IBM’s darkest chapter: controversy over Second World War

Retired IBM internal auditor Michael Zamczyk was born in a ghetto of Krakow, Poland during the war years and endured the occupation by the Nazis with his family, many of whom were eventually killed in the nearby Auschwitz concentration camp – including his father.

Now living in Palm Springs, Calif. after working for IBM’s San Jose office for 35 years, Zamczyk still seeks a public apology from his former employee for supplying the punch card tabulating technology that Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich used to implement their Final Solution. Further, he’d like to see IBM be indicted as an accessory to mass murder – though he doesn’t think that’s really going to happen.

Reflecting on the genocide, Zamczyk had always wondered how the Germans managed to do it so efficiently. When Edwin Black’s investigative work was published in his 2001 book IBM and the Holocaust, he found the answer. The book laid out the case that New York-based IBM Corp. had leased the Nazis the equipment and services needed to identify the Jews, remove them from society, move them into ghettos, and finally exterminate them.

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Incensed by the book, Zamczyk organized a return trip to Krakow hoping to dig up the punch cards that might have been used to help ghettoize his own family. He found a database of the 1938 census of the Jews in Krakow that included his name, where he lives, and his relationship to others in his family.

“I felt that IBM owned an apology not only to me, but for what the company did during the war,” he says. Zamczyk also wanted an internal audit of all the archives that IBM had to further document what happened during the war. “I wanted the truth,” he tells in a phone interview.

It was a public admission he would never get. Zamczyk was eventually frustrated with his efforts to hold his employer accountable, and retired in 2003.

IBM’s support of the Nazis in the extermination of Jews from the occupied territories of Europe during the rule of Germany’s Nazi regime is the darkest chapter in the firm’s 100-year history. Through its German subsidiary of Deutsche Hollerith Maschinen GmbH (Dehomag) and other subsidiaries in Nazi-occupied territory such as Poland’s Watson Business Machines, IBM Corp. is linked to the worst human rights atrocity in modern history.

While it is an undisputed fact that the Nazis used IBM equipment to pursue their evil plans, IBM’s level of collusion with the Third Reich is disputed. Big Blue has maintained on the public record for a decade that it wasn’t aware of Hitler’s plans for its technology, and that it lost control of Dehomag when Hitler seized it in 1940. But Black argues otherwise in his 2001 book and in public lectures on the topic to this day, presenting tens of thousands of primary documents to support his case – perhaps the strongest evidence being the direct involvement of IBM’s founding CEO, Thomas J. Watson Sr.

Incidental provider or Nazi collaborator?

Black doesn’t mince words when he describes IBM’s relationship with the Nazis. A relationship he characterizes as not being motivated by IBM’s ideological bent, but only by the corporation’s goal to make money.

“IBM was the solutions company and their mandate was to bring in any solution the customer wanted, including the final solution,” he says. “IBM continues to cling to the hope that the world will forget that it co-planned and co-organized all six stages of the holocaust.”

While chatting over Skype with from Sydney, Australia, the former New York Times best-selling author is sending primary documents that support his argument that IBM cooperated with the Nazis.

“You have a picture there of Adolf Hitler and Watson there having tea,” he points out.

One file shows a typical prisoner card from one of the Nazi’s concentration camps. Though it is completed by hand with a pencil, it is coded with numbers so that a punch card operator can later categorize the information with thousands of other entries like it. By comparing the numbers to another document with a legend, Black shows just what sort of information was being recorded.

The prisoner, classified as a misfit or “asocial,” according to the Germans, was located at the Dachau concentration camp. The decoding key shows the prisoner could have also been classified as a homosexual, Jew, or Gypsy. There were also other options describing the “method of departure.”

“An IBM engineer had to create a system that would specifically differentiate between Jews who had been shot to death, dropped dead from being worked to death, or were gassed to death in a gas chamber,” Black says. “They had to create the machines, train the personnel, and train specific, customized punch cards.”

When Hitler came to power in 1933, he sought to complete a national census of the German people. In the pre-computer age such an undertaking seemed nearly an impossible task to accomplish with pencil and paper. But IBM’s punch card meant it was possible to automate the process of categorizing punch cards across multiple categories. It turned individual pieces of paper into statistical data.

The Hollerith machines that did this were first invented by Hermann Hollerith, who began the roots of modern-day IBM with his Tabulating Machine Company (renamed to International Business Machines in 1924). Hollerith first created his machines for the 1890 U.S. census, leasing them out for $750,000. He followed that business model in renting the machines out to Austria, Canada, France and Russia. IBM continued that model decades later, leasing their machines to the Germans and providing on-site service, according to Black. Dehomag created the custom punch cards and processed them for the Nazis.

“IBM invented the racial census, they executed it, and they brought in their own machines,” he says.

The one page file Zamcyzk found detailing his family’s information was set up to be processed by a Hollerith machine, the holocaust survivor says, which he had confirmed by his IBM colleagues. “This was all done from the 1938 census,” Zamcyzk says.

To support his assertion that IBM’s New York headquarters was well informed about the operations in German-occupied territory, Black points to a contract with the Third Reich dated July 1942 with “INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS MACHINES CORPORATION NEW YORK” written in large type on the first page. “There are hundreds of pages of internal correspondance between the Nazi operations and Watson personally from 1933 to 1945,” Black says.

Also, Black shows a letter addressed to Watson from Dehomag, dated Sept. 9, 1939, that requests the use of American machines in the German office. Then a memo showing that approval had been granted over the phone.

Watson’s interaction with the Nazi regime was most widely publicized when Hitler bestowed him with the Order of the German Eagle medal, given to those considered sympathetic to Nazism. Watson would later return the medal in 1940, before America entered the war.

IBM’s consistent stance

Since Black’s book hit the shelves in 2001, IBM has claimed that the book is little more than a rehashing of the facts – documenting that Germany used IBM machines, but not proving culpability of the corporation in the genocide. IBM did not meet an interview request from, but did provide a written statement.

“As with other foreign owned companies that did business in Germany at that time, IBM’s German operations came under the control of Nazi authorities prior to and during World War II. IBM and its employees around the world find the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime abhorrent and condemn any actions which aided their unspeakable acts,” writes Carrie Bendzsa, manager of external communications at IBM Canada.

This echoes similar statements issued by IBM in earlier press releases. In a press release issued by IBM on Feb. 14, 2001, it claims to not have much information about this period. Records that IBM did have from the war have been transferred to New York University and Hohenheim University in Stuttgart, Germany.

In the Canadian-made documentary The Corporation in 2004, IBM gave a rare on-camera interview about its Nazi affiliation. Irving Wladawski-Berger, vice-president of IBM Technology and Strategy Group said that IBM didn’t know how the Nazis were using the machines.

“I really do believe that particular accusation has been fairly discredited as a serious accusation,” he says in the film. “They used equipment, that is a fact. But how much cooperation they got… that is the part that is discredited.”

IBM now has an executive dedicated to corporate citizenship and is recognized by many as one the world’s most ethical and progressive companies. Its Corporate Service Corps program puts exceptional employees into developing countries to work on local projects to improve water quality and disaster preparedness. IBM has been ranked first by Business Ethics magazine on its annual top 100 Best Corporate Citizens list, and in 2011 Corporate Responsibility Magazine’s list ranked it as the third best corporate citizen.

IBM isn’t the only critical voice of Black’s work. Author and New York Times book reviewer Richard Bernstein questioned whether the case had been sufficiently made as to whether IBM formed a “strategic alliance” with the Nazis, as Black’s sub-title suggests.

“Is Mr. Black really correct in his assumption that without IBM’s technology, which consisted mainly of punch cards and the machines to tabulate them, the Germans wouldn’t have figured out a way to do what they did anyway?” he wrote. “Would the country that devised the Messerschmitt and the V-2 missile have been unable to devise the necessary means to slaughter millions of victims without I.B.M. at its disposal?”

Though Watson’s choices are clearly wrong now, that is from the benefit of hindsight, Bernstein said. It may have been better if IBM hadn’t sold their machines to Hitler, but the book doesn’t demonstrate that IBM bears some sort of unique responsibility as a colluder.

On the other side, Black’s book did win praise in the press as well, and the American Society of Journalists and Authors awarded it as winner of the Best Non-Fction Book of 2002.

Legal salvos launched over Nazi ties

IBM did offer a private apology from its CEO at the time, Samuel Palmisano, directly to Zamczyk, the retired internal auditor says. He was told the company wouldn’t say anything on the public record for fear of being sued.

“He (Palmisano) was going to apologize for what Watson did and what IBM did during the war,” Zamczyk says. “He was prepared to apologize for the fact that Hollerith machines were used to round-up Jews in Poland.”

But Zamcyzk wasn’t happy, wanting a public statement issued, and turned down the offer.

IBM did face two lawsuits over its Nazi-era ties. One launched in February 2001, at the same time as IBM and the Holocaust hit the shelves, involved five holocaust survivors filing a claim against IBM in U.S. Federal Court for allegedly providing the punched card technology that facilitated the Holocaust, then covering up Dehomag’s activities. The suit was dropped later in the year because lawyers feared it would slow down payments from a special German Holocaust fund created to compensate forced labourers and others who suffered from Nazi persecution. IBM’s German division had paid $3 million into this fund, making clear it was not admitting liability.

Another lawsuit was launched by the Gypsy International Recognition and Compensation Action in 2003 against IBM in Geneva, Switzerland. That group was seeking $12 billion in collective damages, but the case was dismissed in 2006, with the Federal Tribunal saying too much time had elapsed.

Zamcyzk has previously contacted the lawyers involved in these cases about suing IBM. But he was told that was no longer an option. “I was quickly told they couldn’t do anything because of this agreement signed in Federal Court,” he says. IBM had agreed to compensate the forced labourers under the condition it could not be sued individually, Zamcyzk was told.

A sense of justice

IBM isn’t the only American corporation accused of profiting from assisting the Nazi regime. Notably, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. have been the target of lawsuits, investigative journalists, and government scrutiny for their dealings with the Third Reich. The difference with IBM, according to Black, is that it so adamantly refuses to admit its mistakes.

Big Blue should open up its archives on the period and address the issue openly, Black says.

“Until that moment occurs, modern day IBM and the people in the country who are covering it up will be guilty of what no other Nazi collaborationist is guilty of,” he says. “They will be guilty of handcuffing themselves to their own genocidal past.”

For Zamcyzk, with limited avenues to his own sense of justice – after a lawsuit appears impossible, and criminal charges unlikely – the only path forward looks to be an IBM apology on the public record. “IBM knew better than anyone else did what was going on in Europe,” he says.

Until then, the retiree will live out his days in Palm Springs, Calif. with his own knowledge that a benign punch card sealed his father’s fate – death at Auschwitz.

Brian Jackson is Associate Editor at Follow him on Twitter, read his blog, and check out the IT Business Facebook Page.

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