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Book Review


IBM and The Holocaust Still Stuns Readers as Big Blue Remains Silent

August 24th 2009

Book Covers - IBM 2008

IBM and The Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation. Edwin Black. Dialog Press 2008. 528 pages. Buy it here

The nature of American business activity in Nazi Germany has only recently started to be reviewed in a critical framework. Given America’s popularized role as the liberator of Europe in World War II, many sources of a now rapidly expanding body of research have been neglected for decades. The widely read book, IBM and The Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation, is a testament to the public’s growing interest in this topic. Furthermore, the importance of such work cannot be understated as the American version of the events of World War II, omitting this recent research, is often used to justify the moral intentions the U.S. has had in most of its subsequent conflicts.

Edwin Black has preemptively responded to the tendency in America to dismiss controversial books by producing one of the most exhaustively researched works on the subject. IBM and the Holocaust utilized over 100 hundred researchers working in seven different countries, producing thousands of footnotes, and reviewing an enormous number of documents. The breadth of this work provides inspiration to serious historians willing to embark on the unpopular journey of exposing the misdeeds of one’s country. 

IBM and the Holocaust is a thoroughly detailed book about the history of International Business Machines’s (IBM) dealings with Nazi Germany. As densely packed with information as this text is, its thesis is simple: Directed from its worldwide headquarters in New York, IBM was a willing and decisive organizational force behind Nazi rearmament and genocide plans. The documentation supplied to support this thesis is both massive and well organized.

The text is presented in a loose chronological arrangement which employs the activities of IBM managers, especially those of CEO Thomas J. Watson, as a common thread for its narrative. Edwin Black has also written other books on the subject which lay equally grave criticisms at the feet of those Americans who were involved with the Nazis. Ultimately, these arguments have been the basis for several lawsuits brought against companies that engaged in Holocaust era profiteering and exploitation.

Black's chapters are divided into three sections. It begins with the history of information technology and how this industry was developed in both the United States and Germany. The narrative then follows the rise of IBM and its dominant position in both countries. This section eventually plays itself out as a power struggle between IBM and its subsidiary, Dehomag, as Nazi authorities were reviewing a possible contract between themselves and the corporation. With IBM victorious, the following two sections deal with the most chilling aspect of the book: how IBM facilitated the organization of census data for the Nazis to perpetrate wholesale mass theft and murder of Germany’s Jewish population, and IBM’s role in organizing the logistics of Hitler’s military buildup.

The author presents a massive amount of technical data on precisely how IBM’s “solutions” oriented business made these two goals possible. He traces CEO Thomas J. Watson’s struggle to maintain control over its subsidiary to guarantee the immense profits to be gained from such a lucrative and extensive contract. As more pressure was brought to bear on both sides of the Atlantic to cover up the connection between IBM and Dehomag, Black details the arrangement of trusted Nazi officials to protect IBM’s profits and provide stewardship of the subsidiary and its property. After hostilities commenced, the text details not only the day to day struggles Watson engaged in to maintain control of IBM’s European operations, but also how IBM expanded and supplied Hitler’s forces to continue their agenda as they conquered the European continent.

The last third of IBM and the Holocaust details how IBM became essential to the war aims of both the Axis and the Allies as World War II unfolded. At this point there is an obvious dichotomy. Black weaves between the war activities of each side. The focus on the rapidly culminating “Final Solution” becomes the centerpiece of the book as it reaches its conclusion.  The detailed treatment of organizational details behind Hitler’s genocidal aims as they were reaching full fruition provides an emotional locus for the entire text. The final section of the book closes on IBM’s aggressive moves to secure all profits and property after Germany was defeated, underscoring the answer to the question raised by Black’s thesis: Why would any individual or corporation become a willing participant in such horrifying endeavor? Black’s answer: The singular focus of IBM’s profit motive reigned supreme over all else.

Throughout the book, Edwin Black diverges from the organizational narrative to the activities and communications of the players involved, providing a human dimension to the discussion. The struggles between Watson and Dehomag’s original manager, Willy Heidegger, are particularly dramatic. Later, Black details the circumstances surrounding Watson’s receivership of a Nazi medal and direct communications with Hitler himself. The amicable nature of these interactions are both captivating and chilling. Speaking to the pragmatic approach that IBM had with its German business, the communications detailed between IBM representative Harold Chauncey and Nazi leader Karl Hummel are almost banal, considering the circumstances. This aspect of the book allows for some respite to the unrelenting details leading to what is inevitably a story about the mass execution of whole populations. In this way, Black portrays IBM as a company whose direction was both deliberate, and tightly controlled from the top down.

Due to the contentious nature of the subject, Edwin Black brings with him a mountain of data to back up his argument. The rational administration of IBM allowed for an extensively detailed account of IBM’s moves. To handle such a project, Black assembled a large team of researchers to wade through the copious amounts of available data existing in multiple countries and in multiple languages. The primary sources and endnotes are not only arranged in a simple and organized format, but the major repositories of information are also detailed, such as the location of various archives and other repositories of information situated throughout the world. What is perhaps most interesting, is Black’s detailing of requests for information from IBM itself. According to IBM and the Holocaust, the corporation made extensive efforts to block, hinder, and confuse investigation. When IBM realized the project already had extensive data to make its case, it attempted to whitewash its role issuing several public denials of its involvement.

IBM and the Holocaust made a considerable impact on both the reading public as well as historians when it came out in 2001. When it was released, the book ignited a flurry of media attention and became an immediate best seller in forty countries. Simultaneously, a lawsuit was brought by scholars, Holocaust survivors and their families against IBM for the allegations presented in the text. As noted earlier, IBM repeatedly stated a simplistic argument that it lost control of its subsidiary and had no involvement with the Third Reich’s plans. What is problematic for IBM and its defenders is that no substantive rebuttals have yet to be made to any of the claims presented in the book. Although there are an overwhelming amount of details presented by IBM and the Holocaust, none have been actively contested. The larger stories that captured the imagination of the public, such as the communications between Hitler and Watson and receiving a Nazi Medal overwhelmed the tepid denials IBM and its historians made. Although the lawsuit brought against IBM was ended by the intervention of the US State Department in 2003, a concession was provided to have the corporation’s archives opened for further study. The US State Department has not yet released a date when this would occur. That same year, the research presented in Edwin Black’s book surfaced again in the acclaimed independent film, The Corporation, demonstrating that public interest in corporate complicity with Nazi aims continues to grow.

IBM and the Holocaust contains an overwhelming amount of source material. Even without much assistance from IBM, Black was able to put together an entire operational dossier of its European activities during the war years. Although his endnotes help in locating particular source documents, there is still a great deal of information to get through to verify each point. Whether or not this matters to the audience of this text is debatable. There is such a great deal of cross referencing in IBM and the Holocaust in respect to its sources that there is a diminished need to reestablish individual points, unless they are source of particular contention. This reality does not betray the weight Black’s thesis significantly.

Ultimately, Black has provided an exemplary text for rebutting a well known historic myth: That US corporations, particularly during the WWII era, had only American interests solely in mind. IBM and the Holocaust is a well sourced, breakthrough work on American-Nazi Collaboration that even a powerful corporation, such as IBM, has failed to discredit. Works like this remain vital to the discourse of this chaotic and pivotal period in world history and will hopefully lead to a greater understanding of the geopolitical nature of our current situation.

Jason Weixelbaum follows issues of corporate complicity related to World War II.

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