February 2, 2005  

Swiss court ruling opens door for historic Gypsy suit against IBM

A European Gypsy group suing IBM for conspiracy to commit genocide has prevailed in its efforts to secure jurisdiction in Switzerland, charging that the company consciously coordinated its punch-card automation for the Nazis out of its European headquarters in Geneva.

Switzerland's highest court, the Federal Tribunal in Lausanne, affirmed a lower court ruling from last summer that it did not seem "unreasonable" to conclude that IBM aided Nazi efficiency.

The high court ruled last month but only released its decision Thursday, the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

IBM New York relocated its European headquarters from Paris to Geneva after 1935 to facilitate foreign exchange with the Third Reich, thus opening a basis for later jurisdiction in Switzerland.

In an April 29, 1942 letter, Werner Lier, IBM's general manager in Geneva, outlined for the American consul in the city exactly how IBM Geneva operated.

"You will readily understand," Lier explained, "that this office is a clearing office between the local organizations in the various countries and the New York headquarters."

IBM president Thomas Watson ordered Lier to instruct the firm's German employees to assist in the 1941 Romanian census that identified many Gypsies and Jews. Romanian intelligence units used the census to help round up Gypsies and Jews.

In the concentration camps, IBM's code for Jews was 8 and its code for Gypsies was 12. General executions were IBM-coded as 4, death by gas chamber as 6. The Nazis used these codes to manage and track their prisoners efficiently.

Of the Nazis' prisoners, only Jews and Gypsies were murdered systematically in gas chambers.
IBM also developed punch-card systems to track and schedule trains running to concentration camps and elsewhere throughout Europe.

The historic lawsuit by the Geneva-based Gypsy International Recognition and Compensation Action, originally filed in January 2002, has set a precedent for jurisdiction against companies that collaborated with the Nazis, now that the US and Germany have recognized a global Holocaust restitution agreement.

IBM quietly paid several million dollars into the fund just before disclosures in 2001 that it automated many aspects of Nazi aggression during Hitler's 12-year reign. However, Switzerland has not recognized the restitution agreement.

The Swiss high court rejected IBM's contention that it was unaware of how its machines were being used and affirmed the lower court ruling.

That lower court concluded, "The precision, speed and reliability of IBM's machines, especially related to the censuses of the German population and racial biology by the Nazis, were praised" in IBM publications.

"It does not thus seem unreasonable to deduce that IBM's technical assistance facilitated the tasks of the Nazis in the commission of their crimes against humanity, acts also involving accountancy and classification by IBM machines and included in the concentration camps themselves," the lower court continued.

In 2004, when IBM's director of worldwide media relations, John Bukovinsky, was asked about the company's involvement in facilitating the extermination of millions of Jews, Gypsies and others, he characterized the disclosures as "old news." When a reporter pointed out that the Holocaust itself was some 60 years ago, Bukovinsky replied, "So what? What is the point?"

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