Was IBM Good For the Jews?

Saul Friedlnder is the author of numerous books, including "Pius XII and the Third Reich," "When Memory Comes," and most recently, "Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Persecution, 1933-1939, Vol. I."

Rarely has a scholarly book been surrounded with so much prepublication hype. Weeks before the publication of Edwin Black’s “IBM and the Holocaust,” rumors spread about its extraordinary revelations. Publishers in the know adamantly refused to reveal what the book was about or who the mysterious author was. It was disclosed that about 100 researchers had participated in the preparation of the forthcoming bombshell and that the work would come out simultaneously in eight languages (or was it 10?) in dozens of countries. The book, alas, does not fulfill the high expectations that surrounded its publication.

Black’s study is not uninteresting; it contains a wealth of unknown or little-known details. The author convincingly shows the relentless efforts made by IBM to maximize profit by selling its machines and its punch cards to a country whose criminal record would soon be widely recognized. Indeed, Black demonstrates with great precision that the godlike owner of the corporation, Thomas Watson, was impervious to the moral dimension of his dealings with Hitler’s Germany and for years even had a soft spot for the Nazi regime. The German market was essential for IBM’s European operations, and Watson was ready to go to any length to keep some control of his German subsidiary, Dehomag, even when high-ranking Nazi officials were added to the board. He didn’t desist even when it became clear that IBM’s tabulation system was helping the regime to register its victims.

All this is of significant historical interest, the more so since similar findings of tacit assistance to the Nazis could probably be documented for other major U.S. corporations (General Aniline and Film Corp. is a well-known case; some work has been done on Ford Motors and on Standard Oil of New Jersey; information has also come to light in regard to Eastman Kodak). What is not clear is whether U.S. governmental agencies decided to turn a blind eye on IBM’s dealings with Germany in order to prepare the ground for postwar American economic dominance in Europe. Black tells us of the investigation conducted by Harold J. Carter of the “economic warfare section” attached to the Department of Justice. It got nowhere. Was there anybody higher up in the Roosevelt administration who helped IBM evade Carter’s probing?


In writing his book, Black seems to have pursued a dual purpose: the documentation of the general history of IBM’s dealings with Nazi Germany, and the contribution of these dealings to the implementation of the Holocaust (as the title of the book indicates). Let me turn first to the latter issue. According to Black’s study, the use of IBM systems, especially the Hollerith punch-card machines, for highly precise and detailed census operations, enabled the Nazis to quickly identify and locate the Jews destined for deportation and extermination.

This issue is not new. It was documented in detail in a 1984 study published by two German historians, Goetz Aly and Karl-Heinz Roth, under the title “Die restlose Erfassung” (The Total Control). Black mentions the study in his notes and in the bibliography but not in the text. Undoubtedly, in the Reich and in annexed territories, the Hollerith system was used to identify Jews by “racial” ancestry and all related characteristics. The lists established were probably the basis for the well-organized deportations from Germany and the annexed territories; Aly and Roth had already given a good description of the process.

As far as the roundups in most other countries are concerned, the use of IBM or any other kind of tabulating machinery cannot be as easily demonstrated. Consider, for example, Black’s example of Holland and France. In Holland, IBM-based census registrations were widely and effectively used, and after the arrival of the Germans, were immediately applied to the Jewish population. As we know, most of the Jews of Holland were deported and exterminated; at first glance there seems to be a link between the Hollerith-based census and the deadly results.

The difference with France appears to be striking. There, the system existed but was not applied to the registration of the Jews because of the heroic action of its chief operator, who never delivered the lists of Jews. This, according to Black, explains why deportations from Holland ran so smoothly and fully while only a fraction of the Jews of France were deported. But, is it so? If the use of the IBM system had been the main explanation of this difference, it could not have led to the quasi-total deportation of the foreign Jews from France and to the escape of the majority of French Jewry. Had the technical factor played a decisive role, the SS and the French police would not have been able to get the names and addresses of the foreign Jews either.

Warsaw presents a peculiar case. A census of the Jewish population was ordered by the Germans and taken Oct. 28, 1939. The rapidity with which the Germans processed the results (within two days) was probably due to the usage of Hollerith machines. The detailed information was certainly used by the German administration for allocating--and limiting--food supplies, for mobilizing slave labor and the like. But were the census lists used when the deportations started July 22, 1942? Were the Jewish police chasing people to the Umschlagplatz , the square where the deportees were assembled, at the rate of 6,000 a day according to IBM alphabetical lists?

It was not necessary. Generally speaking, in most cases in Eastern Europe, in the occupied Russian territories, the Baltic countries and in most of Poland, the roundups were not based on preestablished and presorted lists: The Jews were ordered to report to a given location at a given time, and they did .

The related, more general issue raised in “IBM and the Holocaust” is that of the influence IBM headquarters kept over the dealings with Nazi Germany throughout the war. In Black’s words, “Watson himself set the stage for IBM Europe’s wartime conduct. In October 1941, he circulated instructions to all subsidiaries: ‘In view of world conditions we cannot participate in the affairs of our company in various countries as we did in normal times. Therefore, you are advised that you will have to make your own decisions and not call on us for any advice or assistance until further notice.”’ And, Black comments: “Despite the illusion of non-involvement, IBM New York continued to play a central role in the operation of its subsidiaries. Company subsidiaries regularly traded with Axis-linked blacklisted companies in neutral countries, and even directly with Germany and Italy. It was business as usual throughout the war.”


Whether Black’s conclusion is tenable, from both historical and legal points of view, depends first on the interpretation of Watson’s statement, and second on Black’s documentary sources. Regarding this last point, consider the hub of IBM’s European wartime operations: Geneva. According to Black: “Deals and denials characterized virtually the length and breadth of IBM’s presence in Geneva. Market transactions were fundamentally untraceable since they could filter through a maze of banks or their branches many of them newly created by Germany, scattered across occupied and neutral countries. New York branches of Swiss banks only complicated the trail, prompting treasury officials in Washington to dispatch squads of investigators to Manhattan seeking evidence of trade with the enemy.” Black bases this central argument on two postwar articles of the New York Times, the first published Nov. 2, 1945, and the second Feb. 17, 1946. Does that suffice?