Hitler’s Willing Executives

Hitler’s Willing Executives

John Friedman reviews Edwin Black’s IBM and the Holocaust and Reinhold Billstein et al.’s Working for the Enemy.


“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.”

As early as the German census of 1933, in “an unparalleled accomplishment for IBM,” the Holleriths provided “profession-by-profession, city-by-city, and indeed a block-by-block revelation of the Jewish presence.” Besides counting people, IBM’s Hollerith machines performed a number of functions, including scheduling trains, tabulating aircraft engines and counting bank transfers.

But it was in the deportations to concentration camps that IBM technology was put to its most terrible use. At the Wannsee conference, where the Final Solution was implemented, two Hollerith experts were present. A Hollerith department operated at nearly every concentration camp, and Holleriths tracked forced laborers at Flossenburg and other slave-labor camps. “Without IBM’s machinery, continuing upkeep and service, as well as the supply of punch cards, Hitler’s camps could have never managed the numbers they did,” Black concludes. To illustrate the importance of the Holleriths in aiding the Holocaust he offers two case studies: Holland and France.

In 1941 the Nazis conducted a census in Holland assisted by Hollerith machines and 132 million punch cards sent by IBM in the US that same year. After the census was compiled, punched and sorted, the authorities demanded that all Jews wear the Jewish star. “But it was not the outward visage of six gold points worn on the chest,” Black points out, “it was the 80 columns punched and sorted in a Hollerith facility that marked the Jews of Holland for deportation to concentration camps.”

In contrast, France lacked a tradition of census-taking that identified religion and “simply did not possess the punch card orientation of many other European countries, such as Holland and Germany.” (Blocking the counting further was a mysterious government employee and director of the French tabulating system named René Carmille, who eventually was found out as a member of the resistance, arrested by Klaus Barbie and sent to Dachau, where he perished.)

The final numbers, Black writes, point up the differences between the efficiency of the Hollerith census in Holland and its inefficiency in France. In Holland approximately 73 percent of the Dutch Jews were deported and died; in France approximately 25 percent of the French Jews met similar treatment. (Not discussed by Black are the many other factors in each country that determined the fate of the victims.)

Whether overseen by Nazi executives or Watson’s own, IBM Europe thrived throughout the war. Even after the United States entered the war, according to Black, “IBM as a company would know the innermost details of Hitler’s Hollerith operations, designing the programs, printing the cards, and servicing the machines.” IBM subsidiaries traded directly with Germany and Italy. “It was business as usual throughout the war.” But Watson and his New York directors erected a wall of credible deniability.

IBM obfuscated its contacts and trade with the Nazis by creating smokescreens that included intermediaries, false dates and missing documents. Watson, who overnight became a leading advocate of the Allied war effort, was so well connected to the US government, particularly the State Department, that when IBM was investigated by the FBI for its Nazi connections and by a Justice Department official for possible monopolistic practices and trading with the enemy, the investigations were soon called off. IBM was untouchable. “The firm had now become a strategic partner in the war against the Third Reich–even as it continuously supplied the enemy, as before, through its overseas subsidiaries,” Black writes. By 1943, “both sides could not afford to proceed without the company’s all-important technology. Hitler needed IBM. So did the Allies.” When the war ended, IBM reaped the embargoed profits from its German- and Axis-controlled operations.

Fast-paced, IBM and the Holocaust is occasionally hyperbolic in its language and conclusions and at times unsubstantiated. For example, Black writes: “During IBM’s continuing wartime commerce, the world was always aware that the machinery of Nazi occupation was being wielded to exterminate as many Jews as possible as quickly as possible.” But source material is usually elusive–either nonexistent or closed–as was apparent in my recent efforts to research the Nazi connections of Kodak and (with German historian Hersch Fischler) of Bertelsmann, ironically the publisher of IBM and the Holocaust. Surprisingly, some reviews of the book have been hostile. For example, Gabriel Schoenfeld, senior editor of Commentary, writing in the New York Times Book Review, charged Black with forcing “his evidence into a box” and criticized him for avoiding “the subtle hues of genuine scholarship.” He also launched an ad hominem attack on Black for writing “techno-thrillers, and articles for a variety of popular magazines like Mademoiselle and Redbook.” One reason for such reactions may be that Black’s previous book, The Transfer Agreement, was about a 1933 pact between Zionist leaders and the Nazis, which allowed Jews to go to Palestine in exchange for lifting a boycott of German products. Still a controversial subject, some critics may blame Black for even writing about it. It’s unfortunate that Black is attacked in such a way, as IBM and the Holocaust is an important contribution to Holocaust studies.

Working for the Enemy is less popularized in its approach. A US writer living in Germany, Nicholas Levis invited three German historians to examine for English-speaking readers the history of Ford and GM in Germany. Comprehensive, it provides, among other things, a plethora of information and moving first-person testimonies from former forced laborers. The book works from several angles. The first two chapters present the wartime histories of the German Opel division of General Motors and the German Werke subsidiary of Ford; the next chapter focuses on a resistance worker at Opel and the final sections include oral histories, an in-depth study of Ford’s use of forced labor, and an overview of current reparation claims.

Estimates of the total number of civilians and POWs subject to forced labor under the Nazis in World War II vary from 10 million to 12 million. The vast majority of the German Reich’s slaves were rounded up in the Soviet Union and Poland. Returning home after the war as “displaced persons,” many were treated as collaborators or fell silent about their wartime experiences. With the end of the cold war and with lawsuits filed by former forced laborers against German companies as well as against Ford and GM, the subject finally gained public attention.

As early as 1940, Ford Werke was using French POWs as forced laborers. Karola Fings, a leading German historian of forced labor, writes in her chapter that by June 1943, about half of Ford’s 5,000 employees were forced laborers, and at the main Ford factory in Cologne, the racist order of the Nazis was applied. As one former forced laborer recalled, “The French weren’t treated so badly, but Poles and Russians and Yugoslavs, those were the so-called subhumans.”

Conditions in one camp were described by a woman inmate: “In the middle of the barrack there was iron oven. At night it was locked up and some iron bucket would be set [on the floor]. That was our toilet. Around the camp there was a barbed wire fence, guard posts everywhere.” Other inmates described beatings and pervasive hunger.

Ford was an important partner of the Wehrmacht up to and during the war. For example, fully a third of the 350,000 Wehrmacht trucks in 1942, some 120,000, were built by Ford. “It can be stated,” Fings writes, “that Ford Werke’s course in the 1940s was followed with the full knowledge and support of the Ford Motor Company in Dearborn.” When the war ended, many of the same executives who had been in charge of Ford Werke after a brief hiatus returned to their old jobs.

General Motors’ Opel division was in many ways a mirror image of Ford’s Werke subsidiary: Headquarters was in touch during the war with its subsidiary; the company was an integral part of the German war machine (manufacturing, among other things, trucks, tanks and aircraft); it made high profits and it used large numbers of slave laborers. (POW forced labor began in 1940, and American executives of GM witnessed it.) During the war, the SS guarded the forced laborers, a number of whom were women.

The crimes of GM, Ford and IBM were uncovered only through investigations by the authors and other researchers, whose persistence was matched by the persistence of the corporations in cover-up and denial. For example, when Bradford Snell, a young Senate staff attorney, told a Senate subcommittee in 1974 that without the support of Ford and General Motors the Nazis would never have been able to pursue the war as long and as successfully as they did, and that “communications as well as matériel continually flowed between GM plants in Allied countries and GM plants in Axis-controlled areas,” GM’s lawyers succeeded in discrediting his claims then as “totally false.” When Ford Werke was approached by scholars to release documents, it claimed it had no documents of relevance. When a number of companies announced their willingness to participate in the German forced-labor reparation funds, Ford Werke held out, relenting only after its name appeared on a list released by an American Jewish organization. IBM finally gave Edwin Black what he terms “proper access,” but only after a number of refusals. “Since WWII, the company has steadfastly refused to cooperate with outside authors,” Black writes.

Although primarily about the 1930s and 1940s, IBM and the Holocaust and Working for the Enemy underscore the myriad human rights implications of today’s corporate policies in a global economy.

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