Karl & Ilse Koch, Human-Skin Lampshades, and the War-Crimes Trial of the Century
When Captain Fred Keffer of the U.S. 6th Armored Division arrived at the teeming concentration camp known as Buchenwald, located high on a forested hill above Weimar, the Cultural Capital of Germany, on April 11, 1945, he was stunned into disbelief.
Until then, rumors of concentration camps had been just that—rumors. Not even the Soviets liberation of the Auschwitz death camp four months earlier had convinced the advancing American army that it might encounter such places. Yet the awful reality of suddenly and unexpectedly coming across 21,000 sick and starving prisoners who had just revolted and chased their SS guards away proved the truth of such rumors.
As Keffer and the Americans of General George S. Patton’s Third Army, who followed him into the camp, soon learned, Buchenwald had been a place of murder, torture, and ghastly medical experiments on the inmates. But the worst were tales told by the survivors of Ilse Koch, the wife of the camps commandant, ordering lampshades, book covers, purses, and gloves made from the tattooed skin of prisoners. Could it possibly be true?
After the war, Ilse Koch was hunted down by the American occupation authorities and put on trial in 1947 (her husband had already been executed by the SS for corruption) for her alleged role in war crimes committed at the camp. The sensational tribunal blew the lid off the details surrounding how the Nazis treated their victims and was extensively covered in the American press.
Yet, there was more. Prosecutorial misconduct may have contributed to Ilse Koch receiving a life sentence. And, after serving only four years, her sentence was commuted in a controversial decision based on Cold War politics. Re-arrested and re-tried by West German authorities, she was again sentenced to life in prison—a sentence that ended with her suicide in 1967.
Author Flint Whitlock spent several years researching the Kochs, visiting the site of the camp (today a monument to the Third Reich’s victims) on several occasions, exploring U.S. and German archives, interviewing former inmates and their liberators, and delving into the official records of the war-crimes trial and Ilse Koch’s supposed role in the shocking rumors of household objects being made from human skin. With the publication of The Beasts of Buchenwald—with over 100 photographs—the whole horrific tale is revealed for the first time.
Captain Frederic Keffer could not believe what his eyes, ears, and nose were telling him.
It was April 11, 1945—a clear, bright day. Keffer, the lanky S-2 (Intelligence) officer of Combat Team 9, U.S. 6th Armored Division, and his three-man patrol had just stumbled upon hitherto unknown KL Buchenwald—a sprawling, filthy, foul-smelling encampment behind a barbed-wire fence with guard towers all around—located high on a hill five-and-a-half miles northwest of Weimar, in central Germany.
His mind tried to comprehend what he was seeing and smelling, but answers refused to come. Jeffery looked up at the ominous guard towers, now curiously empty. There were row after row of shabby, tarpaper-covered barracks. Suddenly, he saw thousands of people in ragged, gray-and-blue-striped clothing coming toward him. What was this, his brain silently screamed—some sort of prison camp?
Through a hole that someone had cut in the barbed wire fence, Keffer entered the compound and was suddenly swarmed upon by hundreds of inmates dressed in those loathsome, feces-stained uniforms, lifted up, and tossed into the air repeatedly by their filthy hands until he demanded to be set down.
Although he did not understand who all these frail, skinny, stinking people in striped suits were, and could not understand the babble of tongues, he understood the sheer joy being expressed by their laughing, cheering, tear-streaked faces.
Gradually, Captain Keffer, with the help of his sergeant and interpreter, came to understand that the place was called Concentration Camp Buchenwald and that, at the sound of the Americans’ approach (there had been a brief firefight with German troops at a village just beyond the camp’s northwestern perimeter), the camp’s secret resistance committee of inmates had sprung into action, distributed a clandestine cache of weapons, and rose up against the guards and administrators of the camp, chasing most of them away.
The excited, rapidly speaking inmates, gesticulating wildly with their bony hands as if words were inadequate, explained to Keffer that they had been political prisoners of the Nazis for months and years, and that they were in desperate need of food and medical aid. The American officer, still stunned by the enormity of his surprise discovery, assured them that he would radio for help.
No one had ever told Keffer, nor any of the men accompanying him, what a concentration camp was, what Buchenwald was, or pointed it out on a military map for him. There had been no briefings, no field manuals, no instructional films to prepare him for this moment. It was as if he had just stumbled through the woods and discovered the landing site of beings from another planet.
In a letter to his grandfather written on May 23, 1945, Keffer said, I was the first American soldier into the place. One might say that I had liberated it, except that it was already liberated by its inmates, who had killed many of the SS guards by the time I had arrived. What a mad mob greeted me that day! I couldn’t possibly describe it; as I look back on it, it seems like some crazy dream out of this world.
Keffer’s discovery electrified Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s U.S. Third Army. Within a day or two of Keffer’s initial visit, various elements of Third Army began pouring into Buchenwald. Some units came to administer emergency medical assistance to the newly liberated inmates; others to carefully feed and provide clean water to those on the verge of death; others to provide proper sanitation facilities; others to bury the dead; others to handle the enormous task of identifying who all the prisoners were, where they came from, and help them start to rebuild their shattered lives. Still others came to bear witness at the incontrovertible evidence of man’s inhumanity toward his fellow man.
During the course of the arrival of all these Americans, it also became obvious that terrible atrocities had been committed at Buchenwald over a considerable period of time. The evidence was everywhere, as far as the eye could see. Scattered throughout the camp were hundreds of emaciated corpses, stacked on the ground or in wagons. At the crematorium, with its tall, square chimney, human bodies lay piled outside the facility; inside, the charred skeletal remains of other human beings filled the six now-cold furnaces. Everywhere was the overpowering and unforgettable stench of urine, feces, unwashed bodies, and death.
"The Beasts of Buchenwald is an interesting consideration of the life and horrific careers of Karl and Ilse Koch. Well written and amply illustrated, The Beasts of Buchenwald explores not only the Kochs but the environment they lived in and the concentration camp they shaped. The evil they perpetrated was hardly banal and they themselves were cruel, sadistic, corrupt and perverse. Whitlock knows his subjects and knows how to write for a general audience."
Michael Berenbaum Former Director, Research Institute,U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
"The Beasts of Buchenwald paints a chilling portrait of callous inhumanity. Flint Whitlock tells the story with an urgency which resonates across the decades—the product of extensive research and an often-demonstrated gift for insightful writing."
Michael E. Haskew Editor, WWII History Magazine
"Gruesome, fascinating, utterly compelling, Whitlock’s narrative whips along, providing a well-balanced and highly informative look inside the vicious heart of the Nazi regime."
Alex Kershaw Author of The Bedford Boys
"The notorious couple whose perverse diversions included torture, medical experiments, and reducing people to pelts. This grisly, compelling read opens a trilogy."
World War II magazine
"Less than seven decades after the Allies overran the concentration and death camps of Nazi Germany, there seems to be more disinformation and inaccuracies about these hell holes than well-researched, accurate accounts. The disinformation comes from many sources: the inevitable mistakes inherent in eye-witness oral histories; intentional distortions by those with an agenda (whether neo-Nazis, or Soviet propagandists, or documentary makers who wish to either push a particular social view or just make a profit); well-intentioned participants with aging, faulty memories; or—most unfortunately—outright liars who fabricate fictional accounts of events that they never participated in, either to boost their own pathetic egos, or to make money by speaking to gullible, paying audiences.
"So it was with some trepidation that I started to read this book, expecting to encounter the usual recycled lies about American tanks smashing through electrified fences, or blowing the locks off the gates to liberate the helpless inmates, or participation by units that were hundreds of miles away.
"Instead, I found a well-researched, well-written account of the camp’s history, its administration by a sadistic Nazi commandant and his twisted wife, the horrors endured by the inmates on a daily for several years, the self-liberation by its inmates as the American 6th Armored Division approached and discovered the camp, and the fates of the main players in the years after the war.
"Author Whitlock has carefully avoided and filtered out most of the false information that is floating around out there, depending instead on original documents and research, and relying on the meticulous documentation of a researcher and former inmate of the camp…. In fact, there is only one source listed in the lengthy and detailed bibliography and acknowledgments list who I believe to be questionable—in the world of Buchenwald writing, that is a remarkable achievement.
"For me, an indication of Whitlock’s intellectual honesty and his attempt to "get it right," was that he admits that there is no way to be absolutely certain whether Ilse Koch, the despised wife of Commandant Karl Koch, committed some of the more heinous acts attributed to her. Was she a cruel, evil, twisted human? Yes, almost certainly. Did she specifically have men targeted for death so that their tattooed skin could be made into lampshades for her home? Not so clear. A lot of witnesses claimed it was so, but a lot of other witnesses who would have known claimed that they never saw a direct connection. No incontrovertible proof ever surfaced, and some evidence seemed to exonerate her from the worst of these charges. Does it really make any difference in the long run? Probably not. The documented, unbelievable cruelty and human suffering that defined Buchenwald was more than enough to indict everybody involved in its administration, regardless of the doubt about some of the specific horror stories.
"If you want to read a well-researched, historically accurate account of the horrors of Buchenwald, which manages to convey the sickening abuse of its prisoners while avoiding most of the lies and fabrications that have built up around the story over the past 66 years, I highly recommend this book. "
Bruce Frederickson, 6th Armored Division historian
"This book is not for the person that cannot tolerate gruesome language and details. It was hard for me sometimes but I managed to get thru it. Lots of information and well written."
Benjamin Harrison, Amazon.com reviewer
"The Beasts of Buchenwald: Karl and Ilse Koch, Human-skin Lampshades, and the War-Crimes Trial of the Century is “must reading” if you are interested in World War Two and the Holocaust .
"Flint Whitlock who usually writes military history has written a fine book on this infamous couple who are well known but who have few books focused just on them. The study traces the Koch’s from before the war through its aftermath and Ilse’s war crimes trials, prison sentence and suicide in jail. In detailing the main characters lives, the author also gives a good sense of big events such as the rise of the Nazis, Nazi racial policy and the central place of anti-semitism to the Nazi program. Karl Koch was a true believer who enjoyed cruelty and perfected it from commands of camps starting with Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, and finally for a brief period, the death camp at Majdanek.
"Whitlock is explicit in describing conditions at Buchenwald and at times it is truly difficult to read. Karl Koch enjoyed being a commandant and he lived as if the camps were his private kingdom. He had a villa at Buchenwald as well as a zoo for the amusement of his staff and their loved ones. His corruption was legendary and eventually it led to his execution by the SS toward the end of the war. Whitlock does a fine job of proving that Ilse did not have lampshades of prisoners with tattoos made for her amusement, but he clearly shows that she enjoyed her position as a commandant’s wife and that she enjoyed having prisoners beaten and abused.
"The book is very well illustrated with many photos of the couple that I have never seen, as well as photos of the sites involved. The author states that this is part one of a trilogy on Buchenwald the corresponding volumes will examine the camp itself and a biography of a prisoner there. What is most disturbing is the motivation of why the Koch’s participated in genocide—they seemed to be true believers who liked cruelty. The author does not give us any clear answers (if there are any) but he does a fine job of describing humanity at its worse."
George Heidemark, Amazon.com reviewer
"Much has been written about the Nazi concentration camps, but one camp—Buchenwald—stands out as the most horrific of them all. THE BEASTS OF BUCHENWALD is the story of Buchenwald’s brutal first commandant, Karl Koch, and his equally brutal wife, Ilse. Their reign of terror, which included beatings, torture, and the killing of helpless inmates so their tattooed skin could adorn lampshades and other personal items, ended with Karl’s execution for embezzlement and Ilse’s war-crimes trial of the century."
Open Trolley (on-line review, Singapore)
"Finally! An accurate account of Buchenwald! History author Flint Whitlock has published a new book called The Beasts of Buchenwald, a well-researched book about the hell-hole camp and the sadistic Nazis that ran it. It is unusual in that the author has gone to great lengths to filter out the huge amount of disinformation that typically gets included in anything written about Buchenwald. Highly recommended."
Anonymous on-line reviewer
"Flint Whitlock has written an interesting and scholarly book. He tries to answer the question I keep asking: How could so many sadistic people develop in Germany? Where were all the good Germans? Although this book exposes brutality, it needs to be read."
L.I. Linda (On-line reviewer)
"Having read Eugene Kogon’s Theory and Practice of Hell, this book was a fitting climax to the coverage of Karl and Ilse Koch, of whom I knew little about. The author’s research along with well developed footnotes and references, made this an exciting journey into the lives of these two people. The book is generously sprinkled with photos of some of the Buchenwald personnel along with maps and other visuals that made it hard for me to put this book down. What is chilling and shows me the depth of human depravity was the SS attitude toward “Reich property”…that is, money and valuables that were to go to the Nazi coffers. In that the SS did not care what Koch did to the prisoners, but were very interested in his personal profiteering showed me another example of this heartless horror. I recommend this book to any serious student of history."
Stephen M. Zielinski (On-line reviewer)
"Starting out as an informative piece on the concentration camp Buchenwald, the book goes further and midway turns into a captivating courtroom drama that opens the reader’s eyes to the very workings of the military justice system in effect at that time. Then, as the times changed it shows how the global political atmosphere entered into the decision-making process. Although doubts were raised, there can be no doubt about the cruelty and corruption of the times. Much more than just a good book on the camps. Eugene Kogon is referred to often as his book, Theory and Practice of Hell, is an authoritative on-hand account of the concentration camp nightmares. This is a good follow up read to Kogen’s book. The books reinforce the fact that the nightmare should never be forgotten; the lesson should continue to be taught."
Anonymous on-line reviewer