Koch, Ilse (1906–1967)

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Koch, Ilse (1906–1967)

German concentration camp overseer whose name has become a universal byword for sadism. Born Margarete Ilse Köhler in Dresden, Germany, on September 22, 1906; committed suicide at Aichach prison, Bavaria, on September 2, 1967; married Karl Otto Koch (1897–1945, a member of the SS and concentration camp commandant), in May 1937; children: two daughters (one of whom died in infancy); two sons.

Known to the world as the "Witch of Buchenwald," Ilse Koch remains the incarnation of Nazi savagery. She was born Margarete Ilse Köhler in 1906 in Dresden, Germany, into a working-class, Lutheran family. After eight years of basic schooling, she found work in a bookstore, later securing a more permanent job as a secretary. By chance, Ilse's secretarial work was at a factory that produced cigarettes (Sturm-Zigaretten) for the Nazi Party. Selling party-produced cigarettes was one of the many fundraising strategies utilized by the Nazi movement before it came to power. In the spring of 1932, Ilse Köhler joined the Nazi Party, receiving a membership card with her number, 1,130,836. In 1934, she met a man who would determine the course of her life, Karl Otto Koch. Born in Darmstadt in 1897, Karl was a veteran of World War I who became a bank clerk after the war. With the onset of the worldwide Depression, his bank collapsed, and he became unemployed. In 1931, embittered and economically insecure, he joined the Nazi Party, becoming a member of the elite SS a year later.

With the start of the Nazi dictatorship in the spring of 1933, Karl Koch's career flourished. As the SS tightened its grip on the scores of concentration camps the Hitler regime had created to terrorize the German population, Karl advanced rapidly in rank within the SS, becoming a senior commander at several concentration camps, including Esterwegen, Lichtenburg (Prettin), and Sachsenburg. In 1935, he became commandant of one of the most brutal of all concentration camps, the notorious Berlin prison Columbia Haus.

Ilse Köhler was quickly attracted to Karl. Captivated by men in uniform, she had been in love once before, with another SS man. Karl was also interested in the attractive Ilse, who was almost ten years his junior. The two became lovers, and Ilse spent much of her time in the several concentration camps Karl helped administer, including Sachsenhausen, of which he became commandant in July 1936. Because the SS expected its men to live "ordered lives," pressure grew on Karl to regularize his relationship with Ilse. In May 1937, the couple were married at midnight in a quasi-pagan SS ritual in an oak grove illuminated by torchlight. Soon after, Karl was promoted to lieutenant colonel.

Karl Koch's new assignment, which began officially on August 1, 1937, was to serve as the commandant of the newly established Buchenwald concentration camp. Located on the scenic Ettersberg mountain, it was a short distance from the historic town of Weimar, known for its association with two of the giants of German culture, Goethe and Schiller. By the end of 1937, Buchenwald had begun to function as another of the many camps into which political and religious opponents of the Nazi regime, as well as homosexuals, Sinti and Roma (Gypsies), Jews (particularly at the time of Kristallnacht, November 1938), and other so-called "undesirables" were sent against their wills. The Kochs lived on the camp's grounds in a handsome villa built by prisoners.

Over the next several years, the prisoner population of Buchenwald would swell dramatically from 2,561 in 1937, to 10,992 in 1938, to 11,786 in 1939. By the time of the camp's liberation by the U.S. Army in April 1945, approximately 65,000 had lost their lives there as a result of being shot, hanged, poisoned, or denied proper medical treatment. Buchenwald became the personal kingdom of Karl as well as of Ilse, whose official title was that of SS-Aufseherin (female SS overseer). Despite the immense power the couple enjoyed, their private life soon deteriorated. One of their three children, a daughter of three months, died of pneumonia, and the couple went their separate ways. Karl had numerous affairs with women in nearby Weimar. Ilse too broke her marriage vows on countless occasions with a number of SS officers in the camp.

As an SS-Aufseherin, Ilse enjoyed her power. At her second trial in 1951, eyewitness testimony described how she beat prisoners with her own hands, or, in dozens of cases, with her riding whip. She would walk through Buchenwald in a provocative dress, intent on eliciting prisoner interest. If they even glanced at her, she demanded that punishment be severe—25 lashes of the whip. At her request, her husband ordered guards to beat prisoners, and a number of inmates were battered and kicked to death at her instigation.

At Ilse Koch's special request, a private riding stall was constructed for her during the first year of World War II. It was a costly, spacious rectangular wooden building, approximately 60 feet in height and 120 by 300 feet. Decorated with wall mirrors, it cost at least 250,000 reichs-marks even taking into account that it was built by unpaid and poorly fed slave laborers, at least 30 of whom died in accidents or took their own lives in despair during its construction. After its completion, Ilse would hold her morning ride there several times a week, during which an SS band provided her with appropriate musical accompaniment.

Among the many depraved aspects of the Buchenwald camp, one of the most grisly produced as evidence at postwar trials were the specimens of processed human skin, as well as shrunken human heads. Ilse Koch was accused of having singled out individual prisoners, particularly those who had unusual tattoos on their bodies, who were then murdered and their skin processed into various "souvenir" objects, including lampshades and bookbinding material. Although Ilse was fully aware of this horrific project and was accused in her first trial in 1947 of having a lampshade made of human skin in her home, it could never be legally proven that she had been in charge of the project. Furthermore, since her husband had made a "hobby" of collecting patches of tattooed human skin and shrunken human heads, it proved to be difficult to separate his responsibility from her own in these deeds. There had in fact been several SS physicians working in Buchenwald who showed a strong interest in carrying out "medical research" along these lines, which had been officially forbidden by SS headquarters (at least on paper), most likely because of concern about negative propaganda if such information ever became public knowledge.

In September 1941, during the first phase of the German attack on the Soviet Union, Karl Koch was appointed commandant of Majdanek, at that time a Waffen-SS camp for Soviet prisoners of war. Under his regime, the camp was greatly enlarged and civilian prisoners, some of whom were Jews, were brought in. Soon prisoners were being murdered on a mass, systematic basis. In July 1942, after an outbreak of Soviet prisoners of war had taken place at Majdanek, Commandant Karl Koch was suspended from his post and placed on trial but was acquitted in February 1943. He was then assigned to administrative posts in postal service security units.

In August 1943, Karl was arrested by the SS on charges of embezzlement, forgery, making threats to officials, and unspecified other charges. These turned out to be the murder of prisoners who knew too much about his corruption, as well as an accusation that he had authorized the creation of the collection of human skins and shrunken heads. Ilse was arrested at the same time on charges of having been her husband's accomplice and of having stolen 710,000 reichsmarks. Strange as it may seem, Heinrich Himmler believed that the SS was an organization of honorable men that constantly had to be on guard against all manifestations of moral laxity and corruption. As early as December 1941, Karl Koch had been briefly arrested on suspicion of corruption, but Himmler had ordered his release.

Prince Josias Georg Wilhelm Adolf zu Waldeck-Pyrmont, an SS general and chief of police of the Weimar-Buchenwald district, who was an implacable foe of Karl's, was convinced that the Buchenwald commandant was guilty of gross corruption. The prince enjoyed great prestige in the SS, having been the first member of German royalty to join Himmler's fledgling elite Nazi corps in 1929.

The SS investigation that began with the arrests of Karl and Ilse Koch in August 1943 was a thorough one. Among the crimes discovered were Karl Koch's murders of Buchenwald prisoners, several of them killed by the injection of typhus into their bodies, because they knew too much about the commandant's massive embezzlement of money from Jewish prisoners. A search of the houses of several staff members uncovered large quantities of jewelry, cash, other valuables, and gold taken from the mouths of murdered prisoners. Himmler initially wanted to end the incident by sending Karl to serve at the front. He changed his mind, however, and the trial commenced. In 1944, Karl Koch was found guilty as charged by the SS Supreme Court in Munich and sentenced to death. Ilse was acquitted of all charges. After sentencing, ex-Commandant Karl Koch was returned to Buchenwald, this time as a prisoner. In early April 1945, a week before the American liberation, he was shot by the SS. On the last night of his life, he raved like a madman.

Ilse Koch moved to Ludwigsburg, where her two surviving children had stayed with relatives while she was on trial. During the next months, in which Germany surrendered, she drank heavily and behaved promiscuously. Recognized by chance on a Ludwigsburg street by a Buchenwald survivor in June 1945, she was arrested by Allied forces. After a long period of preparation by the prosecution, Ilse Koch and 29 other Buchenwald staff members were placed on trial starting on April 11, 1947. Fittingly, the trial took place at the former Nazi concentration camp of Dachau near Munich. As testimony in her part of the case became public, Ilse Koch became known in the press as the "Hexe von Buchenwald" (the Witch of Buchenwald), which ofttimes became the "Bitch of Buchenwald." The unimaginable horrors of Buchenwald, Majdanek and other Nazi concentration camps revealed by the trial shocked a world.

The bulk of testimony made it clear that Ilse was a sadist. Koch's American-appointed defense counsel, Captain Emanuel Lewis, who happened to be Jewish, argued in court that his client's "morality is nobody's business, and certainly not a matter for this court to judge, it is in fact a matter that she and she alone must come to terms with." Another American military lawyer, Leon Poullada, who had been chief of the defense team in the Nordhausen concentration camp trial, noted that "the documents reveal Frau Koch to have been a morally deviant woman lacking in human feelings … but in the United States such personality traits are not punishable offenses and they are certainly not war crimes under the rules of international law."

On August 17, 1947, the Buchenwald trial came to an end. Several prisoners were sentenced to death, with Ilse Koch receiving a sentence of life imprisonment at hard labor for having beaten Buchenwald prisoners and singling out others for execution. On October 29, 1947, Ilse added another bizarre element into her case when she gave birth to a fourth child, a son named Uwe Köhler. She refused to name the father but rumors swirled, some naming an American soldier, others suggesting that a German prison worker might have sired the baby. Soon, other matters dominated the front pages of the world's press, and Koch was forgotten.

In June 1948, General Lucius D. Clay, commander of U.S. Forces in Germany, commuted Koch's sentence from life to four years, which meant she could soon look forward to being a free woman. Clay's decision was based on the findings of a review board which had concluded that the bulk of the evidence against Ilse Koch was hearsay. Although the general defended his action in a secret memo as having been non-political and as one of the many "decisions of conscience" his job required him to make, the reality of the situation was that in 1948 American strategic interests called for an increasingly conciliatory policy toward Germany, which was urgently needed as a stable and prosperous ally in the Cold War.

Ilse Koch's impending release incited a public outcry in the United States, and a special Senate committee was created to investigate the matter. As before, the American public's interest in the Koch case soon faltered. At the same time, however, it was deemed ill-advised to release Koch when her four-year sentence had been served. In October 1949, upon her release from American custody, she was rearrested by a now semi-sovereign West German state. In November 1950, her new trial began in Augsburg, the charges being instigation to murder in 135 cases. The interrogation of 2,000 witnesses provided no proof of homicide charges, but she was found guilty on January 15, 1951, on two counts of incitement to murder of Buchenwald prisoners; the sentence was life imprisonment.

In the mid-1960s, Ilse Koch's last child Uwe Köhler discovered that his mother was the notorious Ilse Koch, then incarcerated at Aichach prison in Bavaria. Removed from his mother at birth, he had grown up in a foster home in Bavaria. At age eight, he happened to see his mother's name on his birth certificate and never forgot it. Eleven years later, he made a connection between himself and his mother after having by chance read a newspaper story about her. During the Christmas season in 1966, Köhler went to Aichach "with a creepy feeling" and met his mother in what he would later describe as a joyous reunion. They met regularly from then on, once a month according to prison rules, until she hanged herself on September 2, 1967, three weeks before her 61st birthday.

After his mother's suicide, Uwe began a campaign to clear her name. Noting that three different courts had not been able to convict her of major capital crimes and that none had found her guilty of ordering prisoners to be killed because she desired their tattooed skins, Köhler hoped to bring about a posthumous rehabilitation for his mother. At the same time, he seemed to be quite aware of the existence of the universe of evil in which she had lived. Uwe told a New York Times reporter in 1971: "I can't really imagine what it was like then in the war. I am not even convinced she was guiltless. But I feel that she just slithered into the concentration-camp world like many others without being able to do anything about it." Unlike the vast majority of those "others," however, who found themselves in the "concentration-camp world without being able to do anything about it" (the victims of Nazi brutality who suffered and were murdered there), Ilse Koch seems to have actively enjoyed herself.


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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia