IBM faces suit over Nazi-era ties

Five Holocaust survivors are filing a class-action suit against IBM Corp., charging that the huge technology company “aided and abetted crimes against humanity” by providing the punch-card systems used to catalogue and process victims of the Nazi German genocide against Jews and other groups during World War II.

The plaintiffs, from the U.S., the Czech Republic, and Ukraine, claim that IBM not only profited from the use of its products in the Holocaust, but that it has refused historians and others access to archival evidence of its “complicit role in the Holocaust,” the law firm Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld & Toll PLLC said in a statement. The plaintiffs are demanding that the records be made public, and that IBM “disgorge all profits made from their service to the Nazis during World War II to a Holocaust relief fund.”

Lead attorney Michael Hausfeld estimated the amount IBM earned in the concentration camps “in the millions of dollars … maybe around US$10 million” in 1940s terms. The plaintiffs are not seeking any personal compensation, he said on a conference call announcing the suit Monday.

“We have not yet seen the complaint, so we have no comment on the lawsuit,” said Carol Makovich, IBM’s vice-president of worldwide media relations. She added, however, that IBM’s archives for the period were donated to two universities in September 1999, where they are available to scholars. “I would like to make it very clear that IBM has been very open with its records,” she said.

“IBM had a close contact with its German subsidiary throughout the ’30s and ’40s. What the lawsuit focuses on is IBM’s conduct and knowledge with respect to the placement and usage of its technology and machines in concentration camps,” Hausfeld said. “IBM continued to provide the machinery and know-how through at least 1943.” The suit names IBM’s longtime president, the late Thomas J. Watson, saying he closely oversaw IBM’s German operations, and citing his “complicit participation in the [Nazi Third] Reich’s agenda.”

He added that while IBM headquarters severed its relationship with the German operation in mid-1943, he believes that separation was “on paper only.”

Hausfeld said that IBM machines were leased, not sold, and that IBM staff paid regular service calls to program and maintain the machines installed at concentration camps. At Dachau concentration camp alone, there were 24 IBM sorters, tabulators and printers. “Do you think realistically that anyone, even if they’re a technician, visiting a concentration camp on a regular basis, would not report back to someone what they’re seeing?” he asked rhetorically.

The Nazi program of genocide against European Jews was public knowledge in the United States by December 1942 at the latest, Hausfeld said.

The sensational lawsuit was made public at the same time as the publication of a new book, “IBM and the Holocaust,” by Edwin Black, which is being released worldwide Monday. Hausfeld said the timing was not deliberate, but that after his firm learned of the publication date, they rushed preparations for the suit “so that it wouldn’t get lost.”

“IBM Germany, using its own staff and equipment, designed, executed, and supplied the indispensable technologic assistance Hitler’s Third Reich needed to accomplish what had never been done before – the automation of human destruction,” said the book’s publisher Little, Brown & Co. in a statement.

Makovich said that at the time the United States entered World War II, in 1941, IBM owned 84 per cent of German subsidiary Deutsche Hollerith Maschinen GmbH (Dehomag for short), which sold the punchcard technology invented by the engineer Hermann Hollerith in the 1890s. “But in practice, beginning around 1933-34 … the Nazis began to exert control over that operation, and certainly by the war years we had no effective control,” she said. She stressed, however, that records for the period are incomplete, many of them having been destroyed in the war.

Dehomag became a wholly owned subsidiary of IBM in 1947. It was renamed IBM Deutschland Internationale B