Punch cards, also called Hollerith cards after IBM founder Herman Hollerith, were the forerunner of the computers that IBM is famous for today. These cards stored information in holes punched in the rows and columns, which were then “read” by a tabulating machine. The system worked like a player piano . First designed to track people and organize a census, the Hollerith system was later adapted to any tabulation or information task.
From the first moments of the Hitler regime in 1933, IBM used its exclusive punch card technology and its global monopoly on information technology to organize, systematize, and accelerate Hitler’s anti-Jewish program, step by step facilitating the tightening noose. The punch cards, machinery, training, servicing, and special project work, such as population census and identification, was managed directly by IBM headquarters in New York, and later through its subsidiaries in Germany, known as Deutsche Hollerith-Maschinen Gesellschaft (DEHOMAG), Poland, Holland, France, Switzerland, and other European countries.
Among the punch cards published are two for the SS, including one for the SS Rassenamt, or Race Office, which specialized in racial selections and coordinated with many other Reich offices. A third card was custom-crafted by IBM for Richard Korherr, a top Nazi statistician and expert in Jewish demographics
who reported directly to Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler and who also worked with Adolf Eichmann. Himmler and Eichmann were architects of the extermination phase of the Holocaust. All three punch cards bear the proud indicia of IBM’s German subsidiary, DEHOMAG. They illustrate the nature of the end users who relied upon IBM’s information technology.
Iin 1937, with war looming and the world shocked at the increasingly merciless Nazi persecution of the Jews, Hitler bestowed upon Watson a special award — created specifically for the occasion — to honor extraordinary service by a foreigner to the Third Reich.
The medal, the Order of the German Eagle with Star, bedecked with swastikas, was to be worn on a sash over the heart. Watson returned the medal years later in June 1940 as a reaction to public outrage about the medal during the bombing of Paris. The return of this medal has been used by IBM apologists to show Watson had second thoughts about his alliance with the Reich. But a newly released copy of a subsequent letter dated June 10, 1941, drafted by IBM’s New York office, confirms that IBM headquarters personally directed the activities of its Dutch subsidiary set up in 1940 to identify and liquidate the Jews of Holland. Hence, while IBM engaged in the public relations maneuver of returning the medal, the company was actually quietly expanding its role in Hitler’s Holocaust. Similar subsidiaries, sometimes named as a variant of “Watson Business Machines,” were set up in Poland, Vichy France, and elsewhere on the Continent in cadence with the Nazi takeover of Europe.
Particularly powerful are the released copies of the IBM concentration camp codes. IBM maintained a customer site, known as the Hollerith Department, in virtually every concentration camp to sort or process punch cards and track prisoners.
The codes show IBM’s numerical designation for various camps. Auschwitz was 001, Buchenwald was 002; Dachau was 003, and so on. Various prisoner types were reduced to IBM numbers, with 3 signifying homosexual, 9 for anti-social, and 12 for Gypsy. The IBM number 8 designated a Jew. Inmate death was also reduced to an IBM digit: 3 represented death by natural causes, 4 by execution, 5 by suicide, and code 6 designated “special treatment” in gas chambers. IBM engineers had to create Hollerith codes to differentiate between a Jew who had been worked to death and one who had been gassed, then print the cards, configure the machines, train the staff, and continuously maintain the fragile systems every two weeks on site in the concentration camps.
Recently -released photographs show the Hollerith Bunker at Dachau. It housed at least two dozen machines, mainly controlled by the SS.
The foreboding concrete Hollerith blockhouse, constructed of reinforced concrete and steel, was designed to withstand the most intense Allied aerial bombardment. Those familiar with Nazi bomb-proof shelters will recognize the advanced square-cornered pillbox design reserved for the Reich’s most precious buildings and operations. IBM equipment was among the Reich’s most important weapons, not only in its war against the Jews, but in its general military campaigns and control of railway traffic. Watson personally approved expenditures to add bomb shelters to DEHOMAG installations because the cost was born by the company. Such costs cut into IBM’s profit margin. Watson’s approval was required because he received a one-percent commission on all Nazi business profits.
Two telling U.S. government memos, now published, are remarkable for their telling irony. The first is a State Department memo, dated December 3, 1941, just four days before the attack on Pearl Harbor and as the Nazis were being openly accused of genocide in Europe. On that day in 1941, IBM’s top attorney, Harrison Chauncey, visited the State Department to express qualms about the company’s extensive involvement with Hitler. The State Department memo recorded that Chauncey feared “that his company may some day be blamed for cooperating with the Germans.”
The second is a Justice Department memo generated during a federal investigation of IBM for trading with the enemy. Economic Warfare Section chief investigator Howard J. Carter prepared the memo for his supervisors describing the company’s collusion with the Hitler regime. Carter wrote: “What Hitler has done to us through his economic warfare, one of our own American corporations has also done … Hence IBM is in a class with the Nazis.” He ended his memo: “The entire world citizenry is hampered by an international monster.”
At a time when the Watson name and the IBM image is being laundered by whiz computers that can answer questions on TV game shows, it is important to remember that Thomas Watson and his corporate behemoth were guilty of genocide. The Treaty on Genocide, Article 2, defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group.” In Article 3, the treaty states that among the “acts [that] shall be punishable,” are the ones in subsection (e), that is “complicity in genocide.” As for who shall be punished, the Treaty specifies the perpetrators in Article 4: “Persons committing genocide or any of the other acts enumerated in Article 3 shall be punished, whether they are constitutionally responsible rulers, public officials, or private individuals.”
In February 2001, an Alien Tort Claims Act claim was filed in U.S. federal court against IBM for allegedly providing the punched card technology that facilitated the Holocaust, and for covering up German IBM subsidiary Dehomag’s activities. In April 2001, the lawsuit was dropped. Lawyers said they feared proceeding with the suit would slow down payments from a special German Holocaust fund created to compensate forced laborers and others who had suffered due to the Nazi persecution. IBM’s German division paid $3 million into the fund, although the corporation made clear that it was not admitting liability with its contribution.
In 2004, the human rights organization Gypsy International Recognition and Compensation Action (GIRCA) filed suit against IBM in Switzerland. However, the case was dismissed in 2006 due to an expiration of time under the statute of limitations.
Edwin Black is the author of IBM and the Holocaust, The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation, newly released in the Expanded Edition.