Thursday, June 24, 2010

IBM, the Holocaust, and Me

A couple of years ago, in an act of subversion that makes her papa proud, my youngest daughter gave me an unusual Chanukah present:  IBM and the Holocaust by Edwin Black:

My first reaction was to wince uncomfortably, probably not the reaction she was hoping for.  At the time, I was employed by IBM and trying to maintain the most positive attitude possible.  This book didn't promise to make that any easier.

Like any large company, IBM does lots of good things and some bad things as well.  At IBM's size, both the good and the bad can be pretty dramatic.  But implicated in the Holocaust?  I just didn't want to think about it.  By the time the holiday was over, I told my daughter that this would be the first book I opened whenever I eventually submitted my resignation to IBM.

I kept my word, and devoured the book promptly upon my recent job change.  Delaying reading the book was probably a  good career move, but eventually proved a bad one for my self-respect as a moral person.  Had I read it while at IBM, I might have taken actions distinctly unhelpful to my career progress.  But I don't think I would have regretted them.

I can't possibly condense, in a blog entry, a work that took years for the author and a small army of reviewers and fact checkers to put together.  It's a work of stunning and meticulous scholarship, derived from tiny bits of evidence scattered all over the world.  But a few disturbing facts are inescapable to anyone who reads the book fairly:

1.  IBM profited handsomely selling technology to both sides throughout World War II.

2.  IBM technology and technicians were indispensable to the logistics of the Holocaust.  Every concentration camp had at least one IBM punch card machine, while some had dozens.  IBM technicians regularly serviced these machines, and trained others to do so. 

3.  IBM'ers provided the technical, statistical, and theoretical knowledge to efficiently identify and target the victims of Hitler's Final Solution.  When the Nazis entered a town and promptly rounded up anyone with even one Jewish grandparent, they could do so because IBM had helped them convert volumes of local and church records, documenting births, marriages, and conversions, into tidy stacks of IBM punch cards.

4,  IBM's technologies also created the efficiencies by which the Nazis could enter a town and demand, say, 75 Jews for transport to the camps.  IBM punch cards ran the railroads, and told the Nazis when they could schedule transports to the death camps, how many rail cars were available, and how long the lines were at the gas chambers.  Whole trainloads were thus efficiently murdered within minutes of their arrival.

5.  All of these efforts depended on a steady flow of millions of punch cards,  which only IBM could manufacture with sufficient precision for the finicky machines.  That flow never ceased; there were plenty of cards left for the Allied liberators.

Mr. Black studiously avoided making any conclusions or inferences he couldn't support from his research.  (He claims to be able to produce documentation for every sentence in the book.)  But I'm under no such constraint.  The impression I got, from this book, is that the Germans would have been hard pressed to exterminate half as many people without IBM's help.   (This might even be an understatement.  In France, where IBM was weak, punch card technology was rare, and a few brave technologists sabotaged the census cards, most Jews survived.  In Holland, relatively speaking a high-tech mecca and IBM stronghold, most perished despite the legendary efforts of good Dutch Christians.)

But was this perhaps just IBM's German subsidiary, acting under the constraints of one of the most brutal and tyrannical regimes in history?  Not a chance.  IBM kept close tabs on its operations in enemy countries, through IBM's office in neutral Geneva.  And Thomas Watson, IBM's legendary president, worked tirelessly and openly to keep his business going in Nazi Germany until America's entry into the war, for which efforts Hitler awarded him the Eagle and Star, the highest honor the Nazis gave to non-Germans.  IBM'ers have since done their best to erase history, but a few pictures survive:

That's Hitler and Watson on the left.  Watson eventually returned the medal under intense pressure from the US government and others, but only after Hitler had overrun half of Europe and was trying to bomb London into submission.

I think that's all pretty bad.

But the war has been over for 65 years.  Nearly everyone involved in IBM's shameful activities is dead, of course.  Why should we care today?  What does it have to do with today's IBM?

It must still have some relevance, because IBM is still stonewalling.  Mr. Black dug through archives and libraries throughout the world,  but over a hundred requests for information from IBM were denied.  Typical responses claimed that IBM has no information relevant to that era -- this from a company with legendary archives and full time archivists on staff!  I can only conclude that today's IBM is actively hiding something -- something even worse than what I've summarized above.

For better or worse, American law says that corporations are people.  This has all sorts of negative effects, which I hope to write about in future blog entries.  But in this case, one has to ask:  if a person stands accused of this level of complicity in the largest documented act of mass murder in human history, why has he (it) not been called to account?  There's no statute of limitation on genocide.  If we can prosecute a sick 89 year old man for crimes committed when he was a 23-year old Nazi guard, why do we not hold accountable one of the largest and most powerful corporations in the world?

The answer, of course, is obvious:  It's one of the largest and most powerful corporations in the world.  If it doesn't want to be held accountable, what politician is brave enough to try to do so?

I think IBM should hold itself accountable.  If I were still at IBM, after reading this, I think I'd feel honor-bound to work, quietly and internally, towards a change of policy.  Today's IBM'ers are good people, and none of them are complicit as individuals in the horrors of the Nazi era.  Most of them, I am sure, are completely unaware of the depth of IBM's complicity in mass murder.  But they should be.  I should have been.

Here are three things I think IBM should do to show that today's company is, in fact, a completely different kind of company than the one that profited by automating the Nazi genocide machine:

1.  Open the archives.  Whatever's in there, get it out.  It may reflect badly on those who came before you, but it will reflect well on you.  Your predecessors may be villains in future textbooks on business ethics, but it's not too late for you to be a hero.

2.  Start a discussion, internally and externally.  IBM has often set the standard for business ethics; it has been a pioneer in civil rights, diversity management, environmental responsibility, and many other areas.  Today there's an opportunity to set the standard for a corporation squarely facing its past and analyzing its mistakes and wrongdoings.  You could teach the whole world how a corporation -- a "person" that can live forever -- can come to terms with bad actions a lifetime ago.

3.  Make amends.  No, you can't bring back millions of murdered human beings, but you can and should do something, make some kind of gesture that acknowledges your unrepayable debt.  I don't think the monetary reparations that Germany sent Israel after the war are the right model for what you should do today.  Instead, IBM can afford to create or sponsor entire institutions dedicated to genocide prevention and/or business ethics, which might actually help prevent such horrors in the future.

Do I expect something like this to happen?  Well, actually, yes -- I really do, eventually.  The IBM I know is an amazing, wonderful company, which takes its current social responsibilities as seriously as any company I know.  Eventually, it will have to remove its blinders and face up to its past.  That time is long overdue, but I think highly enough of IBM to be sure it will happen some day.   Today would be good. 


  1. Do you think it would be too cruel to forward this to current IBM employees...?

  2. With one or two exceptions for special relationships (you know who you are!) I have refrained from sending this to current IBM employees because I did turn my eyes away while with the company. I don't feel I have the moral standing to force others into a confrontation with conscience that I evaded.

    That said, if there's a current IBM'er with whom you have the right kind of relationship, I wouldn't judge you negatively for forwarding it to them. For me, I feel on more solid moral ground with ex-IBM'ers -- and I think ex-IBM'ers have a key role to play.

  3. If IBM made punch card machines and sold them to the bad guys, that need not necessarily be bad. Like, would you imagine the companies that made the bricks, cement, log and steel that went into concentration camps as partners in the crime?

    ISPs provide internet services, knowing very well that the bad guys too use the internet. Cell phone companies know very well that phones are often used in crime... even a farmer knows that criminals consume wheat and milk and grow stronger and commit more crimes. How does that implicate them in the crimes their customers commit?

  4. There's a slippery slope from business-as-usual to stay alive -- e.g. selling bricks or bread to the Nazis -- and selling cutting-edge high tech services that no one else can provide. The ethics of providing an evil regime with commodity services are genuinely different than those of providing critical and irreplaceable services. Remember, no one in the world successfully made cards for IBM machines besides IBM. (And they tried.)

    Having said that, I'm also not saying that everyone in this story is a villain, not by a long shot. And many of them were tortured over their actions for the rest of their lives. (It's a fascinating book, really.) I'm probably bothered more by the fact that IBM hasn't agonized over what it did that I am by what it actually did (which bothers me plenty).

    That's why I think one of the right ways for IBM to acknowledge its role is to sponsor more work on business ethics. The fact is that this was a situation with very black and white issues at the core, but a million shades of gray in between. Every business school student should have substantial experience with trying to understand where to draw the line.

  5. NSB, You know, I hope, that I admire you. I have fond memories of some of the limited time we spent together. I qualify the following thus, ok? Don't take this the wrong way.

    Do you not see in yourself the same tendencies? The same problem? You vowed to read the book only upon resignation. You buried your head in the sand. While, objectively speaking, enriching yourself you subjectively say you were "working from the inside" and actively resisting looking into this. Spy in the house of war, indeed - that posture wears thin.

    Now, was good 'ol T. J. Watson the problem here? or *a* problem? What about the large hierarchy beneath him? How many of them turned a blind eye and "worked from the inside"? How many of them "worked from the inside" and did nothing by their passive aggressiveness other than help IBM's cause?

    Alright, that's over the top. I think I sound simply scolding and that's not really my intention. Not quite.

    "Eventually, it will have to remove its blinders and face up to its past. That time is long overdue, but I think highly enough of IBM to be sure it will happen some day."

    What's good for the goose....

  6. dasht -- Two things:

    1. Yes, I see the same tendencies in myself, and I tried to make that clear in my post (with obviously incomplete success). That's why I described my own head-in-the-sand behavior as shameful. It's also why I'm contacting ex-IBM'ers rather than current IBM'ers; we can look at the matter more objectively and take action more boldly because our view isn't compounded by fear for our careers. And it means I'm not asking current IBM'ers to do what I didn't find it in myself to do.

    2. Maybe I do know what you say I know about how you feel about me, but it's hard to say, because I don't know who you are! I've done some searching, but I'm not sure who from my past "dasht" actually is. Looking at your own blogs, I've narrowed it down to 2 or 3 candidates, but I'm honestly not sure. You seem very careful about hiding your name. I'd love to know, though! If you don't want to say on blogger, email me at!

  7. Oh.. Hey. Well, as you know from touching base in email "dasht == Tom Lord". Wasn't supposed to be secret. The "dasht" user name is from my customary email signature "-t".

    Ok, so I was clumsily restating one of your main points as if I was pointing something new out to you. Got it.

    On a personal note: my blogs are terrible and long abandoned - I never quite found my voice there, or a point to maintaining one. Sorry I sent you on that identity quest. I might start a new one soon - I'm starting to have some notions of what to do with one - but we'll see.

    The whole "burying of head in sand" and "[bogus] work from inside" thing is just kind of a hot button with me. People have done that about and around me at some critical junctures, causing great harm to myself and my family. I like to promote an ethic of at least trying to step up and always keeping eyes open, especially among engineers. I can't say I get very far promoting this ethic but I suppose its better than the alternative.

  8. Thought provoking post... Thanks and regards to Trina, Maura