"IBM and the Holocaust" has got to be the year's hottest book. The subtitle succinctly explains why: "The strategic alliance between Nazi Germany and America's most powerful corporation." The author, Edwin Black, the son of Holocaust survivors, seems eminently suited to the daunting task of tracking the paper trail stretching back to 1933 -- the year when Adolf Hitler came to power. Black also authored the award-winning Holocaust finance investigation, "The Transfer Agreement," and, according to the dust jacket, is an expert on commercial relations with the Third Reich.
In his introduction, Black states unequivocally, "This book will be profoundly uncomfortable to read. It was profoundly uncomfortable to write." Black acknowledges that the writing involved the assistance of over 100 people in seven countries, many of whom he credits in detail in terms of warm generosity. This highly explosive book was published in conditions of quasi-secrecy, under strict embargo until its publication date this last Monday when it appeared in bookstores.
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Black, after identifying the large main thesis of his 519 page book, goes on to alert the reader in surprising terms: "Certainly, the dynamics and context of IBM's alliance with Nazi Germany changed throughout the twelve-year Reich. I want the full story understood in context. Skipping around in the book will only lead to flawed and erroneous conclusions. So, if you intend to skim or rely on selected sections, please do not read the book at all."
It was the very first exhibit in the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., in 1993 that alerted Black to IBM involvement in the Holocaust. The exhibit displayed an IBM Hollerith D-ll card sorting machine -- riddled with circuits, slots, and wires and glistening on its front panel clearly visible: an IBM nameplate.
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Black explains how a computer could have done Hitler's work of identifying Germany's 600,000 Jews, the better to find and destroy them, but there were no computers then. But there was another invention: the IBM punch card and card sorting system -- precursor to the computer. IBM Germany, known in those days as Deutsche Hollerith Maschinen Gellschaft, or Dehomag, with the knowledge of its New York headquarters, custom-designed the complex devices and applications as an official corporate undertaking.
Writes Black, "Dehmag's top management was comprised of openly rabid Nazis who were arrested after the war for their Party affiliation. IBM NY always understood -- from the outset in 1933 -- that it was courting and doing business with the upper echelons of the Nazi Party." He continues, "Punch cards could only be designed, printed, and purchased from one source: IBM. The machines were not sold -- they were leased -- and regularly maintained and upgraded by only one source: IBM subsidiaries trained the Nazi officers and their surrogates throughout Europe, set up branch offices and local dealerships throughout Nazi Europe staffed by a revolving door of IBM employees and scoured paper mills to produce as many as 1.5 billion punch cards a year in Germany alone."
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We learn IBM was founded in 1896 by a German inventor, Herman Hollerith, as a census tabulating company, but that IBM Germany, under Hitler, refined the process, inventing racial census, listing not just religious affiliation, but recording bloodlines going back generations. Hence, the Nazis could locate and round up Jews on short notice. The cards also served to track food allocation, slave labor, and transport trains.
How much did IBM in America know? Black asks. Some of it BM people knew on a daily basis throughout the 12-year Reich. IBM seemed to observe the "don’t ask, don't tell" rule, yet some of Thomas Watson's (President of IBM then) personal representatives were almost constantly in Berlin or Geneva, ensuring the New York parent company was not cut out of any profits or business opportunities Nazism presented.
"IBM and the Holocaust" is clearly an explosive book, to say the least. How will IBM executives react? IBM shareholders? Holocaust survivors? The chapter, "IBM and the War" is utterly chilling, revealing, as Black puts it, "IBM was in some ways bigger than the war. Both sides could not afford to proceed without the company's all-important technology. Hitler needed IBM. So did the Allies."
Hitler certainly recognized Watson's contributions to the Third Reich, bestowing on him a medal -- the highest that could be bestowed on any non-German. In 1937, on the occasion of the International Chamber of Congress meeting in Berlin, Watson was named president of the ICC. The conference was a commercial tribute to Germany and Hitler made the event a national tribute to Thomas Watson. However, in June 1940 -- and under pressure after the Nazis bombed Paris -- Watson publicly returned the medal to Hitler claiming a divergence of views. But IBM's dealings with Nazi Germany were far from over.
Black's book is long and dense, although written with admirable clarity. The footnotes and references are abundant, as are the sites on the Internet that any reader can access for even further material. If you read one book this year, make it "IBM and the Holocaust" (published by Crown).