History in Review
IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America's Most Powerful Corporation
By Edwin Black.
New York: Crown, 2001. Pg 528.
Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - June 19, 2001
In IBM and the Holocaust, Edwin Black proposes the theory that without the assistance of IBM, the Holocaust would never have happened. Black contends that Thomas J. Watson, IBM's CEO deliberately set out to collaborate with the Nazi's. Black is clear to state that IBM's collaboration with the Nazi's was not derived from any ideological parity. Watson merely saw Fascism, and the war, as an excellent business opportunity, a business opportunity of which he took full advantage. The fact that it contributed to the systematic slaughter of millions was immaterial.
Besides minutely chronicling IBM's collaboration with the Nazi's, Black also details IBM's financial practices, corporate history, and the company's skill at skirting both American and foreign laws. Black details how IBM embarked, long before the war began, upon a deliberate effort to monopolize the punch card technology developed by the Herman Hollerith, as well as IBM's continuing efforts to hide assets, avoid taxation, and Watson's willingness to destroy his own associates so that the parent company could rake in more profit. And how, when IBM came under scrutiny for their dealings with Nazi Germany, they managed to parlay Watson's political connections, along with some minor acts of charity, into a solid wall of white wash that left the company looking 'clean and all-American'. A persona that, thanks to Black, now has some major holes in it.
IBM as a company would know the innermost details of Hitler's Hollerith operations, designing the programs, printing the cards, and servicing the machines. But Watson and his New York directors could erect a wall of credible deniability ... The free flow of information, instructions, requests, and approvals by Watson remained detailed and continuous for years to come - well into 1944. (Pg. 458.)
In this work, Black shows that IBM was, in many regards, a cult. It was a cult in which Watson was the messianic leader, and avarice the altar upon which they worshiped. Members of the IBM 'family' looked to Watson for guidance, in both their business and personal lives. Black insinuates that this cult mentality led many of IBM's employees to blindly follow Watson - no matter where he led them. Ruthlessly, Watson destroyed his competitors and built a goliath company that spanned the globe, a company in which its employees strove to implement Watson's business plans with utmost dispatch. Had it not been for the unquestioning loyalty of so many to Watson, IBM would not have been able to fulfill the Nazi's insatiable need for the punch care machines.
Watson used his business acumen like a sword. He maintained complete control over IBM's Hollerith punch card machines. They were never sold, just leased. As well, each machine was designed and manufactured to perform a specific task. More importantly, Watson maintained tight control over the manufacture and sale of the paper punch cards used in the machines. Black is clear to point out that Watson would sell to anyone - and throughout the war he not only sold his machines to the Nazi's but also to the Japanese and the U. S. Government.
Thomas Watson and IBM had separately and jointly spent decades making money any way they could. Rules were broken. Conspiracies were hatched. Bloody wars became mere market opportunities. To a supranational, making money is equal parts commercial Darwinism, corporate ecclesiastics, dynastic chauvinism, and solipsistic greed. (Pg. 120.)
IBM and the Holocaust is a well-documented and researched book. Black carefully backs-up every allegation he makes, using IBM's own documents, interviews, newspaper reports, and government records. Black deftly penetrates Watson's cloak of deniability, proving that Watson, and IBM, did indeed know to what use his machines were being put to in Germany. Black does this by semi-imposing newspaper and governmental reports of the atrocities, and documenting the trips that Watson repeatedly took to Germany, and interoffice and personal correspondence that shows that Watson knew what was going on.
Black also lists the various atrocities committed during the war, how the Hollerith punch card machines were put to use, and the effect that they had on the efficiency of the Nazi's operations. He objectively illustrates how the machines were put to use in the concentration camps, and the role they played in deciding who might live, and who was to be slaughtered outright. Black also answers the question, "How did the Nazi's manage to get so much information, on so many people, so quickly?" They used the punch card machines to correlated data from a wide range of sources, such as census data, church records, and questionnaires. This information was used to ferret out who was Jewish (by Nazi standards), where they lived, and how much wealth they held.
Would the Holocaust have occurred without the use of IBM's collating machine? Unfortunately, it would, although it may not have been as 'efficient'. The main flaw in Black's thesis is that he does not look at 'the whole picture.' Taken out of context it is easy to lay the blame at IBM's doorstep. However, the Holocaust was empowered by the confluence of a variety of elements, not the least of which was endemic Anti-Semitism, and the willingness of so many to commit wholesale slaughter. When the Einsatzgruppen squads went into Russia in 1941, they did not carry along punch card machines. Using primarily rifles, they managed to kill approximately two million Jews. (Lucy S. Dawidowicz, The War Against the Jews, pg. 128.) This illustrates that even without the ability to accurately count, tabulated, and correlate each victim, it was still quite 'easy' to engage in genocide. In short, IBM did not cause the slaughter, but it did enable the slaughter to progress with the utmost organization and efficiency. IBM enabled the trains to run on schedule. The Nazi's use of IBM's Hollerith Punch Card machines ensured that no one escaped the notice of the Nazi regime - whether it was a Jew 'scheduled' for elimination, or a young man eligible for military service. For IBM, the slaughter of millions meant one thing, and one thing only - money. IBM and the Holocaust is a chilling example of the extent to which corporate greed can run amok - and the horrific effects that such greed can have.
All Or Nothing: The Axis and the Holocaust, 1941-43, By Jonathan Steinberg.
An astute overview of how Nazi German and Fascist Italy differed in their treatment toward the Jews. Steinberg also examines what motivated some Italians to protect the Jews, while their German colleagues actively participated in the murders of the Jews.
What We Knew - Terror, Mass Murder, and Everyday Life in Nazi Germany, by Eric A. Johnson and Karl-Heinz Reuband .
Excerpts from forty interviews with Jewish survivors, and 'average' Germans who lived in Nazi Germany. Includes an analysis, by the authors, on what the average German knew about the Nazi atrocities that were taking place during World War II.
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