The following is an excerpt from Edwin Black's recently published book, IBM and the Holocaust, © 2001 Edwin Black.
Veils of smoke hung above Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Many prisoners slumped lifelessly, waiting for death.
Plainly visible at the rear of the camp, a round-topped furnace squatted in the mud. Black and elongated, it resembled a railway engine, but with two heavy kiln doors at the front. A metal stretcher used to slide emaciated corpses into the flames was always nearby. Here was the crematorium.
Belsen had originally been a transit camp. But in late 1944, as Nazi death camps such as Auschwitz were liberated by the allies, Belsen became a nightmare receiving transports from other sites.
In December a Dutch-Jewish prisoner, Rudolf Cheim, was assigned to the office of the Arbeitsdienstführer, the labour service leader, a few yards away from the crematorium, down a muddy path.
Cheim was often beaten by the SS men in the labour service, but he knew that having a job meant staying alive.
He noticed that they were engaged in some sort of work involving punch cards. He unobtrusively watched them and quickly learnt their system.
At first glance they seemed to be handling simple rectangular cards, 5¼ x 3¼in, divided into numbered columns with holes punched in various rows. But Cheim began to understand the truth. The labour service office held the power of life or death over prisoners.
Hundreds of thousands of human beings were being identified, sorted, assigned and transported by means of the card system.
Every day, transports of slave labourers were received at the camp. Prisoners were identified by cards, each with columns and punched holes detailing nationality, date of birth, marital status, number of children, reason for incarceration, physical characteristics and work skills.
Sixteen categories of prisoners were listed in columns 3 and 4, depending upon the hole. Hole 3 signified homosexual, hole 9 for antisocial, hole 12 for gypsy, hole 8 for Jew.
Column 34 was labelled "reason for departure". Code 2 meant transferred to another camp. Natural death was coded 3. Execution was 4. Suicide was coded 5. Code 6 designated "special handling", the term commonly understood as extermination, either in a gas chamber, by hanging or by gunshot.
On arrival, each prisoner's punch card was fed into a mechanical sorter. The dials were adjusted to isolate the skills, age groups or language abilities needed for particular work battalions.
The process was monitored by Office D II of the SS economics office, which administered all the camps under General Oswald Pohl, the creator of the "Extermination by Labour" programme. The general argued that expeditiously gassing Jews deprived the Reich of an important resource; he preferred working them to death.
As the trains and trucks full of prisoners rolled into Belsen from Belgium, France and Holland, thousands of punch cards were processed and the information fed back to the SS department of statistics. How many died was just a statistic to note.
That December, some 20,000 prisoners were registered: 50 deaths per day, on average, were recorded on the punch cards. By spring 1945, more than 40,000 were imprisoned under indescribable conditions - starved, randomly tortured and worked to death. The monthly death toll rose to nearly 20,000 in March.
Cheim never understood where the punch card system came from, but after the war - having survived Belsen - he saw a punch card in a shop and felt the need to write a record of what he had witnessed in the camp. This ended up in a Dutch archive in Amsterdam and was quietly forgotten.
Many years later, in 1993, I went with my parents to the new Holocaust museum in Washington. There, in the very first exhibit, was a gleaming black, beige and silver machine. The label said it was an IBM Hollerith D-11 card-sorting machine.
What was this thing - with its circuits, slots and wires - doing in the dimly lit museum? What did IBM, one of America's most powerful corporations, have to do with Hitler's attempt to exterminate European Jewry?
A notice explained that IBM organised a census in 1933 that first identified Germany's Jews. I stared at the machine and promised my mother and father that I would discover more.
My parents are Holocaust survivors, uprooted from their homes in Poland. My mother escaped from a cattle truck en route to Treblinka concentration camp, was shot and buried alive in a shallow mass grave. My father, who had run away from a guarded line of Jews, discovered her leg protruding from the snow and dug her out. They lived in the forests for two years.
Standing in confusion in the Holocaust museum, they still had glass, shrapnel and bullet fragments embedded in their bodies.
For years after that visit to the museum, I was overshadowed by the thought that IBM was somehow involved in the Holocaust in ways that had not yet been pieced together. What connected the machine in the exhibit, with its glistening IBM name plate, to the millions of Jews and other Europeans who were murdered in the Nazis' 12-year campaign of highly organised humiliation, dehumanisation and extermination?
IBM has amassed its fortune and reputation because it generally anticipates governmental and corporate needs before they develop and then offers, designs and delivers customised solutions. It has always billed itself as a "solutions" company. How many solutions did IBM provide to Nazi Germany?
I knew about the initial solution: the 1933 census. But how far did the solutions go?
I also wanted the answer to another question. When a squadron of SS burst into a city square in occupied Europe, they would post up a list of people who had to assemble for deportation. How did the Nazis get the names? How did they get my parents' names?
In 1998 I began seriously looking for answers, recruiting researchers, translators and assistants in America, Germany, Israel, Britain, the Netherlands, Poland and France. I also assembled nit-picking, adversarial researchers to challenge my findings. Everybody was sworn to secrecy.
More than 100 people participated. They looked for key words: census, statistics, lists, registrations, railroads, punch cards. When they found them, the material was copied and sent to me. The search would have been impossible without modern computer technology, the internet and e-mail.
Documents flowed in at the rate of 100 per day. Rudolf Cheim's eyewitness account from Belsen was one of the first to be found.
I assembled more than 20,000 pages of documentation from 50 archives, library manuscript collections, museum files and other repositories. I had access to thousands of formerly classified documents from the State Department and the OSS (the precursor of the CIA), and to previously restricted government papers.
We also scanned and translated more than 50 books and memoirs, as well as technical and scientific journals covering punch cards and statistics, Nazi publications and newspapers of the era.
IBM rebuffed my requests for access to documents and interviews, but hundreds of IBM documents were placed at my disposal through an academic archive.
Many of the IBM papers and notes were unsigned or undated carbons employing code words, catch phrases or corporate shorthand. I had to learn the company language to decipher them.
All the documentation was cross-indexed by date and by topic - Warsaw ghetto, German census, Bulgarian railways, Auschwitz and so on. As many as six people at a time shuttled copies of documents from one stack to another from morning until midnight around my basement floor.
Examined singly, none of the documents revealed the story. Putting all the thousands of jigsaw pieces together, however, I uncovered a profoundly uncomfortable story: IBM's conscious involvement - directly and through its subsidiaries - in the Holocaust, as well as its involvement in the Nazi war machine that murdered millions of others throughout Europe.
From the very first moments, and throughout the 12 years of the Third Reich, IBM placed its technology at the disposal of Hitler's programme of destruction.
His hatred of the Jews was the driving force behind the development of massively organised information as a means of social control, a weapon of war and a road map for group destruction. But his quest was greatly enhanced and energised by the ingenuity of IBM and Thomas J Watson, its autocratic chairman. For the first time in history, an anti-semite had automation on his side.
IBM did not invent Germany's anti-semitism, but when Germany wanted to identify the Jews by name, IBM showed it how. When the Reich wanted to use that information to launch programmes of social expulsion and expropriation, IBM provided the means. When the trains had to run on time between concentration camps, IBM offered the solution. Ultimately, there was no solution that IBM would not devise for a Reich willing to pay for services rendered.
Without IBM the Holocaust would have proceeded - as it often did proceed - with simple bullets, death marches and massacres based on pen-and-paper persecution. But automation and technology had a crucial role in the fantastic numbers Hitler murdered.
How much did IBM know? Some of it the firm knew on a daily basis throughout the 12 years of the Reich. The worst of it IBM preferred not to know. "Don't ask, don't tell" was the order of the day.
Yet IBM New York officials, and frequently the chairman's personal representatives, were almost constantly in Berlin or Geneva - the company's European headquarters - monitoring activities and ensuring that it was not cut out of any of the profits or business opportunities that Nazism presented. When US law made such direct contact illegal, IBM's Swiss office provided New York with continuous information and credible deniability.
Watson micromanaged IBM's German subsidiary, which was known as Dehomag, and made it by far the most lucrative of the company's overseas assets, turning it into a prototype IBM Europe.
Watson also defended the Reich against its critics and often visited Berlin, where the Nazis regarded him as a powerful friend.
IBM maintains that Watson handed over control of the German subsidiary to German management in 1940 - as war raged in Europe - and thereafter had no control over it.
This is incorrect. Dehomag was still part of the global IBM empire and Watson deployed lawyers, special emissaries and government intermediaries to protect his privileged and profitable position in Hitler's new world order.
Despite the illusion of non-involvement, IBM New York continued to play a central role in the day-to-day operations of its subsidiaries. Company subsidiaries regularly traded with Axis-linked blacklisted firms in neutral countries and even directly with Germany and Italy. It was business as usual throughout the war.
Once war was declared between America and Germany in December 1941 - and it became illegal for an American company to trade with Germany - the Reich authorities put a "custodian" in charge of Dehomag. Watson welcomed this, knowing that under the law of German enemy trusteeship the profits would be waiting when it was all over.
He was confident that the Nazi receiver who took over Dehomag would do all in his power to run it profitably while serving the interests of the Reich. The receiver would make the hard decisions, probably in tandem with IBM subsidiaries in Sweden, Switzerland and other real or nominal neutral countries that were indispensable to Dehomag's supply lines.
Other IBM subsidiaries in Latin America, Africa and the colonial lands of conquered European nations would also co-operate with Dehomag, but only through the most indirect and purely legal routes. Plausible deniability would be real.
The revealing records would not be kept in New York but in Europe, where they could never be uncovered and examined. Nobody would ever be able to identify exactly what IBM New York did and did not know about Hitler's use of IBM technology.
While IBM Europe thrived in enemy custody, executives in New York could still monitor events and exercise authority on the Continent through neutral country subsidiaries under their control. Special bureaucratic exemptions were regularly sought by IBM New York, or its subsidiaries, to continue or expand business dealings throughout occupied Europe. Official American demands that business be curtailed were often ignored.
The official record was well-padded to protect IBM's legal position. From 1942 to 1945, IBM New York telegraphed uncharacteristically verbose and belaboured instructions to its managers in neutral Europe to repossess machines, stop trading with subsidiaries in enemy countries and terminate contracts with blacklisted firms.
Each such instruction stood out as a veritable disquisition of deniability, laced with highly patriotic rationales for obeying the law against trading with the enemy. But when blacklists arrived, Watson's most trusted managers in Sweden and Switzerland would "get strangely busy", as one IBM internal probe later termed it.
IBM's own internal reviews conceded that correspondence about its European businesses - primarily through its Geneva office - was often faked. Dates were falsified. Revised contract provisions were proffered to hide the facts. Misleading logs and chronologies were kept. In many instances, elaborate document trails in Europe were fabricated to demonstrate compliance when the opposite was true. The true record would be permanently obscured.
Watson himself set the stage for IBM Europe's wartime conduct. In October 1941 he circulated instructions to all subsidiaries: "In view of world conditions, we cannot participate in the affairs of our companies in various countries as we did in normal times. Therefore you are advised that you will have to make your own decisions and not call on us for any advice or assistance until further notice."
That instruction did not ask IBM executives to stop trading with the Hitler regime or to halt sales to the death camps, the war machine or any German occupying authority. Watson only asked his companies to stop informing the New York office about their activities.
Although IBM worked so hard for deniability, there can be no denying the smoking gun revealed in IBM New York's correspondence with its Geneva office over one of the most brutal aspects of Germany's conquest of Europe - the Romanian census. It is worth looking closely at this episode.
Romania had a murderously anti-semitic, pro-German regime under General Ion Antonescu. In January 1941, squads of Iron Guard militants rampaged through Bucharest massacring Jews. Many more died in the provinces.
Senior Nazis, including Adolf Eichmann, believed the random acts of violence were "planless and premature", however. They favoured a more scientific approach that would systematically annihilate all of Romanian Jewry.
Population estimates in Romania were wildly exaggerated. A census in 1930 had counted 756,930 individuals who routinely identified themselves as Jewish. German experts estimated that as many as half of Romania's Jewish citizens had since been murdered or deported, or had fled. Nonetheless, hysterical speculation in the Romanian press suggested as many as 2m Jews remained. Only a proper up-to-date census could answer what Nazi raceologists called "the Jewish question" there.
This would be a comprehensive inventory of every individual, enterprise, farmland, building, profession, animal and asset in Romania. German statisticians and IBM would assist in every way.
This Romanian business was not in Dehomag's portfolio. It was an enterprise of IBM New York. Watson had been preparing for it for years with frequent delays.
Because the census involved virtually every aspect of Romanian life, extra IBM machines were needed. There were as many as 17 in Poland, where they had been used devastatingly against the Polish Jews. But Dehomag in Berlin would not move them without an order from the company.
In the autumn of 1941 - when the Nazis had most of Europe at their feet - Werner Lier, IBM's Geneva-based European manager, went to Berlin at New York's request. Afterwards he wrote to Watson that he had "settled" the Romanian census problem. He also wrote to Harrison Chauncey, one of Watson's top aides, giving details of how he had solved it.
IBM's best contact in Berlin, Sam Woods, the American commercial attaché, had put him in touch with the Romanian embassy in the hope that its diplomats could use their connection with Reich offices in occupied Poland to forward the machines through the war zone.
"Thanks to Mr Woods," Lier reported to Chauncey, "I obtained an interview with the Romanian commercial attaché who immediately endeavoured to obtain the freeing of approximately 17 machines at present blocked in Poland from the Devisenstelle (foreign currency office) and the German authorities."
Lier added that due to uncertainty about the specifications for the machines needed in Bucharest, he agreed that a senior Dehomag census expert should go there with an official of the German statistical office to analyse the matter.
In other words, IBM, Dehomag and the Nazis were still working closely together on a project to identify and persecute Jews.
Questions designed to pinpoint so-called "race Jews" were included in the Romanian census. Even the commercial ownership survey solicited responses from businessmen about any Jewish partners or employees. The mass of overlapping data would enable IBM tabulators to triangulate on the intended target: anyone of Jewish ancestry, even if the person were unaware of it.
Although aspects of the census were orderly - the women hired to punch the cards were mainly high-school graduates, which was thought to increase accuracy - it was associated with scenes of terrible violence.
In the city of Iasi, thousands of Jews were dragged from their homes, many still in their sleepwear. For several days German and Romanian policemen and soldiers, as well as mobs, perpetrated unspeakable violence. Corpses began piling onto the streets as Jews were clubbed to death with metal bars, rifles and rocks. Infants were not spared. Thousands more were loaded onto death trains, where they would be murdered. As many as 13,000 lost their lives.
The statistics on Jews yielded a total of 375,422 Jews still surviving in Romania in 1941. By the end of the war, after a bloody series of Romanian-German executions and deprivations, more than 270,000 Jews had been killed or starved.
LIER was not just active in Romania. His correspondence with IBM New York revealed that he had been to see Dehomag officials in Berlin in September 1941 to discuss "giving a more German appearance to the firm, this more apparent than real", and to set up a telephone call between a Dehomag director and Watson.
As IBM's top officer in Europe, Lier was involved with almost every transaction in every occupied country throughout the war. It is clear from IBM's own documents that he was distrusted in some quarters at head office. But despite IBM's internal reviews summarising a pattern of improprieties, Watson allowed him to continue at his pivotal post.
All the facts surrounding IBM's cloudy dealings in Geneva will probably never come to light, but this much became clear at the time: once the war ended, Lier would need to disappear from Geneva in a hurry. He had been the focus of many rumours. One story hinted that he was wanted for bending the financial statutes.
Commercial officers at the American legation in Berne were reluctant to grant him a temporary visa to enter the United States on the grounds that this might be "detrimental to the public safety". But they were overruled by Sam Wood, the new consul-general, who in 1941 had helped to solve IBM's Romanian problem.
When the second world war ended in Europe on May 8, 1945, IBM rushed in to recover its machines and bank accounts from enemy territory.
Millions in blocked bank accounts scattered across Europe were waiting for the firm, as well as real estate, numerous Hitler-era factories and presses, and thousands of Hollerith machines. Much of this had been funded by the Third Reich from slave labour, plunder and genocide.
Dehomag emerged from the Hitler years with relatively little damage and almost ready to resume business as usual. Its machines had been salvaged, its profits preserved and its corporate value protected.
Just as Watson had envisioned, Hermann Fellinger, its German custodian, had functioned with as much commercial zeal and dedication as any senior executive he could have personally selected.
Fellinger had proved to be the perfect solution to the predicament of a business alliance with the Third Reich while America was fighting a war with Germany.
But that was not all. There was more money to be made. The Americans and the British were keen to maintain Germany's IBM equipment intact so as to facilitate the occupation.
Company employees serving in the American army's machine record units kept Watson personally informed of the IBM machines they had seized from the German forces and reported to him on contacts with Dehomag personnel.
IBM New York was able to recover its machines, charge for their use by the victors and quietly assimilate the wartime profits - which have remained a company secret to this day.