Did IBM Really Cozy Up to Hitler?

By Peter Hayes


The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany

and America's Most Powerful Corporation

By Edwin Black

Crown -- 519pp -- $27.50

The subject of U.S. corporate operations in Nazi Germany, and the contributions they made to the regime's aggressive and murderous power, is intriguing, intricate, and important. It deserves a well-researched and -reasoned book. Edwin Black's IBM and the Holocaust does not come close to meeting the challenge. Illogical, overstated, padded, and sloppy, the work will give readers who recognize the author's name a sad sense of deja vu. In 1984, Black wrote The Transfer Agreement, about an oft-described 1933 deal between the Zionist Organization and Nazi Germany. Historians and most other reviewers savaged that work. Some wondered aloud how a distinguished publisher (in that case, Macmillan) could exercise so little quality control. Black's new offering duplicates the structure and argumentation of his earlier one almost to the letter. Already, it has begun to provoke a similar reaction.

This time, the topic is IBM's (IBM ) allegedly massive role in the Holocaust. As in his earlier book, Black claims to have hit upon an unknown story of enormous and fateful consequence. By laying bare the Third Reich's uses of IBM's Hollerith punch-card tabulating and sorting machines, Black has, he insists repeatedly, answered the central question behind the Nazis' ability to find, fleece, torment, and massacre the Jews: How did they get the names?

Once again, the author invokes at the outset the shock of his Holocaust survivor parents at his discoveries and the powerful interests that are bound to be offended by his brave detective work. In case this does not disarm critics, once again he overwhelms the reader with detail, much of it irrelevant, and statistics, many of them contrived. He not only exaggerates but does so to make two fundamentally implausible charges.

First, he says the growth of IBM's German subsidiary, Dehomag, and the efforts of IBM's chairman, Thomas Watson, to maintain control of that company in the period after Hitler came to power in 1933 represented a "strategic alliance" with Nazism. In fact, these events had a quite different quality. Germany's was the only burgeoning economy in a Europe still wracked by depression, the only one in which the appetite for data-processing equipment was swelling rapidly. But the Reich also capped corporate dividends and required that they be spent in Germany. Virtually the only way to save earnings from confiscatory taxation rates was to reinvest Dehomag's returns and try to hasten the day when Germany abandoned currency controls. Unless Watson was prepared to write off his assets in Germany--in which case his operation would remain there for Hitler to exploit--he had little choice but to put the best face on happenings there, or to bite his tongue, and cultivate good relations with German leaders.

Watson's pacific remarks on international affairs during the 1930s stemmed from this situation, as did his acceptance of a high decoration from the Reich in 1937. When Hitler's aggressions drove Watson to return the medal in June, 1940, the Nazis ousted his representative from Dehomag's board and tried to subsume that company into a network of alternative producers.

Yes, Dehomag processed the Reich's 1933 census. But that posed no new questions of Germans, who had long been asked for religious identification and native languages on such forms. Neither did it do anything like provide Hitler with the number of Germans with Jewish ancestors. The Nazis had no need for elaborate technical equipment to help them identify Jews and their property. Registration, marriage, tax, Chamber of Commerce, and Jewish community records, supplemented by numerous and ready informants, provided those data in abundance, both in Germany and, later, in occupied Europe.

In a second implausible charge, Black says that the mass murder of the Jews owed much to punch-card tabulations. This is untrue as well. The SS Race & Settlement Office did not even acquire a Hollerith machine until 1943. There were no such machines in the ghettos of Poland, in the killing fields of Serbia, or in the baggage trains of the mobile shooting squads, which slaughtered hundreds of thousands in Eastern Europe without the aid of prepared lists. Black's depiction of the "precision" of Hollerith-scheduled trains to Auschwitz would be ludicrous, even if it did not belie the agonies of the thousands repeatedly shunted onto railroad sidings, sometimes for days without food and water, so that higher-priority traffic could pass. When data processors finally appeared at some forced labor camps (although not always at the ones Black alleges) from mid-1944 on, they had little effect on the fates of the inmates.

Black fosters a new myth--the automated Holocaust--to accompany discredited ones of the motorized German army and the synchronized German economy. Just as historians have shown that the bulk of Nazi forces moved by horse, wagon, and foot, and that its economic mobilization was a bumpy affair, historians of the Holocaust have long known it was administered by pen and paper, typewriter, and teletype.

Should the survivors' class action against IBM, filed in U.S. federal court on the same day that this book appeared, resemble the case that Black presents, an exasperated judge may feel tempted to bill court costs to the plaintiffs. The judge's hand will be stayed, of course, by knowledge of how terribly they have been exploited--both in the past and now by this deplorable publication.

To read Edwin Black's response to this review, click here.

Hayes is professor of history and Theodore Z. Weiss Professor of Holocaust Studies at Northwestern University. Among his books is Industry and Ideology: IG Farben in the Nazi Era.

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