The Hollerith Machine

All governments gather information about their citizens. The Nazi regime, however, used such information to track political opponents, enforce racial policies, and, ultimately, implement mass murder. As early as 1934, various government bureaus began to compile card catalogs identifying political and racial enemies of the regime, such as Freemasons, Jews, Sinti and Roma (Gypsies), and “genetically diseased” persons. The 1939 census became the basis for a national register of Jews. That year, German census forms for the first time included explicitly racial categories. Jews were identified not only by religious affiliation, but by race as well. Within three years, the completed national register of Jews and some Jewish Mischlinge (“mixed breeds”) was to become one of the sources for Nazi deportation lists. Most of those deported perished in the Holocaust.

During the 1930s and 1940s, Hollerith machines were the best data processing devices available. The Nazi regime employed thousands of people in 1933 to 1939 to record national census data onto Hollerith punch cards. The SS used the Hollerith machines during the war to monitor the large numbers of prisoners shipped in and out of concentration camps. The machines were manufactured by DEHOMAG-Deutsche Hollerith Maschinen Gesellschaft or German Hollerith Machine Company, a subsidiary of IBM since 1922.

Hollerith Punchcard Computer
Photograph by Arnold Kramer.
Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Willy Heidinger (speaking about the Hollerith machine)
We are recording the individual characteristics of every single member of the nation onto a little card….We are proud that we can contribute to such a task, a task that provides the physician of our German body politic with the material [he needs] for his examination, so that our physician can determine whether, from the standpoint of the nation’s health, the data thus arrived at correlate in a harmonious, that is, healthy, relationship — or whether diseased conditions must be cured by corrective interventions….We have firm confidence in our physician and will follow his orders blindly, for we know that he will lead our nation toward a great future. Heil to our German people and their leader!

Source: “Festrede des Grunders, Generaldirektor Willy Heidinger,” in Denkschrift zur Einweihung der neuen Arbeitsstatte der Deutschen Hollerith Maschinen Gesellschaft m.b.H. in Berlin, Lichterfelde am 8. Januar 1934 (Berlin: Deutschen Hollerith Maschinen Gesellschaft m.b.H., 1934), p. 39

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