cover image Ilse Koch on Trial: The Contested History of the “Bitch of Buchenwald”

Ilse Koch on Trial: The Contested History of the “Bitch of Buchenwald”

Tomaz Jardim. Harvard Univ, $35 (368p) ISBN 978-0-674-24918-9

In this disturbing investigation, historian Jardim (The Mauthausen Trial) recasts Nazi war criminal Ilse Koch as a scapegoat. The wife of Buchenwald commandant Karl Koch, Ilse was acquitted by a Nazi court of “receiving stolen goods” in 1944 and convicted by U.S. and West German authorities of war crimes in 1947 and 1951. After spending nearly 24 years in prison, she died by suicide in 1967. Scrupulously examining the trial records, Jardim argues that Ilse was “a relatively inconsequential woman” who became “one of the most enduring symbols of Nazi Terror” because of the public’s “voyeuristic fascination with her alleged crimes” and “outrage at her perceived violation of accepted gender norms.” According to Jardim, there is no evidence that Ilse committed the most “sensational and grotesque” crimes attributed to her, including that she “had ordered the murder of tattooed inmates in order to collect their skins for the production of lampshades.” Ilse’s West German trial “was more of a moral crusade than an attempt to reckon with the crimes of the concentration camp system,” Jardim argues, and “provided a safe target for the postwar German public to comfortably condemn without having to reflect on the criminality and violence implicit in the National Socialism that most had either supported or enabled.” Scrupulous and unsettling, this is a vital reconsideration of a notorious figure from history. Photos. (Mar.)