Government data collection then and now

Have you ever wondered how the Nazis were able to identify, select, isolate, imprison, and kill millions of people so quickly? They used IBM technology: punched cards, one card per person, and high-speed IBM card sorters and tabulators.

IBM and the HolocaustShortly after his election, Chancellor Hitler initiated the first of a succession of censuses. The data for each German person were punched on Hollerith (“IBM”) cards. It seemed harmless enough. IBM had a subsidiary in Germany called DEHOMAG (Deutsche Hollerith-Maschinen Gesellschaft mbH), which manufactured IBM card punches, sorters, tabulators, and the cards themselves. Years later, when the Nazis tightened the noose, the seemingly benign data, willingly provided by the victims and permanently punched on millions of IBM cards, enabled the SS to act swiftly and precisely. How else could they have so quickly and efficiently selected millions of people for “deportation” and shipped them, and processed them, with such speed?

Punched cards tracked Third Reich’s people and trains
The same IBM card technology was used to coordinate the movements of the trains that delivered the doomed to the death camps. Most concentration camps maintained their own Hollerith-Abteilung (Hollerith Department) for tracking prisoners; some camps also used their Hollerith machines to coordinate train movements.

In today’s debate surrounding the U.S. federal government’s snooping, I hear people declare “I have nothing to hide. The government can collect all the data about me that it wants.” The German Jews said the same thing in 1933.

Edwin Black’s IBM and the Holocaust is an awesome piece of scholarship. He meticulously documents the role that IBM and its technology played in the holocaust. IBM and its subsidiaries didn’t sell equipment, but instead leased it in a bundle with on-site service and consumables. DEHOMAG programmed the machines, so they knew the critical role its machines played in the final solution. My only criticism of the book is that it’s loaded with detail that reads like the author has prepared a court case. It’s impressive research and an important document, but it’s a tedious read. -Russ

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© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695


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