By Ray Schultz
Twitter received kudos this month when it said it would not assist in the creation of a Muslim registry. Of the nine companies queried, it was the only one to give a definite “no.”
Good for Twitter. But it made me wonder: Did a country ever use information technology to identify people by religion?
Sure it did. The Nazis utilized a metal punch-card sorting system to find Jews and send them to their deaths, Edwin Black writes in his 2001 book, IBM and the Holocaust.
In essence, the equipment leased to the Nazis by IBM’s German subsidiary, Deutsche Hollerith Maschinen Gesellschaft (or Dehomag), was a state-of-the-art mailing list system for that time.
With Dehomag’s help, the Nazis conducted a census, asking pointed questions about religion and ancestry, Black alleges.
“What emerged,” Black continues, “was a profession-by-profession, city-by-city, and indeed a block-by-clock revelation of the Jewish presence.” Moreover, by cross-sorting the columns, the Nazis could “identify who among the Jews would be its first targets for confiscation, arrest, imprisonment, and ultimately expulsion.”
Another effort occurred a few years later when Germany was about to launch the war; they even went through old church records to find Jews whose families had converted to Christianity generations before.
Later, the punch-cards were used to code the demises of the victims, and record which ones had received “special handling” (usually, extermination in a gas chamber), Black claims.
“All Auschwitz name information, including workers still alive, deaths, and transferees, was continuously punched into the camp’s Hollerith system,” Black charges. “Tabulated totals were wired each day to the SS Economics Administration and other offices in Berlin to process cards and lists for each inmate transferred.”
It’s not clear how much guilt is shared by IBM/Demohag. But one thing is certain: Technology can result in monstrous ends, especially when misused by states in partnership with the private sector.