Review – Examining Technology’s Wake by Cezar M. Ornatowski
Review of Edwin Black,IBM and the Holocaust:The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation. New York: Crown Publishers, 2001. 519 pages.
(Note: a version of this review appeared in the April 2002 issue of the Journal of Business and Technical Communication.)
“THIS BOOK WILL BE PROFOUNDLY UNCOMFORTABLE TO READ. It was profoundly uncomfortable to write.” Thus Edwin Black begin his meticulously researched account of IBM’s involvement in the rise of Nazi terror, in the Nazi war machine, in the genocide and enslavement of millions, and in the eventual Allied victory. The account is not just a fascinating story of global corporate politics and of corporate involvement in one of history’s greatest crimes, but also, and perhaps primarily, a story about technology and its relationships to knowledge, power, politics, global finance, and ethics. For this reason, uncomfortable as it may be to read, IBM and the Holocaust is required reading for technical and business communicators, as well as others interested in the complex relationships between technology and society; knowledge, power, and social control; as well as in ethical, political, and economic issues presented by modern information technologies.
Based on world-wide archival research involving more than a hundred researchers, interviews with surviving witnesses, and other sources, the book reconstructs the development and utilization, from the end of the 1890s on, of the Hollerith punch card machine — the first modern system for rapid processing of data. First used, with stunning success, in the 1900 United States population census, the machine — invented by a German immigrant — quickly became the indispensable instrument of statistical research. Eventually, in IBM’s hands and under the leadership of Thomas Watson, IBM’s legendary founder and CEO, it became IBM’s ticket to a global corporate empire.
Punch card technology, as Black points out, “was originally created for only one reason: to count people as they had never been counted before, with a magical ability to identify and quantify” (24). Before long, however, it was developed to the point where it could do more than just count: it could compute, that is, it could record data, process it, analyze it, and answer pointed questions about it. In minutes, it could accomplish what would have been impossible to accomplish with paper and pencil. The science of modern statistics and its tool, the forerunner of the modern computer, were born together. With them, however, something else was born as well, something few could have foreseen; as Black points out, “[m]ankind barely noticed when the concept of massively organized information quietly emerged to become a means of social control, a weapon of war, and a roadmap for group destruction” (7, emphasis in the original).
IBM’s involvement in the 1933 population census in Germany, shortly after Hitler’s rise to power, demonstrated to the Nazi authorities the potential of the new technology. Soon, IBM punch card technology became critical to the Nazi enterprise of total social control, growing persecution of Jews and other enemies of the Third Reich, and, eventually, the Holocaust. Punch card technology served to “identify the victims, project and rationalize the benefits of their destruction, organize their persecution, and even audit the efficiency of genocide” (8). Working primarily through its German subsidiary, IBM made Hitler’s program of Jewish destruction a “technologic mission the company pursued with chilling success,” enabling Hitler’s Third Reich to accomplish what had never been done before: “the automation of human destruction” (8). As Black points out, through its technology, “IBM had almost single-handedly brought modern warfare into the information age. . . . Simply put, IBM organized the organizers of Hitler’s war (208).
But IBM did not simply sell Germany its machines. As Black shows, IBM’s New York headquarters controlled every step of the operation, custom-designing the punch cards and sorting systems necessary for every particular statistical operation, producing the punch cards in the US or in authorized subsidiaries in Europe, selling the custom-made punch cards, and providing on-site technical assistance where necessary, much as a software programmer might today design software to facilitate specialized applications. Only here the application was as often as not the systematic search for, pursuit, and liquidation of millions of human beings, as well as the reduction of millions of others to slavery. There was an IBM punch card machine in every concentration camp. One of the most chilling details provided in the book is that the infamous five-digit number tattooed on a prisoner’s forearm was a Hollerith number: the number of the prisoner’s punch card. And the machines were not sold, to Germany or anyone else; they were leased and they remained the property of IBM. The machines were serviced on-site once a month by IBM-trained personnel, even if the site was a concentration camp. Amazingly, “IBM maintained sales quotas for all its subsidiaries during the Hitler era” (14). In the process, while the world was plunged into the most devastating modern war, IBM realized unprecedented profits that made it one of the largest and most powerful corporations in the world.
But Black’s chilling account is perhaps of most interest to technical and business communicators as a case study in the complex nexus of relationships between technology, knowledge, ethics, and communication.
Like so many information-era businesses, IBM has from the beginning billed itself as providing “solutions.” And with the rise of Hitler to power, Nazi Germany had a problem that was a perfect fit: identifying, counting, and tracking its Jewish population. Punch card machines provided the technical solution to Germany’s problem, and continued to provide it, even while the brutal ultimate end of that solution was gradually becoming clear to public opinion the world over. Black exemplifies IBM pragmatic approach of business by citing an executive of Belge Watson (the Belgian subsidiary of IBM), who, in an August 1939 letter to senior officers of IBM New York concerning the company’s growing involvement in Japan’s aircraft industry, declared: “It is none of our business to judge the reasons why an American corporation should or would help a foreign Government, and consequently Mr. Decker and myself have left these considerations entirely out of our line of thought. . . . we are, as IBM men, interested in the technical side of the application of our machines” (395).
Steven Katz has argued, in a well-known article, that the characteristic feature of the contemporary discourse of technology, including much technical and business communication, is the “ethic of expediency,” which “gives impulse to most of our actions in technological capitalism” (258). The foundation of this ethic is the detachment of technological rationality, with its emphasis on efficiency, objectivity, and profit, from the larger moral and human considerations. It is this ethic, Katz argued, “as well as apathy, and fear, and hatred” that “can explain the complicity of millions” in the Nazi program. The story of IBM’s dealings with Nazi Germany provides a perfect illustration for Katz’s thesis.
According to Black,
IBM was gripped by a special amoral corporate mantra: if it can be done, it should be done. To the blind technocrat, the means were more important than the ends. The destruction of the Jewish people became even less important because the invigorating nature of IBM’s technical achievement was only heightened by the fantastical profits to be made at a time when bread lines stretched across the world. (8).
After 1941, when the United States entered the war and it became expressly against the law to trade with the enemy, IBM continued business as usual, erecting a “wall of credible deniability at the doors of the executive suite” (259). Watson’s October 1941 instruction to IBM managers
did not order his subsidiaries to stop producing punch cards for Nazi Germany. It did not order them to cease all operations. It did not set limits on which projects they could participate in. It did not require offices in neutral companies to stop supporting Hitler’s program. It did not proscribe uses in census or registration operations. It did not even demand that spare parts no longer be sent to machines in concentration camps. All that business continued. The cable merely directed managers ‘not to call on us for any advice or assistance until further notice.’ (289)
In this way, Watson could remain detached from the local details his lower-level managers and engineers would necessarily possess.
The record of business correspondence with IBM’s European subsidiaries was well-papered to protect IBM’s legal position. From 1942 to 1945, Black explains,
IBM NY would wire uncharacteristically verbose and belabored instructions to its managers in neutral Europe to repossess machines, stop trading with subsidiaries in enemy countries, and terminate contracts with blacklisted firms. Each such instruction stood out as a veritable disquisition of deniability laced with highly patriotic rationales for obeying the law against trading with the enemy. But when the blacklists arrived, Watson’s most trusted managers in Sweden and Switzerland would ‘get strangely busy,’ as one IBM internal probe termed it. Or managers would ignore New York’s lengthy tractates to stop direct trading with Axis nations — sometimes delaying more than a year. In many instances, elaborate document trails in Europe were fabricated to demonstrate compliance when the opposite was true. (393)
Once the entire technological system (Hughes) was set up and working, the Nazis could not get along without IBM equipment, even though they would have liked to proceed without foreign participation. Had they tried to interfere with the working of the entire international setup, Black suggests, “[t]he whole data system would quickly grind to a halt. As it stood in summer 1941, the IBM enterprise in Nazi Germany was hardly a stand-alone operation; it depended upon the global financial, technical, and material support of IBM NY and its seventy worldwide subsidiaries” (225).
The international technological system that guaranteed IBM’s global presence put IBM as it were outside the war. “IBM was in some ways bigger than the war. Both sides could not afford to proceed without the company’s all-important technology. Hitler needed IBM. So did the Allies” (348). After the US joined the war, IBM became a strategic partner in the war against the Third Reich, “even as it continuously supplied the enemy, as before, through its overseas subsidiaries” (349). As the war wound down, the Allies realized that “IBM’s help would be crucial to the post-war control of Europe’s administrative and economic infrastructure. . . .IBM had the keys to Europe — or rather the cards. All its expertise in punch card technology would be utilized to create an orderly conquest and liberation of the Continent” (348).
After the war, its machines, punch cards, and any other hardware and software were simply reclaimed, from concentration camps as well as military installations, as corporate property. In recouping its possessions in Europe, and especially in Germany, IBM was careful to “walk the thin green line between conquest and commerce” (418). The company “sought to be carved out of the sphere of culpability and absorbed into the apparatus of victory.” (418-9). It even claimed restitution for its war-damaged property. In a chilling afterthought, Black adds that the IBM machines “simply recovered and reabsorbed into the IBM asset list” from ghettos and concentration camps would perhaps be “deployed another day, another way, for another client” (422). In fact, in another irony, IBM translated, free of charge, and made a permanent record of all evidence in the Nuremberg trials.
IBM and the Holocaust gives plenty of food for thought to technical communication scholars and teachers in view of the recent interest in technology and ethics. Its real-life story of one corporation’s rise to global power illustrates the economic, political, and moral complexities of technology and its deployments. The book should stimulate both continued interest in the social and rhetorical aspects of technology, as well as continued discussions of ethical responsibilities of business and technical communicators in multinational organizational contexts and in the face of truly global technologies and communication networks. The statement that is left with me most powerfully after reading the book is Black’s suggestion that “[m]any of us have become enraptured in the Age of Computerization and the age of Information. I know I have. But now I am consumed with a new awareness that . . . as the son of Holocaust survivors, brings me to a whole new consciousness. I call it the Age of Realization, as we look back and examine technology’s wake. Unless we understand how the Nazis acquired the name [of each victim], more lists will be compiled against more people” (16). What can technical and business communicators do so that we do not merely look back to examine technology’s wake, but look forward to (re)examine the possible future it has in store for us?
Hughes, Thomas P. 1987. “The evolution of large technological systems.” InThe social construction of technological systems: New directions in the sociology and history of technology, eds. Wiebe E. Bijker, Thomas E. Hughes, and Trevor J. Pinch. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Katz, Steven B. “The Ethic of Expediency: Classical Rhetoric, Technology, and the Holocaust.” College English 54 (March 1992): 255-275.