IBM: the 'final solution' company

Wednesday, April 11, 2001


IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance between Nazi Germany and America's Most Powerful Corporation
By Edwin Black
Little, Brown and Company, 2001
519pp., $30 (pb)

IBM, as it delights in telling us, is the "Solutions Company". What could be more natural, then, that IBM was the company that helped Nazi Germany with its "final solution" to the Jewish "problem". The "profit and business opportunities that Nazism presented", argues Edwin Black in his stunning new book, enticed IBM to play a crucial role in the Holocaust and the Nazi war machine.

When the Nazis were conquering Europe and the trains were hauling Jews to the extermination camps, where was this flagship company from the home of the brave and the land of the free? Organising Hitler's war on two fronts — against Europe and against the Jews.

How IBM's "craving for profit" assisted with the carnage and genocide inflicted by the Nazis is one of the darkest yet clearest examples of how capitalism inhabits a different moral universe to those that champion freedom, democracy and respect for human rights.

When Hitler took power in Germany in 1933, the Nazis quickly moved to implement their anti-Semitic policies. The monumental task of registering, recording and cross-indexing communal, church and government records to identify practising Jews and even those with Jewish "blood ancestry", as demanded by Nazi "race science", needed a computer. Computers did not yet exist but IBM's punchcard-sorting machine (the Hollerith) did. This precursor to the computer was to make possible the automation of genocide.

Herman Hollerith invented the system of punch-cards and high-speed sorting in the 1880s for the census needs of the US government. His company, which was renamed International Business Machines in 1924, cornered 90% of the global market in punch-card technology. The company thrived on the needs of government and corporate bureaucracies for personal, financial and industrial information.

Nazi Germany soon became IBM's biggest overseas customer. Hitler's war drive, and plans for population surveillance and racial identification, needed information and that information needed to be organised. IBM invested heavily in its German subsidiary, Dehomag, to position itself for the business boom.

It did not need IBM president Thomas Watson to admire fascism (which he did), or Dehomag's top management to be rabid Nazis (which they were), because IBM had achieved its industry monopoly through being proactive ("anticipate the client's needs" was an IBM motto) and being amoral in the pursuit of profit (standard capitalist behaviour). "We do business in 78 countries and they all look alike to me", said Watson in 1938.

The speed of the IBM machines took years off the labourious manual processes that would have otherwise been needed to implement Nazi racial policies. IBM ran the Nazis' censuses in 1933 and 1939 that were designed to identify Jews. IBM technology was central to the Nazis' eugenics program designed to weed out "inferior racial stock" through forced sterilisations.

Wherever the Nazis grabbed new territory, IBM was there to service their needs, gearing up for major expansion in the target country prior to annexation and running anti-Semitic censuses that were to select the people to be sent their deaths.

In Warsaw, IBM performed "prodigious statistical feats of population registration" that resulted in the transportation of millions of Polish Jews to the death camps or herded into the prison-like "Warsaw Ghetto", where they starved. At the height of Nazi expansion, IBM had thousands of Hollerith machines in Germany and occupied Europe holding the commercial, industrial, military and anti-Semitic infrastructure of Nazism together.

IBM's clicking, whirring machines made a crucial difference to the scale of the Holocaust. In Holland, for example, where the Hollerith system was well-administered, three-quarters of Dutch Jews were killed compared to 25% killed in France, where the Hollerith system was in disarray thanks to the sabotage of the Resistance.

IBM did not restrict itself to genocide. It also served the needs of the German capitalist class, including I.G. Farben (manufacturers of the poison gas used to kill Jews in the camps), Krupp and other arms manufacturers, Deutsche Bank and the railways (which were crucial to the efficient movement of forced and slave labour, and the deportations of Jews).

Rapidly accessible information was essential to modern warfare and IBM machines put knowledge on tap for the German military about personnel, draft-age men, the production and use of munitions and war materials, and invasion and occupation plans. The German military employed 30,000 people in its use of Holleriths.

IBM was so crucial to the Nazis, that when Watson, under pressure to distance himself from Nazi atrocities, returned a medal he had received from Hitler, the affronted Nazis tried to replace IBM. However, they found that they could not do so because of IBM's monopoly. Indeed, when the US entered the war and IBM in Germany was placed under direct Nazi control, the caretaker management protected IBM's assets and profits with a commercial zeal that impressed IBM's US headquarters.

IBM provided "field engineers" to work with Nazi clients to custom-design the punch-cards. For concentration camp prisoners, column 3, hole 3 was for homosexual, hole 1 was for "political", hole 8 was for Jew. Code 6 in column 34 was for "special handling" (gas oven/crematoria) prisoners.

IBM tried to obscure its involvement in Nazi Europe by denying it had control over its subsidiaries there, however, Watson in reality micro-managed the operations of his business empire and made all the decisions. IBM New York was kept in the know through its Geneva-based European HQ which, through Switzerland's neutral status, was able to liaise between its US boss and its Nazi subsidiaries.

IBM's interests in Nazi Germany, up to and during the war, were aided by a protective US government. A donor to the election campaigns of Roosevelt's Democratic Party administration, IBM bought political influence. The Roosevelt administration repaid their well-heeled supporter with influential appointments (to the Federal Reserve Bank board), by helping IBM to avoid or reduce foreign taxes and tariffs, granting contracts to IBM as it expanded into arms production during the war, and the use of the State Department's diplomatic pouch. A US justice department investigation into IBM's Nazi links was curtailed. IBM was untouchable.

Because IBM only leased its machines to the Nazis, they were regarded by the US government as US property. The Roosevelt administration, like all capitalist governments, acted to protect the profits of its corporations overseas. Scores of major corporations like IBM profited from business in Nazi Germany (Ford manufactured Nazi tanks) and Japan (IBM was involved in the expansion of Japan's air force and navy).

IBM did not miss a beat when Nazi Germany was defeated. Its information processing technology proved indispensable to US post-war occupation and administration of Europe. When the US carried out the post-war Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals, there was never a thought that any IBM executive in New York, or any other US capitalist, would find themselves in the dock.

IBM, upon which the Nazi regime was utterly dependent for organising the systematic extermination of Jews and others, could have, by walking away from evil, slowed the Holocaust and the extent of Nazi occupation and terror. It didn't. The US government could have stopped IBM. It didn't.

The guiding principle of business and governments under capitalism is profit-making. Genocide and war did not divert IBM from "business as usual".

When the Gestapo came knocking on the doors of Europe's Jews, the lists were courtesy of IBM's lust for profits. If ever an example is needed of why the capitalist profit-system should be abolished, then the behaviour of IBM in preparing, facilitating and reaping the spoils from genocide, provides it.