Final Solutions

How IBM Helped Automate the Nazi Death Machine in Poland

When Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, most of the world saw a menace to humanity. But IBM saw Nazi Germany as a lucrative trading partner. Its president, Thomas J. Watson, engineered a strategic business alliance between IBM and the Reich, beginning in the first days of the Hitler regime and continuing right through World War II. This alliance catapulted Nazi Germany to become IBM's most important customer outside the U.S. IBM and the Nazis jointly designed, and IBM exclusively produced, technological solutions that enabled Hitler to accelerate and in many ways automate key aspects of his persecution of Jews, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, and others the Nazis considered enemies. Custom-designed, IBM-produced punch cards, sorted by IBM machines leased to the Nazis, helped organize and manage the initial identification and social expulsion of Jews and others, the confiscation of their property, their ghettoization, their deportation, and, ultimately, even their extermination.

Recently discovered Nazi documents and Polish eyewitness testimony make clear that IBM's alliance with the Third Reich went far beyond its German subsidiary. A key factor in the Holocaust in Poland was IBM technology provided directly through a special wartime Polish subsidiary reporting to IBM New York, mainly to its headquarters at 590 Madison Avenue.

And that's how the trains to Auschwitz ran on time.

illustration: Mirko Ilic

Thousands of IBM documents reviewed for the first edition of my book 'IBM and the Holocaust,' published early last year and focused mainly on IBM's German subsidiary, revealed vigorous efforts to preserve IBM's monopoly in the Nazi market and increase contracts to meet wartime sales quotas.

Since then, continued research and interviews have uncovered details, described here for the first time, of IBM's work for the Nazis in Poland through the separate subsidiary and of the Polish subsidiary's direct contact with IBM officials on Madison Avenue.

Documents were obtained from IBM files shipped to NYU for processing and from scores of other archival sources here and abroad. Not a single sentence written by IBM personnel has been discovered in any of the documents questioning the morality of automating the Third Reich, even when headlines proclaimed the mass murder of Jews.

IBM's German subsidiary was Deutsche Hollerith Maschinen Gesellschaft, known by the acronym Dehomag. (Herman Hollerith was the German American who first automated U.S. census information in the late 19th century and founded the company which became IBM. Hollerith's name became synonymous with the machines and the Nazi "departments" that operated them.)

Watson tightly managed the lucrative German operation, traveling to Berlin at least twice annually from 1933 until 1939 to personally supervise Dehomag. Major German correspondence was translated for review by the New York office and often for Watson's personal comment. Before big new accounts were accepted, Watson had to assent. For deniability, he insisted on making direct verbal instructions to his German managers the rule rather than exception—even in place of major contracts. Once, when German managers wanted to paint a corridor, they awaited his specific permission. Watson's auditors continuously tracked the source and status of every reichsmark and pfennig—in one typical case, exchanging numerous transatlantic letters over the disposition of just a few dollars. Not infrequently, Dehomag managers objected to his "domination." Understandably, IBM's lawyers and managers in Berlin personally updated Watson constantly, and generally signed their reports, "Awaiting your further instructions."

No machines were sold to the Nazis—only leased. IBM was the sole source of all punch cards and spare parts, and it serviced the machines on-site—whether at Dachau or in the heart of Berlin—either directly or through its authorized dealer network or field trainees. There were no universal punch cards. Each series was custom-designed by IBM engineers not only to capture the information going in, but also to tabulate the information the Nazis wanted to come out.

IBM constantly updated its machinery and applications for the Nazis. For example, one series of punch cards was designed to record religion, national origin, and mother tongue, but by creating special columns and rows for Jew, Polish language, Polish nationality, the fur trade as an occupation, and then Berlin, Nazis could quickly cross-tabulate, at the rate of 25,000 cards per hour, exactly how many Berlin furriers were Jews of Polish extraction. Railroad cars, which could take two weeks to locate and route, could be swiftly dispatched in just 48 hours by means of a vast network of punch-card machines. Indeed, IBM services coursed through the entire German infrastructure in Europe.

The IBM Response
Asked about IBM's Polish subsidiary's involvement with the Nazis, IBM spokeswoman Carol Makovich in New York repeated the same official statement she issued more than a year ago: "IBM does not have much information about this period." Asked a dozen times, Makovich simply repeated the phrase.

The war broke out on September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. Germany annexed northwestern Poland; the remaining Polish territory in Nazi hands was treated as "occupied" and called the "General Government." That annexed northwestern quadrant was serviced by IBM's German subsidiary, Dehomag, mainly to handle the payrolls of Silesian coal mines and heavy industry. At about that time, IBM New York established a special subsidiary, Watson Business Machines, to deal with the General Government. It remained completely legal for IBM to service the Third Reich until just before America entered the war in December 1941.

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