January 2, 2007

IBM and the Holocaust: A Drawing by Mirko Ilic

Historical Background for Mirko Ilic's Drawing

Mirko's drawing connects IBM to the Holocaust and furthermore suggests that IBM facilitated it. This relationship was elucidated in 2001 with a meticulously documented study, IBM and the Holocaust, by Edwin Black.

Herman Hollerith, 1860-1929

The story starts with Herman Hollerith, an engineer, the US-born son of German immigrants, and an employee of the US Census Bureau in the 1890's. The 1880 census had taken seven years to complete and the Bureau, faced with the ever growing population it was responsible for counting, was in desperate need of automation. Hollerith adapted a punched card system that had been in use for controlling weaving machines since the early part of the 19th century. Hollerith patented his card system on June 8, 1887. His company was incorporated as the Tabulating Machine Company in 1895. After a merger in 1911 it became the Computing Tabulating Recording Company in 1911 and in 1924 it was renamed The International Business Machines Company.

In 1910, Willi Heidinger founded Dehomag (Deutsche Hollerith Maschinen Gesellschaft) under license from Hollerith's Tabulating Machine Company to lease Hollerith's machines in Germany. As a result of the post WWI inflation in Germany, by the early 1920's Dehomag was near insolvency and a 90% share of its ownership was acquired by Hollerith's successor company, C-T-R, and with the name change in 1924, this ownership passed to IBM.

Reconstructed from IBM and the Holocaust
Dehomag ad. Text says: "Oversight with Hollerith punched cards."
Note: This drawing is a reconstruction from a grey scale original. Hence the colors are not correct.

In the 1920's Dehomag was leasing IBM's punched card tabulating machines to German states to assist in their censuses. It also advertised them to German industry to assist in managing an enterprise as can be seen from the ad on the right.

On January 30, 1933 Hitler was appointed Chancellor by President Hindenberg and on April 12th the new government announced that it would conduct a national census. Its planners decided that they wanted the results for Prussia, the most populous state, with 41 million inhabitants, in four months and they contracted with Dehomag to do the data processing.

Dehomag's job was to take the handwritten census forms and keypunch the data for each person onto a 60 column IBM card and then, using its tabulating machines, to prepare summary reports.

The door-to-door canvassing began on June 16th with 500,000 census takers hired by the government. By mid-September the hand-written forms started coming in to Dehomag for processing by 450 keypunch operators hired and trained by Dehomag and operating in two shifts. The production quota set by Dehomag was 150 cards per hour per operator.

Specifically relevant to the Holocaust was the information punched in colum 22: a hole in row 1 meant the person was a Protestant, row 2 a Catholic, or row 3 a Jew.

Once all the information from the source sheets was keypunched, and using IBM's tabulating machines, the Nazi bureaucrats could, for example, print out a list of names and addresses of all Polish-speaking Jews, between the ages of 40 and 65, living in a particular neighborhood of Berlin. Such lists could be given to the local police officials and thus could the wheels of the Holocaust machinery be set in motion.