Copyright © 2009-2010 Edwin Black
THE VILLAGE VOICEWeek of March 27 - April 2, 2002
How IBM Helped Automate the Nazi Death Machine in Poland Final Solutions
by Edwin Black
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. 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 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. The savaging of Poland was no secret to IBM executives. From the outset, worldwide headlines reported barbarous massacres, rapes, purposeful starvation, systematic deportations, and the resulting unchecked epidemics. As early as September 13, 1939, The New York Times reported the Reich's determination to make Polish Jewry disappear, a headline declaring, "Nazis Hint Purge of Jews in Poland." A subhead added, "3,000,000 Population Involved." The article quoted the German government's plan for the "removal of the Polish Jewish population from the European domain." The Times added, "How . . . the 'removal' of Jews from Poland [can be achieved] without their extermination . . . is not explained." Germany had plans. Polish Jews, during a sequence of sudden relocations, were to be catalogued for further action in a massive cascade of repetitive censuses and registrations with up-to-date information being instantly available to various Nazi planning agencies and occupation offices. How much usable forced labor for armament factories could they generate? How many thousands would die of starvation each month? A spectrum of Nazi census, registration, and statistical tabulation was performed on custom-designed IBM punch-card programs and machinery.
On September 9, 1939, Dehomag general manager Hermann Rottke wrote directly to Watson in New York, asking for advanced equipment. Rottke reminded Watson, "During your last visit in Berlin at the beginning of July, you made the kind offer to me that you might be willing to furnish the German company machines from Endicott [an IBM factory near Binghamton] in order to shorten our long delivery terms. . . . You have complied with this request, for which I thank you very much, and have added that in cases of urgent need, I may make use of other American machines. . . . You will understand that under today's conditions, a certain need has arisen for such machines, which we do not build as yet in Germany. Therefore, I should like to make use of your kind offer and ask you to leave with the German company . . . the alphabetic tabulating machines. . . . " Eighteen days later, a vanquished Warsaw formally capitulated. The next day, September 28, IBM's general manager in Geneva, J.W. Schotte, telephoned Berlin to confirm Watson's permission for the new equipment.
Meanwhile, Reinhard Heydrich, chief of Heinrich Himmler's Security Service, the SD, had already circulated a top-secret letter to the chiefs of his Einsatzgruppen, which evolved into mobile killing units. Heydrich's September 21 memo, titled "The Jewish Question in the Occupied Territory," laid out a plan of population control through a sequence of strategic censuses and registrations. It began, "I would like to point out once more that the total measures planned (i.e., the final aim) are to be kept strictly secret." First, Jews were to be relocated to so-called concentration towns at "either railroad junctions or at least on a railway." Addressing the zone from east of Kraków to the former Czechoslovakian-Polish border, Heydrich directed, "Within this territory, only a temporary census of Jews need be taken." Heydrich demanded that "the chiefs of the Einsatzgruppen report to me continually regarding . . . the census of Jews in their districts. . . . " Shortly thereafter, Heydrich sent a follow-up cable to his occupying forces in Poland, Upper Silesia, and Czechoslovakia, outlining how a new December 17 census would escalate the process from mere identification and cataloguing to deportation and execution. Heydrich's memo entitled "Evacuation of the New Eastern Provinces" decreed, "The evacuation of Poles and Jews in the new Eastern Provinces will be conducted by the Security Police. . . . The census documents provide the basis for the evacuation. All persons in the new provinces possess a copy. The census form is the temporary identification card giving permission to stay. Therefore, all persons have to hand over the card before deportation. . . . Anyone caught without this card is subject to possible execution. . . . " Quantifying and organizing the deportation of millions of people from various regions across Eastern Europe could take years using pencils and paper. Relying upon the lightning speed of Hollerith machines, it took just days. Heydrich assured, "That means the large-scale evacuation can begin no sooner than around January 1, 1940." Nazi Germany employed only one method for conducting a census: IBM punch-card processes, each one designed for the specific census.
In Nazi Poland, railroads constituted about 95 percent of the IBM subsidiary's business, using as many as 21 million punch cards annually. Watson Business Machines was headquartered at Kreuz 23 in Warsaw. And one of its important customer sites, newly discovered since the first edition of my book was published a year ago, was the Hollerith department of Polish Railways, at 22 Pawia Street in Kraków. This office kept tabs on all trains in the General Government, including those that sent Jews to their death in Auschwitz. Leon Krzemieniecki is probably the only man still living who worked in that Hollerith department. It must be emphasized that Krzemieniecki did not understand any of the details of the genocidal train destinations. His duties required tabulating information on all trains, from ordinary passenger to freight trains, but only after their arrival. The high-security five-room office, guarded by armed railway police, was equipped with 15 punchers, two sorters, and a tabulator "bigger than a sofa." Fifteen Polish women punched the cards and loaded the sorters. Three German nationals supervised the office, overseeing the final tabulations and summary statistics in great secrecy. Handfuls of printouts were reduced to a small envelope of summary data, which was then delivered to a secret destination. Truckloads of the preliminary printouts were then regularly burned, along with the spent cards, Krzemieniecki told me in an interview. As a forced laborer, Krzemieniecki was compelled to work as a "sorter and tabulator" 10 hours per day for two years. He never realized that his work involved the transportation of Jews to gas chambers. "I only know that this very modern equipment made possible the control of all the railway traffic in the General Government," he said. Krzemieniecki recalled that an "outside technician," who spoke German and Polish and "did not work for the railroad," was almost constantly on-site to keep the machines running, performing major maintenance monthly. IBM's tailored railroad-management programs, several million custom-designed punch cards printed at IBM's print shop at 6 Rymarska Street, across from the Warsaw Ghetto, and the railway's leased machines were under the New York-controlled subsidiary in Warsaw, not the German subsidiary, Dehomag. The distinction is important. Since the disclosures about IBM's involvement in the Holocaust first surfaced in February 2001, the company has continually pointed to supposed lack of control of its German subsidiary. But Watson Business Machines was established in Poland by IBM New York itself, at the time of Germany's invasion. "I knew they were not German machines," recalled Krzemieniecki. "The labels were in English. . . . The person maintaining and repairing the machines spread the diagrams out sometimes. The language of the diagrams of those machines was only in English." I asked Krzemieniecki if the machine logo plates were in German, Polish, or English. He answered, "English. It said, 'Business Machines.' " I asked, "Do you mean 'International Business Machines'?" Krzemieniecki replied, "No, 'Watson Business Machines.' "
Dwarfing the railroad operation in Poland described by Krzemieniecki was a massive Hollerith statistical center at 24 Murner Street in Kraków, staffed by more than 500 punching and tabulating employees and equipped with dozens of machines. New research has uncovered the existence of a previously unknown Berlin agency, the Central Office for Foreign Statistics and Foreign Country Research, which continuously received detailed data from the Kraków statistical center. By late 1939, the Reich's Jewish-population statistics wizard, Fritz Arlt, had been appointed head of the Population and Welfare Administration of the General Government. A Hollerith expert and colleague of Adolf Eichmann, Arlt edited his own statistical publication, Political Information Service of the General Government, which featured such data as Jews per square meter, with projections of decrease from forced labor and starvation. "We can count on the mortality of some subjugated groups," one Arlt article asserted. "These include babies and those over the age of 65, as well as those who are basically weak and ill in all other age groups." The data-hungry Nazis created an expanded Statistics Office in Kraków in 1940. The expansion was dependent on more leased machines, spare parts, company technicians, and a guaranteed continued supply of millions of additional IBM cards. IBM's European general manager, Werner Lier, visited Berlin in early October 1941 to oversee IBM New York's deployment of machines in Poland and other countries. In two detailed reports, written from Berlin and sent to Watson, as well as to other senior staff in New York, Lier reported moving a small group of Polish machines into Romania for the Jewish census there. The Polish machines would soon be replaced by others. The expanded Statistics Office assured Berlin in a November 30, 1941, report that its Hollerith operation would employ equipment more modern than the old IBM machinery found in most pre-war Polish data agencies, thus allowing the Nazis to launch a plethora of "large-scale censuses." Also planned was a long list of "continuous statistical surveys," including those for population, domestic migration, and causes of death. Moreover, regular surveys of food and agriculture were "coupled with summary surveys of the population and ethnic groups." Tabulating food supplies against ethnic numbers allowed the Nazis to ration caloric intake as they subjected the Jewish community to starvation. The Statistics Office's report concluded, "Our work is just beginning to bear fruit."
Once the U.S. Entered the war in December 1941, Germany appointed a Nazi devoted to IBM, Hermann Fellinger, as enemy-property custodian. He maintained the original staff and managers of Watson Business Machines, keeping it productive for the Reich and profitable for IBM. The subsidiary now reported to IBM's Geneva office, and from there to New York. The company was not looted, its leased machines were not seized. "Royalties" were remitted to IBM through Geneva. Lease payments and profits were preserved in special accounts. After the war, IBM recovered all its Polish profits and machines. Since the war, IBM, having left Madison Avenue for new headquarters in suburban Armonk, has obstructed, or refused to cooperate with, virtually every major independent author writing about its history, according to numerous published introductions, prefaces, and acknowledgments. But silence cannot alter the historical documentation. A tangle of subsidiaries throughout Europe helped IBM reap the benefits of its partnership with Nazi Germany. After all, "business" was IBM's middle name.
Edwin Black is the author of IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America's Most Powerful Corporation (Crown Books, 2001, and Three Rivers Press, 2002), just released in paperback with new information.
He can be reached at www.edwinblack.com