Doing business with the Nazis

Culpability: IBM and its European subsidiaries provided technology, machinery and material for the German concentration camps. Time for IBM to answer for trading with Nazis

April 01, 2001|By Michael D. Hausfeld

IBM IS A company that prides itself on solutions. Recently disclosed materials, however, reveal a chilling portrait of the company's complicity in the evil of the Nazis' search for the "Final Solution."

Soon after the Nazis came to power in 1933, they established the first concentration camp, the Dachau camp near Munich, Germany. From 1933 to 1944, IBM Hollerith machines were installed at the main concentration camps of Mauthausen, Ravensbrock, Flossenberg and Buchenwald, and were probably present at Auschwitz.

Various people were brought into the concentration camps: Jews, Jehovah's Witnesses, political prisoners and homosexuals. It was imperative that the Nazis be able to identify, classify, categorize and sort these persons for their own purposes.

Upon arrival, a "selection" process separated those who could be used as slave laborers from those destined for immediate extermination. Victims with potential for labor were often worked to death. The total number of people who perished in concentration camps, not including those sent to extermination camps, is estimated to be between 700,000 and 1.2 million.

IBM USA knew that its Hollerith machines were needed and used in the camps. IBM USA kept careful records of where its leased property was located and played an active role in servicing the machines, training its clients how to use them, and providing punch cards and other supplies.

IBM USA's inventories of 1940 and 1941 indicate that the company knew which Hollerith machines were located in camps, along with their serial numbers and the amount they were being paid for the lease of each machine.

At Dachau alone there were approximately 24 IBM sorters, tabulators and printers. Nazi personnel had to be trained by IBM staff in how to use the tabulators, sorters and other Hollerith machines. Salespersons and officials from IBM Germany and IBM subsidiaries in Europe would come to New York for training, sometimes at significant expense to IBM USA.

Nazi personnel collected on punch cards data such as whether someone was Jewish or gay, what skills could be exploited for slave labor, and whether a prisoner had been exterminated or escaped.

Once the United States entered the war on Dec. 10, 1941, IBM USA camouflaged its business transactions with the Nazi regime by using its European subsidiaries as a facade. As late as Nov. 13, 1944, a German prisoner of war, formerly the branch manager of the Saarbrocken Hollerith office, noted in an intelligence bulletin that the Hollerith company did not conceal or sever its connection with IBM.

At all relevant times, IBM USA controlled its operations in Germany. It provided the technology, machinery and material solely because that was its business.

The IBM experience with Nazi Germany teaches three lessons: All that is benign (the compiling, sorting and classifying of information through technology) is not necessarily harmless. The pursuit of profit, indifferent to its consequences or effects, can be an evil unto itself. And crimes against humanity are not limited to the perpetrators who define or sign the orders of extermination, pull the triggers, drop the pellets or crack the whips. Those who aid, abet or consciously participate in the furtherance of those crimes have their own legal responsibility for which they must be held legally accountable.

There are certain principles that are inviolate, universal and eternal. Breaches of fundamental internationally recognized individual rights are crimes against humanity. As the judgments at Nuremberg expressed:

"Any person without regard to nationality or the capacity in which he acted, is deemed to have committed a crime of humanity if he was (a) the principal or (b) was an accessory to the commission of any such crime or ordered or abetted the same or (c) took a consenting part therein or (d) was connected with plans or enterprises involving its commission ..."

It's time for IBM to answer for its culpability.

Michael D. Hausfeld, an attorney in Washington, D.C., has represented Holocaust survivors and represents the plaintiffs in the case against IBM. This article first appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.