A warning from the past: IBM, the Holocaust, ICE and Silicon Valley | Data | Techworld

In this interview with Techworld, journalist and author of 'IBM and the Holocaust', Edwin Black, talks about IBM's collaborationist past, the worrying parallels with Silicon Valley today, and the dangers of the new technological frontiers of artificial intelligence and automation.


In the first pages of Edwin Black's book IBM and the Holocaust, he details how IBM's machines were used to count people "as they had never been counted before" - and that, before long, IBM could "compute … record data, process it, retrieve it, analyse it, and automatically answer pointed questions."

It was the first time machines tabulated information at scale, using punch cards to sort through data, and among IBM subsidiary Dehomag's best customers was the Third Reich.

Image: Flickr Creative Commons/IBM/IBM Research lab in Johannesburg, South Africa

"Most aficionados of technology cannot even define what the Information Age is," Black tells Techworld. "I will tell you what the definition of the Information Age is: it's the individualisation of statistics. That means not only can you count the people in the room, they can tell you information about the people in the room.

"And that was begun by IBM largely in response to the requests of the Nazis in 1933."

The IBM-Nazi connection was recently referenced in protest by Amazon workers, who signposted their ethical concerns about their company's collaboration with American law enforcement, including the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency – ICE – which has recently come under intense public scrutiny over the separation of children from their parents at the US-Mexico border, and the locking of children in cages in Walmart stores repurposed into detention centres.

The comparisons are apt, and I was curious to hear Edwin Black's perspective, particularly as an author who has put so much work into uncovering the scale of American corporate collaboration with the Nazis before and during the second world war.

If it can be done, should it be done?

Commenting on the recent protests, Black tells Techworld: "Right now we see an explosion of Silicon Valley tech employees protesting, so this is most unusual – and one has to ask whether this is a result of a sudden realisation of conscience, or merely a political protest.

"Where were these objections in 2016? In 2015? In 2014? When all this technology which is now being utilised was coming to the fore. It was nonexistent. These protests are fraught with difficulty. First, the companies have an allegiance to their stockholders, so they must respond to lucrative and legal contracts.

"Second, if they fail to, they can be sued and brought down by their own shareholders, including a man with just a single share – a minority suit. In addition, the protesters are under constraint. A, they're obligated to give good faith to the company, and therefore they cannot slow or sabotage. They're under NDA, so largely they have to keep quiet about their work.

"The only alternative for those in Silicon Valley is to walk off the job, which means more work for the programmers in Vietnam, China, India, and Thailand. In other words, these companies are now hell-bent on fulfilling the contracts that can be realised.

"When IBM was organising the mass murder of six million Jews and millions of other Europeans the theory was: if it can be done, it should be done.

"We are not quite at the point where people are asking: if it can be done, should it be done?

'+article.headline +''; listEl.prepend(''); articleIndex++; } listEl.show();//show unit }); });

"And that is because there are too many individuals in too many tech positions in too many other parts of the global tech machine that are still soldiering on, compiling their code, and making sure that if it can happen, it shall happen."

Society, it seems, is standing again at a dangerous precipice.

The new explosion in industrial capability, the connecting of everything, artificial intelligence, another turn of the data revolution, and the unprecedented expansion of technologically enabled surveillance worldwide are all now given facts, happening concurrently and without the consent or participation of the global population, except, perhaps, as commodified data subjects.

History is an indispensable North Star, and it would seem that the potential for the horrific utility of these now pervasive tools must not be left to the good will of the agencies that procure them, the corporations that develop them, nor their secretive ethics departments – whose decisions are as good as guesswork to everyone outside of those walled gardens.


When Thomas J Watson was CEO of IBM, his employees – dressed in their matching suit-and-jacket uniforms, a policy only relaxed in 1995 – would sing songs praising his leadership:

"With Mr. Watson leading/ To greater heights we'll rise/ And keep our IBM/ Respected in all eyes."

Or there was 'Hail to the IBM', inspired by a dinner Watson hosted in fascist Austria in 1938.

His business slogan 'THINK' was thoroughly integrated into the day-to-day operations of IBM, and would go on to inspire the company's iconic ThinkPad laptops. Before all that, he was a travelling salesman.

He eventually joined the National Cash Register Company, where he aggressively climbed the ranks and was later found guilty of violating antitrust laws. Watson went on to be appointed general manager of the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company, or CTR, an amalgamation of four smaller unrelated companies which would be renamed International Business Machines.

Herman Hollerith was born to German parents and a young immigrant to New York City, and created the first truly successful tabulating counting machines. His enterprise was called Tabulating Machine Company. After a period of success, and then decline, he licensed his payments to a German adding machine salesman called Willy Heidinger, who was to create the Deutsche Hollerith Maschinen Gessellschaft, the German Hollerith Machine Corporation – Dehomag. In 1911, the American industrialist and pioneer of corporate trusts Charles Flint bought Hollerith's company, the Tabulating Machine Company, the most dominant of the unrelated businesses within CTR, later IBM.

"After the Versailles debt and payment crisis," Black says, "Watson seized Dehomag for unpaid fees, made it a full subsidiary, and left its prior 'manager' with an amorphous 10 percent profit-sharing agreement that never materialized."

IBM’s wholly-owned subsidiary in Nazi Germany was Dehomag with salaried and commissioned managers that reported directly to IBM president Thomas J. Watson, who micromanaged its operations. During the Hitler regime, Dehomag aggressively licensed punch-card machines and performed census and statistical services for the Third Reich throughout Europe.

'+article.headline +''; listEl.prepend('

'); articleIndex++; } listEl.show();//show unit }); });

Black's introduction notes: "Make no mistake. The Holocaust would still have occurred without IBM. To think otherwise is more than wrong. The Holocaust would have proceeded—and often did proceed—with simple bullets, death marches, and massacres based on pen and paper persecution.

"But there is reason to examine the fantastical numbers Hitler achieved in murdering so many millions so swiftly, and identify the crucial role of automation and technology. Accountability is needed."

And it was these Hollerith machines that were offered by Dehomag, with its majority 90 percent IBM stake, overseen by Watson who travelled to Berlin every year from 1933 to 1939, to Nazi Germany, for the counting and dividing up of the population, ultimately enabling the processing and transport of millions of people into death camps.

Watson was an early admirer of both Mussolini and Hitler.

Although he was not an ideological fascist, he was the distillation of cut-throat capitalism – who saw the fascist countries as excellent money-makers for IBM, and he was correct in that calculation. Nazi functionaries and politicians were electrified by the potential of these machines. IBM engineers were sent to Germany for guidance.

And statisticians cheered on eugenics and sought to meld their profession with race 'science', coldly comparing what they considered undesirables to biological diseases in the human body.

A similar credo

One rejected proposal to the Interior Ministry's Reich Family Office for race science suggested building a 25-storey circular tower with each of the floors containing 12 rooms, representing one birth year a piece.

Those circular rooms, Black writes, would contain 31 cabinets, for every day of the month, and those cabinets would contain 7,000 names each – with the purpose of indexing everyone in Germany.

Now the logistics of organising data look very different to that proposal. Databases hosted in a single server room could fit that information in it. Distant warehouses packed with the humming of the latest servers enable the spinning up of new cloud instances at unprecedented scale. The public's first real taste of what mass surveillance looks like came with the Snowden revelations, when it was revealed that the five-eyes countries were scraping data from every connected individual, in a worldwide surveillance dragnet that would be sure to also excite the statisticians of the Reich. The NSA's data centres are in Bluffdale, Utah.

"In the Third Reich's first years, Germany was completely dependent upon IBM New York for its punch cards," writes Black in the book. "Even after the factory in Lichterfelde opened, German manufactured machines were useless without cards imported from the United States."

Educating Dehomag's customers on the correct and efficient operation of its machines, writes Black, was an everyday occurrence. Questionnaires were "jointly designed by Dehomag engineers and Nazi disability or welfare experts for compatibility, since ultimately all information would be punched into Hollerith cards" … "If agencies lacked the manpower to undertake their registrations, or the money to buy the equipment, Dehomag would perform the work for them."

"I was asked recently if anyone objected to what IBM did, and the answer is not a one that I found," Black told Techworld. "There were no walk-offs, there were no protests.

"Watson had a cult-like following and that's important to understand because many of these tech companies fall in the footsteps of the cult-like following.

"I'm not going to name any, because I don't want to ascribe those attributes to them. But I found no protests and no objectors on either side of the ocean to help Watson further his conspiracy with the Nazis."

Watson was not a dyed-in-the-wool ideological fascist. He was, Black says, a "sociopath – a criminal sociopath.

"Remember, he was a convicted extortionist before he ever got the IBM job. If you know the definition of a sociopath you know it's one who can't tell right from wrong – a colour blind person cannot tell red from green, a tone deaf person cannot tell a high note from a low note – in the case of Watson, his objective was making money, it was the single most important thing to do.

"So it was never about the Nazism, it was never about the antisemitism, it was always about the money, and business was, of course, IBM's middle name."

This is especially relevant today, says Black, because there is now an "almost identical credo" gripping the technology world.

"They all want to grow, they all want to engulf others, they are all seeking supremacy at almost any cost. When you look at the disruptive fashion in which tech has reshaped our world – including Uber, which for the longest time functioned as a criminal enterprise, meaning it didn't care what the pre-existing rules and regulations were, it thought it could do anything."Uber were setting technology traps for inspectors and things of that nature. And all of these tech giants have reformed and reshaped their world, regardless of the rules and regulations. Whether it comes to Google digitising millions of books without copyright permission, or whether it is Amazon connecting every book scavenger to compete with Barnes and Noble. Regardless of the impact and the consequences."


Now that artificial intelligence and automation have firmly broken free from the pages of science fiction utopian and dystopian, the questions of how these might impact all of us are finally gaining traction in mainstream discourse.

Even at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland – an event generally agreed on to set the business, political, and academic agenda of the one percenters – the ethics, impact, business risks and rewards that emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and automation could pose are up for discussion

Naturally, the business executives in charge of the closed-shop companies developing their secretive projects have tried to assuage fears that humanity is, for example, being automated out of meaningful existence – despite what some of the planet's brightest minds might have to say on the matter. 

But the crux of their arguments are: trust us.

Here's IBM CEO Ginni Rometty preaching the three guiding principles for developing ethical AI, at the centre of which are that it should be built, transparently, to aid human intelligence, not work against it.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai just published his company's principles on ethical AI. As the CNBC report states, Google will not use AI to enable weapons or surveillance – "with some caveats". 

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella also committed the company to building ethical AI, and indeed dedicated much of his New York Times best-seller Hit Refresh to discussing how there are technocratic solutions to equality problems (in one section he refers to the wonders of mobile connectivity in the same developing nations that are also being plundered for resources).

Google dropped its famous 'don't be evil' ethos from its code of conduct around the same time it had faced significant employee protests about its drone programme with the American Department of Defense. Microsoft has collaborated with America's ICE. Amazon has successfully integrated itself with the CIA in a $600 million cloud deal, while its facial recognition technology, Rekognition, is being provided to American law enforcement.

"The guys who join the ethics panels are usually the worst abusers," says Black. "They just want to make sure they can rule for themselves. That's in the legal profession and many others. Certainly in genomics, genetics, and certainly in technology. It would be completely inappropriate for a corporate ethics panel to claim that a lawful, legal contract with the government should not be pursued. Such a panel would have to be abolished.

"But I'm sure there are plenty of employees who might be dissuaded from protesting on their lunch hour if they thought the ethics department or the ethics panel was taking a look at this. I mean, who are these ethics people?"

IBM soldiers

American firms with equipment in Axis countries were awarded damages from the American government for lost equipment during the second world war. IBM ultimately supported the American war effort whole-hog – Black describes IBM as "more than important to the allies" they were "vital". The US Army sent sergeants to train on IBM machines in California and compute military data on IBM machines in the Philippines. Its engineering laboratories worked on top-secret R&D projects, and IBM were even embedded with the American military.

"The military had IBM units called Machine Record Units, to calculate in the mobile battle theatre for the US Army. In fact, even Patton had an MRU with him." Separately “IBM Soldiers" says Black, "were the IBM employees whose job it was to go into factories that had not been bombed and recover the machines.

"These were not fighting men, these were IBM soldiers whose main job it was to use the great weapon of information technology."

Socialist academic Michael Parenti notes in his 1997 book Blackshirts and Reds that American corporations like DuPont, Ford, General Motors and ITT owned factories in enemy countries that produced fuel, tanks, and planes that wreaked havoc on Allied forces".

In Superpatriotism, Parenti writes: "After the war, rather than being prosecuted for aiding and abetting the enemy, ITT collected $27 million from the US government for damages inflicted on its German planes by Allied bombings... General Motors received over $33 million for damages. Ford and other companies collected considerable sums. Faced with class-action lawsuits in 1999-2000, growing numbers of corporations admitted having used and profited greatly from unpaid slave labor supplied by Nazi concentration camps.

"But no US corporate manage has ever been prosecuted for complicity in these war crimes."

The flexibility of capital means that through financial and organisational maneuvering, countries that your country is at war with or those under sanctions aren't truly off-limits.

Black points to the way corporations are able to disguise their own operations through the creation of subsidiaries or new companies – recalling how IBM supplied Apartheid South Africa, transferring companies to managers who "simply ran it and gave it back".

"That's something IBM did throughout the Nazi era," he continued. "It would register companies in the name of the receptionist or the bank accounts in the name of the receptionists as a nominee." He notes General Motors did the same, creating a false front with the 1920s buyout of Opel, which operated and supplied the Nazis throughout the second world war.

"Opel built the tank engines, the bomber engines, the torpedo heads, the Blitz truck for the Blitzkrieg, seemingly under the control of lower, medium and senior management in Nazi Germany, but actually under the control of Alfred Sloane in New York and Detroit," Black says.

"What technology company A, B, C cannot do without stirring up its own masses or looking bad – it will do through a subsidiary."

Like a many-headed hydra, tackling one symptom does not stop the cause. When I put this to Black, his prognosis for the future is bleak. We are sliding down the mountain, he says, grasping at trees and ledges but sliding down the mountain and at great speed.

"What does this mean for society? We may actually have a colony on the moon or Mars – what are the rules and regulations for that? We may actually place 30 percent of workers out of business because AI and robotics can take their place. And what will we do about it? What are the limits? Once upon a time there were unions to talk about unfair employment practices – what do you do when the unfair employment practice is a robot, or an AI?

"It's urgent. A year ago I would not think it's urgent, today I do. It's got nothing to do with simply the policies of the military industrial complex, we are surrounded in technology in so many ways. One day, I asked my father why he didn't have a flat-panel TV. And he said because I don't want the TV set listening to me. I said: Dad, what the hell are you talking about? The TV's not going to listen to you. Now we find out the TV is listening to us."

"Long ago society took control of certain aspects of civilization," Black says. "The Turks introduced weights and measures, Napoleon introduced standardisation – when the black death destroyed much of Europe in the medieval times, there was a jump from individual health to public health.

"The term quarantine comes from the forty-days quaranta giorni that these vessels in Venice were required to remain in harbour before they could come into the city.

"After the collapse of the stock market, and during the New Deal we took control of investments, banking.

"We have medical review boards, legal review boards, we have grievance committees for judges, we have impeachment proceedings for presidents.

"Where's our check and balance for technology?

"Where is that?"

IBM's response:

IBM has never been silent on this issue.  As with other foreign owned companies that did business in Germany at that time, IBM's German operations came under the control of Nazi authorities prior to and during World War II. Most documents were destroyed or lost during the war.  Whatever archives IBM had from this period were donated to universities in New York and Germany several years ago for scholarly review.  IBM and its employees around the world maintain that the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime are abhorrent and condemn any actions which aided their unspeakable acts.