Selling technology to the Nazis

Author Edwin Black writes that new evidence connecting IBM headquarters to the activities of its subsidiary in occupied Poland during World War II raises questions about the company's dealings with the Third Reich.

6 min read
Why did the trains run on time to Auschwitz and Treblinka? How did the Nazis calculate exactly how many Jews should be emptied out of the ghettos each day and dispatched to death camps? How did the Third Reich systemize the plunder of Polish natural resources?

The world now knows the Nazis tabulated it all using custom-made IBM punch-card programs on leased IBM machines. Moreover, the world now knows that IBM's tailored technology in occupied Poland was provided not through its German subsidiary, but directly through a new special wartime Polish subsidiary reporting to IBM New York. IBM New York continued to do business with the Nazis during the extermination of Polish Jews.

The conclusion is inescapable, according to experts who reviewed the information. "For those who have complained the proof is not there, this new evidence gives refutation," declares Robert Wolfe, the foremost expert on Nazi documentation and formerly chief of captured German records for the National Archives. He explained, "The juxtaposition of all these sources--the new German documents, Justice Department records, the IBM files and eyewitness sources--indicates it was not just trading with the enemy...This is the proof that IBM enabled the Holocaust. The connection to New York is now proven."

"This negates all the excuses," added Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. "We now see that after the invasion of Poland when the Nazi goals were clear, IBM leaders based in America continued this conspiracy of complicity."

So how was it done? The answer: sharp accountants, skillful lawyers and smooth publicists. World War II broke out on Sept. 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. Germany annexed northwestern Poland; the remaining Polish territory 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 coalmines and heavy industry. At about that time, IBM New York established its special new subsidiary, Watson Business Machines, and its sole purpose was to service the Nazis during the rape of Poland. The Polish subsidiary was also known to the Nazis as Watson B?romaschinen, the German equivalent of Watson Business Machines. It remained completely legal for IBM to service the Third Reich until just before America entered the war in December 1941.

It remained completely legal for IBM to service the Third Reich until just before America entered the war in December 1941.
After America entered the war, the Polish branch was managed through Geneva, which worked with a Berlin-appointed Nazi devoted to IBM, Hermann Fellinger, who kept the company productive for the Reich and profitable for IBM. And so while the Holocaust raged, IBM was able to operate its Polish headquarters at 23 Kreuz in Warsaw, its punch-card print shop at 6 Rymarska across the street from the Warsaw Ghetto, and key customer sites throughout occupied Poland.

These sites included a massive 500-person Nazi statistical operation at 24 Murnerstrasse in Krakow that calculated endless projections, such as the rate of deaths per square kilometer due to progressive starvation, and the number of Jews to be transported to the death camps. The company even maintained fourteen punchers, a sorter and a large tabulator at 22 Pawia in Krakow, at the Hollerith Department of Polish Railways that kept tabs on trains dispatched to and from Auschwitz and Treblinka.

"I knew they were not German machines," said Leon Krzemieniecki, the sole surviving Hollerith operator. The machine logo plates read "Watson Business Machines," he remembers, adding, "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."

Accountants and managers created a murky and confusing network across Europe. Although IBM owned the subsidiary completely, the shares were registered in the name of its European accountant and two managers. Special accounting provisions allowed the German and Polish units to overlap. When the Polish company ran out of punch cards, Dehomag could supply them by paying a commission to the Polish company. When the Polish company ran out of machines, Dehomag could supply them, but the Polish subsidiary charged a 25 percent maintenance commission.

IBM's French machines brought to Poland by the German army could be rented out by the Polish branch but required a 25 percent rental commission to the German unit. When a Polish supplier wanted to return some equipment, IBM New York asked that it be shipped to the Swedish subsidiary, from where it would be credited to the Geneva office, and then to New York.

In 1942, although the United States was at war, IBM New York's chief attorney, Harrison Chauncey, met in Berlin with IBM's Czech subsidiary manager to secretly authorize him to place Czech machine tags on Nazi tabulators, lease them as Czech machines, and then transmit lease payments disguised as royalties from Czechoslovakia to Switzerland--and then on to New York. These "Czech" machines then ended up in Poland. Meanwhile, the Polish manager was given written authorization to receive money, but only untraceable verbal authorization to actually deposit it in account 4b at the Handlowy Bank.

Sixty years later, IBM has not apologized to the Jewish community or to the people of Poland. It has not opened its Polish or other key archives, or deployed a team of sensitive public relations people to reach out.
The most respected attorneys throughout Europe worked with IBM's own American lawyers to ensure that every action complied with local regulations. Thanks to them, interlocking subsidiary relationships crisscrossed Europe, from occupied nations to neutrals to the Reich itself. Moreover, most of the foreign earnings from Nazi Europe were kept off IBM's public books.

When the smoke cleared in 1945, no one could figure out which machine and which dollar belonged to which subsidiary. But IBM kept track, and after the war, a team of attorneys and accountants working through a thicket of changing post-war regulations collected it all.

Throughout the war, IBM publicists back home were parading IBM President Thomas J. Watson as the patriot-in-chief and the world's greatest peace advocate through the Carnegie Endowment for Peace--even as Watson and the company were organizing the Nazi military to conquer Europe, and the Gestapo to destroy the Polish people.

Sixty years later, IBM has not apologized to the Jewish community or to the people of Poland. It has not opened its Polish or other key archives, or deployed a team of sensitive public relations people to reach out. Instead, public relations managers have moved archival documents around. Carol Makovich, IBM media manager, has deftly asserted for a year that Big Blue just "doesn't have much information about the period," as the key sentence of its sole public comment. The full statement, unchanged in more than a year, can still be seen on IBM's official Web site.

IBM has been secure that its Nazi-era activity was legal. Or was it? When the Allies defeated the Third Reich in 1945, they voided and repealed all Nazi and Axis governmental and commercial regulations designed to further Germany's conquest of Europe and the genocide of millions. And they declared that all such acts by corporations or agencies were crimes against humanity, whether or not they were conducted under the cover of legal rulings.

"We now see that it was not just IBM's German subsidiary, Dehomag, that involved itself in activities supporting Holocaust operations," said William Seltzer, senior scholar at Fordham University, and an expert on the use of punch-card technology in Nazi persecution. "Newly discovered evidence," he added, "is also showing the direct involvement of IBM headquarters in New York through its newly established subsidiary in occupied Poland. One wonders what else might be found if IBM opened its archives to independent investigators."

Was it the legal participation in genocide? The jury may still be out.