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Counted for Persecution; IBM's Role in the Holocaust
by Merry Madway Eisenstadt
Washington Jewish Week
September 17, 1998
Jews gathered for deportation to Thereisenstadt concentration camp. Photo from United States Holocaust Memorial Museum archives
Jews gathered for deportation to Thereisenstadt concentration camp.
(Photo from United States Holocaust Memorial Museum archives)

Machines have no national allegiances and no moral code. They become powerful instruments for good or evil in the hands of human beings controlling them.

During the state-sponsored, systematic persecution and annihilation of European Jewry between 1933 and 1945 in the Holocaust, statistics and technology were key tools used by Nazi Germany in its industrialized mass murder of six million Jews.

The forerunner to the modern computer, the Hollerith machine - manufactured by International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) and its foreign subsidiaries, including IBM in Germany - was used by German government statistical offices to track Jewish population centers and geographic locations of others deemed undesirable.

Within at least four concentration camps, Hollerith departments registered the arrival of inmates, the transfer of laborers between camps, and the deaths of prisoners.

In the 53 years since the end of World War II, IBM Corporation, headquartered in New York state, has never fully clarified confusion surrounding its relationship with its German subsidiary, or the nature of technical advice and service provided by the German firm to the Nazi state.

How do you tell the story of a government's systematic plot to murder an entire people? How do you capture the enormous scope of suffering within the confines of museum space and the limited attention spans of visitors? This was the charge for U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum planners and historians as exhibits were being conceived in the early 1990s.

Bringing together stirring symbols and real evidence was part of the answer: A mountain of shoes conveys the magnitude of the slaughter of a society's cast-offs; a narrow, closed-in tower of family photographs illustrates the vibrant lives of the victims before persecution their humanness and what was lost.

To portray industrialized annihilation, the team preparing the exhibition, considered many options including a crematory, noted Sybil Milton, former senior historian at the museum's research institute. Milton regarded that stark symbol as inappropriate for a museum in Washington, D.C. since such objects were best left on site at memorials in the death camps.

Instead, Milton recommended the Hollerith machine to convey the unfeeling bureaucracies at work during the Holocaust. Invented in the United States in 1884 by 20-year-old German- American engineer Herman Hollerith as part of a contest to improve the speed and accuracy of calculating the U.S. census, the machine was used for census-taking by most European governments in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Hollerith's method used cards to store data which he fed into a machine that compiled the results mechanically. Each card represented a person, and each hole punched on the card was accorded a specific meaning corresponding to occupation, education, health or some other characteristic.

Throughout the early 1900s, Hollerith machines, consisting of card punch presses, card feeders and sorters, and tabulators, became increasingly automated and faster. As the machines evolved in the 1940s, 80 variables or categories of information could be tracked on a single card.

Hollerith had founded the Tabulating Machine Company in 1896, and expanded to European markets as the U.S. Census Bureau manufactured its own machines to cut costs. Later in 1911, Hollerith's company merged with two others and became the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company (C-T-R). In 1924, C-T-R changed its name to International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) to reflect its growing multinational presence.

By urging the display of the Hollerith, Milton hoped to convey how did you register people? How did you handle these statistics, she said, while leafing through stacks of documents in German relating to population registration systems, which accelerated dramatically only four months after Adolf Hitler was appointed German chancellor in January 1933.

On the museum's fourth floor, a glass-encased display extending from floor to ceiling on Technology and Persecution contains two of the Hollerith machine components manufactured by IBM's German subsidiary: a punch card press and card sorter, donated by an East German museum. The third component a Hollerith tabulating machine has been removed because of exhibit space congestion, said permanent exhibit curator Dr. Steven Luckert.

"All governments gather information about their citizens," the exhibit reads. "The Nazi regime, however, used such information to track political opponents, enforce racial policies and, ultimately, implement mass murder."

As early as 1934, various government bureaus began to compile card catalogs identifying political and racial enemies of the regimes. The 1939 census became the basis for a national register of Jews. That year, German census forms for the first time included explicitly racial categories: Jews were identified not only by religious affiliation, but by race as well. Within three years, the completed national register of Jews and Jewish Mischlinge (mixed-breeds) was to provide the basis for Nazi deportation lists. Most of those deported perished in the Holocaust.

The exhibit section on the Hollerith notes, "During the 1930s and 1940s, Hollerith machines were the best data- processing devices available. The Nazi regime employed thousands of people in 1933 and 1939 to record national census data onto Hollerit punch cards. The machine on the left sorted the cards according to criteria such as residence, religion, and marital status. The tabulator on the right counted the sorted cards."

The SS used Hollerith machines during the war to monitor the huge numbers of prisoners shipped in and out of concentration camps. The machines were manufactured by DEHOMAG (Deutsche Hollerith Maschinen Gesellschaft, or German Hollerith Machine Company), a subsidiary of IBM since 1922.

A map with a legend showing location and concentrations of Jewish population and mixed breeds, dated May 17, 1939, also is displayed at the exhibit. An accompanying description notes, The 1939 census gave the regime precise information about the location and size of Jewish communities in Germany.

The Hollerith's role is cited in a book written for the museum, The World Must Know (Little Brown and Company, 1993) by former museum research institute director Michael Berenbaum, now director of the Steven Spielberg-endowed Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.

"The Hollerith made it possible to process vast quantities of data in a relatively short time," Berenbaum writes. "During the war, the Hollerith was used to identify and allocate conscript labor. Whether the machines were used to compile deportation lists of Jews in Germany cannot be determined. But in many concentration camps, the political section of the Gestapo used the Hollerith to process the records of those who entered.

"The IBM technology was neutral; its use by the Nazi regime was malevolent. Clearly, its potential was understood by the German manufacturer," Berenbaum states, citing an exuberant statement by DEHOMAG director Willy Heidinger in 1934 about the future role of statistics and tabulation machinery in the Nazi state:

'We are recording the individual characteristics of every single member of the nation onto a little card. We are proud to be able to contribute to such a task, a task that makes available to the physician of our German body-social [i.e. Adolf Hitler] the material for his examination, so that our physician can determine whether, from the standpoint of the health of the nation, the results calculated in this manner stand in a harmonious, healthy relation to one another, or whether unhealthy conditions must be cured by corrective interventions. We have firm trust in our physician and will follow his orders blindly, because we know that he will lead our nation toward a great future. Hail to our German people and their leader!'

The German census, tabulated by Hollerith machines, was one of several population identification systems used to track groups in the Nazi state. Taken together, these systems resulted in distribution of uniform photo identity cards to all inhabitants of the Reich, mandatory under the law of 10 September 1939, according to Milton.

Special regulations of 27 September 1939 also resulted in the distribution of the now infamous 'J-cards' for Jews. Similarly, Jewish personal and business property was inventoried after 1937 in complex financial reports that were utilized for the Aryanization of Jewish businesses at artificially low prices.

Whether, in fact, census data calculated by Hollerith tabulation technology actually was used in drawing up deportation lists is unclear, Milton says. Census data and resident registration data helped the Nazi regime locate victims on a national scale, but were they used to guide the planning and administration of deportations? "The answer would require detailed knowledge of the Gestapo's internal bureaucratic procedures, and this information is still not fully established," writes Milton and colleague Dr. David Martin Luebke in a published study, Locating the Victim: An Overview of Census-Taking, Tabulation Technology, and Persecution in Nazi Germany.

In addition, over half of all Jews killed in the Holocaust were already dead before the completion of the national Ethnic Catalog based on 1939 census data.

Milton adds today, "We have no proof that the Hollerith was ever used to target individuals for deportation lists. It was a back-up system because it was too broad a system, providing aggregate counts of population groups," she explains. "However, when they would check a deportation list against what is known as the number of Jews in a town, then the Hollerith list would provide the evidence that, 'Yes, this figure is reasonable. We know we have X number of Jews, X number of Roma [Gypsies] registered' in a town like Heidelberg, and therefore, we know that this might have been used as back-up material."

But Milton emphasizes, "Once you get into the concentration camps, then Hollerith tabulation was definitely used. It is definitely used to register prisoners."

Milton explains, In January 1946, the former French prisoner Jean-Frederic Veith, imprisoned at Mauthausen from April 1943 to April 1945, testified before the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg: 'Certainly I saw prisoners of war. Their arrival at Mauthausen took place, first of all, in front of the political section. Since I was working at the Hollerith, I could watch the arrivals, for the offices faced the parade ground in front of the political section where the convoys arrived. My knowledge of Aktion K [Operation Bullet, referring to orders to execute all prisoners of war discovered attempting to escape, excluding Americans and British] is due to the fact that I was head of the Hollerith service in Mauthausen, and consequently all the transfer forms from the various camps.'

Punctuating her point, Milton produces a record dated Dec. 11, 1944, of a prisoner labor transfer between Flossenburg and Mauthausen concentration camps, marked to the attention of the camps' Hollerith departments. Another document stamped Hollerith erfa=E1t (registered by Hollerith) shows a list of deceased prisoners, including their names, nationalities, prisoner numbers and other information.

Milton also points out a prisoner registration card of Polish Jewish prisoner Symcho Dymant at Weimar-Buchenwald concentration camp, dated Dec. 24, 1944. This card is also stamped registered by Hollerith. The cards, said Milton, are stamped Hollerith, and in terms of the Mauthausen [and] Auschwitz records, are extremely compromising. This was widely used in the concentration camp system, and there's no question of it.

The Holocaust museum's exhibit was praised by the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of American History specialist on the Information Age, Peggy Kidwell. "The Holocaust Museum is very successful in suggesting to visitors the scale to which the Holocaust was an organized enterprise," she said. "The Hollerith display," she added, "shows how these techniques are used when your business becomes extermination of peoples."

As a rebuttal to the Holocaust museum's display and published work by Milton, Luebke and other historians, a retired IBM Germany employee specializing in the history of technology and database management, Dr. Friedrich W. Kistermann, has argued that German authorities did not use the tabulating machine results of the 1933 and 1939 censuses to locate the victims during the Holocaust.

Kistermann says, "A single person was never the target of a population census, but only the grouped and accumulated data were the target of the census. Therefore, a personal identification was never used in population census work."

He also argues that the 1939 census information about descent and educational background was a separate questionnaire, with resulting data being maintained separately on supplementary cards tabulated manually.

In addition, Kistermann cites the incompleteness of the data gathered, making it unsuitable for use. "At the occasion of the 1939 German census, every step had already been taken to identify and locate the German Jews." He insists, "Nazi organizations and bureaucratic administrations instituted and used every means and procedure to identify, locate, isolate, deprive, exclude and deport the Jews. These institutions used ordinary office equipment and supplies: paper, forms, index cards, pencil, ink and pen and typewriters. However, without further discovery of documentary proof, which seems most unlikely and even unnecessary, there is no evidence that Hollerith machines and census work were used, as indicated in published articles and books and in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum."

Senior research scholar William Seltzer at the Institute for Social Research of Fordham University in New York City disagrees. "There appears to be only one instance, that is, the 1939 German census, where information obtained in a regular population census permitting the identification of specific individuals may have been used operationally in the Holocaust. In addition, census-based aggregates for small geographical areas can be used to assist in the identification of population concentrations to facilitate persecution and apprehension...

"This approach appears to have been used in the Netherlands when small-area tabulations of population data by religion from the 1930 Dutch census made up one of several data sources used in the development of the so-called 'dot maps' of Amsterdam," he says. "These maps, which showed areas of the city where the density of the Jewish population was the highest, were used in planning Nazi-inspired attacks on some of these neighborhoods in February 1941."

While agreeing that the 1939 census would have required continuous updating to be completely useful, Seltzer said, "The census took place as planned. The Jews were registered, as planned, and the card files fulfilled their function when the deportations began. The Gestapo had access to a more current data source so that while micro data from the 1939 census may have contributed to the compilation of the deportation lists, it was probably not the exclusive, or even the primary source."

The value the Germans assigned these machines for census work in its occupied countries, as well as military accounting needs, is obvious from military and Justice Department documents preserved at the U.S. National Archives. At the outbreak of World War II, the German army assigned a group of officers to seize immediately in occupied countries all business machines, punched cards and similar paraphernalia, notes Harold J. Carter in a Justice Department report, Jan. 14, 1944. This took place in Poland in 1939, in France, Belgium and Holland in 1940, and in the Balkans in 1941.

Even without census-taking technologies, including Hollerith machinery, the Shoah and persecution of millions of others political dissidents, homosexuals, the handicapped, Roma, Jehovah's Witnesses and other groups would have taken place, emphasize Milton and co-author Luebke, now an assistant professor of history at the University of Oregon in Eugene.

"Hitler's preoccupation with racial purity and the escalating radicalization of state policies of persecution, segregation and coercion after 1933 were sufficient to bring about genocide, with or without punched-card technology," they write. "Moreover, the architects of the 'final solution' utilized technologies that were well known long before the Nazi ascent to power in 1933. However, both the Nazi party and state aggressively mobilized the knowledge and skills of various professions for implementation of their racial agenda. Similarly, DEHOMAG and the official statisticians of Nazi Germany contributed in no small way to the comprehensive enrollment that facilitated so vast and deadly a persecution."

Emphasizes the museum's permanent exhibit curator Luckert, They [the German government] didn't necessarily need the Hollerith machines to compile information on people. They were collecting it from a variety of sources. It may have made some of their work easier, but it wasn't a necessary precondition for mass murder. But having lists and records were of vital importance in identifying people.

Washington Jewish Week © 1999   Used with permission.

Part Two of this series


Related links:
The Avalon Project : Nuremberg Trial Proceedings Vol. 6
The Avalon Project at Yale Law School
FORTY-FOURTH DAY Monday, 28 January 1946
Re: Hollerith (IBM)
NARA | Holocaust-Era Assets | Trade With the Third Reich Bibliography
U.S. National Archives & Records Administration

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