Ilse Koch (née Köhler; born 22 September 1906 in Dresden, Kingdom of Saxony; died 1 September 1967 in Aichach women's prison, Bavaria) was the wife of Karl-Otto Koch, commandant of the Nazi concentration camps Buchenwald (from 1937 to 1941) and Majdanek (from 1941 to 1943). She was one of the first prominent Nazis to be tried by the US military.
After the trial was remitted under worldwide media attention, survivor accounts of her actions resulted in other authors describing her abuse of prisoners as sadistic; a shadow image as "concentration camp murderess" transfixed itself to post-war German society. She was accused of taking souvenirs from the skin of murdered inmates with distinctive tattoos. She was known as "The Witch of Buchenwald" ("Die Hexe von Buchenwald") by the inmates because of her alleged cruelty and lasciviousness toward prisoners. She is also called in English "The Beast of Buchenwald", "The Bitch of Buchenwald", "Queen of Buchenwald", "Red Witch of Buchenwald", and the "Butcher Widow"
In 1936, she began working as a guard and secretary at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin, which her fiancé commanded, and was married the same year. In 1937 she came to Buchenwald when her husband was made Commandant.
In 1940, she built an indoor sports arena, which cost over 250,000 reichsmarks, most of which were taken from the inmates. In 1941 she became an Oberaufseherin ("chief overseer") over the few female guards who served at the camp. In 1941 Karl Otto Koch was transferred to Lublin, where he helped establish the Majdanek concentration and extermination camp. Ilse Koch remained at Buchenwald until 24 August 1943, when she and her husband were arrested on the orders of Josias von Waldeck-Pyrmont, SS and Police Leader for Weimar, who had supervisory authority over Buchenwald. The charges against the Kochs comprised private enrichment, embezzlement, and the murder of prisoners to prevent them giving testimony.
Ilse Koch was imprisoned until 1944 when she was acquitted for lack of evidence, but her husband was found guilty and sentenced to death by an SS court in Munich, and was executed in Buchenwald in April 1945. She went to live with her surviving family in the town of Ludwigsburg, where she was arrested by U.S. authorities on 30 June 1945.
Koch and 30 other accused were arraigned before the American military court at Dachau (General Military Government Court for the Trial of War Criminals) in 1947. Prosecuting her was future United States Court of Claims Judge Robert L. Kunzig. She was charged with "participating in a criminal plan for aiding, abetting and participating in the murders at Buchenwald." On 12 August 1947 she was sentenced to life imprisonment for "violation of the laws and customs of war".
After she had served two years of her sentence, General Lucius D. Clay, the interim military governor of the American Zone in Germany, reduced the judgment to four years' prison on 8 June 1948 on the grounds "there was no convincing evidence that she had selected inmates for extermination in order to secure tattooed skins, or that she possessed any articles made of human skin."
News of the reduced sentence did not become public until 16 September 1948. Despite the ensuing uproar, Clay stood firm. Under the pressure of public opinion Koch was re-arrested in 1949 and tried before a West German court. The hearing opened on 27 November 1950 before the Assize Court at Augsburg and lasted seven weeks, during which 250 witnesses were heard including 50 for the defense. Koch collapsed and had to be carried from the court in late December 1950, and again on 11 January 1951. At least four separate witnesses for the prosecution testified that they had seen Ilse Koch choose tattooed prisoners, who were then killed, or had seen or been involved in the process of making human-skin lampshades from tattooed skin. However, this charge was dropped by the prosecution when they could not prove lampshades or any other items were actually made from human-skin.
On 15 January 1951, the Court pronounced its verdict, in a 111-page long decision, for which Koch was not present in court. It was concluded that the previous trials in 1944 and 1947 were not a bar to proceedings under the principle of ne bis in idem, as at the 1944 trial Koch had only been charged with receiving, while in 1947 she had been accused of crimes against foreigners after 1 September 1939, and not with crimes against humanity of which Germans and Austrians had been defendants both before and after that date. She was convicted of charges of incitement to murder, incitement to attempted murder, and incitement to the crime of committing grievous bodily harm, and on 15 January 1951 was sentenced to life imprisonment and permanent forfeiture of civil rights.
Ilse Koch appealed to have the judgment quashed, but the appeal was dismissed on 22 April 1952 by the Federal Court of Justice. She later made several petitions for a pardon, all of which were rejected by the Bavarian Ministry of Justice. She committed suicide by hanging herself at Aichach women's prison on 1 September 1967; she was 60 years old.
The commandant in Lina Wertmüller's film Seven Beauties was based on Koch, as was the title character of the 1974 Nazi exploitation film Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS.
Some sources claim that the character of Hanna Schmitz, played by English actress Kate Winslet in the critically acclaimed film The Reader, is also based on Ilse Koch. Bernhard Schlink, the author of the novel on which the film is based, has denied this.
Richard Zimler's The Warsaw Anagrams takes place in the Warsaw ghetto in 1940-41. The mystery plot involves a link to Ilse Koch and her murderous activities.
Woody Guthrie wrote "Ilsa Koch", a song about her abuses in Buchenwald, her imprisonment and release; it was recorded by The Klezmatics.
The American speed metal band At war recorded the song "Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS", based both in the film of the same name and on the character of Ilse Koch.