Hacking the Nazis

by on November 16, 2017 at 8:50 am in History, Web/Tech | Permalink

Some resisters fought the Nazis in the streets while others fought them from within by hacking some of the world’s first information technology systems. Ava Ex Machina has a fascinating post discussing some of these unheralded hackers. Here is one:

René Carmille — was a punch card computer expert and comptroller general of the French Army, who later would head up the Demographics Department of the French National Statistics Service. As quickly as IBM worked with the Nazis to enable them to use their punch card computer systems to update census data to find and round up Jewish citizens, Rene and his team of double-agents worked just as fast to manipulate their data to undermine their efforts.

The IEEE newspaper, The Institute, describes Carmille as being an early ethical hacker: “Over the course of two years, Carmille and his group purposely delayed the process by mishandling the punch cards. He also hacked his own machines, reprogramming them so that they’d never punch information from Column 11 [which indicated religion] onto any census card.” His work to identify and build in this exploit saved thousands of Jews from being rounded up and deported to death camps.

Rene was arrested in Lyon in 1944. He was interrogated for two days by Klaus Barbie, a cruel and brutal SS and Gestapo officer called “the Butcher of Lyon,” but he still did not break under torture. Rene was caught by the Nazis and sent to the Dachau concentration camp, where he died in 1945.

Hat tip: Tim Harford.

1 Slugger November 16, 2017 at 9:00 am

I can imagine few epitaphs more glorious than “did not break under torture.” Thank you for this reminder.

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2 rayward November 16, 2017 at 9:50 am

Shortly before the Battle of Midway, America had broken the Japanese Navy’s codes, so the Americans knew Japan’s plans for Midway. “[A] journalist from the Chicago Tribune, a relative newcomer to journalism when he lucked into being aboard a Navy ship that received a top secret transmission about the Japanese plans for the Battle of Midway. His news article about that, recklessly written and misleadingly edited, was never submitted to censorship, as was the normal practice. . . . And the Japanese, arrogantly confident in the impenetrability of their codes, apparently did not notice the article and so never realized their secret dispatches were being read by the Navy.” https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/09/books/review/new-military-history-victor-davis-hanson-michael-korda.html

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3 Strick November 16, 2017 at 11:02 am

Humbling, isn’t it.

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4 Wonks Anonymous November 16, 2017 at 11:09 am

John Frankenheimer’s action movie “The Train” was based on a real incident. But instead of a Die Hard-esque hero shooting up the Germans, the French resistance just delayed the train with slow-moving bureaucracy.

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5 Dick the Butcher November 16, 2017 at 11:45 am

Not Hacking The Jihadis

In 2016, world-wide terrorist murders decreased 22% from 2014, while European terrorist killings increased.

That was then. This is now.

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6 Dick the Butcher November 16, 2017 at 11:49 am

In the (COBOL) day, they called it “programming.”

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7 chuck martel November 16, 2017 at 4:25 pm

Vichy France was the legitimate government after the German invasion. The Nazis occupied only the north of the country and the seacoasts. The French had their own indigenous Nazis who were happy to carry on the work of the Krauts according to their instructions and most French citizens went along with the program. The actual French resistance was chiefly made up of foreigners and the French criminal element, who were persona non grata regardless of who was in power. While their efforts to combat the Nazis may not have been crucial in the results of the war, they should be remembered forever for their opposition not just to an invasion but also to the locals that sought to take advantage of it. The history of Vichy France and the resistance to it deserves much more and deeper study.

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8 Joël November 16, 2017 at 5:06 pm

This is a somewhat excessive comment (though I sympathize with the spirit with which it is written).

“The history of Vichy France and the resistance to it deserves much more and deeper study.” Well, we can always say this of any period of history, for Vichy France it is much less true that it was 30 years ago. There has been in that generation tremendous work, by American and French historian, on Vichy France, and even good work on the history of the historiography of Vichy France, analysis how it was seen and misunderstood during the first 40 years after the war, etc.

“Vichy France was the legitimate government after the German invasion”. That can be disputed, on many grounds (eventually “legitimate” is in the eye of the beholder, be we can talk). For example, one can argue that the vote of full power to Pétain was illegal, for many reasons: the most compelling one being that the constitution (rather, the fundamental law) of the third Republic didn’t allow for any constitutional change “abolishing the republican nature of the regime”. Now it is clear that giving the “full constitutional powers” to one man (Pétain) made the new regime not republican. “Full constitutional powers” meant that Pétain had the right, under his only signature, to write any law or to change or remove or alter in any way the constitution (which he did many times). Certainly it is contrary to the very definition of a “republican regime” to have such absolute power given to one man, and in France even the non-republican regimes of the past had never such provision: Napoleon’s powers as French emperor accordant to the constitution of the first French empire, or the kings’ powers according to the “Chart” during the restoration, were much more limited than that.

“The actual French resistance was chiefly made up of foreigners ” It is true that foreigners (especially Jews from central Europe) were over-represented in the French resistance, but they were provably not the majority, at least after June 1941.

“[and by] the French criminal element”. No, that’s not true. You have a reference for this?

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9 Joan November 17, 2017 at 4:24 am

I always wonder what is going on in the mind of people who cannot prevent themselves from shouting “but but but, the French were Nazis!” every time there is a story about some French Resistant.
It is not sarcasm, I really wonder what the psychological mechanism is.

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10 Les Cargill November 16, 2017 at 5:52 pm

It’s interesting ( in the sense of being a clear demonstration of a lack of imagination ) that somehow everything tech must be put into a “hacking” framework.

I remember when computers were supposed to do work, not be a plot point in a bad spy novel.

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11 catter November 18, 2017 at 3:38 am

It’s gotten sillier still; household hints ala Heloise are listicled as “hacks.”

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12 JCW November 16, 2017 at 11:24 pm

If this story interests you, Edwin Black wrote a book on the subject, IBM and the Holocaust, that is worth a read.

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13 dearieme November 17, 2017 at 4:46 pm

WKPD: Nikolaus “Klaus” Barbie (26 October 1913 – 23 September 1991) was an SS and Gestapo functionary during the Nazi era. He was known as the “Butcher of Lyon” for having personally tortured French prisoners of the Gestapo while stationed in Lyon, France. After the war, United States intelligence services employed him for their anti-Marxist efforts, and also helped him escape to South America.

War coarsens people. The Cold War was no exception, it would seem.

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14 jorod November 17, 2017 at 11:27 pm

Poland had one of the best intelligence apparatus before WWII.

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