The Techniques of Holocaust Denial: Lampshades, Tattooed Skin, Ilse Koch, and General Clay

Writer: Jamie McCarthy Editor: Ken McVay

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.

Nizkor wonders why Butz omitted the following:

‘Frau Koch was also the amateur of tattooed skins. Inspections were held at the hospital, the more noteworthy chests and arms put to one side, and the owners killed and skinned. The skins were then submitted to her and she chose those which she liked and ordered them to be made up. The lampshade which Koch presented to her has earned them both places in the lowest category of bipeds’ (Christopher Burney, Dungeon Democracy, printed in Burney, Solitary Confinement and The Dungeon Democracy, London, 1984, pp.148-49).

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).