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René Carmille: the man who hacked the Nazis in World War II

René Carmille

The story of René Carmille is one of those who do not know how they have not yet reached the cinema. Perhaps, because he died before leaving a greater legacy, but this French official managed to prevent the Nazis from using IBM technology to persecute even more Jews.


Of the ungrateful memory that all the humanity saves of World War II , survive some histories and proper names of heroes. Such is the case of Oskar Schindler, known for the Spielberg movie, the nurse Irena Sendler or the Spanish Ángel Sanz-Briz .

But there will also be forgotten forever other anonymous people who helped the most disadvantaged in the midst of the madness of the Nazi regime. Many of them will never know his name, something that was about to happen to René Carmille , a French official who managed to take advantage of the weaknesses of the technology that IBM was giving to the Nazis to prevent more Jews from being persecuted in France. busy. That is why he is known as the first hacker or proton-hacker in history. Although his story, unlike that of many he protected, ended up in the Dachau concentration camp in 1945 a few months before he was liberated by the allied forces.

IBM, punch cards, and the Nazi regime

When Nazism is talked about, there is often a debate about all the firms that once collaborated or did business with the regime. Among them are Hugo Boss, Bayer, Volkswagen or Kodak, but also IBM , the first technological giant.

Although the collaboration of these companies can be understood as something circumstantial (in the end, many companies work with regimes considered dictatorial without being questioned), the case of IBM was especially controversial after the publication in 2001 of the book IBM and the Holocaust . A multi-year investigation that led to a lawsuit driven by Jewish survivors against the firm.

Although the book admits different readings, what is clear is that IBM sold to the Hitler regime the technological material to carry out the population control that it carried out. And it did it through what was then cutting-edge technology: a system of punched cards that later would be the first way to exchange information with older computers.

This system, consisting of cardboard cards that could later be read in binary to work with the first large databases, was devised in the late nineteenth century by Herman Hollerith with the aim of creating the first modern census in the United States. Hollerith would develop a company based on his invention, which later, merging with others, would give rise to International Business Machines in the 20s. What we still know as IBM today .

The American company sold its developments based on these cards to the Nazis so that in 1933, after Hitler came to power, his first modern census was also held in Germany . In principle everything seemed pure modernity. The cards allowed through their ranks and where they had their notches to collect information about where someone lived, their sex, age, parents and all the data they wanted to add. And unfortunately, when the Nazi regime was showing its true face, it was soon indicated that those cards also showed the religion and supposed ethnicity of each inhabitant.Those small cards donated by IBM had become the easiest way to know where he lived and what the population of all Jews in Germany was like .

René Carmille: a statistician against the Nazis

By 1940, the Nazis had already achieved almost all of the extension that would dominate Europe during the conflict, including occupied France, with capital in Vichyand that had a collaborationist government. There appears René Carmille, an official born in 1886 in Trémolat , in the south of the country, specializing in statistics and the innovative punched cards.

Carmille started working for the Demography Department of the Vichy government, and from his work would be born the future National Statistics Service and the development of the individual code that would lead to the first Social Security cards that are still used in France. However, despite surrendering to his work under the guise of an exceptional official, Carmille had already enrolled by then in the Marco Polo Network , an important intelligence core of the Resistance led by Charles de Gaulle.

In its offices of statistical work, the French government received orders from Germany to also implement in its territory the census system based on punched cards , including, yes, column number 11, which described the religion. The hunt for French Jews to be deported to concentration camps had begun .

Carmille, according to the book IBM and the Holocaust, managed to delay the implementation of this system for almost three years . Apparently the first argued that there were problems to work with the cards in France, and then modified the tabulating machines to delay it even more and that the Germans did not have the address of thousands of Jews. The first proto-computer hack . And not only that, but took advantage of the data collected in the cards to offer information to the Resistance, organized from Algeria.

Death came to him in a concentration camp

His plan however was truncated in 1944, when German intelligence, controlled in France by Klaus Barbie, known as ‘the butcher of Lyon’ , began to suspect that the delay in his plan was being excessive. Carmille was tortured and later sent to the Daschau concentration camp, where he died of typhus in 1945 at age 59 .

His case was especially unfair because of the placid life he enjoyed during the following years, which was his tormentor. Klaus Barbie was one of the Nazis who managed to escape to Latin America , where he lived for years in Bolivia until he was deported to France in 1983. There, despite entering prison, he would die only a few years later, in 1991 at 77 years.

The legacy of Carmille , although it has passed more or less unnoticed, has generated some works such as the animated documentary Interregnum and, what doubt, its knowledge and fundamental value was to help in France the Nazi regime only managed to capture one of each four Jews registered, a figure that although scandalous is scarce when compared with those of other countries that also had a strong resistance , such as Holland, where 75% of the Jews were captured. The delay and hacking of the punched cards perpetrated by Carmille had a lot to do with it, according to the view that historians apply today.

René Carmille: the man who hacked the Nazis in World War II
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