Erich Koch was a Gauleiter of the Nazi Party (NSDAP) in East Prussia from 1928 until 1945. Between 1941 and 1945 he was Chief of Civil Administration (Chef der Zivilverwaltung) of Bezirk Bialystok. During this period, he was also the Reichskommissar in Reichskommissariat Ukraine from 1941 until 1944.
Koch was born in Elberfeld, today part of Wuppertal, as the son of foreman Gustav Adolf Koch (1862 – 1932) and his wife Henriette, née Matthes (1863 – 1939). In World War I he served without distinction as a soldier from 1915 to the end of the war in 1918. He later fought as a member of Freikorps Rossbach in Upper Silesia.
A skilled trader, Koch joined the railway service as an aspirant for the middle level of the civil service. He was dismissed from this position in 1926 for anti-republican activities.
After undistinguished military service during World War I, Koch became a railway clerk until he was dismissed in 1926 for anti-republican political activity. Having joined the NSDAP in 1922, he was involved in the revolt against the occupation in the Ruhr and was imprisoned several times by the French authorities.
Between 1922 and 1926 he was one of the Party district leaders in the Ruhr and a supporter of the radical wing of the NSDAP led by Gregor Strasser.
From 1928 Koch was Gauleiter of the Party in East Prussia and leader of its faction in the provincial diet. From 1930 a member of the Reichstag for East Prussia and appointed a member of the Prussian State Council in July 1933, Koch was made Oberpräsident of East Prussia in September of the same year.
In addition to East Prussia, he was appointed head of the civil administration in Bialystok (1941) and from October 1941 to 1944 he was Reichskommissar in the Ukraine with control of the Gestapo and the police.
After the loss of the Ukraine, Koch returned to Königsberg and then, after the fall of East Prussia, he disappeared in West Germany until his arrest by British security officers in Hamburg at the end of May 1949. His extradition was demanded by the Polish and Soviet governments who regarded him as one of the worst war criminals, directly involved in the extermination of the Polish intelligentsia, Soviet partisans and hundreds of thousands of Jews in Bialystok and the Ukraine.
On 14 January 1950 Koch was delivered by the British to a prison in Warsaw, but his trial did not begin until 19 October 1958 when he was charged with the responsibility for the death of 400,000 Poles (his crimes in the Ukraine were not dealt with).
Koch was sentenced to death on 9 March 1959 by the Polish district court in Warsaw, for having planned, prepared and organized mass murder of civilians, but his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment on account of his ill-health. In a state of partial collapse through most of his trial (rousing himself only to protest that he was a ‘Christian, a good ‘socialist and a friend of the workers), Koch was fortunate to benefit from an article in the Polish penal code which prevented the execution of bedridden persons.
His autocratic rule never permitted the SA or the SS to come to the fore, as in other Gaue, but Koch's advocacy of collectivization in agriculture made him unpopular with the peasants and he was ruthless in arresting his critics, or expelling them from the Party.
During World War II Koch proved himself one of Hitler's cruellest satraps in the conquered eastern territories, his criminal orders causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children, their deportation to concentration camps and the razing of their villages to the ground.
In October 1941 he wasappointed Reichskommissar in the Ukraine with control of the Gestapo and the police. His first official act in the Ukraine was to close local schools.
Thanks to his twisted policy of brutal ‘Germanization’ and the repression, murder and exploitation of Poles, Ukrainians and Jews, Koch’s empire was soon infested with partisans.
‘Ukranian children need no schools. What they'll have to learn later will be taught them by their German masters.’
In a speech in Kiev on 5 March 1943 Koch was explicit about the methods he intended to use to build a slave State in the Ukraine and his complete contempt for Slav Untermenschen (‘sub-humans’): ‘We are a master race', Koch insisted, ‘which must remember that the lowliest German worker is racially and biologically a thousand times more valuable than the population here.’