Dark Questions For Ibm

Thomas J. Watson Sr. and the company he created, IBM, are one of the great success stories in U.S. corporate history. Well before the computer age, when IBM sold typewriters and punch-card machines, Watson was the man who put the iconic slogan think on IBM's walls, who ruthlessly crushed competitors and who created the blue-suited corporate culture that revered him as its "Leader." Even Watson's more famous son, Thomas Jr.--who took IBM into the modern Information Age--criticized the scary, "cultlike" atmosphere that surrounded his father.

But according to an explosive new book, the IBM of Tom Watson Sr. was engaged in far more frightening practices. In "IBM and the Holocaust," author Edwin Black describes how under Watson Sr.--who once received a medal from Hitler--IBM actively supplied the technology and expertise that aided Nazi Germany in its savage efficiency. Backed by exhaustive research, Black's case is simple and stunning: that IBM facilitated the identification and roundup of millions of Jews during the 12 years of the Third Reich. Black acknowledges that Watson and the company may not have known the ultimate, genocidal end to which these racist efforts were directed. But he argues that IBM's role helps explain one mystery of the Holocaust, namely how so many people were killed in so little time.

IBM's punch-card tabulating machine, the precursor to the computer, was critical to the first racial censuses conducted by the Nazis in their efforts to purify the master race, Black writes. These began in 1933, and ultimately the so-called Hollerith machine was also used to organize Nazi deportations and concentration camps. "When Germany wanted to identify Jews by name, IBM showed them how. When Germany wanted to use that information to launch programs of social expulsion and expropriation, IBM provided the technologic wherewithal. When the trains needed to run on time, from city to city or between concentration camps, IBM offered that solution as well," Black writes. The author, a Washington-based investigative reporter, told NEWSWEEK: "We have always thought the Information Age was born in Silicon Valley. What we have discovered is that it was born in Berlin."

Black's book, which goes on sale this week, is the latest effort to expose corporate complicity in the Holocaust. The campaign first made headlines several years ago with pressure against Swiss banks that grew rich on the assets of Holocaust victims. Since then, lawsuits have been filed against other corporations and banks that profited from the horrors of slave labor or genocide. But Black's evidence may be the most damning to appear yet against a purported corporate accomplice.

Why? Because IBM apparently did not, like some other U.S. corporations, avert its gaze discreetly while its European subsidiaries raked in profits during the Nazi era. Even back in the 1930s, Black states, IBM was a full-service company; it custom- designed its machines and punch cards, working with its customers every step of the way to satisfy their "precise data needs." And until 1940--when Watson, faced with anti-Nazi outrage in the United States, ostentatiously returned Hitler's medal--he micromanaged every aspect of IBM's operations in Nazi-occupied Europe, Black writes.

Still, Black may be overstating his case somewhat. First, while it is clear that Watson and IBM must have known, through the 1930s, their technology was aiding the Nazis' odious oppression of the Jews, it is far less clear what they knew after America entered the war in December 1941. That was when the Nazi extermination began in earnest. Black himself concedes that the Holocaust would have happened anyway without IBM's help. Another mystery is why IBM's role during the Nazi era should be surfacing only now. Black says he was inspired to write the book after he spotted a Hollerith machine at the U.S Holocaust Memorial in Washington, an exhibit visited by millions. "We have an understanding today that we didn't have some years ago about the profound and strategic value of information technology," he explains.

Watson died in 1956 at the age of 82, his reputation as a corporate legend intact. Last Friday, anticipating the publication of the book (which the company hadn't yet seen), IBM issued a statement to its employees saying: "We recognize that its very subject is an important and highly painful one for many IBMers, their families and the world community at large. For this reason, IBMers should know [that] IBM finds the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime abhorrent." Spokeswoman Carol Makovich added: "We don't know much about this era. If any of the allegations in the book turn out to be true, we would condemn any actions that supported the Nazis."