Leader for Weimar, who had supervisory authority over Buchenwald. The charges against the Kochs comprised private enrichment, embezzlement, and the murder of prisoners to prevent them giving testimony.
Ilse Koch was imprisoned until 1944 when she was acquitted for lack of evidence, but her husband was found guilty and sentenced to death by an SS court in Munich, and was executed by shooting in Buchenwald in April 1945. She went to live with her surviving family in the town of Ludwigsburg, where she was arrested by U.S. authorities on 30 June 1945.
Koch and 30 other accused were arraigned before the American military court at Dachau (General Military Government Court for the Trial of War Criminals) in 1947. Prosecuting her was future United States Court of Claims Judge Robert L. Kunzig. She was charged with "participating in a criminal plan for aiding, abetting and participating in the murders at Buchenwald".
Koch announced in the courtroom that she was pregnant. She was indeed eight months pregnant. Koch already had a reputation for being promiscuous. According to the Buchenwald Report, it was rumored that Koch was having simultaneous love affairs with Waldemar Hoven, a Waffen-SS Captain who was the chief medical doctor at Buchenwald, and Hermann Florstedt, the Deputy Commandant. Dachau court reporter, Joseph Halow, in his book Innocent at Dachau, reported there were unverified rumors that Koch had engaged in numerous affairs with SS officers, and even with some of the inmates at the Buchenwald concentration camp, and her marital relationship was an open one. Koch's announcement of her pregnancy stunned the court because she was 41 years old at the time and was being kept in isolation with no contact with any men except the American interrogators, most of whom were Jewish. Halow also mentions that he was shocked to learn that Koch may have turned to other men because her husband was a homosexual. Buchenwald records revealed that he had been treated for syphilis. On 19 August 1947, she was sentenced to life imprisonment for "violation of the laws and customs of war".
Reduction of sentence
On 8 June 1948 after she had served two years of her sentence, General Lucius D. Clay, the interim military governor of the American Zone in Germany, reduced the judgment to four years' prison on the grounds "there was no convincing evidence that she had selected inmates for extermination in order to secure tattooed skins, or that she possessed any articles made of human skin".
Jean Edward Smith in his biography, Lucius D. Clay, an American Life, reported the general maintained that the leather lamp shades were really made out of goat skin. The book quotes a statement made by General Clay years later:
- There was absolutely no evidence in the trial transcript, other than she was a rather loathsome creature, that would support the death sentence. I suppose I received more abuse for that than for anything else I did in Germany. Some reporter had called her the "Bitch of Buchenwald", had written that she had lamp shades made of human skin in her house. And that was introduced in court, where it was absolutely proven that the lamp shades were made out of goat skin.
According to the Buchenwald Report, there was a factory at Buchenwald, which produced leather goods out of animal skins, but it had caught fire during an Allied bombing raid on the camp on 24 August 1944.
News of the reduced sentence did not become public until 16 September 1948. Despite the ensuing uproar, Clay stood firm.
Under the pressure of public opinion Koch was re-arrested in 1949 and tried before a West German court. The hearing opened on 27 November 1950 before the Assize Court at Augsburg and lasted seven weeks, during which 250 witnesses were heard, including 50 for the defense. Koch collapsed and had to be carried from the court in late December 1950, and again on 11 January 1951. At least four separate witnesses for the prosecution testified that they had seen Koch choose tattooed prisoners, who were then killed, or had seen or been involved in the process of making human-skin lampshades from tattooed skin. However, this charge was dropped by the prosecution when they could not prove lampshades or any other items were actually made from human skin.
On 15 January 1951, the Court pronounced its verdict, in a 111-page long decision, for which Koch was not present in court. It was concluded that the previous trials in 1944 and 1947 were not a bar to proceedings under the principle of ne bis in idem, as at the 1944 trial Koch had only been charged with receiving, while in 1947 she had been accused of crimes against foreigners after 1 September 1939, and not with crimes against humanity of which Germans and Austrians had been defendants both before and after that date. She was convicted of charges of incitement to murder, incitement to attempted murder, and incitement to the crime of committing grievous bodily harm, and on 15 January 1951 was sentenced to life imprisonment and permanent forfeiture of civil rights.
Koch appealed to have the judgment quashed, but the appeal was dismissed on 22 April 1952 by the Federal Court of Justice. She later made several petitions for a pardon, all of which were rejected by the Bavarian Ministry of Justice. Koch protested her life sentence, to no avail, to the International Human Rights Commission.
Karl and Ilse Koch had two sons, one of whom committed suicide after the war. Another son, conceived in her prison cell at Dachau by an unknown father, was born in the Aichach prison near Dachau where Koch was sent to serve her life sentence and was immediately taken from her. At the age of 19, he learned that Koch was his mother and began visiting her regularly at Aichach. They had a good relationship and Koch wrote poetry for him.
Koch committed suicide by hanging herself at Aichach women's prison on 1 September 1967; she was 60 years old. On one of his scheduled visits, her son was stunned to learn that she had killed herself the night before. Koch's body is buried in an unmarked and untended grave in the cemetery at Aichach.
In popular culture
Some scholars contend that the character of Hanna Schmitz, played by English actress Kate Winslet in the critically acclaimed film The Reader, is also vaguely based on Ilse Koch. Bernhard Schlink, the author of the novel on which the film is based, has denied this.
Richard Zimler's The Warsaw Anagrams takes place in the Warsaw ghetto in 1940–41. The mystery plot involves a link to Ilse Koch and her murderous activities.
The American speed metal band At War recorded the song "Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS", based both in the film of the same name and on the character of Ilse Koch.
The British label Come Organisation released a noise music compilation Für Ilse Koch (wdc881021) in 1982 featuring bands Nurse With Wound, Consumer Electronics, Etat Brut, Club Moral (wrongly listed as Wiking DDV), Whitehouse and others.
- Female guards in Nazi concentration camps
- Irma Grese, nicknamed "the Beast of Belsen"
- Phil Lamason, the senior officer in charge of 168 allied airmen taken to Buchenwald
- Maria Mandel
- Przyrembel, A. (October 2001). "Transfixed by an Image: Ilse Koch, the 'Kommandeuse of Buchenwald'". German History (Blackwell Publishing Ltd.) 19 (3): 369–99. doi:10.1191/026635501680193915. ISSN 1477-089X. (subscription required)
- Alban, Dan (10 November 2005). "Books Bound in Human Skin; Lampshade Myth?". Harvard Law Record. Retrieved 22 September 2008.
- Boyle, Hal (14 August 1947). "Cruel 'Queen of Buchenwald' given a permanent address". The Milwaukee Journal. p. 2. Retrieved 16 December 2012.
- "Buchenwald Queen must face German court on release". The Evening Independent. 4 July 1949. p. 15. Retrieved 16 December 2012.
- "Ilse Koch, Red Witch of Buchenwald, on Trial". Los Angeles Times. 28 November 1950. p. 5. Retrieved 16 December 2012. (subscription required)
- "Life sentence for 'Red Witch' of Buchenwald". Lewiston Evening Journal. 15 January 1951. p. 6. Retrieved 16 December 2012.
- "Army seeks new charges against butcher widow". The Evening Independent. 29 September 1948. p. 3. Retrieved 16 December 2012.
- William L. Shirer (1990). The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (3rd Edition ed.). New York: Simon & Schuster. p. 885.
- "The Holocaust Chronicle". 1937: Quiet Before the Storm. Holocaustchronicle.org. p. 117. Retrieved 7 June 2011.
- Höhne, Heinz (2000). The Order of the Death's Head: A History of the SS. Penguin Books. ISBN 9780141390123. The author notes the irony that the SS prosecutor, Konrad Morgen, investigated some cover-up murders of inmates in detail while being ignorant of, or willfully ignoring, the industrialized mass murder later alleged to have been going on in the camps further to the East.
- Encyclopedia of the Third Reich. New York: Macmillan. 1991. p. 43.
- Yearbook of the European Convention on Human Rights 5. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. 1963. pp. 126–136. ISBN 978-90-247-0949-6.
- "GERMANY: Very Special Present". Time. 25 December 1950. (subscription required)
- "Woman decides against suicide Life demanded for Ilse Koch". The Spokesman-Review. 12 January 1951. p. 2. Retrieved 16 December 2012.
- "Ilse Koch is given life term". Gettysburg Times. 15 January 1951. p. 2. Retrieved 16 December 2012.
- Smith, Arthur Lee (1994). Die Hexe von Buchenwald: der Fall Ilse Koch (in German). Böhlau Verlag. p. 146. ISBN 978-3-412-10693-5.
- Hackett, David A. The Buchenwald Report [Bericht über das Konzentrationslager Buchenwald bei Weimar]. p. 43, n. 19.
- Syal, Rajeev; Luck, Adam (18 January 2009). "Nazi behind Winslet film role is revealed". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 5 May 2010.
- "Bernhard Schlink author of 'The Reader' on Q TV". YouTube. 23 April 2009. Retrieved 7 June 2011.
- "come organisation records". Retrieved 3 February 2013.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Ilse Koch.|
- Massimiliano, Livi (2008). "Ilse Koch". In Pugliese, Elizabeth; Hufford, Larry. War Crimes and Trials: A Historical Encyclopedia, from 1850 to the Present. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO. ISBN 9781576078907.
- Gutman, Israel, ed. (1995). Encyclopedia of the Holocaust (Macmillan). pp. 809–810. ISBN 9780028645285.
- Lacqueur, Walter; Baumel, Judith Tydor, eds. (2001). The Holocaust Encyclopedia. Yale University Press. p. 97. ISBN 9780300084320.
- Shirer, William L. (1990) . The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Simon and Schuster. pp. 983–984. ISBN 9780671728687.
- "Ilse Koch". Jewish Virtual Library.
- "Frau Ilse Koch, General Lucius Clay, and Human-Skin Atrocities". Jewish Virtual Library.
- Adams, Cecil (4 June 2004). "Did the Nazis make lampshades out of human skin?". The Straight Dope.