Book, lawsuit claim IBM abetted the Holocaust

WASHINGTON — A book published this week accuses IBM of assisting Hitler in identifying Jews, moving them by train to concentration camps, and expediting record-keeping for slave labor camps and, finally, mass extermination.

The 519-page book, released by Crown Publishers on Monday, is titled "IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America's Most Powerful Corporation." In it, author Edwin Black says IBM in New York was fully aware of what its German subsidiary was up to from 1933 until the 1940s, and it profited from the business deals with the Nazis.

Coinciding with the publication, a group of lawyers on Saturday filed a class-action lawsuit against IBM for providing technology that aided Hitler in the persecution and genocide of millions during the Holocaust.

The suit, in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, claims IBM in America covered up the actions of its German subsidiary at a time when it was illegal for U.S. firms to do any work for Nazi Germany.

"IBM USA understood that its equipment, information and services were being used in concentration camps, where information about Jews and others was recorded, tabulated and sorted for purposes of perpetuating slave labor and ultimately extermination," the lawsuit says.

Filed on behalf of five plaintiffs and others, the lawsuit seeks the forcible opening of IBM archives and a declaration from the company that human rights were violated.

The lawsuit is also demanding an undisclosed sum of money.

IBM's German subsidiary was not named in the lawsuit; the subsidiary contributed to the German restitution foundation, gaining legal immunity.

According to Black, IBM's German subsidiary Deutsche Hollerith Maschinen Gesellschaft or Dehomag sold the Nazis the precursor to the computer — punch card and sorting machines. More than 2,000 of those machines, called the Hollerith, could sort through official records and keep tallies of massive data. They were dispatched throughout Germany and Nazi-dominated Europe as well as in several concentration camps.

Part of a machine marked with the letters "IBM" is on permanent display in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Adjacent text explains that the equipment was used in census-taking in Germany in the mid- to late-1930s. The museum does not know where the machine was actually used, a museum spokesperson said.

When Black, 50, visited the museum in 1993 with his Holocaust survivor parents, his interest was piqued by that machine.

"That IBM provided information technology in the Holocaust was something that had never occurred to anyone," Black told the Bulletin in a phone interview. "I vowed right there and then to find out just how many solutions they were willing to offer the Third Reich."

In the Dachau concentration camp alone, there were 24 IBM sorters, tabulators and printers, according to the lawsuit.

IBM long has contended it cut ties with its German subsidiary in 1941 but both the lawsuit and the book try to show that IBM's relationship to Nazi Germany was longer and deeper than the company has admitted.

While Black said the Holocaust would have occurred with or without the IBM punch-card technology, he said without it, the numbers of Jews killed would have been less.

"If we look at what happened in France, where they did not have the punch-card technology, 23 percent of the Jews were killed," he said in a telephone interview. "In Holland, which had the most sophisticated punch-card technology outside of Germany, 73 percent of the Jews were killed."

IBM recently sent a memo to its employees alerting them about Black's book and its accusations that the company provided data-processing technology to the Nazis.

"If this book points to new and verifiable information that advances understanding of this tragic era, IBM will examine it and ask that appropriate scholars and historians do the same," the company said.

IBM spokesperson Ed Barbini said company officials spoke to Black "repeatedly," and that company archives from the war years were turned over to New York University and to Hohenheim University in Stuttgart, Germany. He said the company's objective "has been to make any of IBM's remaining archives from that time period available to reputable institutions."

In a statement issued this week, the company said: "IBM finds the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime abhorrent and condemns any actions which aided their unspeakable acts. It has been known for decades that the Nazis used Hollerith equipment and that IBM's German subsidiary during the 1930s…[Dehomag] supplied Hollerith equipment."

Noting that Dehomag came under Nazi control prior to and during World War II, the statement said it is "widely known" that longtime IBM President Thomas J. Watson "received and subsequently repudiated and returned a medal presented to him by the German government for his role in global economic relations. These well-known facts appear to be the primary underpinning for these recent allegations."

Black has written his book as partly a history of the Nazis' war against the Jews, partly a history of a blue chip company that epitomizes American big business, partly a biography of the man who ran that company with a ruthlessness driven by profit and partly a lesson on how technology can be put to evil use.

Previous articles and books, such as "Father, Son and & Co.: My Life at IBM and Beyond" and "Big Blue: IBM's Abuse of Power," had touched upon the connection. Other scholarly works have focused on the abuse of technology during the Holocaust. One lengthy piece by Holocaust historians Sybil Milton and David Martin Luebke, "Locating the Victim: An Overview of Census-Taking, Tabulation Technology and Persecution in Nazi Germany," appeared in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers annals of the history of computing in 1994.

Despite the previous scholarship, Black said his book "connects the dots," delving into Watson's micromanagement of Dehomag and his close ties with the Third Reich in the 1930s.

In 1937, for instance, Watson received Hitler's Merit Cross of the German Eagle. By then the Nazi oppression of Jews was well known.

Black writes that Watson saw a lucrative future in Nazi Germany, ordering the merger of several small IBM subsidiaries into a company that retained the name Dehomag. At the time Watson was making his deals, there were calls in America to boycott Germany.

"Nazi Germany," the book states, "offered Watson the opportunity to cater to government control, supervision, surveillance, and regimentation on a plane never before known in human history. The fact that Hitler planned to extend his Reich to other nations only magnified the prospective profits.

"In business terms, that was account growth. The technology was almost exclusively IBM's to purvey because the firm controlled about 90 percent of the world market in punch cards and sorters."

Black accumulated his information with the help of some 100 researchers who scoured material at 50 archives in five European countries, Israel and the United States. Black, who prides himself on the book's 1,500 end notes, spent time in four of those countries.

When Black was asked whether IBM should pay reparations or be found guilty in the lawsuit, he said: "I've spent the last two years of my life investigating what happened 60 years ago. I'm not contemplating what will happen 60 days from now. It's up to the world to make a decision."

Other American companies also have come under close scrutiny for their roles in the Holocaust. Some, such as General Motors and Ford, face pending litigation.

Michael Hausfeld, lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the IBM lawsuit, said his firm has identified 100 U.S. companies that had operations in Germany during the Nazi era. He declined to say whether the other cases merited legal action.

The amount of money demanded by the plaintiffs is not specified, but it is believed to be approximately $100 million. The lawsuit does not ask for compensation to be paid to individuals but asks that any money won be used to promote human rights and assist future victims of human rights violations.

The attorneys also are seeking fees, a point that disturbs Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress. Steinberg said the WJC is not supporting the lawsuit, adding that no one should profit from the Holocaust.

Steinberg said he is not surprised by the information in Black's book but said the matter should be investigated further.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, argued there is "no question about the fact that business interests in the United States, prior to World War II, favored Nazi Germany." He said the American government's determination to remain neutral about Hitler provided "the underpinning for the financial relationship between IBM and Nazi Germany" and many other U.S. companies.

"These companies wanted to make money," Hier said. "Morality played a small role. The businesses saw the government wasn't protesting [the extermination of the Jews], so why should the businesses?"

Hier also said he believed the lawsuit against IBM was justified in the sense that "IBM is culpable for making money during the war," but he thought it would be "difficult to mount a claim of crimes against humanity, especially against a company sitting in the United States.

"Even banks in Germany, which knowingly put out money to build concentration camps like Aushwitz, weren't charged with crimes against humanity. It will be an easier course to prove the financial [aspects of the suit]."

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, called the documentation in the book "shocking."

"It was IBM ingenuity that provided the wherewithal for the Nazi extermination machine," he said in a statement.

However, Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt expressed skepticism. Although she had not yet read the book, she said, "I find it very strange and outside the bounds of normal historical practice that [it] has been embargoed prior to publication."

The Emory University professor also described Black's previous book on the Holocaust as a "sham." That book, "The Transfer Agreement," "made the argument that there was a secret agreement between Hitler and the Zionists to transfer Jews' funds to Palestine. There was an agreement, but it hardly was a secret," Lipstadt said.

Which other American companies and institutions will be called to account for their roles in the Holocaust remains to be seen.

A presidential commission examining Holocaust assets in the United States reported last month that the U.S. government made mistakes that hurt restitution efforts. As a result, some Holocaust victims or their heirs never received their assets, the commission said.

The commission recommended that a foundation be formed to identify assets taken from victims of the Holocaust that came into the possession of the U.S. government.