Ilse Koch Biography: The Nazi “Bitch of Buchenwald”

During the Holocaust, Ilse Koch lived in the Buchenwald concentration camp with her husband. She would order the deaths of prisoners at-will, and even enjoyed watching people being tortured and killed. Her home was filled with momentos made from human skin. Ilse Koch just may have been responsible for more deaths than your average serial killer. She is considered to be one of the most evil women that ever lived.


Early life

Born with the maiden name Margaret Ilse Kohler, her life had humble beginnings in Dresden, Germany. As a child, no one could have ever guessed that she would grow up to be an evil person. Neighbors say that she was a friendly, happy girl, and she was popular in school. Her father was a laborer, and her mother was a housewife. Just like other German girls, Ilse would have learned to cook, clean, and take care of a household. She left school to start working at a cigarette factory full-time when she was 15. She began taking classes in accounting at a local college, and earned a bookkeeping position.

Ilse joined the Nazi party very early, most likely because she came from a poor family. The Nazis promised the lower class that they could help bring Germany out of the economic depression that they were experiencing after World War I. For people who were poor and uneducated, Fascism seemed like the solution to the country’s problems.

Ilse began to strongly agree in the ideals of an Aryan master race, and shared their feelings of anti-Semitism. She met a like-minded man who would become her future husband, Karl Koch. He was 9 years older than Ilse, and had already gone through a divorce from his first wife, who disagreed with his Nazi philosophies. He had a criminal record for theft, and he and his brother grew up working as informants for the police.

This life of crime was actually something that Ilse thought was quite attractive, and they were married in 1936. After Hitler came to power, the couple was rewarded for being early adopters of Nazism. Karl went from being a petty criminal to being handed a position as a high-ranking S.S. officer. The two of them had never grown up with any sort of wealth. They suddenly had the opportunity to become rich and powerful, and they took advantage to the fullest extent.

Living in Buchenwald

Before he was put in charge of a concentration camp, Karl Koch was the warden of a prison in Berlin. He would force prisoners to stuff themselves into dog houses, and eat out of bowls. They were supposed to kneel and bark when Koch was around. If they refused, they were beaten. If a man did something wrong, hot tar was shoved up his backside. This sadistic torture was noted by the Nazis, and they thought his unique skill set could be useful running a camp filled with the enemies of The Third Reich.

Ilse Koch wasn’t turned off by the brutal reputation that her husband. In fact, she loved it, and she wanted to be apart of the process as much as her husband did. Once she heard the news that they would be running a concentration camp together, she even got some practice working at a prison camp called Sachsenhausen.

Karl and Ilse Koch weren’t just in charge of managing the Buchenwald concentration camp. They were there during the construction of it. The gate to the camp read, Jedem das Seine, which means “To each his own.” What they meant was- everyone gets what’s coming to them. This was their own personal touch to rub it into the faces of these people who they truly believed deserved to be treated like less than human beings.

Buchenwald was the largest of all the Nazi concentration camps, and yet there were no gas chambers for killing people quickly and efficiently. This camp was mostly meant to use the prisoners for slave labor making things that were useful to The Third Reich. Prisoners at Buchenwald were kept alive for years, which was a lot longer in comparison to other camps. In Auschwitz, for example, the average lifespan was a mere 3 to 4 months.

While they were building the camp, Ilse requested that their family must live in a mansion, which was built on the same property as the the concentration camp.  In Nazi Germany, men and women were given set roles to play in society. The perfect German woman was supposed to be happy to do house work. She was supposed to stay strong in the face of adversity, and always be loyal to her husband. High-ranking leaders in the Nazi party were expected to give a good example.

Wives of S.S. officers were not expected to do the work as much as common German women, but Ilse Koch took her new life of luxury to the next level. She aimed to have a life where she never had to do any housework. She decided that the prisoners from the concentration camps were like her slaves. She forced everyone to address her as “Gnädige Frau”, which is an old-fashioned term usually reserved for ladies of nobility.

Ilse never lifted a finger to do anything herself, which made her grow bored with her life.

Ilse Koch at the U.S. Military Tribunal in Dachau, 1947

Ilse Koch at the U.S. Military Tribunal in Dachau, 1947

She decided that the prisoners should build her a huge indoor sports arena that looked worthy of an Olympic event. This was used just so she could practice her hobby of horseback riding. It cost over 200,000 Reichsmarks to build. Today, that would be more like a million dollars.

But horseback riding was not enough to satisfy her boredom. There was a rule in the camp that if any prisoner even looked at the Commander’s wife, they would be shot on the spot. Knowing this, Ilse Koch began dressing provocatively on purpose. She wore tight clothing, and revealed her cleavage on a daily basis.


Most wives of the SS officers in the other concentration camps never got involved with the prisoners, and were most likely in some sort of denial in order to cope. But Ilse Koch wanted to get involved, and she relished in the fact that people were starving and dying all around her.

Ilse was a buxom redhead who thought a lot of herself. Witnesses say that when her husband was away, Ilse Koch would command the officers to bring out a group of male soldiers, and force them to undress until they were completely naked. She would strip down to nothing but her lingerie, and laid out in front of a yard full of these naked and sex-starved male prisoners. If any of them even glanced at her body, or uncontrollably became aroused, he was immediately taken by the guards and shot in the head.

She specifically requested to have teenage boys working in her home. Servants who lived in her house say that she would order them to bring her breakfast in bed. She would be laying in her bed, wearing nothing but a nightie. Just like the men in the yard, if they even dared to look at her body, it was grounds for killing them. Considering that they were…well…teen boys, it’s very possible that some of them simply couldn’t help but get aroused, even if they hated her guts. Based on these stories, we can assume she was a sexual sadist who was aroused by the idea of inflicting pain upon other people.

One of her household servants, Arek Hersh, was just 15 years old at the time that he worked there. He said that the Koch mansion was on the edge of the camp, so he was able to look out the window and see free people beyond the fence. Watching people go about their lives felt like looking at some kind of fantasy, and he often felt envious and sad wondering why he couldn’t be so lucky. Ilse Koch allowed him to eat two boiled potatoes every Sunday. He would carry them back to the barracks where the other prisoners were staying. He didn’t like eating potato skins, so he would peel them off and throw them on the ground, but once he did that, several other prisoners jumped on the peels, because they were so desperate for food.

Human Experiments

All Nazi concentration camps had some form of human experimentation going on, and Buchenwald was no exception. Doctors at the camp were poisoning people with deadly chemicals in order to find potential antidotes, and they were injecting homosexuals with concoctions that were believed to turn them straight.

Buchenwald 16 April 1945. Collection of prisoners' internal organs including two human heads remains (upper left) and also examples of tattooed skins (foreground)

Buchenwald 16 April 1945. Collection of prisoners’ internal organs including two human heads remains (upper left) and also examples of tattooed skins (foreground)

Soon enough, teasing men was not enough to satiate Ilse’s boredom, and she wanted to  watch the doctors conduct these experiments. She saw this as an opportunity to have a new hobby. She rode a horse through the camp, and noticed that some of the prisoners had really interesting tattoos. She approached one of the camp doctors, Erich Wagner, and suggested that he should conduct a study to see if tattoos had any correlation to criminal behavior. Technically, Dr. Wagner should have never said “yes”, because and it was against protocol. He agreed to do it, anyway. These test subjects were killed, and their bodies were taken to be dissected, so that Ilse could keep their skin.

Ilse began to ride her horse around the camp, commanding men to stop what they were doing, and strip. She would walk through the lines of naked men, sizing them up and examining their bodies. The ones with the coolest tattoos were selected for the medical trial and killed. Their skin was used to cover her lamp shades, knife sheaths, and book covers. She saw this as an opportunity to come up with some original Christmas gifts, and commanded a group of Jewish prisoners to do the work of creating huge quantities of these trinkets made from human leather. During the holidays, she would in send them to SS officers who were in charge of the other concentration camps. One rumor even says that she used human body parts all over her house, like using thumbs as light switches.

According to prisoners who worked in her house, Ilse was having affairs with both Dr. Waldemar Hoven and with Deputy Commandant Hermann Florstedt. Whenever Karl Koch was asked to leave the camp for his Nazi duties, she would reportedly stay overnight at Dr. Hoven’s home. He was known for conducting medical experiments on human beings, too. So, he was just her type.

When Karl Koch contracted syphilis, he ordered the execution of the orderly who gave him his diagnosis. He did not want anyone to know the embarrassing truth about this marriage. Some believe that they actually had an open relationship.

The Trials, And The End

In 1942, both Karl and Ilse Koch were taken to court for misappropriating the funds of the Buchenwald camp, and for their over-the-top methods of torture. If we’re being honest, it’s surprising that it took that long for the Nazis to ask where the money came from to build Ilse’s horse stadium, and for the lavish lifestyle that she demanded.

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Many of the human experiments going on at Buchenwald were often made up on a whim by the Koch’s. This was not allowed, and the order to begin a scientific trial would have had to come from higher up in the Nazi party. Medical experiments using human subjects usually had an actual goal that would help the Third Reich. For example, the experiments usually proved that Aryans were the master race, or that disabled people were somehow sub-human. The party wanted experiments that helped to justify the genocide that they were conducting. But torturing and killing prisoners just to look at their tattoos could never be justified, even for the Nazis.

The fact that Ilse is the one who convinced Dr. Wagner to disobey protocol shows just how manipulative she was. She had every man in her life wrapped around her finger, and she seemed to take no issue with ruining their careers, if it meant getting the things she wanted. After being removed from their post, a man named Hermann Pister took over the charge of camp Buchenwald.

Ilse and her husband Karl were both put in jail awaiting their trial. In 1944, the Kochs finally went to court. The Nazi judge concluded that no matter how manipulative Ilse may have been, the responsibility laid on Karl at the end of the day. He was the Commander, after all, and he should have had the final say in both the manner of killing in the camp, as well as the use of the funds.

The judge suspended the charges against Ilse, and set her free. Karl, however, was not so lucky. He was sentenced to death for his crimes, In 1945, he was shot by a firing squad, and Ilse was free to go. Even though her demands directly contributed to her husband’s death, she seemed to show no remorse, and she was able to go back to living a normal life in Germany with her three children.

That same year, American troops freed the prisoners of Buchenwald. They invited German people in Weimar to come inside so that they could witness what had been going on in the camp right next door. They saw 80,000 people crammed into a space meant to house 8,000. Corpses were lying around in front of the crematorium. American soldiers discovered a horrifying collection of human body parts, including several internal human organs displayed inside of glass cases. There were shrunken heads, and all of the household items that were covered in human skin.

Ilse Koch leaves the courtroom with her co-defendants during the trial of former camp personnel and prisoners from Buchenwald.

Ilse Koch leaves the courtroom with her co-defendants during the trial of former camp personnel and prisoners from Buchenwald.

The Allies took testimonies from prisoners who had lived in Buchenwald for years, and when they heard the stories of Ilse Koch, she was arrested for her crimes against humanity. At the trial, Ilse insisted that all of the objects were made from goat’s skin, not humans. However, many of them really did have tattoos on them. And there was a whole crew of Jewish prisoners who testified that the entire time they worked at the camp, it was their job to butcher human bodies and skin them in order to make these trinkets upon Ilse’s request.

Even though there were tons of photographs proving that all of these objects truly did exist, there was no proof that Ilse Koch ordered these objects to be made. There was only the testimony of witnesses, and that was considered hearsay. While she was in jail in 1947, she became pregnant after having an affair with a fellow German prisoner. She gave birth to her son, Uwe, and was forced to give him away after he was born. In the video footage of the trial, she looks angry and indignant, without showing one ounce of remorse for her part in the Holocaust.  

The United States Military Governor named General Lucius D. Clay believed that there wasn’t enough physical evidence to sentence her to death. He could only give her for years of hard labor, instead, and she served her time. However, West Germany was not yet done with her yet. As soon as she was out of prison, she went on trial for her crimes a third and final time, and she was given a life sentence.

According to a witness named Dr. Morgen, he testified at all three of Ilse Koch’s trials. He later told The New York Times, that “She was a hussy who rode horseback in sexy underwear in front of the prisoners and then noted down for punishment the numbers of those who looked at her. She lay around in her garden in front of prisoners. Simply primitive. But she had nothing to do with the lampshade business and she did not deserve such a draconic punishment. She was a victim of horror stories.” …Keep in mind that was the testimony of the person who was supposed to be defending her character.

Ilse Koch had four children during her lifetime. Her two daughters and one of her sons was raised in the camp. Of course, they were far too young to understand the situation as a child. When her son Artvin grew older and learned  just how much the world hated the Koch family, he felt that he couldn’t escape the guilt and shame, so he killed himself. Her daughters were able to get married, change their names, and try to move on with their lives.

The son that she was forced to give away was named Uwe Kohler. He spent his entire life being passed around to different foster homes, and he never got to experience having a real family. When he was 19, he was working as an insurance salesman, and decided he wanted to know who his parents were. He got ahold of his birth certificate. He figured out who his mother was, and read about her trial in the newspapers. After building up the courage, he visited her in prison. She was very happy to see him. She rarely, if ever received any visitors, since her older son was dead, and her two daughters had estranged themselves. Ilse told Uwe that everything bad that was said about her was a complete lie.

He knew that since she helped run a concentration camp, she could not be completely innocent. But he still desperately wanted a relationship with his mother, and he loved her unconditionally. He began visiting her once a month. Uwe Kohler never pushed his mother to talk very much about World War II, and just wanted to get to know her as a person. After a few of these visits, he became convinced that his mother could not possibly have committed such horrific crimes. She tried to convince him to get a lawyer to set her free, but it could not be done. It was 1967, and she was 61 years old. She realized that Uwe was her last hope to manipulate one more person to get what she wanted, and she failed. So she tied her bed sheets together in her jail cell and hung herself.

In 1971, Uwe Kohler approached the New York Times to tell his mother’s version of her own story. Ilse told him that those damned liberal American courts were the ones who did not give her a fair trial. The New York Times was eager to demystify the lies Ilse had told Uew Kohler. As we mentioned earlier, the Americans actually did dismiss the claims because of hearsay, and it was the Germans who committed her to live in prison. Despite all of his attempts to publish her lies and exhaunerate his mother, no one was buying it. Uwe truly was her final victim of manipulation.


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