“IBM and the Holocaust” - by Edwin Black - an activist book review
Someone please put this book online - why? Because this is history for the information age. In a sustained assault on the world's first information transnational Edwin Black has shifted the spotlight of corporate activism away from sweatshops and ecological destruction on to the greatest crime of the 20th century- systematic genocide - and he has done so with all the savvy of the wired generation, understanding the loaded politics of information technology.
As every revisionist knows the pursuit of history invariably begins with questions that really concern the present. Black, who gawped at an IBM sorting machine in the Washington holocaust museum sought to find the connection between the shiny modern computing brand of today and yesterday’s horrors in Auschwitz, Dachau, Belsen. By assembling the data he answers the question that had bothered so many historians: 'How' was the holocaust so efficient? Answer: just like today’s corporate criminals Hitler had IBM computers and IBM software tailor-made to carry out the task.
On one level this is the story of a profit hungry corporation "dazzled by its own swirling universe of technical possibilities.. self-gripped by a special amoral corporate mantra: if it can be done, it should be done" . For IBM 1939 read Monsanto Y2K and you'll get the picture. But significantly, unlike the companies that built the bombs and designed the gas chambers, IBM escaped detection because its product, information, was simply invisible to the old economy and hence to previous historians.
In an era long before NASDAQ even Hitler understood that an arsenal of data properly applied was the essential counterpart to bullets and brown shirts. Smelling profit, IBM ("the solutions company") schemed and lobbied to become the preferred operating sytem of Hitler's final solution. IBM provided the software, knowledge and analysis that ultimately kept the ovens fed. As IBM's technicians ensured that every Jew, homosexual and gypsy was categorised and tracked to be rounded up, they also designed the systems that kept the railways smoothly transporting millions to their death and even provided software to ensure every punishment and torture in the concentration camps was recorded and organised up until the moment of death. Consequently Hitler gave IBM special protection, even awarding its chairman, Thomas Watson, the Reich's highest medal. This was no conspiracy- the partnership was blatant.
Black shows how in wartime Europe IBM New York pulled the strings employing the same shrewd transnational strategies that have become so familiar to modern corporate watchers - IBM maintained deniability of wrongdoing, covering their tracks. They supplied both sides of the conflict and they ruthlessly deployed capital, lawyers and staff to maintain markets and recover profits whatever the political climate.
A department of justice employee investigating IBM in 1943 had this to report on IBM opportunism: "This world war is a conflict of warlike nationalistic states, each having certain interests. Yet we frequently find those interests clashing diametrically with the opposing interests of international corporate structures, more huge and powerful than nations. These corporate entities are manned not by staffs or citizens of any nation but by citizens of the world looking solely to the corporate interest and pledging loyalty thereto."
As Edwin Black bitterly notes IBM ultimately escaped punishment because like transnational corporations everywhere it could play both sides: "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 and so did the allies"
As a corporate j'accuse this account is interesting enough but what makes "IBM and the holocaust" fascinating is that Edwin Black has also chronicled the crossing of a threshold in the history of information "mankind barely noticed" he writes " when the concept of massively organised information quietly emerged to become a means of social control". We live in age where information procesing once again teeters on the edge of social control. For the census projects and racial databasing carried out on IBM's Hollerith machines read todays genome mapping and DNA databanks so eagerly sought by police forces, pharmaceutical and insurance companies keen to eradicate, exclude and control. Cast against the present, Hitler's ability to abuse "massively organised information" becomes shockingly relavent. Just as today’s genomic projects come packaged in missionary tones so too were the early Nazi censuses driven not by eugenic hate but over eager statisticians. Take for example Jacob Lentz, the man charged with conducting the Dutch census for the Nazis:
"Lentz was a population expert, cocooned in his own stacked and tabulated world of ratios, registration programs and rattling hollerith machines. Perfection in human cataloguing was for Lentz more than a matter of pride it was a crusade.. "Theoretically" predicted Lentz" the collection of data for each person can be so abundant and complete, that we can finally speak of a paper human representing the natural human"" But that paper human transformed into codes was to be punched, counted and ultimately discarded. The view from the concentration camp was that it was the reduction of people to such sortable punch cards that made genocide both possible and conscienceable:
"hundreds of thousands of human beings were being identified, sorted, assigned and transported by means of the hollerith system. Numbers and punch cards had dehumanized them all he thought. Numbers and punch cards would probably kill them all"
Elsewhere in the world Norbert Weiner was organizing the ideas of cybernetics to describe this same mission of representing all life as computable information. Indeed it is cybernetic notions rather than malice or race hatred that has carried the torch between the eugenic efforts of Nazi Germany and the emerging new eugenics of genetic engineering. Today genomics companies seek to represent species and even human traits as lines of codes to be selected, identified, re-engineered or bred out. Ironically just as the holocaust was arranged courtesy of IBM punch card machines so today’s genome databases which reduce life to bits, bytes and base pairs are probably hosted on IBM servers or one of their many clones.
And for the activists of today's infowars against 'massively organised information' there's even a counter narrative to be told. The most astonishing hero to emerge from this history is a military technocrat by the name of Rene Carmille. A punchcard enthusiast and an originator of the Personal Identification Number (PINcode) he undertook the effort of conducting the French census by IBM punchcard on behalf of Nazi Germany. Oddly his data was never used and Black shows how efforts to round up Jews in France relying on a traditional paper population census yielded poor results. Compared to neighbouring Holland where the punchcard data harvested a bumper crop of Jews , only a fraction of the French Jewry were ever deported to the camps.
With the liberation of France it became clear that Carmille had in fact used the census results to organise and mobilise the French resistance, having gathered details of every worker, gunsmith, farmer and mechanic. Indeed he had never even collected the relevant ethnicity data - in record after record that part of the punchcard was left unpunched. Although Rene Carmille was arrested, sent to the concentration camps and died for his treason, he probably saved hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives by withholding and redeploying data in the service of the resistance. In telling his story Edwin Black has uncovered an Oskar Schindler for the hacker generation to claim as their own. If for his inspiration alone read this book, then open your eyes and start plotting.
Jim Thomas 26th march 2001