Germany’s Surveillance System in the Nazi Era

From the Lecture series: The Surveillance State: Big Data, Freedom, and You

By Paul Rosenzweig, The George Washington University Law School

Germany has been ruled by not one, but two, authoritarian regimes in the past: Adolf Hitler and then communist East Germany. And, during those regimes, the Germans saw and experienced the dangers of pervasive government surveillance. Let’s explore this culture of surveillance in Germany, especially in the Nazi regime.

An envelope stamped to be opened and checked in Nazi Germany.
Nazi surveillance was widespread, including checking all modes of communication. (Image: Torsten Lorenz/Shutterstock)

Surveillance and the Nazi Regime

Prior to the Cold War standoff between Eastern and Western Europe, there was, of course, significant state surveillance in Germany during the Nazi regime leading up to—and throughout—World War II.

The author Erik Larson describes the problem in his book In the Garden of Beasts. Set during the early years of the Nazi government, it is about the life and times of America’s ambassador to Germany, William Dodd, and his family, who lived in Germany during the early and mid-1930s. The book is based on Dodd’s own diary; that of his flighty daughter Martha; and the abundant wealth of diplomatic cables that went back and forth from the Berlin Embassy to the Department of State headquarters in Washington.

As Larson tells the story, Dodd, and his family were acutely aware of widespread Nazi surveillance.

Learn more about some of last century’s infamous spies

Snooping through Phones

Prevailing wisdom held that Nazi agents hid their microphones in telephones to pick up conversations. To overcome any snooping, Larson says, “The ambassador filled a cardboard box with cotton and used it to cover his own telephone whenever a conversation in the library shifted to confidential territory.”

Larson also relates the anecdote about the man who telephones a friend, and, in the course of their conversation happens to ask, “How’s Uncle Adolf?” Somehow afterward, the secret police appear at his door and insist that he prove he really has an Uncle Adolf, and the question was not a coded reference to Hitler.

This is a transcript from the video series The Surveillance State: Big Data, Freedom, and You. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Nazis Develop the First ‘Dataveillance’

Nazi surveillance was undergirded by one of the most sophisticated data collection and analysis systems of the time. It was possibly the first systematic use of ‘dataveillance’ by a nation state.

The system was developed and operated by a company known as Dehomag, the corporate acronym for Deutsche Hollerith-Maschinen Gesellschaft mbH. In English, that means German Hollerith Machines LLC.

Dehomag was a subsidiary of the US technology company IBM. It had a monopoly on data analysis for the German government in the years leading up to, and during, World War II.

The Hollerith in the corporate name was Herman Hollerith, a German-American inventor who developed a method for instructing the analog data accumulators of that era through the use of punch cards.

Surveillance with Punch Cards

For the uninitiated, punch cards were pieces of stiff paper in which holes were punched in pre-determined positions. The holes could either control a machine, telling it what function to perform, or they could contain data that would be used in the performance of that function.

Image of a punch card.
The Nazis used punch cards to compile data on Jewish citizens in Germany. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

Hollerith first invented and used his data punch cards to capture the data for the 1890 US Census. He founded the Tabulating Machine Company in 1896, which in 1924 became known as the International Business Machines Corporation, or IBM.

Nazis Use IBM Punch Cards to Collect Data on Jews

During the Nazi era, IBM punch cards were used to compile data on Jewish citizens in Germany as part of the German Census. According to Edwin Black, writing in The New Yorker magazine:

One series of punch cards was designed to record religion, national origin, and mother tongue. But by creating special columns and rows for Jew, Polish language, Polish nationality, the fur trade as an occupation, and then Berlin, Nazis could quickly cross-tabulate, at the rate of 25,000 cards per hour, exactly how many Berlin furriers were Jews of Polish extraction. Railroad cars, which could take two weeks to locate and route, could be swiftly dispatched in just 48 hours by means of a vast network of punch-card machines. Indeed, IBM services coursed through the entire German infrastructure in Europe.

IBM disputes some of what Black wrote—particularly with regard to their motivations. But, it does not dispute the fundamental point that its technology was a component of Nazi surveillance capability.

Learn more about Hitler’s war against the Jews.

German Unwillingness to Share Information

Today, Germany is a critical partner in our counterterrorism efforts. At least in part, this is because it is a significant transit point for traffic between the Middle East and other parts of the world.

It’s also because Germany is one of the most able partners America has in the European Union. The Germans, with 80 million people and a vigorous economy, are capable of significant assistance—when they are inclined to provide it. But that is the confounding thing.

The Germans’ attitude is very different than Americans’ views on how to conduct surveillance, and about when they would be willing to share information they have collected with anyone outside of the German government.

With the examples of surveillance discussed above, we now know why contemporary Germans so highly value privacy and limits on state surveillance. They are reluctant to go back down that road again.

Common Questions about Germany’s Surveillance System

Q: How did Nazi agents spy through phones?

Nazi agents hid microphones in telephones to pick up conversations.

Q: In the Nazi regime, how did people avert snooping through phones?

In the Nazi regime, people would avert snooping through phones by “filling a cardboard box with cotton and use it to cover their telephones”.

Q: How were IBM punch cards used by Nazis in Germany?

During the Nazi era, IBM punch cards were used to compile data on Jewish citizens as part of the German Census. A series of punch cards “was designed to record religion, national origin, and mother tongue”.

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