The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

Deceit & Misrepresentation
The Techniques of Holocaust Denial

Frau Ilse Koch, General Lucius Clay, and human-skin atrocities

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. Samples of tattooed human skin from Buchenwald are stored at the (US) National Museum of Health & Medicine, along with the transcript of a Fox 5 program concerning these artifacts.

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.

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