Was IBM, "The Solutions Company," partly responsible for the Final Solution? That's the question raised by Edwin Black's IBM and the Holocaust, the most controversial book on the subject since Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners. Black, a son of Holocaust survivors, is less tendentiously simplistic than Goldhagen, but his thesis is no less provocative: he argues that IBM founder Thomas Watson deserved the Merit Cross (Germany's second-highest honor) awarded him by Hitler, his second-biggest customer on earth. "IBM, primarily through its German subsidiary, made Hitler's program of Jewish destruction a technologic mission the company pursued with chilling success," writes Black. "IBM had almost single-handedly brought modern warfare into the information age [and] virtually put the 'blitz' in the krieg."
The crucial technology was a precursor to the computer, the IBM Hollerith punch card machine, which Black glimpsed on exhibit at the U.S. Holocaust Museum, inspiring his five-year, top-secret book project. The Hollerith was used to tabulate and alphabetize census data. Black says the Hollerith and its punch card data ("hole 3 signified homosexual ... hole 8 designated a Jew") was indispensable in rounding up prisoners, keeping the trains fully packed and on time, tallying the deaths, and organizing the entire war effort. Hitler's regime was fantastically, suicidally chaotic; could IBM have been the cause of its sole competence: mass-murdering civilians? Better scholars than I must sift through and appraise Black's mountainous evidence, but clearly the assessment is overdue.
The moral argument turns on one question: How much did IBM New York know about IBM Germany's work, and when? Black documents a scary game of brinksmanship orchestrated by IBM chief Watson, who walked a fine line between enraging U.S. officials and infuriating Hitler. He shamefully delayed returning the Nazi medal until forced to--and when he did return it, the Nazis almost kicked IBM and its crucial machines out of Germany. (Hitler was prone to self-defeating decisions, as demonstrated in How Hitler Could Have Won World War II.)
Black has created a must-read work of history. But it's also a fascinating business book examining the colliding influences of personality, morality, and cold strategic calculation. --Tim Appelo