Frau Ilse Koch, General Lucius Clay,
and Human-Skin Atrocities

By Jamie McCarthy


Ilse Koch (her first name has two syllables; her last name sounds like the Scottish "loch") is the most famous of all Germans accused of having committed atrocities during the war. She was the wife of the commandant of the Buchenwald camp. She was twice convicted in post-war trials, once by an international court and once by her own country. The chief charges against her were cruelty to inmates, including murder, but what she is best-known for is the making of human-skin ornaments, including the lampshades of which we've all heard.

It's exceedingly well-documented that such ornaments did exist; there's no question but that someone made them out of human skin. When one can see a book whose cover is tanned skin with a decorative tattoo on it, there's little question that the skin was that of a human being. If one has any doubt as to the origin of the substance, one should examine the forensic report conducted on some of the skin. It concludes, based on microscopic examination and the placement of the nipples and navel, that the skin was certainly human.

Various Holocaust-deniers, however, have attempted to cast doubt upon the existence of this skin, and upon the guilt of Ilse Koch in particular. Arthur Butz writes: [1]

 

The tattooed skin was undoubtedly due to the medical experiment role of Buchenwald. As remarked by [Christopher] Burney [a former inmate], when a Buchenwald inmate died the camp doctors looked his body over and if they found something interesting they saved it. It is fairly certain that the collection of medical specimens thus gathered was the source of the tattooed skin and the human head that turned up at the IMT as "exhibits" relating to people "murdered" at Buchenwald. [...]

...in 1948 the American military governor, General Lucius Clay, reviewed her case and determined that, despite testimony produced at her trial, Frau Koch could not be related to the lampshades and other articles which were "discovered" (i.e. planted) in the Buchenwald commandant's residence when the camp was captured in 1945. For one thing, she had not lived there since her husband's, and her own, arrest in 1943. Also her "family journal," said to be bound in human skin, and which was one of the major accusations against her, was never located, and obviously never existed.

Already we have two explanations of the human-skin ornaments. It is interesting to note that they are mutually exclusive. On the one hand, according to Butz, the ornaments unquestionably did exist, since tattooed skin was produced at the IMT, though it is "fairly certain" that the "medical specimens" were simply cut from the corpses of inmates who died naturally. On the other hand, the ornaments were "planted" by the Allies.

Butz can't have it both ways. He can claim that Ilse Koch is innocent because the ornaments came from inmates who died of natural causes and not murder; or, he can claim that the ornaments were forgeries, planted by the Allies to incriminate the Nazis. To claim both is ludicrous. Yet this is exactly what he does.

Butz's book was one of the earlier attempts at Holocaust denial, and later efforts would refine it to a great degree. Such refinement is clearly demonstrated by following deniers' claims about Ilse Koch.

In fact, in the same year that Butz's book was published, 1976, General Lucius Clay gave an interview at the little-known George C. Marshall Research Foundation, in which he indicated that he believed that the human-skin ornaments were not in fact made of human skin, but rather of goat skin. Mark Weber, now the Editor of the Journal of Historical Review, became aware of this interview some years later, after Clay had died (in 1978). He obtained a transcript, with the aid of Robert Wolfe of the National Archives, now retired, who incidentally is strongly opposed to Holocaust-denial. In 1987, Weber published his findings in an article in the Journal of Historical Review[2]

Armed with this "new" evidence, deniers began to play down Butz's claim that Koch should be considered innocent because the human-skin ornaments were merely "medical specimens." After all, this is the weaker argument; if one grants the courts' determinations that the human-skin ornaments existed, and further grants the courts' rulings that Koch was guilty of murder on separate counts, then it is an academic point whether the skin came from inmates who died naturally or violently.

It better rehabilitates the image of Nazism to say that the Allies framed Ilse Koch -- so this is the tack which deniers began to take. Theodore J. O'Keefe later published a pamphlet entitled "The 'Liberation of the Camps': Facts vs. Lies," which used the Clay quotation, and repeated Weber's claim that the human-skin ornaments never existed or were planted by the Allies. Bradley R. Smith's original campus advertisements, purchased in student newspapers in 1991, carried the Clay quotation and implied Weber's claim.[3] Later, deniers began to quote from Jean Edward Smith's Lucius D. Clay: An American Life[4] , in which Clay repeated the goat skin claim (but also contradicted himself, as we shall see).

In any case, the claim that "the collection of medical specimens thus gathered was the source of the tattooed skin" was quietly forgotten.

Furthermore, the unspoken implication in these articles is that one should not merely disbelieve that Ilse Koch specifically was involved in atrocities, but that one should disbelieve all Nazi atrocities. This is obviously an irrational leap of logic.

To obtain a clear picture, it is necessary to see why General Clay was incorrect in his assertion that the ornaments were not made of human skin. The explanation is fairly simple, but in the interest of providing a through refutation, we will examine the historical record with some thoroughness (and in roughly chronological order).

Leniency for Koch

General Clay did indeed feel, in 1948, that Ilse Koch had been unjustly sentenced to a life term the previous year by the international American military court. On September 16, he commuted that sentence to four years' time. As he explained on September 23rd: "There was no convincing evidence that she selected inmates for extermination in order to secure tattooed skin or that she possessed any articles made of human skin."[5]

That was reported in the New York Times, Sept. 24, 1948, p. 3. On the next day, the paper quoted Secretary of the Army Kenneth C. Royall: "Mr. Royall's final word on the fate of the woman who was accused of atrocities, including the use of tattooed human skin to make household articles, was that such charges had not been proved." [6]

This sentence-reduction was rather unpopular, and it was questioned whether she could be retried or resentenced. The U.S. government gave up after a while, declaring that it would wash its hands of the matter. Eventually, she was tried by a German court on charges of her having abused and killed German inmates; her previous trial had included only inmates of other nationalities. In this second trial, she was convicted and sentenced to life, again. She spent the rest of her life in prison until she committed suicide in 1967.

It appears that the reason General Clay concluded that sufficient evidence had not been presented is that a crucial piece of evidence was missing. According to a witness, her family album was bound in skin from a man's chest with a prominent tattoo of a four-masted ship[7] The album, which Koch insisted was bound only in black cloth, was never found.

Additional atrocity charges might have been brought against her in the first trial, but for a technicality in the conduct of the prosecution. This conduct was, in fact, incorrect. A U.S. prosecutor explained, in the Times on October 15th: [8]

 

The making of lampshades and novelties from human skin and other mass atrocities committed by her could not be judicially established because the majority of Ilse Koch's crimes were committed during the period which the American Army, in violation of Law No. 10, refused to include in its trials. [9]

Law No. 10 indicated that the Allies would consider all crimes committed between1933 and 1945. The order was apparently given by Colonel C.E. Straight and Colonel A.H. Rosenfeld to ignore all Buchenwald crimes committed before Pearl Harbor, though the camp had existed for four years prior.

A week later, General Clay commented on this matter:[10] "My examination of the record, based upon reports which I received from the lawyers, indicated that the most serious charges were based on hearsay and not on factual evidence. For that reason the sentence was commuted." He went on to say:

 

I hold no sympathy for Ilse Koch. She was a woman of depraved character and ill repute. She had done many things reprehensible and punishable, undoubtedly, under German law. We were not trying her for those things. We were trying her as a war criminal on specific charges.

Note that General Clay makes reference to the fact that he is relying upon the "reports which [he] received from the lawyers." This becomes important later.

In the last days of 1948, a Senate investigation into the Koch case, begun only four days after the commutation of her sentence in September, was completed. The excerpts from that report printed in the Times regarding human-skin atrocities are as follows:[11]

 

Tattooed skin was carefully cut from bodies of dead inmates, tanned and used for a variety of pseudo-scientific and decorative purposes.

...

As to the human-skin aspects of this case, there is no doubt that tattooed human skin was scraped, tanned, and dried by the pathological departments at Buchenwald. Numerous witnesses testified as to its existence, and three samples of it and a shrunken human head were placed in evidence. These same samples were made exhibits at the hearings before this subcommittee.

One defense witness (Wilhelm) testified that a lamp had been made of skin to his knowledge, and offered hearsay evidence to the fact that Ilse Koch had ordered and had been delivered a lampshade of this sort.

Prosecution witnesses (Titz and Froeboess) testified that they had seen the accused in possession of a skin lampshade, a skin-bound album, and a pair of gloves of human skin. Two defense witnesses (Wilhelm and Biermann) and one prosecution witness (Sitte) testified, from hearsay, that she had possession of articles made of human skin.

The chief witnesses [sic] for the accused was Ilse Koch herself, who specifically denied the charges brought against her and the testimony of the witnesses who had appeared against her.

Secretary Royall, whose previous comment on the subject had been that the tattoo charges "had not been proved," reversed his opinion in the testimony he gave to the committee:

 

Kenneth C. Royall, Secretary of the Army, said he found it difficult to "understand why they were for reduction in sentence." He admitted military authorities ""may have made a mistake."

The subcommittee also reviewed General Clay's decision to commute the sentence. This provides us with some of the most interesting material, a brief glimpse into why Clay made the decision he did. According to the Times:

 

In assailing reduction of the sentence originally given to Frau Koch, who was accused of having men killed so that their tattooed skin might be made into lampshades or other useful curios, the committee expressed the opinion that American military authorities "rendered in good faith" a decision that "no doubt appeared to them to be a proper decision."

But it expressed amazement that the "only written justification" in existence at the time the order was signed by Gen. Lucius D. Clay, the United States Military Commander in Germany, was an "incomplete recapitulation of the evidence" by two civilian attorneys who made a preliminary review.

This document stated that, while Frau Koch did encourage, aid and participate in the common Nazi design, the extent and nature of her participation did not warrant imprisonment for life.

General Clay never disputed any of the above, at least not publicly. Three months later, he announced that it had been decided that she could not be tried by American military courts, and that the trial by German authorities was under consideration.[12]

A few years later, he commented tangentially on the Senate committee's conclusions in his book Decision in Germany: [13]

 

Among the 1672 trials was that of Ilse Koch, the branded "Bitch of Buchenwald," but as I examined the record I could not find her a major participant in the crimes of Buchenwald. A sordid, disreputable character, she had delighted in flaunting her sex, emphasized by tight sweaters and short skirts, before the long-confined male prisoners, and had developed their bitter hatred. Nevertheless these were not the offenses for which she was being tried and so I reduced her sentence, expecting the reaction which came. Perhaps I erred in judgment but no one can share the responsibility of a reviewing officer. Later the Senate committee which unanimously criticized this action heard witnesses who gave testimony not contained in the record before me. I could take action only on that record. [Emphasis added.]

Frau Koch was indeed later indicted and convicted by the German court. Clay would later state that the German court "had clear jurisdiction." [14]

She was sentenced to life for: "one count of incitement to murder, one of incitement to attempted murder, five of incitement to severe physical mistreatment of prisoners, and two of physical mistreatment."[15]

"The court found no proof that anyone at Buchenwald had been murdered for his tattooed skin, but it expressed no doubt that skin lampshades had been made and that human heads had been shriveled and preserved at the camp."

Let's briefly recapitulate, at this point.

It has never been questioned, not even by Frau Koch or her lawyers, whether or not human-skin lampshades were made at Buchenwald. The only question has been whether Koch herself actually participated in their manufacture. This is an important point. Three samples of such artifacts were placed into evidence, and were also viewed by the Senate subcommittee.

Two witnesses testified that they themselves had seen Frau Koch in possession of human-skin artifacts. Clay may not have been aware of these witnesses, because he said that the testimony regarding the "most serious charges" was entirely hearsay. Whether that referred to the human-skin charges is unknown. It would seem likely that the charges for murder would be the "most serious charges."

In any case, the attorneys who reviewed the evidence for Clay produced, according to the Senate subcommittee, an "incomplete recapitulation of the evidence."

In other words, Clay was misinformed by his assistants, and Clay went on to write shortly thereafter that "he could take action only on that record" which he was presented with. This is a key point. It is also important to note that this fact is readily available to anyone who simply browses Koch-related stories in the newspapers of the era, or looks up Clay's Decision in Germany.

The German court failed to convict Koch on the charge that she had selected prisoners to be murdered for their skins, but that same court said that there was "no doubt that skin lampshades had been made."

History offers little more about Ilse Koch during her subsequent imprisonment over the next two decades. She committed suicide in 1967. But in 1976, General Clay was supposed to be a speaker at a conference at the George C. Marshall Research Foundation in Virginia. In poor health, he sent last-minute regrets. A month later, he and General Mark W. Clark gave videotaped interviews to a member of the Foundation.

According to Mark Weber, the transcripts of those interviews reveal that General Clay reaffirmed his position of twenty-eight years earlier:;[16]

 

We tried Ilse Koch. ...She was sentenced to life imprisonment, and I commuted it to three years. And our press really didn't like that. She had been destroyed by the fact that an enterprising reporter who first went into her house had given her the beautiful name, the "Bitch of Buchenwald," and he had found some white lampshades in there which he wrote up as being made out of human flesh.

Well, it turned out actually that it was goat flesh. But at the trial it was still human flesh. It was almost impossible for her to have gotten a fair trial.

Similar words were said to Jean Edward Smith in the interview he took:[17]

 

That was one of the reasons I revoked the death sentence of Ilse Koch. 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 callled her the "Bitch of Buchenwald," had written that she had lampshades made out of human skin in her house. And that was introduced in court, where it was absolutely proven that the lampshades were made out of goatskin.

It should be noted that Smith characterized Clay's memory as "extraordinary," saying he "could recall cables twenty-five years old, almost verbatim. No detail was too small to be filed away in his recollection." [18]

But notice the discrepancies: in the Foundation interview, Clay stated that the lampshades were still considered human at the trial. In the Smith interview, he stated that the trial proved " absolutely" that they were not (Presumably he was not aware of the forensic evidence proving that the skin was human.).

Also, in the Foundation interview, he could not even recall how many years he had reduced her sentence to (four).

It is important to realize that the Frau Koch affair, though big news in the media, was of very little concern to General Clay. His responsibility was to manage the rebuilding of the entire U.S.-occupied German nation between 1945 and his retirement in May 1949. With tens of millions of people to look after, he can be excused for overlooking the details about one war criminal. In Decision in Germany, he makes a point of mentioning that Koch's trial was only one of the 1,672 Dachau trials which he oversaw as reviewing officer. Her irrelevance to his life can be seen in John Backer's biography, Winds of History: [19] nowhere in this book's 300 pages is she even mentioned.

The actual transcripts of the trial are, of course, the only way to settle the question. Obtaining these transcripts is not an easy undertaking. Anyone who wishes to assist in this effort is invited to contact this author.

The important thing is not so much what Holocaust-deniers are saying about Ilse Koch and General Clay as what they are not saying. They went to the trouble of digging up an interview at an obscure research foundation from 1976, enlisting the assistance of a senior archivist at the National Archives to do so.

Yet they forgot to mention the important evidence, much more easily uncovered, which indicates that the statements made in this interview (and later in Smith's book) are incorrect or ill-informed.

They forgot to mention that the trial which Clay reviewed did not cover the full period during which Koch was at the camp.

They forgot to mention that Clay was incompletely informed by his assistants, and that he admitted as much in his 1950 book, saying: "I could take action only on that record."

They forgot to mention that a Senate investigatory committee saw, with their own eyes, the very same "three samples" of "tattooed human skin" that Clay says don't exist.

They forgot to mention the conclusion that the subcommittee reached: that "there is no doubt" that human skin was tanned at Buchenwald.

They forgot to mention that there is a forensic report which, based on microscopic analysis and the placement of nipples and navel, concludes that the skin is indeed human.

They forget to mention that the same German court that found her innocent of the charge of murdering anyone for tattooed skin, also declared it indisputable that human-skin artifacts were made.

And all that information is much more readily available than the transcripts of an obscure interview by an obscure organization conducted 28 years after the fact.

Since Holocaust-deniers have gone to so much trouble to find evidence which vaguely supports their thesis, and have not lifted a finger to reveal the evidence to the contrary, the logical conclusion is that they are dishonest.

Readers interested in contemporary accounts of Frau Koch's story may wish to consult the New York Times articles reference herein especially: 4/12/45 p. 5; 7/11/47 p. 6; 8/13/47 p. 14; 8/15/47 p. 5 (first sentencing); 9/28/48 p. 3 (commutation); 9/29/48 p. 14; 10/1/48 p.11; 10/8/48 p.10; 10/9/48 p. 3; 10/15/48 p. 3;10/18/48 p. 22; 10/22/48 p. 5; 12/27/48 pp. 1,12 (Senate Inquiry report);3/23/49 p. 21; 10/18/49 p. 11; 11/29/50 p. 22; and 1/16/51 pp. 1,8.

Notes

  1. Butz, A. The Hoax of the TwentiethCentury, (1976), pp. 42-43)
  2. Weber, M., "Buchenwald: Legend and Reality,"Journal of Historical Review Vol. 7, no. 4, (1987)
  3. Smith, B.R. Advertisement in campus newspapers (1991).
  4. Smith J. E., Lucius D. Clay: An American Life, (1990)
  5. New York Times (NYT), Sept. 24, 1948, p. 3.
  6. NYT, Sept. 25, 1948, p. 6.
  7. NYT, Oct. 1, 1948, p. 11.
  8. NYT, Oct. 15, 1948, p. 3.
  9. NYT, Oct. 1, 1948, p. 11.
  10. NYT, Oct. 22, 1948, p. 5.
  11. NYT, Dec. 27, 1948, p. 12.
  12. NYT, Mar. 23, 1949, p. 21.
  13. Clay, L., Decision in Germany (1950), p.254
  14. Smith, J. E., Op. Cit., p. 301.
  15. NYT, Jan. 16, 1951, p. 1.
  16. Weber, M., Op. Cit.
  17. Smith, J. E., Op. Cit., p. 301.
  18. Smith, J. E., Op. Cit., p. xi.
  19. Backer, J., Winds of History

Appendix: Documents Concerning Ilse Koch


Source: The Nizkor Project. Reprinted by permission from the author.