Commandant Karl Otto Koch

The first Commandant of Buchenwald was SS Colonel Karl Otto Koch. He was the head of the camp from 1937 to 1941, but was then transferred to the concentration camp called Majdanek in Lublin, Poland after charges of non-payment of taxes were brought against him by local authorities in Weimar. He was replaced by Hermann Pister who was the commandant when the camp was liberated.

Commandant Koch's second wife was Ilse Koch, whom he married in 1936. They had met while Koch was the Commandant at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp and Ilse was a guard there. She was dubbed "the Bitch of Buchenwald" by the American press after the camp was liberated; the prisoners called her "Die Hexe von Buchenwald" (The Witch from Buchenwald). Leather lamp shades found in her house were made from the skin of dead prisoners, according to information at the camp Memorial Site and in the camp guidebook.

An attractive redhead, Ilse was hated by the prisoners because of the provocative way she used to stroll along the fence around the prison enclosure, or ride her horse near the camp. All the prisoners who came in contact with her had to address her as Gnädige Frau, a term of respect for a German lady. She had the reputation of being a hedonist who "took baths in Madeira (wine) that was poured into the bathtub," according to the Buchenwald Report. A prisoner who worked in the Koch home said in an interview for The Buchenwald Report that Frau Koch was simultaneously having love affairs with Dr. Waldemar Hoven and with Deputy Commandant Hermann Florstedt. When Col. Koch was transferred to Majdanek, his wife stayed behind and was with Dr. Waldemar Hoven "almost all day," according to this prisoner who worked in her home.

In spite of the many atrocities known to have been committed in the concentration camps, the Nazis did not officially sanction cruelty to the prisoners. All punishments and executions had to be cleared with the main office in Oranienburg. An SS officer named Dr. Konrad Morgen, who was a judge in a local court, was asked by a government official to investigate a possible murder and black market activities in the Buchenwald camp. Col. Koch had been engaging in both, and he was eventually arrested in August 1943 for inciting the murder of two prisoners and for embezzlement. According to The Buchenwald Report, the murder charge against Col. Koch was that he had ordered the execution of hospital orderly Walter Krämer and his assistant, who had treated him for syphilis, so that they would not reveal his secret, but had falsely claimed that they were executed for political reasons.

Ilse Koch and Dr. Hoven were also arrested in August 1943 for mistreatment of the prisoners. After a six-month investigation, Karl Otto Koch was condemned to death on both counts, but his wife was acquitted. According to The Buchenwald Report, on April 5, 1945, one week before the American liberators arrived, Col. Koch was executed by the Nazis at the German Armament Works near the camp, thus saving them the trouble of putting him on trial. However, in a footnote in the book, Death Dealer, editor Steven Paskuly wrote that "he was shot in Buchenwald in September 1944."

Dr. Konrad Morgen was asked by the American prosecutors at Nuremberg to sign an affidavit that his investigation in 1943 had determined that Ilse Koch had ordered lamp shades made from human skin, but he refused even after several beatings. Ilse's lover, Hermann Florstedt, was later transferred to Majdanek and became the Commandant there. He was also executed by the Nazis after he was convicted by Dr. Konrad Morgen. Under their strict policies, the Nazis did not tolerate wanton cruelty to the concentration camp prisoners. Another camp commandant, who was arrested for stealing from concentration camp factories and food supplies, was SS Major Amon Göth, the commander of the Plaszow camp of Schindler's List fame; he was awaiting trial when the war ended.

Dr. Hoven was tried in Dr. Morgen's court, convicted and sentenced to death for murder. He spent 18 months in jail but was then reprieved because of the critical wartime shortage of doctors. He was tried again by a U.S. military tribunal at Nuremberg and executed on June 2, 1948. According to an official U.S. Army Report on April 24, 1945, Dr. Hoven was an important Communist ally who killed numerous anti-Communist political prisoners in Buchenwald with lethal injections.

Commander Koch had an indoor arena built in 1940, where he and his wife could ride their horses. Located outside the camp, the riding hall was a 1600 square meters wooden structure covered with a steeply pitched slate roof. It was exclusively reserved for the use of the commandant and his wife. This caused great resentment in the camp and Ilse was severely criticized for the imperious way that she rode her horse around the arena. According to the camp guidebook, "Horses and a private riding hall were part of the status symbols the Camp Commandant Karl Koch surrounded himself with. His stately and lordly way of life was well-known in SS circles. He paid for it with money extorted from the prisoners and with large-scale embezzlement."

According to Dr. Eugen Kogon, one of the famous prisoners of Buchenwald, "Construction work had to be stepped up in such a way that about thirty prisoners suffered fatal injuries or were driven to death in the process. Building costs amounted to roughly a quarter of million Marks. Mrs. Koch made her morning rides in this place after its completion. This took a quarter or half an hour several times a week and had to be accompanied with music played by the SS band standing on a special platform."

After Frau Koch was arrested and jailed in Weimar in August 1943, the riding hall was used for storage. Following her acquittal, Frau Koch moved out of the Commandant's house, but left at least one of the infamous leather lampshades behind. After the American liberators arrived on April 11, 1945, the prisoners wasted no time in bringing new accusations against Ilse, who was soon to become the most infamous person associated with Buchenwald.

Ilse was tried before an American military tribunal at Dachau in 1947 where she was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Her sentence was reduced to time served, or four years, and she was released in 1949 after General Lucius B. Clay, the highest authority in the American occupation forces in Germany, reviewed her case. General Clay claimed that the lamp shades had been made from goat skin. Ilse Koch was then retried in a German court on charges of cruelty to the prisoners and incitement of murder. She was convicted and sentenced again to life imprisonment. Frau Koch committed suicide in prison in 1967.

Hermann Pister, the second and last Commandant at Buchenwald, was convicted by an American military tribunal in Dachau in 1947 and executed in 1948.

In 1938, as soon as the Buchenwald camp opened, Koch ordered the construction of a park area for the SS guards, just outside the camp fence, which featured a birdhouse, a water basin, and a zoo for four bears and five monkeys. The bears were in full view of the prisoners, and there was also an elaborate falconry in another area outside the camp where the SS kept birds of prey. The Jewish prime minister of France, Leon Blum, was kept as a prisoner in the falconer's house, until he was transferred to Dachau.

The press was appalled by the incongruity of a bird house at Buchenwald

"Water basin" in the SS park just outside the camp fence

Commandant Koch may have been a cruel, ostentatious embezzler, but he was soft hearted when it came to animals.The camp guidebook contains the following order by Commandant Koch, concerning the animals at Buchenwald:

Commanders's Order No. 56 dated 8th September 1938 (Extract)

"1. Buchenwald zoological gardens has been created in order to provide diversion and entertainment for the men in their leisure time and to show them the beauty and peculiarities of various animals which they will hardly be able to meet and observe in the wild.

But we must also expect the visitor to be reasonable and fond of animals enough to refrain from anything that might not be good for the animals, cause harm to them or even compromise their health and habits. (...) In the meantime, I again received reports saying that SS men have tied the deer's horns to the fence and cut them loose only after a long while. Furthermore, it has been found that deer have been lured to the fence and tinfoil put in the mouth. In the future, I will find out the perpetrators of such loutish acts and have them reported to the SS Commander in Chief in order to have them punished for cruelty to animals."

The Camp Commandant of Buchenwald Concentration Camp

signed by Koch


Note that "loutish" behavior by the SS guards was not tolerated. The German army was the best disciplined of all the armed forces fighting in World War II, and the elite SS troops were held to an even higher standard. Note that the Commandant is threatening to report them. He did not have the power to punish the guards or the prisoners without approval from headquarters.

Bears were kept in zoo just outside camp, near east gate guard tower

According to "Time 'Too Painful' to Remember" by Aril Goldman, published in the New York Times on November 10, 1988, Buchenwald survivor Morris Hubert was quoted as follows: "In the camp there was a cage with a bear and an eagle. Every day, they would throw a Jew in there. The bear would tear him apart and the eagle would pick at his bones."

The camp inmates were not allowed to visit the zoo, but they could see the bears and monkeys through the fence, and there were plenty of other diversions for them. Buchenwald was the first German concentration camp to have a movie theater which showed full-length regular films to the inmates. There was an admission charge of 30 pfennings, later reduced to 20 pfennings; the prisoners could receive money from relatives outside the camp or earn money by working in the camp. After the liberation, the prisoners got to see their first American film on April 26, 1945.

According to The Buchenwald Report, the prisoners had a camp library with 13,811 books. They were also allowed to organize variety shows and concerts. Art work was encouraged as long as it was not "degenerate art," and some of the prisoner's paintings are shown in the museum art gallery. Like all the other Nazi concentration camps, Buchenwald had a camp orchestra made up of inmate musicians who wore red pants and green vests, representing the triangle colors of the two main groups in the camp, the Communists and the criminals. The Communists also had their own orchestra which played Communist songs. Another facility which was common to all the main concentration camps was the camp brothel for the inmates; there were 15 prostitutes employed at Buchenwald when the American liberators arrived. The Jews were not allowed access to the brothel because this would have violated the Nuremberg Law of 1935 which forbade sexual relations between Jews and Aryans.

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