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Did IBM Knowingly Contribute to the Nazi Holocaust?

Book Essay on: Edwin Black, IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America's Most Powerful Corporation
( New York: Crown, 2001), 519pages.
UCSB: HD9696.2.U64 I253 2001

by Nikita Schottman
March 23, 2010

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
The Holocaust in European History
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2010

About the Author
& Abstract
Book available at Amazon link

About Nikita Schottman

I am a junior history and business economics major. I am specifically interested in 20th Century United States and European History. I was born in the Soviet Union, and traveled extensively throughout Europe, including Germany, Austria and other countries controlled by the Third Reich. I chose IBM and the Holocaust, because I am interested in business and economics and I wanted to see how American business, specifically IBM, may have contributed to the Holocaust.

Abstract (back to top)

In IBM and the Holocaust, Edwin Black investigates IBM’s involvement in the Nazi Holocaust. He suggests that IBM’s Hollerith punch card machines were essential in identifying Jews and carrying out the Holocaust. The author outlines how the Nazis used these machines in the Holocaust. Black asserts that IBM New York had direct control over Dehomag, its German subsidiary, and profited from Dehomag’s relationship with the Nazi Party. He uses IBM’s attempts to maintain ownership of Dehomag before the war as evidence of their close relationship. However, Black fails to provide enough reliable evidence to prove such a connection, and only manages to prove that IBM aggressively tried to retain profits prior to United States involvement in the war. This book also paints Tom Watson, IBM CEO, as a ruthless businessman. Never the less, the author does not show him as a Nazi sympathizer, and in fact makes him appear loyal to the United States during the war. Although Black reveals that IBM technology had an impact on the Holocaust, he does not show that IBM knew about how their products were used, or intended as a tool to aid in mass murder. In this book, Black presents a lot of information, and points out many interesting possibilities, but comes short in proving his assertions.

Essay (back to top)

In IBM and the Holocaust, Edwin Black outlines the history of International Business Machine Corporation’s involvement in the Nazi Holocaust and argues that IBM’s punch card technology was essential in identifying Jews in the Third Reich and efficiently executing the Holocaust. According to Black, Thomas Watson Sr., IBM’s CEO, closely controlled German IBM subsidiary, Dehomag, as it actively worked with the Third Reich, and was fully aware of Nazi activity and implementation of his technology. However, Black fails to prove that Watson had significantly control over Dehomag, especially after the United States entered the Second World War in 1941, or any knowledge of how IBM’s Hollerith machines were used. Many of Black’s conclusions regarding IBM’s involvement are based on limited evidence and biased analysis. This lengthy, hyperbole-filled book fails to show that IBM went beyond general business practices when doing business with Germany. Black successfully shows that Thomas Watson and IBM saw the Third Reich as a customer, but does not provide enough evidence to prove that IBM either knew about, or participated in the Holocaust. Black includes 61 pages of sources in the back of the book, ranging from primary documents, accounts and secondary sources like Internet sites, books and periodicals. Black shows that he did a lot of research and put together many sources, but nevertheless he was unable to find enough evidence to prove direct and willful IBM involvement in the Holocaust.

IBM’s Hollerith machines, Black argues, were responsible for helping Nazi officials locate and exterminate millions of Jews. The Nazi regime used these machines in conducting census, like in 1939, when Dehomag used collected data to find “racial Jews” within the Reich, which included Austria and the Sudetenland (Black 172). The Hollerith machines could sort data so that people could be labeled Jewish based on their grandparents, thereby making being Jewish racial rather than religious. However, in reviewing this book Henry Turner suggests that IBM machines were not used in the 1939 census, since the data was only ready by 1942, apparently “more time-consuming methods than machine-automated processing” were used (Turner 639). Even if Turner is wrong, and Hollerith machines were used, the delay in calculating the data shows that they were not as important as Black claims in locating Jews and other minorities.

Black tries to tie Hollerith machines to Holocaust escalation and the inception of the Final Solution, stating that the machines “had enabled the Nazi Reich to make an unprecedented leap from individual destruction to something on a much larger scale” (Black 365). He fails to provide evidence to show the impact of the machines in decision-making or their use in the Final Solution. Black does show that “nearly every concentration camp operated a Hollerith Department,” (Black 351) but does not address how they were used in mass killings. Even though, Black argues that these machines were useful to the Nazis, he indicates that they were not essential in many cases, for example; in Greece. He writes “a determined Reich” would have deported Jews “with or without punch cards, efficiently or inefficiently” (Black 387). Turner further downplays the importance of IBM machines, making the case that, “Nazis had a great success in using residential registers or extorting lists of their victims from Jewish communal organizations” (Turner 636). Black overstates the importance of the Hollerith machines. It is clear that these machines were used, but the Nazis would have conducted their anti-Jewish policies with or without IBM, and it seems unlikely that these machines significantly impacted Reich’s Jewish policy.

Black attributes the distribution of Hollerith machines to Thomas Watson. He erroneously portrays Watson as always in control of IBM and its European subsidiaries, and actively involved in doing business with Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party. Tom Watson took over Dehomag in 1923 but did not actively run it. Willy Heidinger already ran the company and did not want to relinquish control. German law greatly benefited German owned businesses, so it was beneficial to keep Dehomag as German as possible. Black shows several instances of Watson signing off on important decisions before World War II. However, when the war starts, and especially when the United States enters, Watson not only loses decision-making control in Germany but also has difficulty retrieving profits. Watson had no influence, as the Reich controlled the company between 1942 and 1945 (Black 266). In fact the only way he could influence the company was through the IBM headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, which he used to funnel money (Black 247). Black sites Harold Carter, who studied IBM’s relationships with its subsidiaries. Carter did not find any evidence that IBM controlled its European subsidiaries and thus concluded, “that either the important files are in the offices of the European headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland or IBM has not made full disclosure” (Black 342). Black argues that this lack of evidence shows that IBM is trying to keep such relationships secret. To the contrary, there is no smoking gun evidence against IBM, so it seems more likely that control had little or no control over Dehomag and other subsidiaries in Nazi controlled Europe.

Black presents Watson as a power hungry capitalist, and suggests that he was as politically extreme as the fascists and liked dictators (Black 69-70). According to the author, IBM formed a “philosophical and technological alliance with Nazi Germany.” (Black 10) Black even tries to juxtapose Watson to Hitler, referring to him as “the Leader,” (Black 42) just like Hitler was called the “fuehrer,” suggesting that both leaders were praised by specific songs, and comparing their dictatorial styles of leadership. Besides these general comparisons, this book presents no evidence that Watson had similar political views as Hitler, or that he was in any way antisemitic. Ultimately, Black fails to prove that Watson supported Hitler or his policies.

In fact, according to Black’s evidence, Watson clearly denounced Hitler and his policies. In a letter to Hitler, Watson denounced the anti-Jew actions during Kristallnacht in November 1938, However, Black argues that Watson only sent the letter for show, and had no intention to actually denounce the Fuehrer because the letter was addressed incorrectly and was returned (Black 147). Watson also returned the Merit Cross of the German Eagle with Star that Hitler awarded him. Watson’s gesture was not public enough for Black, but nevertheless angered and insulted Hitler and made it very difficult for IBM to control Dehomag (Black 217). Again, Black looks at Watson from the worst point of view possible, and draws convenient conclusions without substantial proof. By returning the medal, denouncing Hitler and giving up control of Dehomag and other foreign companies as the US entered the war; Watson effectively distanced himself from the Third Reich. Black fails to provide enough evidence to prove that any sort of philosophical alliance between Watson and Nazi leadership existed, and actually more effectively shows the absence of such a relationship.

Watson not only denounced Hitler and the Nazi regime, he and IBM greatly aided the United States war effort. After the United States entered the war, “IBM and its technology were in fact involved in the Allies’ most top-secret operations” (Black 344). As a matter of fact, Black shows that Watson developed a close relationship with President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Black 71), not Hitler. This shows that, although Watson did business with the Nazis he remained loyal to the United States, despite Black trying to diminish the relationship between the IBM CEO and the US President. Watson maintained a positive relationship with the United States government and military, working against his former client and the anti-Jewish policies that Black tries to tie him to.

Black tries to tie IBM to the Holocaust through Watson’s relenting desire to maintain control over Dehomag and other European subsidiaries. As Black indicates, Watson was very interested in maintaining ties with Dehomag, as “Nazi Germany was IBM’s second most important customer after the US market” (Black 111). However, Black shows that Watson was more interested in collecting profits than managing the subsidiary companies, therefore it would seem that IBM’s ties to Nazi Germany are purely economic. Watson willingly made deals, giving up control, first to Heidinger, then to Nazi officials, in order to maintain access to profits. Whenever Dehomag or another company tried to break away, Watson intervened only enough to protect his profits. Even early disputes with Hedinger, like in June 1934, proved that Watson wanted to control Dehomag “not to reign in its technological alliance with the Third Reich, but rather to ensure that the profits continued and remained unshared.” (Black 101) Black even acknowledges that Watson primarily cared about profits, and therefore, as long as the companies remained profitable, he had no reason to micromanage them, especially when that became illegal under US law.

Black’s argument rests on the assertion that Watson and IBM knew exactly how Dehomag conducted business and how the Hollerith machines were being used. According to Black, Watson and IBM should have been aware of the Holocaust because of the attention it was getting in the United States. Some examples of public discontent with the Third Reich’s Jewish policy included the anti-German boycott in the US (Black 45) and several newspaper articles (Black 65). However, Black fails to account for the “confusion and skepticism that marked the overall reaction of the press” (Turner 638) and “the widespread public indifference” (Turner 638) toward Nazi Germany’s antisemitic policies. Since the information coming in to the United States was conflicting and unreliable Black has no reliable evidence that IBM knew about how their products were used.

In addition to the boycott and the press, Black suggests IBM knew about the Holocaust through their business in Germany. Robert Urekew agrees that Black reveals that “the IBM corporation knew the whereabouts of each of its European-leased machines… [and] each machine was insured and serviced monthly on site” (Urekew 85). However, neither Black nor Urekew provide sufficient evidence to prove that IBM kept close track of their machines, especially those controlled by subsidiaries. Although Urekew claims that these machines were regularly services he does not provide any records of this occurring. IBM faced many difficulties even in trying collect profits from its European subsidiaries, clearly indicating the impossibility of micromanaging them and their Hollerith machines. Black views the lack of evidence and IBM’s struggle to collect profits as an elaborate plot to conceal the true relationship between IBM New York and its European subsidiaries. However, there is no evidence to support this thesis, and although it is possible, Black does not prove it.

Black’s evidence against IBM seems to be insufficient in the real world. IBM survived several investigations, including one by the FBI (Allen 1), and two lawsuits. In February 2001, five holocaust survivors filed a suit alleging that IBM "implemented, aided, assisted or consciously participated in the commission of crimes against humanity and violations of human rights" (Sebok). This suit was dropped in April 2001. In February 2002, the Gypsy International Recognition and Compensation Action association (GIRCA) filed suit against IBM in Geneva, Switzerland. The Swiss Supreme Court eventually affirmed that too much time had passed and held the ruling against GIRCA. These failures to prosecute IBM for their apparent wrongdoing prove that there is insufficient evidence to tie IBM to the Holocaust.

Throughout Black’s book, it is apparent that IBM New York was primarily interested in profits, but there is not enough clear-cut evidence to suggest that Watson or IBM knowingly helped Nazi Germany conduct the Holocaust. Black only manages to proves that Watson saw the Third Reich as a customer, not an ideological partner or ally. Although it is possible that Watson and IBM actively and knowingly participated in the Nazi Holocaust, this book does not prove that thesis. Since Black fails to prove IBM’s involvement in the Holocaust in such a long and well-researched book, it is more likely that such involvement did not occur, especially not to the scale that Black believes.


Annotated Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/23/10)

Book Reviews

  • Henry Ashby Turner Jr., "IBM and the Holocaust (Book Review)." Business History Review 75, no. 3: 636. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (2001)

    Turner criticizes Black’s book and questions its historical accuracy. He attacks several of Black’s main claims, such as the Nazi use of an IBM card punching system to keep track Jews and the control IBM had over Dehomag. Turner downplays the connection between IBM and Nazi Germany, generally dismissing it as just doing business.

  • Frederick E. Allen, "Hitler and IBM." American Heritage 52, no. 5: 24. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (2001)

    Allen also denounces Black’s book and states that his facts do not add up. Allen attacks Black’s main claims, arguing that the Nazis could have and would have implemented the same policies without the aid of IBM. Allen claims that Black unfairly portrays Watson and IBM and states that Watson and IBM had a business relationship with Nazi Germany but did not knowingly support Nazi ideology.

  • Robert Urekew, "Justice Delayed." Harvard International Review 23, no. 4: 84. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (2002)

    Urekew credits Black for successfully analyzing the connection between IBM and the Nazis. Urekew stresses the importance of IBM machinery and corporate involvement in Nazi Germany. Overall he believes that Black’s book appropriately criticizes IBM.

Books and Articles

  • Gotz Aly, Karl Heinz Roth, Edwin Black, Assenka Oksiloff, The Nazi Census: Identification and Control in the Third Reich Temple University Press (2004)

    The authors of this book explain Nazi census techniques that were used in identifying and classifying Jews and other minorities. The book ties the Hollerith machine to the census and statistical development in Germany. Ultimately this book reveals that all the information collected contributed to the Holocaust.

  • Michael Bazyler, Holocaust Justice: The Battle for Restitution in America’s Courts New York Press (2005)

    This book outlines the litigation against many groups involved in the Holocaust including, businesses, banks and other institutions. Bazyler references the case against IBM in 2001. Although the reference to IBM is brief, the author compares the case to other cases in America and discusses the impact of Black’s book, IBM and the Holocaust, on this case.

  • Edwin Black, Nazi Nexus: America’s Corporate Connections to Hitler’s Holocaust Dialog Press (2009)

    This short book (192 pages) looks at five major institutions’ contributions to the Third Reich. Black tries to show that, Ford, General Motors, Rockefeller Foundation, Carnegie Institution and IBM, all contributed to the Nazis and their policies.

Relevant Websites

  • Edwin Black, IBM and the Holocaust

    Edwin Black’s website provides various resources about the book and the author. It includes other articles by Black, response to his work, and media information. Other articles include more information about America’s involvement with Nazi Germany. This site is useful, but somewhat bias, since Black creates it.

  • Business & Human Rights Resource Center, Case profile: IBM lawsuit (Holocaust claim by Gypsies)

    This site is a general description of the case brought against IBM by Gypsy International Recognition and Compensation Action association in 2002. The site outlines the case as it went through the Swiss court system and was eventually dismissed. Also, the site provides links to news articles about the case.

  • Paul Festa, Probing IBM’s Nazi Connection June 28, 2001

    This is an interview between Paul Festa and Edwin Black about “IBM and the Holocaust.” Festa asks Black basic questions about his book and why he wrote it. This information is useful for learning more about Black personally and his views about the book after having written it. Just like Black’s website, this is primarily Blacks views and opinions, not facts.

  • Anthony Sebok, FindLaw Forum: Did IBM aid the Holocaust? March 15, 2001

    Anthony Sebok looks at the lawsuit filed by five Holocaust survivors against IBM. He examines IBM’s actually involvement and determines their legal responsibility. The author concludes that IBM’s involvement is a moral issue, not a legal one. This is useful in understanding why the lawsuits against IBM failed.

  • Shoah Education Project Web, The Hollerith Machine

    This site looks at the history of the Hollerith Machine. It talks about how the machines emerged and what they did. Generally this is much of the same information as in the beginning of IBM and the Holocaust.

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Nikita Schottman on 3/23/10; last updated: 3/23/10
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