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How IBM Technology Jump Started the Holocaust

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The Nazis' persecution of Jews was brutal, methodical, and horrifyingly efficient. However, their perverse efforts were only realized with the assistance of a Hollerith Machine - IBM's custom-built tabulation system. IBM and the Holocaust by Edwin Black explains.

When Hitler rose to power, German intellect descended into madness. The Nazi movement was not merely a throng of hooligans pelting windows and screaming slogans. Guiding the Brown Shirts and exhorting the masses was an elite coterie of pseudo-scientists, corrupted professionals, and profit-blinded industrialists. Nazi jurists, medical doctors, and a clique of scientists — each with their prestigious academic credentials — found ways to pervert their science and higher calling to advance the cause of Aryan domination and racial persecution.


At the vanguard of Hitler's intellectual shock troops were the statisticians. Naturally, statistical offices and census departments were Dehomag's [IBM's German subsidiary] number one clients. In their journals, Nazi statistical experts boasted of what they expected their evolving science to deliver. All of their high expectations depended on the continuing innovation of IBM punch cards and tabulator technology. Only Dehomag could design and execute systems to identify, sort, and quantify the population to separate Jews from Aryans.

Friedrich Zahn, president of the Bavarian Statistical Office, phrased it best in recalling the role of Nazi statisticians. "The government of our Führer and Reichschancellor Adolf Hitler is statistics-friendly," wrote Zahn in Allgemeines Statistisches Archiv (ASA), the official journal of the German Statistical Society. Zahn emphasized that Hitler's "government not only demands physical fitness and people strong in character and discipline, but useful knowledge as well. It demands not only political and economic soldiers, but also scientific soldiers."


Zahn was a giant of statistics. Chairman of the German Statistical Society and president from 1931 to 1936 of the International Statistical Institute, Zahn was by virtue of his prestigious international standing also an honorary member of the American Statistical Association. He was also a contributing member to the SS since the first days of the Hitler regime. Zahn was among those chiefly responsible for the immediate ouster of Jews from the German Statistical Society.

The ASA, and technical journals like it, were closely followed at Dehomag since the publication was a virtual roadmap to the desires of Nazi statistical hierarchy. Anyone active in the statistics world read it. No IBM office, even in the United States, could afford to overlook a subscription. Within the pages of the ASA and similar statistical technical journals, Dehomag management and engineers could review proven statistical meth odology that sought to step-by-step identify the Jews as undesirables. In many cases, ASA articles were written in conjunction with Dehomag experts, describing the tedious technical workings of specific IBM equipment, but more importantly how they were applied or could be applied to Reich policy and programs.

From the very onset, the scientific soldiers of Hitler's statistical shock troops openly published their mission statement. "Above all," wrote Prof. Dr. Johannes Müller, in a 1934 edition of ASA, "remember that several very important problems are being tackled currently, problems of an ideological nature. One of those problems is race politics, and this problem must be viewed in a statistical light." Müller, president of the Thuringen Statistical Office, made his comments in a revealing 1934 ASA article entitled "The Position of Statistics in the New Reich."

About the same time, Dr. Karl Keller, writing in an article, "The Question of Race Statistics," made clear that Jewish blood was to be traced as far back as possible. "If we differentiate in statistics between Aryans and NonAryans, we in essence talk about Jews and non-Jews. In any case, we will not look at religious affiliation alone but also ancestry." Like other Nazis, Keller was looking ahead to the domination of all Europe. Keller added, "beyond agreeing on the definition of race, we must move toward agreement on the number of races, at least as far as Europe is reality, the Jews are not a race, but a mix of several races."


Drawing on the emerging pseudo-academic notions of the exploding race science field in Germany, Keller urged doctors to examine the population for racial characteristics and faithfully record the information. "However, not every physician can carry out these examinations," Keller cautioned. "The physician must also undergo special anthropological training."

"The only way to eliminate any mistakes," Keller insisted, "is the registration of the entire population. How is this to be done?" Keller demanded "the establishment of mandatory personal genetic-biographical forms...Nothing would hinder us," he assured, "from using these forms to enter any important information which can be used by race scientists."


Zahn, in his writings, was explicit in the need to annihilate inferior ethnic groups. In his 1937 ASA article entitled "Development of German Population Statistics through Genetic-Biological Stock-Taking," Zahn specified, "population politics, based on the principles of racial hygiene, must promote valuable genetic stock. It must prevent the fertility of inferior life and genetic degeneration. In other words, this means the targeted selection and promotion of superior life and an eradication of those portions of the population which are undesirable."

In other articles, and in keynote speeches for statistical conventions, Zahn stressed, "There is almost no area of life in Germany which has not been creatively pollinated by the National Socialist ideology. . . . This is also true for the field of statistics. Statistics has become invaluable for the Reich, and the Reich has given statistics new tasks in peace and in war." Zahn declared, "Small wonder. In its very essence, statistics is very close to the National Socialist movement." He added, "German statistics has not only become the registering witness . . . but also the creative co-conspirator of the great events of time."


Indeed, as co-conspirators, Nazi statisticians worked hand-in-hand with the battalions of Hitler's policy enablers and enforcers, from the Nazi Party's Race Political Office and all its many allied agencies to the SS itself. Identifying the Jews was only the first step along the road to Jewish destruction in Germany.

None of the publicly voiced statements of Hitler's scientific soldiers ever dissuaded Dehomag or IBM NY from withdrawing from their collaboration with the Reich. By necessity, that collaboration was intense, indispensable, and continuous. Indeed, the IBM method was to first anticipate the needs of government agencies and only then design proprietary data solutions, train official staff, and even implement the programs as a sub-contractor when called upon.


IBM machines were useless in crates. Tabulators and punch cards were not delivered ready to use like typewriters, adding machines, or even machine guns. Each Hollerith system had to be custom-designed by Dehomag engineers. Systems to inventory spare aircraft parts for the Luftwaffe, track railroad schedules for Reichsbahn, and register the Jews within the population for the Reich Statistical Office were each designed by Dehomag engineers to be completely different from each other.

Of course the holes could not be punched just anywhere. Each card had to be custom-designed with data fields and columns precisely designated for the card readers. Reich employees had to be trained to use the cards. Dehomag needed to understand the most intimate details of the intended use, design the cards, and then create the codes.


Because of the almost limitless need for tabulators in Hitler's race and geopolitical wars, IBM NY reacted enthusiastically to the prospects of Nazism. While other fearful or reviled American businessmen were curtailing or canceling their dealings in Germany, Watson embarked upon an historic expansion of Dehomag. Just weeks after Hitler came to power, IBM NY invested more than 7 million Reichsmarks — in excess of a million dollars — to dramatically expand the German subsidiary's ability to manufacture machines.

To be sure, Dehomag managers were as fervently devoted to the Nazi movement as any of Hitler's scientific soldiers. IBM NY understood this from the outset. Heidinger, a rabid Nazi, saw Dehomag's unique ability to imbue the Reich with population information as a virtual calling from God. His enraptured passion for Dehomag's sudden new role was typically expressed while opening a new IBM facility in Berlin. "I feel it almost a sacred action," declared Heidinger emotionally, "I pray the blessing of heaven may rest upon this place."


That day, while standing next to the personal representative of Watson and IBM, with numerous Nazi Party officials in attendance, Heidinger publicly announced how in tune he and Dehomag were with the Nazi race scientists who saw population statistics as the key to eradicating the unhealthy, inferior segments of society.

"The physician examines the human body and determines whether...all organs are working to the benefit of the entire organism," asserted Heidinger to a crowd of Nazi officials. "We [Dehomag] are very much like the physician, in that we dissect, cell by cell, the German cultural body. We report every individual characteristic...on a little card. These are not dead cards, quite to the contrary, they prove later on that they come to life when the cards are sorted at a rate of 25,000 per hour according to certain characteristics. These characteristics are grouped like the organs of our cultural body, and they will be calculated and determined with the help of our tabulating machine.


"We are proud that we may assist in such task, a task that provides our nation's Physician [Adolf Hitler] with the material he needs for his examinations. Our Physician can then determine whether the calculated values are in harmony with the health of our people. It also means that if such is not the case, our Physician can take corrective procedures to correct the sick circumstances...Our characteristics are deeply rooted in our race. Therefore, we must cherish them like a holy shrine which we will — and must — keep pure. We have the deepest trust in our Physician and will follow his instructions in blind faith, because we know that he will lead our people to a great future. Hail to our German people and der Führer!"

Most of Heidinger's speech, along with a list of the invited Nazi Party officials, was rushed to Manhattan and immediately translated for Watson. The IBM Leader cabled Heidinger a prompt note of congratulations for a job well done and sentiments well expressed.


It was right about this time that Watson decided to engrave the five steps leading up to the door of the IBM School in Endicott, New York, with five of his favorite words. This school was the place where Watson would train his valued disciples in the art of sales, engineering, and technical support. Those five uppermost steps, steps that each man ascended before entering the front door, were engraved with the following words:


The fifth and uppermost step was chiseled with the heralded theme of the company. It said THINK.


The word THINK was everywhere.


Edwin Black is an award-winning, New York Times and international bestselling investigative author. IBM and the
Holocaust won two top honors from the American Society of Journalists and Authors: Best Non-Fiction Book of the Year and Best Investigation of the Year.

IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America's Most Powerful Corporation is available from Amazon