Assignment America: Law of the Bomb

By JOHN BLOOM, UPI Reporter-at-Large  |  March 18, 2003 at 12:51 PM
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NEW YORK, March 17 (UPI) -- I'm not so naive as I was, as a boy, when I read the annals of Nuremberg and believed we were moving toward an era in which everything would be decided by law, not bombs -- that aggressors would be tried and jailed instead of summarily executed on the battlefield.

It's impossible now. Whatever hope we had for world courts of any independence has vanished. It was odd that, in President Bush's speech, he invoked the principal moral quandary of Nuremberg when he said that "just following orders" will not be accepted as an excuse for vanquished officers. An Iraqi captain, defending his homeland, will be judged not by the standards of West Point but by the standards of the 17th century. He'll more than likely be punished according to the damage he does to the enemy.

I shudder to think what these kangaroo courts will be like. Since the United States refused to join the International Court of Justice, nothing we do to the conquered enemy will be sanctioned by The Hague. And yet, after World War II, we were the leading voice -- the Chief Justice of our own Supreme Court was the principal spokesman -- for trials that had the sanction of as much of the planet as possible. We were such sticklers for the law that we even adapted the procedures to accommodate the Soviets.

Much is being made of comparisons between Saddam Hussein and Hitler. Any similarity is bogus. Hitler operated the most extensive war machine the world had ever known. Saddam Hussein would be lucky at this point to hit Israel with even one missile. But I'll review just one legal case history to illustrate the more fundamental difference. It's not dictators who have changed, but us.

I won't use a celebrated criminal like Goebbels. Let's take a minor Nazi instead: Ilse Koch.

Born in Dresden in 1906, Ilse Kohler was by all reports a beautiful woman with long red hair, although you wouldn't know it by her photos in various Holocaust books, taken after she had been imprisoned and her face had become puffy and severe. Soon after Hitler's rise to power, she had been given a job in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where she worked her feminine wiles on the commandant, Karl Koch. At the time she met him, Koch was already famous in Gestapo circles as the commandant of Columbia House in Berlin, where the Gestapo extracted confessions. Among Koch's favorite techniques were confining prisoners to doghouses and forcing them to bark on command, bloody beatings, and stopping up the anus with hot asphalt then forcing the prisoner to drink castor oil.

In May 1937 Koch took Ilse Kohler as his bride, and when he was reassigned to a brand new "special punishment camp" for political prisoners, she went with him. The new camp was to be constructed by prison labor on a beautiful slope of Ettersberg Mountain, five miles north of Weimar. Once there she was named the SS-Aufseherin, or overseer, of the prison that was named by Heinrich Himmler himself. It was to be called Buchenwald.

The Kochs ruled Buchenwald for four years, and from what we know they used prison labor to build a life of luxury for themselves. Anything that was sent to the prison -- wood, copper, bronze, gold, silver, wrought iron -- was diverted for the benefit of Koch and his officers. Ten villas for the Gestapo were built by prisoners, with house servants chosen from imprisoned Jehovah's Witnesses. The prison workshops were devoted to the production of luxury articles like decorative objects, inlaid wood furniture, paintings, busts and sculptures.

If Koch found a competent craftsman or talented artist, he would loan him out to Berlin or other cities -- for money, of course -- so that SS officers could have the luxury goods they craved. The sculpture studio at Buchenwald made a desk set of green marble that was presented to Heinrich Himmler as his Christmas present in 1939.

Koch also constructed a personal falconry for Hermann Goering in 1940 (although Goering never used it). It included an aviary, hunting hall, fireplaces, trophies, gazebo, a house for the falconer, deer pens and wildcat cages, with the whole complex maintained by landscape gardeners. Koch also ordered the construction of an elaborate entrance gate with the inscription "My Country Right or Wrong."

From the very beginning Commandant Koch instituted monthly "comradeship evenings" for headquarters staff, and these were all-night riots of eating and drinking, usually ending in wild orgies. The officers lived like kings. In Koch's house alone, Allied forces found 30 hams, 60 smoked sausages, several hundred jars of fruits and vegetables, and 500 to 600 bottles of wine and champagne.

At first Buchenwald was a labor camp for political prisoners, with mostly German Communist inmates who were employed making weapons and other war materiel. These prisoners were later joined by Slavs, resistance fighters, homosexuals, handicapped people, gypsies and Jews.

Although designed for only 8,000 prisoners, Buchenwald would eventually house more than 60,000 and, in the latter years of the war, become a death camp with a quota of 80 gas-chamber executions per day. All these prisoners knew who Ilse was, and they came to despise her as "Die Hexe von Buchenwald," or The Witch from Buchenwald. (This was transformed into the "Bitch of Buchenwald" by American reporters who accompanied the Allied liberators in 1945.)

Ilse was a nymphomaniac. While living with her husband, she managed to carry on affairs with two other Gestapo officers, Dr. Waldemar Hoven by day and Deputy Commandant Hermann Florstedt at night. She would spend entire days in her bedroom while also finding time for trysts with the occasional SS guard. She was fond of horses and rode through the camp each day exposing her cleavage or her legs -- but if a prisoner looked at her, she would order him whipped by guards. She liked to bathe in expensive Madeira wine, poured into the tub by her personal valet, a prisoner who was also expected to take care of her children, feed and walk her dogs, make coffee and take it to Frau Koch in the morning as she luxuriated in the nude. (When one of her servants was caught stealing a bottle of wine, he was whipped in the face, forced to crawl over two high mounds of road gravel, strapped to a whipping block and given 25 lashes on the butt with a horsewhip, forced to do 100 deep knee bends, ordered to stand motionless for hours on a mound of gravel in the glaring heat, and finally hung from the steel door of his cell block, arms tied behind his back, for three hours.)

In 1940 Commandant Koch had the inmates build an indoor equestrian arena especially for Ilse, and prisoners later claimed that the work was so hard and dangerous that it resulted in perhaps 30 deaths. She was the only person who ever used the football-field-sized arena, taking her morning ride there while the SS band stood on a special platform, playing music for her. Its walls were lined with mirrors so that she could admire herself.

Her life as the Queen of Buchenwald was interrupted only slightly in August 1941, when her husband was charged with black-market activities and inciting the murder of two prisoners. The charges were made by SS Gen. Prince Josias von Waldeck-Pyrmont, Koch's superior, who never liked Koch but was blocked from disciplining him because the Buchenwald commandant was a favorite of SS Gen. Theodor Eicke, inspector of all concentration camps. Waldeck-Pyrmont was finally able to make the charges stick after Eicke was transferred to the front.

The specific charges were that Koch had ordered the execution of two German Communists, Walter Kramer and Karl Peix, who were working as hospital attendants. (Koch had ordered them shot because they had treated Koch for syphilis and he wanted to eliminate them as witnesses.) While awaiting trial, Koch was demoted to the Majdanek concentration camp for Soviet prisoners in Lublin, Poland, but Ilse decided to stay in Buchenwald with her number one lover, the powerful and feared Dr. Waldemar Hoven, who was not above poisoning or lethally injecting inmates if they proved troublesome or dangerous.

But Ilse's days were numbered. The same man who prosecuted her husband, a law-and-order SS officer named Dr. Konrad Morgen, continued to monitor her activities and those of Dr. Hoven, and in August 1943 Ilse, her husband and both her lovers were arrested for cruelty to prisoners, embezzlement and forgery. Karl Koch was also charged a second time with murder and making threats to officials. Ilse moved to Majdanek, where her husband continued to work while awaiting his final judgment.

Karl Koch was tried and condemned to death on both murder counts, but Ilse was acquitted -- and moved back to Buchenwald in her capacity as overseer. Hermann Florstedt, Ilse's other lover, was recalled from his commandant position at the Majdanek camp and also received a death sentence. Dr. Hoven was convicted of murdering anti-Communists by lethal injection, raising the suspicion that he was a Communist spy, but his death sentence was commuted due to a doctor shortage. (He was tried again by a United States military tribunal in 1948 and executed, partly because of Dr. Morgen's testimony. Hermann Pister, Koch's replacement as commandant at Buchenwald, was also convicted by an American court in 1947 and executed in 1948.)

At the time Buchenwald was liberated by the Americans in 1945, Ilse was still living in her spacious villa near the camp. She was not important enough to be tried at Nuremberg, but she was judged by a 1947 tribunal, where the principal charge against her was that she had used the flesh of dead inmates to make lampshades for her personal use. One prisoner testified that she had ordered all the inmates to be assembled on the Appelplatz and stripped naked so that she could examine each one and choose tattoos that she liked. Presumably the prisoner would then be killed so that she could use his skin to make decorative leather objects. Another testified that in her villa she had light switches made from human thumbs.

None of these charges were ever proven, however, and it was difficult later to determine what had really happened and what had been embellished by American newspaper reporters who became fascinated with the only woman Gestapo officer tried for these sorts of atrocities. It now appears that most of the tattooed human skin was the result of the obsessions of a Nazi doctor named Wagner, who wrote a doctoral dissertation on tattooing and had the camp searched for interesting tattoos, which he photographed. Nevertheless, in 1947, at a trial that got massive press coverage in the states, she was sentenced to life in prison.

Two years after the trial, American Gen. Lucius B. Clay ordered an investigation into her case, and determined that the famous human-skin lamp shades were actually made of goat skin. Even if they HAD been made of human skin, he said, those types of objects were found in other officers' quarters and didn't prove that she had ordered them, asked for them, or caused anyone to be killed. (Her husband, for example, had a watch fob made out of gold from teeth.) Clay reduced her sentence to four years. It was not a popular decision. The outrage in the popular press resulted in U.S. Sen. Homer Ferguson of Michigan conducting a congressional investigation, and soon thereafter Ilse Koch was rearrested by German authorities (nothing to do with the international courts) and given a new trial on atrocity charges. In 1951 she was again sentenced to life, and this time it stuck.

She was held in the Bavarian prison at Aichach, where she committed suicide in 1967.

It appears, in retrospect, that Ilse Koch may have received punishment as a substitute for her husband. With the U.S. Third Army closing in on Buchenwald in April of 1945, the Gestapo set about getting rid of anyone who had a motive to testify against them. Otto Koch, who had become a millionaire through his exploitation of concentration camp workers, was shot one week before the liberation of Buchenwald, the execution being carried out by his original accuser, von Waldeck-Pyrmont, Higher SS and Police Leader of Thuringia. Dr. Konrad Morgen, the original prosecutor of Koch's crimes, more or less vindicated Ilse Koch in the subsequent trials. And the American general in charge of tribunals, Lucius Clay, was sufficiently disturbed by the lack of evidence against her that he made it a special point to revisit the case 20 years later, even after she was dead.

"As I examined the record," wrote Clay, "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."

Clay pointed out that she had not even lived at Buchenwald during the years of its worst atrocities, 1943 to 1945, and that most of the allegations made in the press -- that she had a "family journal" bound in human skin featuring a chest tattoo of a four-masted ship -- were not proven. He thought that she may have owned "medical specimens" cut from dead inmates, but that there was no evidence that she had ordered any murders. The Secretary of the Army, Kenneth C. Royall, agreed with Clay's decision. "I hold no sympathy for Ilse Koch," he said as late as 1976. "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."

General Clay and Secretary Royall, in other words, were sticklers for the law. Even this woman deserved justice, they thought, as every human being does. It was a different era.


John Bloom writes a number of columns for UPI and may be contacted at or through his Web site at Snail mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, Texas 75221.

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