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Jewish Journal

An Enabler of Genocide

A new book alleges that IBM profited from the Holocaust.

by Michael Berenbaum

March 8, 2001 | 7:00 pm

Edwin Black's new book, "IBM and the Holocaust" (Crown) has generated significant interest. Full-page advertisements in the New York Times and other prestigious newspapers and interviews on the "Today Show" and other prominent television programs have all been part of its marketing program. Despite its many substantial problems, the work is important.

All governments gather information about their citizens. Census data, tax records, driver's licenses, birth certificates and property transfers are significant raw material that bureaucracy collects, organizes, uses and disseminates in the course of its operations. Germany was no exception. Between 1933 and 1945, however, the Germans used statistics in a lethal way. Because of Nazi ideology, the German government was interested in identifying, locating and ultimately deporting Jews and other victims.

Such a task would have been exceedingly more difficult, tedious, time consuming and inefficient -- perhaps even impossible -- without the employment of data-processing equipment developed by IBM and manufactured by its German subsidiary, Dehomag.

The work of identifying Jews was done with the help of the Hollerith machine, one of the earliest punch-card sorters, which was made in Germany and engineered in the United States. Deutsche Hollerith Maschinen Gesellschaft, called Dehomag, a company in which IBM held a 90 percent share, manufactured the Hollerith machines used by the Germans. The machine made it possible to process vast quantities of data fast.

Black demonstrates conclusively that IBM was aware of how its technology was being used and that it was essentially unconcerned. According to Black, the American company was not interested in Nazism or anti-Semitism, but in making money. And by cooperating with the Nazi government, much money could be made.

Thomas Watson, the legendary founder of IBM, positioned his German subsidiary so that it had the appearance of being a German company until the United States entered the war. Even then, it used neutral Switzerland as the nexus of its global operations, in an attempt to keep control of the day-to-day management of the company and its assets in equipment, leasing contracts, and patents.

Watson personally received the Merit Cross of the German Eagle with Star honoring "foreign nationals who made themselves deserving of the German Reich," the highest medal that could be conferred on a non-German. He opposed American entry into the war until 1941. When war seemed inevitable, he returned the medal.

In the United States, IBM was manufacturing machine guns, but in Germany its machines were used to coordinate the railroad stock that brought Jews to the concentration camps and to keep track of the working schedules within the camps and the arrival, departure and deaths of prisoners.

Because this data processing equipment was leased, IBM could immediately identify each piece of equipment and where it was located, Black says. More important, because IBM and its subsidiaries individually designed and supplied the punch cards to be processed, they were intimately aware of the specific needs of their diverse clients for data, and thus they were in a position to understand the full scale of Nazi operations. The Hollerith machines were used in Auschwitz and Dachau, Mauthausen and Buchenwald, Ravensbrück and Flossenberg. The Reichsbahn, the German railroad system, and the Luftwaffe, among other German clients, also used the machines.

Ironically, after the American victory, IBM was regarded as an American corporation and therefore could receive its holdings in Germany. It sequestered those employees who needed corporate protection, got rid of those considered troublemakers (whose service to the Nazis could be used as a means of dismissal) and continued business as usual.

Black alludes to similar situations regarding other American corporations when he describes the role of Standard Oil of New Jersey, which was castigated by a Congressional Committee in 1942 for turning over synthetic rubber processes to the German Navy while withholding such information from the Americans and the British. In fact, then-Sen. Harry S. Truman called Standard Oil traitors. One suspects that a similar history of Ford or General Motors and a host of other global corporate holdings in Germany would also reveal intimate connections with the Nazi regime. But he makes his case where IBM is concerned.

The book is not without its flaws. Black presumes that the Nazi plan for the destruction of the Jews was evident to even a disinterested observer far earlier than even the most discerning comprehended the scope of the "Final Solution." He presumes that an occasional story in the New York Times placed on page 12 or 14 would have had the impact then that it has today, when we read it with full knowledge of what was happening. He is wrong on some dates; he describes advance knowledge on the part of many historic personalities, when the record indicates otherwise. Too often, he engages in hyperbole.

Yet "IBM and the Holocaust" is an exceedingly timely work as it examines the role of American -- or, more correctly, global -- corporations in perpetrating the Holocaust, and its implications for contemporary discussions of corporate and governmental ethics are significant. In an age when so much information is available about each and every one of us, it underscores the importance of knowing that although information is neutral, the use of such information is not.

This book demonstrates that regulation cannot be left solely to market forces and that public pressure, boycotts and other means of imposing moral restraints on corporations may be important. One hopes that IBM will respond to this work by telling the truth about its past, openly and fully.

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