“Business complications do strange things to our patriotism and to our ethics,” Eleanor Roosevelt wrote in 1945. It has taken half a century, but historians are responding to her indirect appeal to confront US corporations that supported Nazi Germany.
In the past decade, particularly in Germany, a number of historians such as Ulrich Herbert and Karl Heinz Roth have turned away from cold war academic debates and traditional approaches to pursue research from the bottom up, studying regions and cities where Nazi crimes occurred, recording oral histories and writing about forgotten victims. Such studies have led to the corporate institutions that benefited from human suffering.
Corporate policies and practices during World War II, often extreme but not isolated, point to related activities of multinationals today. The ways used by big business “to pursue profits and interests abroad by the means they see fit, regardless of the costs to foreign peoples, have not been reformed,” writes Nicholas Levis, co-author of Working for the Enemy.
Working for the Enemy and IBM and the Holocaust are two new works flowing from this stream of historiography, and they demonstrate that while US corporate giants such as Ford, General Motors and IBM were among the powers that be, patriotism and ethics held little place in their worldview. So-called corporate neutrality as expressed in 1938 by Alfred Sloan, president of GM, meant that an international business “should conduct its operations in strictly business terms, without regard to the political beliefs…of the country in which it is operating.” Following this approach, James Mooney, GM’s most important executive in Europe before the war, worked closely with the Nazis, and Henry Ford before and during the war oversaw the production of hundreds of thousands of vehicles for the Third Reich.
As Edwin Black confirms in IBM and the Holocaust, the driving force behind IBM’s support of the Nazis was its chairman, Thomas Watson, who had risen from a horse-and-buggy peddler to head IBM and become America’s leading corporate statesman. Watson was one of Hitler’s foremost defenders here. He valued Germany as an important market, the largest after the United States. During the 1930s he traveled frequently to Germany, micromanaging Dehomag, IBM’s subsidiary. When worldwide anti-German protests and boycott actions raised questions about dealing with the Third Reich, Watson’s “corrugated scruples” avoided any moral dilemmas.
Throughout the 1930s IBM’s German profits soared as Watson greatly expanded Dehomag’s operations. In recognition of Watson’s support, Hitler awarded him the Merit Cross of the German Eagle in 1937. (Henry Ford and James Mooney also received medals from Hitler.)
IBM and the Holocaust is an ambitious book. The result of arduous research, it reveals in detail how IBM’s Hollerith punch-card machines facilitated and hastened the Holocaust. (The process, a forerunner of the computer, was invented in the 1880s by Herman Hollerith, an American of German ancestry. A Hollerith card contained standardized holes, each representing a different variable to be measured. The card would then be fed into a “reader” machine, which tabulated the specified series of punched holes.) “From the very first moments and continuing through the twelve year existence of the Third Reich,” writes Black, “IBM placed its technology at the disposal of Hitler’s program of Jewish destruction and territorial domination.”