March 18, 2001
The Punch-Card Conspiracy
A journalist explores relations between I.B.M. and the Third Reich.
By GABRIEL SCHOENFELD
IBM AND THE HOLOCAUST
The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America's Most Powerful Corporation.
By Edwin Black.
519 pp. New York:
Crown Publishers. $27.50.
After more than five decades and the appearance of innumerable books and monographs on its every facet, is there anything radically new remaining to be uncovered about the Holocaust? According to Edwin Black there is. His ''IBM and the Holocaust'' drops the bombshell of a revelation that the Nazis, in pursuing the destruction of European Jewry, were assisted in decisive ways by a leading American corporation.
I.B.M., Black reports, knowingly provided the Third Reich with the technology to identify German Jews in the period 1933-1939. After World War II broke out in Europe, Hitler's plan to exterminate the Jews became a ''mission the company pursued with chilling success.'' Drawing on documents from archives in the United States and across Europe, Black tells the astonishing story of a corporation and a corporate leader, Thomas J. Watson, eagerly conniving with the Nazis as they carried out their murderous program.
This, of course, is an explosive charge, made all the more sensational by the fact that of the major histories on the Holocaust published in the last 50 years, not one so much as mentions I.B.M.'s contribution to the Nazi Final Solution, not even (I believe) in a footnote. The drama is heightened further by the strict secrecy that enveloped Black's book before it was released, a release timed to accompany the filing of a class-action lawsuit charging I.B.M. with profiting from genocide. Not surprisingly, given all this, Black's book has made it into headlines around the world and on to the best-seller lists.
But how well does Black's indictment stand up to critical scrutiny? Though the evidence assembled in ''IBM and the Holocaust'' must be evaluated on its merits, it is helpful in approaching it to know something about Edwin Black himself.
A relevant fact is that when he is not writing about the Third Reich -- the subject also of a previous book -- he writes techno-thrillers, and articles for a variety of popular magazines like Mademoiselle and Redbook, not generally known for their insights into Hitler and the Holocaust. This background is hardly a disqualification for writing intelligently about modern history, but in Black's case it helps to explain a second relevant fact: in ''IBM and the Holocaust'' he often tells his story not in the subtle hues of genuine scholarship but in the Day-Glo paint of the potboiler.
Indications of trouble are already visible in the book's early pages, where Black stakes out a number of far-reaching claims that he is unable to sustain, most crucially that Hitler's quest to exterminate world Jewry was ''greatly enhanced and energized'' by the I.B.M. corporation and its leader. Together, Thomas Watson and Adolf Hitler -- one an extreme capitalist, the other an extreme fascist'' -- formed a ''technological and commercial alliance that would ultimately facilitate the murder of six million Jews and an equal number of other Europeans.''
But the evidence Black adduces never proves anything of the sort. He shows that under Watson, I.B.M.'s world headquarters in New York conducted business with Nazi Germany from 1933 up to the American entry into the war, and that Watson, a rapacious profit-seeker, even received a medal in 1937 from Hitler for his friendship with the Third Reich -- which he later had to renounce amid considerable embarrassment. By the time war erupted in 1939, I.B.M. technology -- primarily punch cards and the Hollerith machines that tabulated them -- was widely in use by the Germans in the military, the SS, the railways and other key institutions.
But none of this is a revelation, and Black, in any case, never discusses whether I.B.M.'s trading relationship with the Nazis was thicker or thinner than that of other multinational companies. At the same time, he greatly exaggerates the significance of I.B.M.'s contribution, asserting that, as the war progressed, ''eventually, every Nazi combat order, bullet and troop movement was tracked on an I.B.M. punch card system.'' Every bullet? It is, moreover, simply not meaningful to declare, as Black does, that by 1939 or thereabouts, Germany, using Hollerith machines, ''had automated virtually its entire economy.'' One would not say such a thing even about our own highly computerized economy.
The key question, in any case, is not whether I.B.M. sold Germany its equipment but whether, as alleged, it made the Final Solution part of its ''mission'' and whether its relationship with Germany in any way ''energized'' or significantly ''enhanced'' Hitler's efforts to destroy world Jewry. On the first point, Black never even attempts to substantiate his accusation -- a scandalous omission considering the gravity of the charge. As for the second, his shaky evidence leads him to oscillate between two completely irreconcilable positions.
On the one hand, Black argues that I.B.M., through its German subsidiary, ''designed, executed and supplied the indispensable technological assistance Hitler's Third Reich needed to accomplish what had never been done before -- the automation of human destruction.'' On the other hand, he maladroitly hedges, noting that even if Germany had completely lacked I.B.M.'s efficiency-enhancing tools, ''the Holocaust would have proceeded -- and often did proceed -- with simple bullets, death marches and massacres based on pen and paper persecution.'' But if that is so, in what sense were the punch cards and the tabulating machines ''indispensable''?
Struggling to force his evidence into a box in which it does not fit, Black ratchets up his rhetoric. We thus read a good many sentences in which punch cards bearing Jewish names are said to be ''clicking and rattling'' or ''thudding'' or whooshing ''faster and faster'' through ''the huffing machines of the Third Reich like tiny high-speed mechanized breaths rapidly inhaled and exhaled one time and one time only.'' Such overblown writing would cause even a techno-thriller to stall and crash to earth.
This is a pity, for Black's genuine though narrowly circumscribed accomplishment is to raise the general question, once again, of how the corporate world dealt with the totalitarian regimes of the past century, and to show, in particular, that there is room for a serious study of I.B.M.'s complicated and by no means innocent relationship with Nazi Germany. This book, however, is not that study.
Gabriel Schoenfeld is the senior editor of Commentary magazine.
Home | Thorns and Barbed Wire