Despite not having as much popularity as the masterminds of the Holocaust, Ilse Koch was just as cruel.
“The Bitch of Buchenwald”
The daughter of a factory foreman, Ilse Koch was born Margarete Ilse Köhler on September 22, 1906, in Dresden, Germany. Her early years were absolutely ordinary; teachers remarked on Koch’s politeness and happiness. At age 15, Koch enrolled in accounting school, one of the few opportunities for female students at the time.
When Germany’s economy was still trying to recover after World War I, she started working as an accounting clerk. In the early 1930s, she and many of her friends joined the Nazi Party. Germans were drawn to the party and Hitler’s ideology in large part because it appeared to provide answers to the many problems the nation faced in the years following the defeat in the Great War.
The Nazi Party initially concentrated primarily on inciting the German people against democracy, in particular, the founding leaders of the Weimar Republic, which they believed to be the fundamental cause of their defeat in the war.
Hitler was an engaging public speaker, and his pledge to overturn the divisively unpopular Treaty of Versailles, which demilitarized a portion of the nation and forced it to pay enormous, unaffordable reparations while trying to recover from the devastation of war, appealed to many Germans who were having a hard time finding their place in the world and making ends meet.
Koch, who was already aware of the dire economic situation, perhaps believed that the Nazi Party would revive and possibly even support the unstable economy. In any case, she met her future husband, Karl Otto Koch, through her attendance at the party. In 1936, they got married.
Karl was appointed commandant of the Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar, Germany, the following year. It was one of the first and biggest camps, and it started operating soon after Dachau. Everybody receives what he deserves, according to the message on the iron gate that led into the camp, which was inscribed with the words Jedem das Seine, which translated to “to each his own.”
Ilse Koch seized the chance to participate in her husband’s job and over the following few years developed a reputation as one of Buchenwald’s most dreaded Nazis. Her first task had been to use money taken from prisoners to build a $62,500 (about $1 million) indoor riding facility so she could ride her horses.
Koch frequently carried on this hobby inside the camp, where she would harass the inmates until they turned to face her, at which point she would whip them. Later, during her war crimes trial, camp survivors remembered how she always seemed especially enthusiastic about gassing youngsters.
Her collection of lampshades, book covers, and gloves, purportedly made from human skin, was her second hobby, which would later become a major subject of dispute during the Nuremberg Trials.
Witnesses later stated that Ilse Koch frequently rode around the camps on horseback to look for detainees with recognizable tattoos. Before being burned alive, the prisoner would have his or her skin removed, and Koch is accused of keeping the skin on display in her residence with the Commandant. These artifacts were found after the camp was freed and were crucial pieces of evidence in her conviction.
On August 24, 1943, she and her husband were taken into custody at Buchenwald on suspicion of theft and the murder of Captives. Even the Nazis did not find the Kochs’ methods of torture acceptable to their ideology, despite their mass murder of prisoners and cruel medical experiments. This is mainly because any punishments had to be approved by the main office in Oranienburg, whereas the Kochs were acting on their own initiative.
Additionally, it was claimed that Commandant Koch had given the order to kill the orderly who had identified and treated his syphilis so that the situation would remain a secret. It was commonly believed that Frau Koch’s marriage to the Commandant had been an open marriage since she had taken multiple partners while she was at Buchenwald.
Frau Koch was acquitted mostly because there was insufficient evidence, notably that the lampshades and other items were genuinely manufactured from human skin. In contrast, Commandant Koch was given the death penalty just one week before Buchenwald was liberated. Ilse, on the other hand, asserted that they were made of goatskin.
Frau Koch’s cruel role became known after the camp was freed in 1945, as survivors described her in interviews. The court was under pressure from the public to retry her.
The General Military Government Court for the Trial of War Criminals heard an argument from Ilse Koch in 1947. She revealed while testifying that she was eight months pregnant, which surprised everyone for two reasons. She was 41 years old and had never interacted with a man outside of American interrogators, many of whom were Jewish, before her trial.
She was condemned to life in prison for “violation of the rules and customs of war” despite the fact that she was pregnant. She was accused of “engaging in a criminal plan for assisting, abetting, and participating in the murders at Buchenwald.”
Before their imprisonment, she gave birth to a boy with Commandant Koch, and the second child—whose father was unknown—was born while she was incarcerated. Her two kids were placed in foster care.
General Lucius D. Clay, the acting military governor of the American Zone in Germany, reduced her sentence to four years just two years following her conviction. “There was no strong proof that she had picked detainees for annihilation in order to get tattooed skins, or that she owned any goods made of human flesh,” Clay said as the reason for the reduction.
She was freed after the court contended that perhaps the goods had been made of goatskin after all. The General, though, declared: “I have no pity for Ilse Koch. She was a bad-reputation woman with a wicked character. She had obviously committed numerous crimes that were punishable by law in Germany. We weren’t holding those against her. She was facing particular charges in our trial as a war criminal.
She was promptly imprisoned again after the public’s outrage at her release. She regularly passed unconscious during her second trial, which started in 1950, and had to be carried out of the courtroom. Throughout the course of the trial, more than 250 witnesses were heard, including 50 for the defense.
Four of the witnesses claimed to have witnessed Koch hand-picking inmates just for their tattoos or to have observed or participated in the production of the human-skin lampshades. This charge was ultimately withdrawn, as it had previously owing to a lack of evidence.
Psychiatrists who examined her judged her to be “a perverted, nymphomaniacal, hysterical, power-mad demon”. On 15th January, 1951, she was sentenced to life imprisonment.
The Court delivered its judgment in a 111-page judgement on January 15, 1951. Koch wasn’t in the room. She was once again given a life sentence with the permanent loss of her civil rights after being found guilty of “charges of incitement to murder, incitement to attempted murder, and incitement to the crime of doing grievous bodily damage.”
She repeatedly asked for appeals to be dropped while she was incarcerated. Even the International Human Rights Commission disregarded her protests after she made them.
Her son Uwe, who was born when she was a prisoner at Dachau, found out she was his mother while she was incarcerated. Over the next few years, he frequently visited her in Aichach, the jail where she was serving her life sentence.
Ilse Koch committed suicide in a prison on September 1, 1967. The next day, Uwe arrived to visit and was devastated to find out that she had died. She was interred at the prison cemetery in an unmarked grave.
Many historians tend to dispute the existence of the lampshades, which have never been found. Mark Jacobson, a writer who is also Jewish, has made it his goal to prove their existence. His dismal journey started when Skip Hendersen bought a lampshade at a post-Hurricane Katrina yard sale that was advertised as a Nazi artifact.
Jacobson received it from Hendersen and even traveled to Buchenwald with it, but has been unable to pinpoint its original source. The lampshade was possibly made of human skin, according to early DNA tests, but additional research found that it was more likely made of cowskin. In the end, it appears that the Bitch of Buchenwalk carried this secret to her grave. In her last note to her son, Uwe, she wrote: “I cannot do otherwise. Death is the only deliverance.”