An eager vendor in deadly computations

IBM and the Holocaust By Edwin Black Crown 519 pp., $27.50

In June 1937, IBM founder and President Thomas Watson Sr. received "The Merit Cross of the German Eagle" from Nazi Germany. Ranked second in prestige only to the German Grand Cross, the award was designed to "honor foreign nationals who made themselves deserving to the Third Reich."

Watson returned the medal three years later, but writer Edwin Black makes perfectly clear in "IBM and the Holocaust" that this icon of American business earned the honor.

And Black goes much further. He argues that IBM technology, specifically punch-card technology, a precursor of the computer, allowed the Nazis to automate their efforts to exterminate the Jews. As a result, the Holocaust was far more efficient and deadly than would otherwise have been possible.

Simply stated, Black's thesis is as follows: Nazi Germany leased several thousand punch-card machines - such as collators, tabulators, sorters, and alphabetizers - from Deutsche Hollerith Maschinen Gesellschaft (or Dehomag), a company owned and entirely controlled by IBM.Using this equipment, the Nazis conducted population censuses in 1933 and 1937 that collected extensive information about all Germans. Armed with this "demographic dragnet," the Nazis were able to identify Jews and target them for asset confiscation, ghettoization, deportation, and eventually extermination.

Punch-card technology was employed for much more than increasing the velocity and efficiency of the Holocaust. It was used to count livestock, automobile records, combat records, and war injuries; to decode intercepted messages; and to count the amount of butter in Denmark.The technology was even used to make the trains run on time - including those that carried Jews to the concentration camps.

Eventually, notes Black, IBM "machines became more involved in each and every move of the German forces." Eventually, "every Nazi combat order, bullet and troop movement was tracked on an IBM punch-card system."

Black's book is carefully researched and documented. An army of assistants gathered, compiled, and analyzed data from a huge range of sources. The book adds much to our knowledge of the Holocaust and World War II. While it has long been common knowledge that the Nazis used IBM punch-card technology, Black convincingly demonstrates the extent to which it was central to the operation of the Third Reich.

And, in an era when rapid advances in science and technology - such as the human genome project and cloning - are increasingly common, Black provides a detailed and sobering reminder that such advances are not always benign.

But Black never convincingly demonstrates that IBM knew about the deadly uses to which its technology would be put. Whether this is because IBM officials never asked or because they simply never discussed it in the millions of documents that Black reviewed, he never finds a "smoking gun" that suggests Tom Watson knew how his machines were being used.

Black argues convincingly that Watson should have known; the perilous state of Jews in Nazi Germany was regularly described in the newspapers. Fair point. But the same could be said for hundreds of other companies and a number of national governments, including Great Britain and the United States.

Nor is IBM the only company that enjoyed lucrative dealings with the Third Reich. Many firms, especially those involved in armaments and banking were reluctant to walk away from the extraordinary profits that came from dealing with a pariah state like Nazi Germany.This is hardly a new story - the bigger the villain, the greater the financial rewards.

And IBM made enormous profits on its Nazi connections. In the 1930s, Germany was IBM's second-largest market, and the company's auditors went to great lengths to hide earnings from Nazi taxes and protect assets from confiscation.

If anything, Watson comes across as the ultimate capitalist - indifferent to everything except profits. He was certainly naive and probably indifferent. His loyalties were first and foremost to IBM - anything else came second. But above all, he was an international businessman dedicated to building and expanding a global empire. And he did this with ruthless efficiency and unparalleled effectiveness. In the case of his dealings with Nazi Germany, it had tragic consequences.

Terry W. Hartle is senior vice president of the American Council on Education.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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