NEW YORK (Reuters) - International Business Machines Corp. is bracing itself against charges raised in a new book and lawsuit that the firm's tabulating machinery and its German business unit were instrumental in helping Hitler systematically identify and select victims of the Holocaust.
The book, entitled ``IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America's Most Powerful Corporation,'' was written by Holocaust investigator Edwin Black, who was aided by a far-flung team of 100 researchers.
Historians have known for decades of Nazi use of Hollerith tabulators -- the mainframe computer of its era -- but the book sheds light on IBM business dealings and the lengths to which it may have tailored its machines to meet Nazi requirements.
IBM, the world's largest computer company, responded on Friday to general issues that may be raised by the book in a letter posted on the firm's internal computer bulletin board that is read by its more than 307,000 employees.
``A book will be published shortly stating that Hollerith tabulating machines were used by the Nazi regime and apparently speculating on the activities of IBM's subsidiary in Germany at the time,'' IBM said in the statement.
``We recognize that its (the book's) very subject is an important and highly painful one for many IBMers, their families and the world community at large,'' it said.
IBM spokeswoman Carol Makovich declined to comment beyond the employee statement, saying the company had not yet seen the book. However, IBM is prepared to respond should new evidence of its historical actions come to light, she said.
Ibm May Face Lawsuits Tied To Nazi-Era Role
The controversy over IBM's alleged Nazi connections takes place as numerous European companies -- from industrial manufacturers to insurers to Swiss banks -- have faced lawsuits by Holocaust victims and their descendants in recent years.
IBM was named in a lawsuit filed on behalf of five Holocaust victims on Friday in a federal court in Brooklyn, according to Michael Hausfeld, an attorney with Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld & Toll of Washington, D.C. Hausfeld was one of a team of attorneys who forced Germany last year to create a nearly $5 billion reparations fund for Nazi-era slaves.
The suit -- timed to coincide with the publication of Black's book -- asserts that IBM knowingly supplied technology used to catalog death camp victims and aided in the ``persecution, suffering and genocide'' before and during the Second World War.
``Hitler could not have so quickly and efficiently identified and rounded up Jews and other minorities, used them as slave laborers and ultimately exterminated them, without IBM's assistance,'' Hausfeld said in a statement on Sunday.
An IBM spokeswoman reserved comment until the company had seen the filing.
The plaintiffs' lawsuit also asserted that IBM had refused to permit historians and others access to archival records that would demonstrate the company's complicit role in the Holocaust.
However, large chunks of the new book were based on corporate correspondence that IBM said it has made available through academic research libraries, a move of uncommon openness among U.S. corporations said to have had ties to Nazi Germany.
Book Says Ibm Technology Was Key To Nazi Policy Management
``IBM and the Holocaust'' revives a highly charged debate about the role of IBM's top executives, including founder and President Thomas J. Watson, in doing business with Adolf Hitler from the earliest days of his rise to power.
Black's book details the complex ties and increasingly stormy relations between IBM and its German subsidiary, called Dehomag, which was IBM's No. 2 sales territory in the 1930s, despite an international boycott of the Nazi economy.
The book highlights the statistical hunger underpinning the Nazi drive to locate, identify and classify its enemies.
IBM, as a nearly exclusive supplier of database equipment to the Third Reich, fed this hunger not out of Nazi sympathies per se but from a desire to dominate global markets for its products, Black argues.
Black describes how Hollerith machines proliferated throughout German government and business during the 1930s, allowing the Nazis to cross-index names, addresses, genealogy charts and bank accounts of its citizens. He asserts that IBM remained in control of Hollerith technology, as well as its exclusive punch cards and spare parts, throughout the era.
The book includes a gruesome description of how concentration camps used IBM punch cards to categorize victims: homosexuals rated No. 3, Jews No. 8, Gypsies No. 12 and so on. Each prisoner received a unique Hollerith punch card number.
The book echoes a contemporary obsession with the role of technology in social life, going beyond the extensive literature written about the political, economic and psychological forces that drove the Nazi death machine.
Machines Linked To Census
IBM's punch-card-based tabulating machines dated back to 1890, when Herman Hollerith, a German American, first built them to compile the U.S. population census. The devices had become popular in offices around the world well before the Nazi era. While the machines were not new, the Nazi will to use them was.
Everything about the book had been a closely guarded secret for its promoters, Crown Publishers, a unit of German media giant Bertelsmann, which plans to announce the book on Monday, a spokeswoman said. Early copies were on sale in at least one New York book shop ahead of the planned publication date.
Several Holocaust scholars declined to comment on Black's book, saying they had yet seen it. One said he was concerned that the secrecy surrounding the project had denied experts a chance to evaluate the book's evidence and rebut any errors.
IBM remains one of the world's largest suppliers of databases. Hollerith punch cards are the same technology blamed for the election counting breakdown in Florida last year.