When Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933, the world changed forever.
Not only was Hitler determined to pay back Germany’s enemies for his country’s defeat during the Great War, but he was also determined to rid Germany and the rest of Europe of persons whom his twisted Aryan ideology believed were “inferior” or “subhuman.”
Almost immediately upon assuming power, Hitler and his minions began instituting a policy of imprisoning personal and political opponents in special holding centers known as Konzentrazionlagern—concentration camps, or “KL” for short.
At first, abandoned factories, warehouses, and even castles were used to incarcerate the Nazis’ enemies—Communists, Social Democrats, dissidents, and anyone who dared to speak out against the government and its policies. Soon others were added to the list of prisoners—outspoken priests and pastors, men guilty of shirking work, even vagrants. The camps initially were to be “re-education centers,” where those who held anti-Nazi views would be taught how to think “correctly.”
The First Concentration Camps: Nohra and Dachau
The first camp built specifically to hold these persons was constructed in March 1933 at a small Luftwaffe airbase at Nohra, a tiny farming village near Weimar, in the rabidly pro-Nazi state of Thuringia. Consisting of just a few buildings that could hold only 250 prisoners, the camp was soon overflowing; a better and larger solution needed to be found.
SS head Heinrich Himmler directed SS General Theodor Eiche to devise a more capacious camp, which he did at Dachau, a Munich suburb. Here, adjacent to the sprawling SS compound, dozens of barracks sprang up, surrounded by an electrified barbed wire fence and a high wall to keep out the prying eyes of the neighbors. Here, too, were special facilities for the mistreatment of inmates, and a crematorium for the mass disposal of corpses that, given the harsh treatment and torture, the medical experiments on live subjects, the rampant diseases, and the starvation rations, were becoming more numerous by the day.
It was not long before Jews, Gypsies (also known as Sinti and Roma), Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others also found themselves being arrested without charge and transported to the growing number of camps. Using Eicke’s “Dachau model,” additional camps were created. By the time the war ended, there would be hundreds of main and subcamps, mostly slave-labor camps (Buchenwald, for example, had 174 subcamps).
It was also the concentration camp system that drew little protest from German citizens that emboldened the Nazi regime to go to the extreme and create the death camps—places of mass extermination, primarily but not exclusively of Jews.
Buchenwald, “Beech Forest”
In July 1937, the first buildings of Buchenwald began to be erected atop the Etterberg hill, which dominates the otherwise flat landscape around Weimar. Long a favorite spot for picnickers who enjoyed the views from the Bismarck Tower on the hill’s southern slope and the baroque stateliness of Anna Amelia’s palace on its northern side, the Etterberg held a special place in the hearts of the locals. Atop the hill, it was said, the great German poet and playright Goethe spent many hours beneath the shade of a towering oak tree composing some of his most famous works, including Faust.
For centuries Weimar was the cultural capital of Germany and had even been selected as the nation’s seat of government following the end of World War I. But Weimar was also a hotbed for right-wing radicals who hated the weak but democratic regime. It was perhaps inevitable, then, once Hitler took power, that the Etterberg hill would become a place to incarcerate enemies of the Nazi state.
The word “buchenwald” means “beech forest,” and the Etterberg was a heavily wooded place that abounded with wild game—a favorite hunting ground for generations of nobility.
Late on the morning of July 15, 1937, a convoy of trucks carrying 149 carpenters and other craftsmen—all of them political prisoners—came up the hill from Weimar; the men were immediately put to work by the SS construction chief.
Much work needed to be done. Over the years, Buchenwald’s inmates would be involved in grading the camp streets; laying water and sewage lines; and constructing barracks, latrines, administrative offices, guard towers, fences, storehouses, barracks for the guards, homes for the officers and administrators, garages, an indoor riding arena, theater, troop casino, dog kennels, falconry area, a zoo for SS families, an inmate infirmary and library, troop hospital, shooting ranges, depot for building materials, a brothel, and, most chillingly, a gatehouse with a sinister wing known as the Zellerbau or “bunker”—an inmates’ prison that contained a number of tiny cells where prisoners often would be tortured in the hours before their scheduled executions.
Villa Koch: The Life of the Commandant and his Wife
Buchenwald’s first commandant was an SS Standartenführer (Colonel) by the name of Karl Otto Koch. He had already impressed Himmler and the Nazi hierarchy in 1934, when he became commandant of Sachsenburg, a concentration camp located in an abandoned four-story textile mill near Chemnitz. There he caught Heinrich Himmler’s eye as someone unafraid to carry out even the most chilling orders. Between 1934 and 1937, Koch held a number of different posts at a variety of concentration camps, including Esterwegen (near Hamburg), Lichtenburg (in Prettin, near Wittenberg), and at Dachau. He then became commandant of the Gestapo’s notorious Columbia- haus prison and torture chamber near Berlin’s Tempelhof airport and at Oranienburg-Sachsenhausen, in a Berlin suburb. At these camps Koch learned how to bend men to his will and how to apply the most extreme forms of mental and physical torture, all the while gaining a reputation within the SS as a sadistic, ambitious administrator, unrestrained by a moral compass or human decency. He surrounded himself with like-minded lieutenants and a like-minded wife.
In 1936, while commandant of the Sachsenhausen camp, Koch met 30-year-old Margarete Ilse Köhler, a secretary at the Reetsma Cigarette Company in Dresden. Not a great deal is known about her early life or the circumstances of her meeting Koch. What is known is that she was born in Dresden to Eduard and Anna Köhler on September 22, 1906, preferred to be called Ilse, and avoided high school but instead attended a trade school, where she acquired stenographic and secretarial skills; her first job, in 1922, was as an apprentice in a book store. She joined the Nazi Party in 1932 (party membership number 1,130,836)—one of the very first women to do so.
Fascinated by uniforms, the red-haired Ilse exclusively dated members of the SS and SA, so it was only natural that she fell in love with a grandly uniformed SS colonel, even though he was round-faced, balding, stocky, nine years her senior, and divorced with two sons. After a courtship lasting a few months, she and Koch, whose star was on the rise within the strange world of concentration camp administrators, were married on May 25, 1937, in a traditional SS wedding ceremony with all the ritualistic trimmings. She would bear him three children. In August 1937, the Kochs moved from Sachsenhausen into new quarters at Buchenwald, where he set up his practice of sadism and brutality, the likes of which, he was sure, would delight his superiors and, at the same time, enrich his own bank account.
While the prisoners at Buchenwald were brutalized, starved, and made to live in squalor, the Kochs lived in high splendor at Villa Koch. Their cellar was full of wine and foodstuffs. They also took frequent vacations and ski trips. Karl used every opportunity to embezzle from the camp and the prisoners to enrich himself. Parties and orgies, too, were often held at Villa Koch in which alcohol flowed abundantly and marital fidelity was forgotten by both Ilse and Karl and others in attendance.
The Witch and the Hangman of Buchenwald
Ilse Koch was, initially, one of seven SS officers’ wives at Buchenwald, but she was not the type who made friends easily. By all accounts, Frau Koch who, from later photographs, can best be described as “dumpy,” was vain, cruel, cold-blooded, sadistic, degenerate, and power hungry—even more so than her husband. Some reports even characterize her as nymphomaniacal. Many other labels were pinned on her: the “Commandeuse of Buchenwald,” the “Witch of Buchenwald,” and, most alliteratively, the “Bitch of Buchenwald.” Despite her later denials to the contrary at her war crimes trial, Ilse Koch seems to have involved herself in many aspects of the day-to-day operation of the camp, including selecting tattooed prisoners to be killed and their decorated skin made into gruesome household objects such as lampshades and photo album covers. The matter of tattooed prisoners and the use of that skin is one that will be forever linked with Buchenwald and Frau Koch.
Kurt Sitte, a German physician who was imprisoned atop the Etterberg, told a postwar U.S. Senate subcommittee that he had been detailed to work in the pathological department and was well acquainted with the matter of tattooed inmates. He said, “Tattooing for our collection had to be colorful, not in other ways particularly interesting; but we had to have stocks of this material. There were many visitors the SS brought to the camp, and they used to be thrilled when they saw these skins in the pathology department among the other exhibits. Therefore, we always had to have a hundred or so of these tattoos in our collections, and among them, if possible, many of the obscene motifs.