Monday, November 23, 2009

IBM and the Holocaust

I was extremely excited to come across this book as it involves a couple of topics in which I'm extremely interested--early computing and World War 2--with a good dash of conspiracy thrown in.  So interested, in fact, that it zoomed right to the top of my reading pile...I actually went bookless for two days waiting for it to arrive in the mail.  My wife can tell you that this is an unprecedented turn of events!

Edwin Black does a magnificent job detailing the role that the technology controlled by International Business Machines played in accelerating the pace of the Holocaust.  In the introduction to the book, Black unequivocally states so as the reader does not make a mistake:  the Holocaust would have still happened without IBM's involvement.  However, without the automation supplied by IBM, the process would have been vastly less efficient.  Case in point: the stark contrast between the high percentage of Jews eliminated in Holland (which had an established IBM presence and expertise in automated census counting) and the much lower rate in France (where the market for automated census equipment was fragmented and not well developed).

To make an extremely complex story short, IBM controlled the world's leading technology for tabulation and subsequent sorting of populations, the Hollerith machine.  These machines functioned by reading special punch cards representing digital data, and had been used in the early part of the century to automate census counts in the United States and several European countries.  Despite clear indications that this technology was being used for nefarious purposes by the Nazi party in Germany (and later in conquered territories), IBM, through its German subsidiary, Dehomag, funneled machines and the paper necessary to run them into the Reich.  Throughout the 1930s and into the war, the president of IBM, Thomas J. Watson (who incidentally is often hailed as a hero of American business), formulated a deliberate policy to maintain plausible deniability for his firm's actions that aided the enemy in both its war effort and its campaign to effect the Final Solution to the Jewish problem.

One gripe:  I would have liked the account to have had a more technical discussion of how Hollerith machines used.  I understand on a basic level how alphabetizing and sequential sorting based on categories could be applied to counting people.  However, how these operations might be applied to something as complicated as cargo scheduling and maintaining a train transportation network were not clear to me.

Reading the book has given me a new perspective on the power of a census.  The information (in many cases) voluntarily given to the Nazis by many Jews spelled their own doom throughout the Reich.  The next time I'm filling out a form asking for seemingly unimportant personal details I might give pause to consider how the information might be used.

I went into this book not knowing how I would react.  Isn't the job of a multinational corporation such as IBM to make money?  I would suggest that the answer is "yes" but there is a moral line that should not be crossed to do so.  Black's account proves that IBM didn't just step over the line but kept on walking and didn't look back.  One example:  IBM sent technicians into concentration camps to service the Hollerith machines that were clacking away sorting Jews to the gas chamber.  It is a story of greed gone unchecked--there is no doubt in my mind that IBM, and particularly Thomas J. Watson, has blood on their hands.

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