Literature of the Holocaust
maintained by Al Filreis

'I.B.M. and the Holocaust': Assessing the Culpability

New York Times March 2001 By RICHARD BERNSTEIN

In his much anticipated new book, "I.B.M. and the Holocaust," Edwin Black makes a copiously documented case for the utter amorality of the profit motive and its indifference to consequences. Mr. Black, whom the dust jacket identifies as an expert on commercial relations with the Third Reich, recapitulates a complicated corporate record of I.B.M.'s long history of dealings with Nazi Germany, which included camouflaged business transactions during all of World War II. But midway through his fervent exposé, Mr. Black also says that many American companies did what I.B.M. did. Namely, they "refused to walk away from the extraordinary profits obtainable from trading with a pariah state such as Nazi Germany."

What then makes I.B.M. different? What makes it worthy of Mr. Black's study and justifies the phrase "strategic alliance" in its title, suggesting something far more sinister than a mere willingness to do business with an evil state? He gives several reasons in "I.B.M. and the Holocaust," but his main one is that I.B.M., led by its chairman, Thomas J. Watson, had global control of a technology that was enormously helpful, indeed indispensable, to the Nazi machinery of war and annihilation. "From the very first moments and continuing throughout the 12-year existence of the Third Reich," Mr. Black writes, "I.B.M. placed its technology at the disposal of Hitler's program of Jewish destruction and territorial domination."

One doesn't read Mr. Black's history of I.B.M. and the Hitlerites and then feel an impulse to run out and defend Watson or the company he made great. And yet one wonders if Mr. Black has properly calculated the degree of the company's culpability. Indeed, many questions suggest themselves in "I.B.M. and the Holocaust." Is Mr. Black really correct in his assumption that without I.B.M.'s technology, which consisted mainly of punch cards and the machines to tabulate them, the Germans wouldn't have figured out a way to do what they did anyway? Would the country that devised the Messerschmitt and the V-2 missile have been unable to devise the necessary means to slaughter millions of victims without I.B.M. at its disposal?

In making his case, Mr. Black provides a capsule history of I.B.M. The company's basic technology, developed around the turn of the century by a German immigrant named Herman Hollerith, revolutionized the collection and processing of enormous amounts of data. The Hollerith system was at the heart of what became a huge international business, aggressively and ruthlessly expanded by Watson, who took over the company in the early 1920's. The most important foreign part of I.B.M.'s business was its 90 percent share in a German company, Dehomag, a licensee of Hollerith equipment that, as soon as Hitler took power in 1933, eagerly and profitably sold him its services. This included the service of identifying people according to the "race science" of the new regime, enabling the Nazis to know quickly and efficiently how to find and dispatch those, especially the Jews, they identified as enemies.

"Jews could not hide from millions of punch cards thudding through Hollerith machines, comparing names across generations, address changes across regions, family trees and personal data across unending registries," Mr. Black writes. Even as war approached, Watson, in Mr. Black's account, fought to keep I.B.M. in the Reich. "As a result, millions of cards, millions of lives and millions of dollars would now intersect at the whirring stations of Hitler's Holleriths."

But such vaunted language — cards, lives and dollars fatally intersecting — threatens to obliterate the moral distinction between the sellers of rope and those who use rope to hang people. In the generalized outbreak of evil from 1933 to 1945, it is the Nazis, of course, who belong at the top of the heap of evildoers. Below them were the fascist collaborators, the militias, and the camp guards who did their bidding; and then there were the companies, like I. G. Farben and Daimler-Benz, who used slave labor made available by the concentration camps. I.B.M. and Watson were far from heroic, but they do not seem to have been so unusually unheroic as to justify making them a special case.

The problem of moral calibration combines here with the problem of historical context. Certainly it was clear almost as soon as the Nazis took formal power in 1933 that they were bad: they were rearming, engulfing neighboring territories, building concentration camps and savagely mistreating the Jews. Still, it was not clear until at least 1942, even to many Jews, that genocide was not only the Nazis' goal but also a goal they were determined to achieve. The conventional business wisdom until midway through the war, as Mr. Black says, was that Germany was bound to dominate Europe and that any company boycotting the Nazis risked being shut out of the entire continent.

Does I.B.M.'s behavior in this context amount to a nefarious "strategic alliance," as Mr. Black's title suggests? Mr. Black's argument here would be that Dehomag, the I.B.M. subsidiary in Germany, was, with I.B.M.'s active and informed complicity, enabling the Nazis to ferret out Jews, run its concentration camps and wage its wars. "For Watson, it was a choice," Mr. Black writes, making clear his strong feeling that he made the wrong choice. And so he did. Yet the passage of time makes that choice a good deal clearer now than it was when Watson had to make it.

Mr. Black devotes a chapter to two case studies as he strives to make his case that I.B.M. helped Germany a great deal. In the Nazi-occupied Netherlands, he writes, 73 percent of the Jewish population was deported and murdered, and the country had "a well-entrenched Hollerith infrastructure," one to which I.B.M. sold 132 million punch cards. In France, by contrast, where a Resistance hero named René Carmille sabotaged the Hollerith infrastructure, a far smaller percentage of Jews died, about 25 percent.

Mr. Black's contention is that I.B.M. is morally responsible for that difference. But that difference has been well noted by historians who have considered various factors to account for it — national character, the division of France into two zones, the very topography of the countries in question. Mr. Black, in his fervor to find I.B.M. culpable, weighs only punch cards in this particular balance. Of course, he is right that it would have been better had I.B.M. not sold them to Hitler. It would have been better had many things been done differently by many people. Mr. Black's case is long and heavily documented, and yet he does not demonstrate that I.B.M. bears some unique or decisive responsibility for the evil that was done.

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

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