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Stranger than Science Fiction
Edwin Black, IBM, and the Holocaust
Edwin Black's IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America's Most Powerful Corporation (New York: Crown Books, 2001) briefly achieved best-seller status soon after its publication, but sales dwindled in the face of negative reviews. While this review is also negative, it is important to note at the outset that Black addresses a significant issue, the continuing participation of American corporations in German affairs not only after Hitler had proven beyond doubt that he would trample civil rights but even after Germany was at war with the United States. It was not that foreign subsidiaries in Germany had no choice. Whereas the Nazi regime confiscated Polish and Soviet property, not to mention that of Jews, it left the capital of its enemies in the West more or less alone. It did block the transfer of foreign exchange, it did impose windfall profit taxes, and it did ration raw materials and intervene in other ways to place the economy on a war footing. But all firms, not just foreign corporations, faced such policies. The Nazis never needed to force many American (and British) firms to play greater or lesser parts in the German war economy, with all the atrocities that this entailed. If nothing else, IBM and the Holocaust should prompt us to ask why this subject has been left to someone like Black, a science fiction writer with limited abilities as a historian.
Black has also hit upon a somewhat clever approach, similar to that recently employed by Robert Gellately in his studies of popular support for Hitler in Germany. Black has read through the New York Times between 1933 and 1945 to establish a baseline of common knowledge about Nazi atrocities. He juxtaposes this research with an examination of IBM's American archives and some records of its German subsidiary, Dehomag. To what extent can we reasonably expect Thomas Watson, as chief executive officer [End Page 150] of IBM, to have been aware of the criminal nature of Hitler's Germany? The Times would seem to be a good gauge. It is little known today that the Times reported extensively on the persecution of the Jews, even noting, in 1944, the inauguration of a "new modern crematorium and gassing plant . . . at Birkenau." The impression that "no one really knew" is common but hardly plausible. So why, asks Black, did IBM continue to pursue profits in Nazi Germany rather than divest itself of its German holdings once the criminal nature of the regime was plain for all to see? Admittedly this was not common business practice, but that does not make the question less relevant or the answer more savory.
Although IBM was not the only firm to reap profits in Hitler's Germany, Black maintains that Watson and his cohorts were extraordinary in their zeal. Far worse, in fact: Black contends that IBM aided and abetted genocide. "I was haunted," Black tells us on page 10, "by a question whose answer has long eluded historians. The Germans always had the lists of Jewish names. But how did the Nazis get the lists?" Since the business and tabulating machines produced by Dehomag were used to collate the results of the census, Black plausibly argues that IBM helped directly in delivering information used to round up Jews. As he puts it in one of his convoluted metaphors: "IBM did not invent Germany's anti-Semitism, but when it volunteered solutions, the company virtually braided with Nazism" (p. 73).
Unfortunately, doubts as to Black's competence to tackle this important subject arise within the first few pages, which introduce the inflated and pompous rhetoric that characterizes the entire text. Publishing the book, Black informs us, "took a historic bravery and literary fearlessness that many lacked" (p. 4). His assertions that he worked "virtually fifteen hours per day for a year" (p. 6) and "scanned and translated" a less-than-astonishing "fifty general...