Edwin Black’s "IBM and the Holocaust," Chapter Seven: With Blitzkrieg Efficiency
Hitler’s armies swarmed over Europe throughout the first months of 1940. The forces of the Reich slaughtered all opposition with a military machine unparalleled in human history. Blitzkrieg — lightning war — was more than a new word. Its very utterance signified coordinated death under the murderous onslaught of Hitler’s massive air, sea, and 100,000-troop ground assaults. Nothing could stop Germany.
Nazi Europe — and Berlin’s new world order — was becoming a reality. Austria: annexed in March 1938. Sudetenland: seized October 1938. Czechoslovakia: dismembered March 1939, and the Memel region ceded from Lithuania that same month. Poland: invaded September 1939. By January 1940, nearly 42 million people had come under brutal German subjugation. Disease, starvation, shattered lives, and fear became the desolate truth across the Continent.
The Jews were running out of refuges. One overrun sanctuary after another slid back into the familiar nightmare of registration, confiscation, and ghettoization
The Jews were running out of refuges. One overrun sanctuary after another slid back into the familiar nightmare of registration, confiscation, and ghettoization. No sooner did the Swastika flag of occupation unfurl, than the anti-Semitic decrees rolled out. Eastern European countries not yet conquered emulated the pattern as German sympathizers and surrogates in Romania, Hungary, and Italy undertook Berlin’s bidding to destroy local Jewish populations.
As the winter receded, the Reich prepared for further aggression. By spring 1940, Nazi Germany began dismembering Scandinavia and the Low Countries. April 9, the Wehrmacht invaded Denmark and Norway. Several days later, tiny Luxembourg was taken. May 15, Germany crushed Holland into complete submission. May 28, Belgium capitulated to German forces. During April and May, Germany’s enslavement jurisdiction grew to 65 million Europeans.
A Dehomag IBM poster, circa 1934. Approximate English translation: “See everything with Hollerith punch cards.” (photo credit: courtesy/Edwin Black Collection)
Cities across Europe smoldered in ruin. Warsaw was pulverized into a shambles. Rotterdam was mercilessly bombed even after its surrender on May 14 because, as Berlin propagandists explained, Dutch officials exceeded the ultimatum deadline by some twenty minutes. An elaborate Nazi newsreel, filmed by parachuting cameramen, showed Rotterdam almost completely aflame. Airports at Brussels and Antwerp were bombed and strafed by hundreds of Luftwaffe planes.
Nazi-commandeered trains crisscrossed the continent hauling into Germany looted coal, scrap metal, foodstuffs, machinery, and the other essentials Berlin craved. When they weren’t carrying raw materials, or transporting troops, the railroad cars freighted conscripted labor en route to work projects as well as expelled Jews destined for concentration camps.
Mass executions, organized plunder, and ruthless invasion — these blared across the front pages of the newspapers, the frames of newsreels, and the broadcasts of radio news. Germany was portrayed in emotional headlines and feature articles as a savage, murderous nation bent on destroying and dominating all of Europe no matter how many people died. On April 2,
Poland’s exile government declared that in addition to a million prisoners and forced laborers transported to German work sites, an estimated 2.5 million had died as a result of military action, executions, starvation, or frigid homelessness. Headlines continued as the New York Times grossly exaggerated the five days of Germany’s invasion of the Netherlands which commenced May 10; the newspaper claimed a quarter of the Dutch army was killed — more than 100,000 (even though the number was 2,200).
Moreover, millions of Jews were now clearly earmarked for death by virtue of Hitler’s oppressive measures. In November 1939, the New York Times published reports from Paris declaring that 1.5 million Jews trapped in Poland were in danger of starving to death. On January 21, 1940, World Jewish Congress Chairman Nahum Goldmann warned a Chicago crowd of 1,000, as well as wire service reporters, that if the war continued for another year 1 million Polish Jews would die of calculated starvation or outright murder. Such dire predictions only capped years of saturation media coverage about inhumane Jewish persecution and horrifying concentration camps.
Indeed, whenever Jewish persecution was reported, the media invariably reported the incessant registrations and censuses as Nazidom’s initial step. The methodology, technology, and the connection to IBM were still far below public awareness. But some specifics were beginning to appear. For example, a March 2, 1940, New York Times article, entitled “Jews in Cracow Move to Ghettos,” described how 80,000 Jews had been herded into overcrowded flats in a squalid urban district devoid of resources. “A common sight,” the report asserted, “is the white armband with the blue Star of David, which all Jews must wear by government decree . . . [signifying] their registration in the government card file.”
Only with great caution could Watson now publicly defend the Hitler agenda, even through euphemisms and code words. Most Americans would not tolerate anyone who even appeared to be a Nazi sympathizer or collaborator. So, as he had done since Kristallnacht in late 1938, Watson continued to insert corporate distance between himself and all involvement in the affairs of his subsidiaries in Nazi Europe — even as he micro-managed their day-to-day operations. More than ever, he now channeled his communications to Nazi Europe through trusted intermediaries in Geneva and elsewhere on the Continent. He controlled subsidiary operations through attorneys and employees acting as nominee owners, following the pattern set in Czechoslovakia and Poland.
In May 1940, as American society prepared for an inevitable war with Hitler, Watson worked to secure the underpinnings of his public image. He intensified his advocacy for peace, and against all war.
“Universal peace is one of the most desirable, most worthwhile ideals in the world today,” Watson insisted in a May 4 speech to reporters. “It cannot be sold by a few people working in widely scattered communities. The project requires a worldwide organization of enthusiastic, hard-working individuals selling the gospel of peace.” Watson advertised IBM as such an organization.
Four days later, on May 8, Watson told reporters that the company’s latest course held in Endicott, New York, for IBM sales representatives from twenty-four countries was to “enable the students . . . to make greater contributions to the cause of world peace through world trade.”
Watson’s advocacy for peace was limitless. May 13, 1940 was proclaimed IBM Day at the World’s Fair being held that month in New York. IBM Day was nothing less than an extravaganza of orchestrated adulation for the company. A dozen chartered trains brought in 7,000 IBM employees and their wives from company facilities across the nation to visit the architectonic IBM Pavilion. Each IBMer wore a red ribbon of solidarity with the company. Two thousand lucky ones were chosen to be feted at a massive Waldorf-Astoria dinner. Special congratulations to IBM, as usual, were issued by leading politicians from President Roosevelt to the Mayor of New York. To underscore the drama, Watson commissioned an original orchestral work, “The IBM Symphony,” a bombastic composition dedicated to the uplifting spirit of the firm.
The climax of IBM Day, however, was Watson’s speech on the subject of peace. He delivered his sermon to 30,000 specially invited guests gathered at the vast Court of Peace located in front of the sweeping USA Pavilion. Mutual Radio broadcast the highly publicized event countrywide.
Even as Watson was preaching the imperatives of peace, IBM was ecstatic about its accomplishments revolutionizing warfare not only for the Third Reich, but also for its Axis allies
Peace was Watson’s message. War was bad, he argued at every opportunity. It would prove nothing but military might, waste lives and precious resources. War was in fact the worst recourse for the world, and all right-thinking men should be opposed to any involvement with it, Watson pleaded. As head of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Watson everywhere proclaimed his driving mantra: “World Peace through World Trade.” Indeed, Watson must have seemed to the public like the very champion of peace and the arch adversary of all conflict. Ironically, at that very moment, Watson and IBM were in fact Europe’s most successful organizers not of peace, but of the ravages of war.
Even as Watson was preaching the imperatives of peace, IBM was ecstatic about its accomplishments revolutionizing warfare not only for the Third Reich, but also for its Axis allies and even other European nations about to be vanquished by Hitler. In spring 1940, J. W. Schotte, IBM’s general manager for Europe, dispatched a confidential report from his Geneva office to senior IBM executives in America. Schotte’s dispatch addressed the activities not only of just Dehomag, but also of the two dozen European subsidiaries and agencies that worked as inter-connected branches of the New York company.
Schotte’s enthusiastic memo was entitled “Our Dealings with War Ministries in Europe.” It began, “Up to about one and a half years ago [about the time of Kristallnacht in 1938], our negotiations with the war ministries of the twenty-four countries which are under the jurisdiction of IBM European headquarters in Geneva, had not been very successful. This was due to several rea sons, but mainly to the fact that in military circles administration was considered a ‘necessary evil’ of little importance for the defense of the country.”
IBM had finally succeeded in gaining the necessary insider access to sensitive military projects, Schotte reported, so that company engineers could properly design punch card applications for war use. Schotte explained that in prior years “the military men in Europe have been reluctant to reveal their problems and programs to civilians. It has been overlooked in such instances that there is a distinct difference between knowing which problems exist and what system is applied, and the data and figures to which the system has to be applied.” As such, Schotte drew a fine theoretical distinction between IBM possessing specific knowledge of the facts about a military operation, such as the number of people to be counted or a list of German bombing raids, and the actions themselves.
The big change in military acceptance of Hollerith systems appeared at the end of 1938, confirmed Schotte, when “in Germany a campaign started for, what has been termed . . . ‘organization of the second front.’ ” He elaborated, “In military literature and in newspapers, the importance and necessity of having in all phases of life, behind the front, an organization which would remain intact and would function with ‘Blitzkrieg’ efficiency . . . was brought out. What we had been preaching in vain for years all at once began to be realized.”
Revenues from IBM’s dominant customer, the Third Reich, was growing so rapidly, Schotte said he did not yet possess the sales numbers. ‘We have no details of Germany,’ he reported, ‘but know that a large amount of punched card equipment is being used by the War Ministry’
Schotte’s memo made clear that only at IBM’s initiative did the militarists comprehend what magic they could achieve with Hollerith automation. “Lectures on the punched card system were held by our representatives before officials of the general staff of various countries and, with our men, the study of possible applications was begun . . . progress was rather slow, and it was not until about eight or nine months ago [summer 1939] when conditions in Europe clearly indicated that a war was more or less unavoidable, that the matter became acute.”
Asserting that IBM sold to either side and had enjoyed an ever-escalating volume since the summer of 1939, Schotte’s memo declared, “The War Ministries of Yugoslavia, Rumania, Hungary, Poland, Sweden, Holland and France (these are the ones that I remember very distinctly from memory) sent us orders for punched card equipment, some of which is already installed, others being installed when the war started, and further equipment not yet installed or still in transport.”
Revenues from IBM’s dominant customer, the Third Reich, was growing so rapidly, Schotte said he did not yet possess the sales numbers. “We have no details of Germany,” he reported, “but know that a large amount of punched card equipment is being used by the War Ministry.” He added that so great was Germany’s need in the months before and after the invasion of Poland that the Reich began requisitioning machines. Indeed, the agency ultimately known as the Maschinelles Berichtwesen (MB) had exercised full authority over all punch card technology since 1937. “In the second half of 1939,” wrote Schotte, “most of our equipment was ‘seized’ and used to supplement the installations already in operation.”
Once war erupted, the haste to add machines for military use was not confined to Germany. Schotte’s report noted that “rush orders were placed with us” by those countries not yet properly automated. Most IBM subsidiaries were two years behind in filling orders, so many war ministries hurried their orders just to get in queue. “To make up for lost time,” Schotte continued, “Holland and France gave us blank orders for a large quantity of machines, although our studies were not completed for several of the uses, and the quantities of required machines not established. As late as February 1940, the French War Ministry ordered a very substantial quantity of machines.”
Schotte’s report clarified that not all war applications were handled directly by war ministries. Numerous systems had been conveyed to private industry, “but are for their [war ministry] use and under their control.” Therefore, even though a coal mine or insurance company might be listed as the account, utilization of the machines was dictated by military needs either on the original corporate premises or moved to a more secure location altogether. Indeed, by spring 1940, his memo confirmed, many such systems had already been relocated to more protected sites, the report acknowledged.
So comprehensive was IBM Europe’s data on both Germany and its enemies that Schotte’s memo was able to assert that the punch cards maintained ‘records of each and every Communist and Nazi’
Widespread expansion of punch card systems for war was ironically undermined in various countries by the draft itself, which infringed on the punch card workforce, asserted Schotte. However, eventually, military officials exempted “key men in our installations [who then] remained at their posts.” Moreover, “supervisors and our indispensable servicemen were released for such work.” Even still, he added, “A great inconvenience was caused due to the sudden extension of equipment in most countries, a shortage of trained supervisors and punch operators. Ads were placed in the papers and such operators lured away from one installation to another by offering higher salaries. We hurriedly started training schools for key punch operators and supervisors, and of course servicemen who would be exempted from military service due to age or physical condition.”
Europe’s militarists had finally realized the indispensable advantages Hollerith instilled into modern warfare, boasted Schotte. Punch cards freed up manpower. Schotte cited a typical case: “For example, in Hungary with one set of machines and a few operators we replaced about sixty men.” He added that the machines “work twenty-four hours without vacation. The place and location is immaterial, and machines have been installed in bombproof cellars. . . . There is no limit to the flexibility and adaptability of the machines, provided the mass of data to be handled is sufficiently large.”
Most importantly, stressed Schotte, Hollerith machines guaranteed “speed in handling mass records and data. Such speed would be absolutely impossible by manual methods,” he stressed.
Schotte’s report included a list of IBM’s remarkable accomplishments for the armies of war-ravaged Europe. Personal information about every officer and soldier resided on Hollerith systems. In France, for example, the actual “mobilization call to each officer was printed by our equipment by means of punch cards.” Hollerith machines controlled all payrolls to both armies and civilian workers in munitions factories.
So comprehensive was IBM Europe’s data on both Germany and its enemies that Schotte’s memo was able to assert that the punch cards maintained “records of each and every Communist and Nazi.”