IBM and the Holocaust

Wednesday, Jul 28, 2010

It has been known for decades that the Nazis used Hollerith equipment and that IBM's German subsidiary during the 1930s -- Deutsche Hollerith Maschinen GmbH (Dehomag) -- supplied Hollerith equipment. As with hundreds of foreign-owned companies that did business in Germany at that time, Dehomag came under the control of Nazi authorities prior to and during World War II. It is also widely known that Thomas J. Watson, Sr., received and subsequently repudiated and returned a medal presented to him by the German government for his role in global economic relations. These well-known facts appear to be the primary underpinning for these recent allegations.

IBM does not have much information about this period or the operations of Dehomag. Most documents were destroyed or lost during the war. The documents that did exist were placed in the public domain some time ago to assist research and historical scholarship. The records were transferred from the company's New York and German operations to New York University and Hohenheim University in Stuttgart, Germany -- two highly respected institutions with the appropriate credentials to be custodians of these records. Independent academic experts at these universities now supervise access to the documents by researchers and historians.

The lawsuit appears largely to be based on the claims contained in the book. Based on everything the company has seen to date, there appear to be no new facts or findings that bear on this important issue and period... The lawsuit has been dismissed.

IBM Statement on Nazi-era Book and Lawsuit, February 14, 2001, http://www-03.ibm.com/press/us/en/pressrelease/1388.wss.

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.

"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.

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.

'I.B.M. and the Holocaust': Assessing the Culpability, Richard Bernstein, The New York Times, March 7, 2001, http://www.nytimes.com/2001/03/07/arts/07BERN.html.

When World War II began, all IBM facilities were placed at the disposal of the U.S. government. IBM's product line expanded to include bombsights, rifles and engine parts - in all, more than three dozen major ordnance items. Thomas Watson, Sr., set a nominal one percent profit on those products and used the money to establish a fund for widows and orphans of IBM war casualties.

The war years also marked IBM's first steps toward computing. The Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator, also called the Mark I, was completed in 1944 after six years of development with Harvard University. It was the first machine that could execute long computations automatically.

IBM Archives: 1940s, http://www-03.ibm.com/ibm/history/history/decade_1940.html.

The intersection of governments and corporations has and always will create murkiness for culpability. The modern day equivalent is Cisco purportedly "marketing its routers to China specifically as a tool of repression" for China's "Great Firewall" (wired.com). But is this a problem of greed or are the evil governments the problem? Does gravity cause plane crashes?