In June 1937, Thomas J. Watson, founder of International Business Machines Corp., accepted an honor that would come to haunt him, a medal created by Adolf Hitler for foreign citizens "who made themselves deserving of the German Reich." Embedded with swastikas and eagles, the medal was dramatic confirmation of IBM's contribution to the automation of Nazi Germany.
At the time, Germany was second only to the United States as IBM's best customer. Historians have since documented how IBM punch-card technology, the precursor to the computer, did everything from helping to make German trains run on time to facilitating Hitler's rearmament program to tabulating the census data that were an important element in the Nazi leader's murderous racial politics.
A new book takes the case against Watson and IBM a big step further, and argues that custom-built IBM technology helped fuel the Holocaust by permitting Hitler to automate his persecution of the Jews and by generating lists of groups slated for deportation to Nazi death camps. It relates how, after IBM lost control over its German operation in 1941 and Watson returned his medal, its technology was used in Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps to register inmates and track slave labor.
"IBM technology put the blitz into the blitzkrieg and the fantastical numbers into the Holocaust," argued Edwin Black, a former journalist and son of Holocaust survivors who spent three years studying IBM's involvement in Nazi Germany for his book, "IBM and the Holocaust." "The Holocaust would have occurred with or without IBM -- but the Holocaust that we know of, the Holocaust of the fantastic numbers, this is the Holocaust of IBM technology. It enabled the Nazis to achieve scale, velocity, efficiency."
Black's conclusions have stirred debate among Holocaust scholars and experts even before his 500-page book becomes widely available Monday. Some historians have endorsed Black's findings that IBM and its German subsidiary played a critical role in Nazi persecution. Others insist that IBM technology had little to do with the Holocaust, and that the Nazis used predominantly conventional methods to keep track of Jews.
"The notion that the Nazis needed sophisticated technology to be efficient is wrong," said Raul Hilberg, author of "The Destruction of the European Jews" and widely regarded as a leading scholar on the Jewish deportation process. "Efficiency can be produced by people, with what we regard as very primitive means, like pencil and paper. You have to be very careful. The Nazis had machines, they were efficient. That is fine, but this is not a cause-and-effect proposition."
An IBM spokeswoman, Carol Makovich, said it was difficult for IBM to comment on Black's book as the company was not permitted to see it before publication. She said IBM was eager to cooperate with independent researchers and had deposited relevant archives with New York University and Hohenheim University in Stuttgart, Germany. But she said that records regarding the company's activities in Nazi Germany were "incomplete and inconclusive."
"Of course, IBM deplores the Nazi regime and its atrocities," she said.
The publication of "IBM and the Holocaust" has been shrouded in secrecy on the grounds of protecting "journalistic exclusivity." Instead of circulating the book among reviewers, Crown Publishers arranged for excerpts to appear in Newsweek magazine and foreign publications and for Black to appear on talk shows. An advance copy of "IBM and the Holocaust" was made available to The Washington Post under embargo until today. Publishers sometimes use such a strategy to heighten commercial demand for a provocative book while shielding it from unfavorable reviews or rebuttal.
The most controversial allegation in Black's book is that IBM punch-card technology was used to generate lists of Jews and other victims who were then targeted for deportation. While there is no question that IBM New York permitted its technology to be used in Nazi census operations, including the German censuses of 1933 and 1939, there is debate over how useful the census data were in locating individuals.
Punch-card technology, which gained dubious fame in the November U.S. presidential election, can be traced to 1884. Herman Hollerith, a 20-year-old German American engineer, invented a device for storing data on cards through a series of holes, each representing a different piece of information, such as age, education, location and religion. The cards were sorted by machine to produce cross-tabulated data.
In the pre-computer era, Hollerith machines were the most sophisticated information technology available. They were put to thousands of uses, from cracking enemy codes to tracking military equipment to compiling census data. From the mid-1920s, punch cards were the principal vehicle for IBM's worldwide expansion. IBM patented the technology and guarded it from competitors, leasing machines to customers and keeping tight control over the supply of punch cards.
Hollerith technology offered the Nazis a powerful tool of social control, as IBM officials quickly recognized. A few weeks after Hitler came to power in 1933, the head of IBM's German subsidiary, Willy Heidinger, boasted that the machines would help the Fuhrer maintain the "purity" and "health" of the German body politic. "We have the deepest trust in our Physician [Hitler] and will follow his instructions in blind faith," Heidinger pledged.
By the outbreak of World War II in 1939, IBM was supplying Nazi Germany with more than a billion punch cards a year, according to Black's research. The German government "needs our machines," a senior IBM official reported in March 1941, nine months before the United States declared war on Hitler. "The army is using them presently for every conceivable purpose."
The once-warm relations between IBM and Nazi Germany deteriorated sharply after June 1940, when Watson returned his Eagle with Star medal to Hitler with the explanation that he could no longer support "the policies of your government." Over the next year, records show, Watson lost control of IBM's German subsidiary to Heidinger, a Nazi party member who had long feuded with IBM New York over profits and operations.
IBM spokeswoman Makovich said it was unclear precisely when IBM New York lost control over its German subsidiary, Dehomag. She said the Nazis became increasingly involved in Dehomag's operations starting in 1933, even though IBM still had an 84 percent stake in the company when the United States declared war on Germany in December 1941. She added that Watson was awarded the Nazi medal as president of the International Chamber of Congress for "promoting world peace through world trade" rather than as head of IBM.
After 1941, Dehomag became brazen about the licensing of Hollerith technology for the persecution of Nazi victims. Records show that the Hollerith machines were used in at least a dozen concentration camps, including Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Dachau. Prisoners were assigned individual Hollerith numbers and given a designation based on 16 categories, such as 3 for homosexual, 8 for Jew and 13 for prisoner of war.
While there is no evidence that IBM New York knew Hollerith machines were being used in places such as Auschwitz, Black maintains that the company profited from Dehomag's activities and was fully reimbursed after the war.
"IBM was paid for the cards," Black said. "They did not say that these cards were issued without their permission. The last Reichmark paid to IBM was a check handed to a U.S. military officer."
William Seltzer, an expert in demographic statistics at Fordham University in New York City and a former consultant to the U.N. war crimes tribunal, said: "To me there is no doubt that [IBM] technology was used for evil ends. To me that is not the issue. The issue is whether Watson knew; I am not saying that Watson was a Nazi. He was out for his company and out for his technology, and pretty blind to the way it was being used."
Historians differ on whether the information collected through punch-card technology gave the Nazis an ability they otherwise would not have had to persecute Jews and other minorities. Black argues that the census data permitted the Nazis to establish detailed deportation quotas for individual localities and divide the Jewish population into full Jews, half Jews, quarter Jews, and so on. These classifications frequently determined the fate of individuals.
But Hilberg pointed out that the Nazis had numerous sources of information about the Jewish population, including police registrations and records collected from Jewish communities by the Gestapo.
The strongest case for the use of Hollerith technology in detaining Jews is probably Holland following the 1940 Nazi takeover. Black unearthed records showing that Dutch population experts acting under Nazi instructions used the punch-card system to tabulate lists of Jews who were later slated for deportation. Black pointed out that the death rate among Dutch Jews during the Nazi period was 73 percent, compared to around 25 percent in France, where the punch-card system was less common.
Other experts caution that it is too simplistic to attribute the differing death rates to the use of punch-card technology.
"There were other factors involved," said Bob Moore, a Holocaust historian at the University of Sheffield in England. "There was no general population registration in France, as there was in the Netherlands. Furthermore, the Dutch are traditionally much more respectful of authority than the French. If someone sends you a form in Holland, you fill it in properly. In France, it is the opposite."
Some historians are troubled by the lack of scholarly review of Black's work, and note that a 1984 book he wrote on relations between Nazi Germany and Zionist officials in Palestine, "The Transfer Agreement," generated similar controversy. While Black's manuscript was circulated to some experts, including Moore and Seltzer, it has not been reviewed by other leading Holocaust historians.