Editor’s Note: Today marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi German Concentration and Extermination Camp by Soviet forces. The liberation of the death camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau ended the carnage of one of the most heinous crimes in the history of the world, the systematic killing of six million Jewish men, women, and children and millions of others by the Nazis and their Holocaust collaborators. On this International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust, it is not only important to compassionately contemplate the past, but is also important to cautiously consider the future through the lens of the events and enablers that contributed to the identification and extermination of millions of people. One of these enablers was technology.
Ranging from the technologies developed specifically for mass death to the technologies applied to information that accelerated the identification, separation, and subsequent elimination of discriminated against groups, technologies inappropriately applied can have catastrophic and irreversible consequences. Because of this fact, it is important that information technology, security, and legal professionals always be aware of not only the capability of technology but also of the consequences of its misuse. This is especially important in the area of data privacy where it is very easy to focus on data and regulations and forget that behind the data there are people and lives.
Provided below is a short extract by award-winning investigative author Edwin Black that may help put a face on the potential misuse of information technology and the importance of data privacy on this day of remembrance. Additionally, a short extract from the Centre for Holocaust Education (Institute of Education, University of London) is provided to highlight the use of information technology as a contributor to the Holocaust.
Extract an article by Edwin Black
The Nazi Party: IBM and Death’s Calculator
Mankind barely noticed when the concept of massively organized information quietly emerged to become a means of social control, a weapon of war, and a roadmap for group destruction. The unique igniting event was the most fateful day of the last century, January 30, 1933, the day Adolf Hitler came to power. Hitler and his hatred of the Jews was the ironic driving force behind this intellectual turning point. But his quest was greatly enhanced and energized by the ingenuity and craving for profit of a single American company and its legendary, autocratic chairman. That company was International Business Machines, and its chairman was Thomas J. Watson.
Der Führer’s obsession with Jewish destruction was hardly original. There had been czars and tyrants before him. But for the first time in history, an anti-Semite had automation on his side. Hitler didn’t do it alone. He had help.
In the upside-down world of the Holocaust, dignified professionals were Hitler’s advance troops. Police officials disregarded their duty in favor of protecting villains and persecuting victims. Lawyers perverted concepts of justice to create anti-Jewish laws. Doctors defiled the art of medicine to perpetrate ghastly experiments and even choose who was healthy enough to be worked to death and who could be cost-effectively sent to the gas chamber. Scientists and engineers debased their higher calling to devise the instruments and rationales of destruction. And statisticians used their little known but powerful discipline to identify the victims, project and rationalize the benefits of their destruction, organize their persecution, and even audit the efficiency of genocide. Enter IBM and its overseas subsidiaries.
Solipsistic and dazzled by its own swirling universe of technical possibilities, IBM was self-gripped by a special amoral corporate mantra: if it can be done, it should be done. To the blind technocrat, the means were more important than the ends. The destruction of the Jewish people became even less important because the invigorating nature of IBM’s technical achievement was only heightened by the fantastical profits to be made at a time when bread lines stretched across the world.
Extract from a Presentation from the Centre for Holocaust Education
Being Human? Perpetrators, Collaborators, Bystanders, and Rescuers
The German Census Bureau
In 1939, the Nazi government counted all of the people living in Germany, recording every person’s age, sex, address, job, religion, and marital status. For the first time, they also listed the person’s ‘race’.
All of this information about millions of people was punched into cards by thousands of clerical workers.
The cards were sorted and counted by the electrical brushes of a Hollerith machine, an early type of computer.
At this time no plan had been made to murder the Jewish people, and the workers who punched the cards could not imagine such horrors. But they did know the hatred the Nazis had for Jews, Gypsies and other groups already suffering persecution. And thousands still turned up for work each day and punched this information hour after hour, being particularly careful, as they were told to be, in marking the column that recorded ‘race’.
As the Nazis invaded other countries, information about these populations was also punched onto the cards. The punch cards, other records, registration and identity cards made it possible for the Nazis to find their victims, round them up, deport them to the camps and to select them for mass murder.
People first had to be identified before they could be killed. The historians Götz Aly and Karl Heinz Roth have argued that before every act of extermination there was first an act of registration.
- Storage Media: Long Past Herman Hollerith
- Beyond Human? Perpetrators, Collaborators, Bystanders, and Rescuers (Video)