Review

Ibm and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America's Most Powerful Corporation

by Edwin Black



The title of Edwin Black's book is jarring not because we believe
that the horrors of the Holocaust are beyond a large, prosperous
corporation but because "IBM" and "Holocaust" seem to be words from
different eras. IBM conjures images of the modern office, personal
computers, and Internet connections --- the leader of what we have
dubbed our own Information Age. IBM seems alienated even from its
full name, International Business Machines, and certainly a world
away from barbed wire, locked cattle cars, ghettos, and gas
chambers. But as IBM AND THE HOLOCAUST by Edwin Black reveals, the
world that IBM and the Third Reich occupied in the 1930s and 40s
was a terrifyingly small place where corporate America not only
tolerated Nazi policies, but may have profited from them.

Black has assembled government files, IBM letters and
correspondence as well as newspaper headlines from the period to
form his argument. He asserts that one of America's most powerful
corporations willingly supplied the Nazis with technology that
organized, tabulated, and analyzed population data --- making
possible mass deportations and executions.  

The book begins with the invention of a punch card tabulating
machine by Hollerith in 1884 and includes a brief history of Thomas
Watson's creation of an international empire that unleashed the
machines on the world. As a successful businessman and a
charismatic celebrity, Watson plays a central role in Black's
narrative. In the 1930s Watson was a household name, one of the
highest paid CEOs in the world and notorious for his cutthroat
business practices that sought to eliminate competition at any
cost.

Black relates Watson's rise to success against a background of a
world economic depression and the rise of fascism. But it is also
clear that Watson's motives for developing a strong relationship
with Germany in the 1930s were purely financial --- rather than
ideological. Germany would spend millions on a plan to meticulously
map the racial make up of its populations and, eventually, the
population of Europe. Anti-Jewish laws were well publicized, and
Black concludes, Watson would have known that the use of these
machines would eventually lead to mass executions.

To support this point, Black uses quotes from pre-war New York
Times
articles to illustrate that Watson, and the rest of the
IBM, should have seen the gathering clouds of genocide. Watson's
acceptance of a Medal of Honor directly from Hitler in 1937 is the
most tangible illustration that Nazi anti-Jewish policies were not
an obstacle to good business in Watson's mind. But the idea of
corporate greed speaking louder than moral outrage is not exactly a
shocking revelation. In fact, Black brings up examples of several
American corporations, including Standard Oil, that were charged
with illegally trading with Nazi Germany just prior to the U. S.
entering the war. Corporate America was willing to look past the
unsavory elements of Nazi Germany as long as there were profits in
the relationship.   

Fortunately, Black moves beyond this outraged but somewhat
naïve trajectory and reveals some truly shocking details about
IBM's profit from Nazi Germany, describing how the cozy IBM/Nazi
pre-war relationship endured and evolved well into the war. In
fact, with IBM's assistance the Nazis were able to streamline an
industry of death --- an industry from which IBM directly reaped
rewards.

By dealing with IBM's German subsidiary, Dehomag, through neutral
European countries, Watson ensured that IBM profits were collected
in protected bank accounts to be recovered after the war. As
Germany looted Europe, American businesses such as IBM were
dutifully managed and maintained by German custodians. Profits were
deposited in frozen bank accounts to be collected when peace came.
 

While conducting a violent war in Europe, Germany --- bizarrely ---
adhered to some rules of business. For example, they made a
practice of leasing equipment seized from invaded countries,
payments for which made it into IBM coffers. That IBM profited from
both sides of a declared war and emerged unscathed is perhaps
Black's most revealing point, and one that raises the question of
how many other global corporations, then and now, have done the
same. Black reminds us that much of the money paid out by the Nazis
to IBM was plundered from Jewish household and bank accounts
throughout Europe. IBM not only profited from the enemy, IBM
profited from the horrendous pain and suffering inflicted on
millions of innocent people. 

The book also asserts that the punch card technology itself
dramatically increased the death toll of the Holocaust. Using IBM's
Hollerith machines, the Nazis located, counted, transported and
exterminated millions of people with unprecedented speed and
efficiency. Germany embraced punch card tabulation long before the
Nazis came to power, but it was Hitler's vision of a "clean" German
population --- with racial

make-up calculated to a 16th of a level --- that truly accelerated
the use of the technology.

Black's most controversial assertion is that IBM's Hollerith
machines served as a core enabling technology for genocide. In a
damning assessment, Black corroborates the use of Hollerith
machines with the mortality rates of the Jewish populations in
Holland and France. The Dutch population opposed (even violently)
the persecution of Dutch Jews, but a particularly deft Dutch
statistician used Hollerith punch card technology with lethal
precision. By comparison, the French Hollerith system was
infiltrated by a member of the French Resistance, who sabotaged the
entire system. In the end, Holland had a mortality of rate among
its Jewish population of nearly 70% while France suffered

25%. This reveals that the technology (unhindered by sabotage)
proved lethal.  

Whether the tragedy of the Holocaust would have somehow been
diminished had punch card technology never existed is perhaps not
the best way to approach this book. The technology existed long
before the Nazis and was used around the world to organize and
analyze information. Black cites the U. S. government's use of the
machines to tabulate and imprison the Japanese-American population;
certainly the technology could have been used by many other
governments for equally unethical purposes. The use of punch card
technology by the Nazis is another facet to our understanding of
the Holocaust, but it is not what ultimately implicates IBM as a
responsible party to the genocide.

The book is worth the read, but not for Black's conclusions. He
asks the reader to be shocked at a destructive use of technology
and by corporate greed --- two things that history teaches us are
more or less inevitable and often directly related. The real shock
from this book and the real achievement of Black's research is the
revelation that a powerful American corporation aided the Nazi
cause and profited from it. Given recent settlements between Swiss
Banks and Holocaust victims and their families, I'm sure this book
has raised eyebrows within IBM.  

Even if the question is never raised in a court of law, Black's
book raises it in our minds and brings the Holocaust closer to home
--- closer than perhaps other historians have had the courage to
do. Most Americans, including Watson, knew of the persecution of
Germany's Jews but were blinded not by the scarlet swastika banner
but by the green dollar sign and, in this case, the Big Blue.

Reviewed by James Krouse on January 22, 2011

Ibm and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America's Most Powerful Corporation
by Edwin Black

  • Publication Date: February 12, 2001
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Crown
  • ISBN-10: 0609607995
  • ISBN-13: 9780609607992