Romani group's IBM Holocaust lawsuit in Swiss courts could lead to $12bn in claims throughout Europe

Roma in the concentration camp Osvetim

A Swiss court has cleared the way for a group of Roma to sue the U.S. computer giant IBM for allegedly helping Nazi Germany track and identify victims for slaughter in concentration camps during World War II. The case could open the door to claims from Roma groups throughout Europe, including in the Czech Republic, where over 90 percent of the Romani population was killed during WW II.

IBM had its European headquarters in Geneva during World War II, and allegedly helped Nazi bureaucrats orchestrate the mass murder of Roma by knowingly allowing the regime to use its punch-card Hollerith tabulating machines — the mainframe computers of its era — in order to compile and archive information on intended victims.

A vintage recording, there, of just such an IBM tabulating machine.

Nazis killed an estimated six million Jews and 600,000 Roma from 1939 to 1945. The Nazis considered both Jews and Roma as "potential polluters" of the so-called Aryan race and propagated the belief that Roma were criminal by heredity.

In Swiss courts now, five Roma plaintiffs — all of whom lost family members in Nazi death camps — are seeking $20,000 each from IBM for its alleged role. But this is a test case that could eventually lead to a wider $12 billion claim against IBM by Roma victims' groups throughout Europe.

Markus Pape, the spokesman for the Committee for the Redress of the Romani Holocaust (VPORH), a Prague-based Romani organisation, told us that any case that brings to the public eye the fact that hundreds of thousands of Roma died in the Holocaust has merit.

"It's almost unknown that there was a Romani Holocaust; that almost 95 percent of the Roma who had lived in this country [territory] for some 600 years perished in the Second World War and due to the politics of Nazi Germany, and that only very few survived. The majority of Roma who live in the Czech Republic today are descendents of Roma who came from Slovakia, after the Second World War."

"Since the mid 1990s there have been successes in the field of compensation — also for Roma victims of the Holocaust. [...] I am glad for every attempt heading to prove or to show a range of the Romani Holocaust and to prove the fact that until today Roma are discriminated against, also in the question of compensation, for suffering and loss of property."

Already during the First Republic of Czechoslovakia, before the Nazi invasion, government officials had drafted proposals to "manage" the unemployed and work camps for the Roma had appeared.

The director of the Museum of Romani Culture in Brno, Dr Jana Horvathova, is a Czech Roma, whose ancestors had lived for many generations before World War II in the countryside of Moravia. Her family was virtually wiped out during the Holocaust.

Dr Horvathova told Radio Prague's Dita Asiedu at a seminar on the Roma holocaust held last summer that hundreds of Roma died in Czech work camps; thousands more were exploited there before being sent on to places like Auschwitz.

"In the camps in Lety and Hodonin, there must have been over three thousand Roma. In each camp about three hundred died. They were mainly women and children, for whom the conditions were too harsh. As far as the total number of Roma victims during WWII is concerned, it is still being discussed because there is little documentation. The numbers vary between 350,000 and two million. I personally think that there were about half a million victims."

Historians have known for decades about the Nazi's use of IBM's Hollerith tabulators in compiling lists of European Jews and Roma, and that German bureaucrats used IBM machinery to improve the efficiency of the so-called "Final Solution."

In its defence, the U.S. computer giant has argued it had lost control of its German subsidy Dehomag before World War II began in 1939.

In 2001, Jewish Holocaust survivors dropped a case against IBM similar to that of the Roma's now, so that they would be able to collect from a $5 billion compensation fund established by the German government and German businesses, whose representatives had publicly stated that the IBM lawsuit threatened the conditions of that accord. IBM contributed $3 million to the German compensation fund.