And you thought Microsoft was evil.
February 11, 2001 3:34 AM   Subscribe

And you thought Microsoft was evil. There appears to be pretty significant evidence that IBM was involved in automating the persecution of Jews by the Nazis. Read more about it here, here and here.

And since we haven't even settled the question of when a nation has atoned for its sins, what exactly is the statute of limitations for a company's sins?
posted by anildash (19 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
What disturbs me is not just the stuff about IBM but that they said Germany's anti-Semitism, Germany wanted to do this, blah blah, as if it were the general (unanimous) will. I guess Americans still think Germany = Nazis, no more, no less.
posted by dagnyscott at 5:50 AM on February 11, 2001

Hey, ya try and take over the world twice in a century, ya just might have to take a few linguistic knocks. Fact is, at the time, these atrocities were the actions of Germany, and the Nazis were enabled by the populace of Germany. Let's not forget that the National Socialists were democratically elected.

If the United States decides to invade a country, that country was invaded by the United States. Not by the Republican party of the United States. In other words, once you allow a leader to achieve power, you're stuck with the fallout from his actions, whether you agree with them or not. I don't mean that all Germans are responsible for Hitler's actions. I am simply making a linguistic point, that a nation is known by the actions of its leaders.
posted by Optamystic at 6:10 AM on February 11, 2001

> What disturbs me ...

Like Optamystic says. It's certainly fair to say "Germany" when, as in the article (which, by the way, is quoting the book), they mean Germany's government:

'"IBM did not invent Germany's anti-Semitism, but when Germany wanted to identify Jews by name, IBM showed it how. "'


No doubt you're right, not all Germans were bad during WWII, but you could just as easily say that not all Americans (Britons, etc.) were good. If you're going to split hairs, split them all. It is probably true that most Americans backed the US effort and most Germans backed the German (Nazi) effort.

posted by pracowity at 6:27 AM on February 11, 2001

Peripheral to the piece, but perhaps noteworthy: the IBM branch in Germany was, ironically, an early example of globalization while at the same time the Axis (Germany, Italy, Japan) were seeking world domination.
Now we all share economic globalization, so it makes it economically unfeasible to try for military domination of the world, which only our own country has at the moment.
posted by Postroad at 6:59 AM on February 11, 2001

"Even as late as 1945, Black says, IBM execs in the US were in constant touch with their Nazi partners, smoothing over the odds and ends of a business alliance which had by that time been illegal for years."

What I would like to know is how IBM got away with treason during wartime. I can't believe that the US did not know about this going on so why didn't Hoover go after Big Blue?

posted by Brilliantcrank at 8:34 AM on February 11, 2001

60 years after the fact there are nothing but victims. If he wants to investigate corporate guilt throughout history there is an unending supply of material to draw from. Why is this so suprising. Who killed off millions of Indians in the quest for beaver fur, cattle land and wheat fields. Its a global economy its likely many other trans-global companies were involved as well.
posted by stbalbach at 9:16 AM on February 11, 2001

Trans-global companies like GM and Ford, say?
posted by snarkout at 9:23 AM on February 11, 2001

Are we the United States of Self Interest or what?
posted by Brilliantcrank at 11:39 AM on February 11, 2001

Re: "I guess Americans still think Germany = Nazis, no more, no less."

An odd thing to say, since the paper that published the article is British.
posted by Trampas at 11:44 AM on February 11, 2001

What I would like to know is how IBM got away with treason during wartime.

From my limited readings, it seems like a lot of US companies were selling to the Axis and the Allies all along, and didn't necessarily stop after Pearl Harbor. I seem to recall that GE had a munitions plant that was destroyed in the bombing of Dresden, and after the war, sued the US government for the loss of the plant-- and won. (I think I heard about this from a Jello Biafra speech. But I can't track down any more references to it offhand.)

And it's pretty well established that Henry Ford was a great admirer of Hitler, and sent him $50,000 every year for his birthday. Ford was awarded the Supreme Order of the German Eagle, the Nazi government's highest honor for a non-German.
posted by wiremommy at 11:48 AM on February 11, 2001

Shell was one of the major offenders, and one of the first true multinationals. Pynchon said it best, albeit in an extreme form, when he called WWII "a celebration of markets."
posted by rodii at 11:56 AM on February 11, 2001

Henry Ford went so far as to write a book about his hatred.
posted by mathowie at 12:28 PM on February 11, 2001

The article seems to imply that the author was the first to notice this connection. Here's an earlier article on the same topic, written by an American connected with the museum where he saw the Hollerith counter: Counted for Persecution.

In the considered defense of companies like IBM and GM, few Americans had any idea there was a Holocaust until very late in the war. The Death Camps came as a surprise. Recall that "concentration camp", in those days, was the current term for what we would now call "refugee camp". (While we may have an impression that such camps are largely random spontaneous affairs, often the people in them are not legal residents of the territory and they are given a small area for a camp, carefully monitored, guarded, fenced, etc. by their hosts.) Americans knew there were concentration camps, they knew of persecution of the Jews, but cared about it approximately as much as they care about persecution of, say, Palestinians today, and probably reacted about the same: "If it's so bad, why don't they just leave?" Any atrocities were ascribed not to an efficient government operation but to hooligans and criminals acting on their own.

Before 1945, thus, a company like IBM or GM was in the political position of being a company unfortunately deprived of its assets by the vicissitudes of war. (There are still American companies seeking compensation for their property in Cuba -- property that they controlled until the US trade embargo, after which the Cuban government seized it.) There was an assumption that the war would be over soon, in one way or another, and commerce would once again flow freely.

That said, accounts such as this one make clear that there was a culture of see-no-evil that not only gave the multinational corporations deniability but allowed their owners and management to sleep at night. Surely a census is necessary, especially amid the confusion of war? Surely a census isn't "war materiel", surely it has peaceful uses, surely indeed a census is merely a neutral instrument of data. Do we believe that today we should monitor carefully what uses our technology is put to, or do we merely blame the humans who misuse it? Is the money that comes from such activities always and forever tainted?

Last fall a database programmer wrote a book where he decided to put up a quiet protest to the common uses of the technology he was teaching. I don't like your examples! provides an instructive viewpoint, as does this contentious Kuro5hin thread.
posted by dhartung at 1:00 PM on February 11, 2001

Hey, ya try and take over the world twice in a century, ya just might have to take a few linguistic knocks.

That's nothing but propaganda. Germany did not start World War One. Germany is not to blame for World War One. World War One started as a dispute between Serbia and Austria-Hungary. Serbia started WW1. But, since the war went on after they were defeated, we blamed Germany for it, who were more involved later in the war. I suppose you believe the stories about their torture to "poor little Belgium", too? Never happened, though many of the accounts are strikingly similar to atrocities committed by Belgium in their African colonialism. If anyone committed atrocities in the First World War, it was Britain, who starved German civilians by their blockade.

World War Two, they started: but it's really only a continuation of the first war.

Fact is, at the time, these atrocities were the actions of Germany, and the Nazis were enabled by the populace of Germany. Let's not forget that the National Socialists were democratically elected.

Well, sort of. To say the majority of people when Hitler took power were Nazis is as absurd as saying the Green Party runs Germany now. They were part of a coalition (like the Greens and SDP are in a coalition now). I don't think the Nazis were even the largest part of the coalition, but they saw Hitler as a charismatic leader.

German Government != Germany any more than all of you agree with George W. Bush. (and I know how much all of you agree with George W. Bush). You are not responsible for the actions of your race. Or your government, for that matter.
posted by dagnyscott at 4:17 PM on February 11, 2001

If one can't use "Germany" as a shorthand for "the German government," what other words are available? Certainly the entirety of the German populace wasn't supporting the Nazis, but the Nazis ran the country.

Hitler was named Chancellor of Germany by von Hindenburg as part of a coalition government; Hitler instituted further controls on Germany after the Reichstag was burned (which was fanned by the SA [the Brownshirts] and which Hitler blamed on Communists; the Germany Communist party was, not coincidentally, the major political force most opposed to the Nazis), tightened his control of the Nazi Party through the Night of Long Knives (in which he wiped out the SA's leadership), and declared himself F├╝hrer after von Hindenburg died. To say that Hitler was democratically elected is both true and not fully accurate -- he effectively used his elected position to set up a coup.

Don't underestimate Allied reluctance to acknowledge the enormity of the Holocaust -- if Eisenhower hadn't ordered military cameramen to go into the camps (for which he earns a special place in my heart), I'm sure it would still be an acceptable mainstream opinion that the camps were similar to other "concentration camps" of the time; as Dan notes, the idea of "concentrating" a population didn't appear in a vacuum -- the British invented the concept (and the term) during the Boer war, America had the internment camps for Japanese and Japanese-Americans, and so forth. But they were death camps, and Eisenhower made sure there was evidence.

Given this reluctance-to-believe, I'm willing to accept that IBM didn't know the purpose to which their equipment was being put, although the accusation that Watson maintained control over the German subsidiary post-1940 is rather shocking.
posted by snarkout at 5:51 PM on February 11, 2001

Dagny I agree with you that the meme that Germany "tried to take over the world" in WWI is untrue. That was the propaganda of the winners at Versailles. But the picture you paint, that Germany is somehow an innocent victim, is also untrue--Mencken tried to make that case too, but it just wouldn't sell, and for good reason.

The actual incident that started the shooting war may have happened in Serbia (well, Bosnia), but Germany and Britain were all but at war for quite a while before that. Germany had butted heads with every power in Europe except Austria in the previous decade, and the elite of its military felt that war was inevitable if it was to become a great power. The system of alliances had gotten Europe winched so tight that major diplomatic efforts had been required to stave off great power wars several times (Sudan, the Straits, Morocco (twice), Bosnia and the two Balkan Wars). Several of those cases were in fact caused by German bluster and aggressiveness.

That aggressiveness was in fact the main reason the Sarajevo shooting kicked off the whole string of dominoes--in fact Sarajevo wasn't even the last straw. Austria in fact waited for a month to retaliate until it got Germany's assurance of support. When Austria issued an ultimatum to Serbia, Serbia consented almost 100%--but, Austria, urged by Germany to reject any settlement, decided to go to war. When Russia mobilized against Austria as part of its alliance with Serbia, it was careful to assure Germany that it had no aggressive aims against Germany--but Germany demanded total Russian demobilization or war. At *any* of these points, Germany could have eased tensions but in fact raised them. To say that there was just a "dispute" between Serbia and Austria that somehow inexplicably widened into a global war, and poor Germany ended up with the blame for it, is just piffle.

Note that I'm not saying that "Germany started it"--all the great powers played their parts--but its military aggressiveness (e.g., the Schlieffen plan, the naval buildup) and the way its fucked-up Kaiser undermined its diplomatic corps (the Morocco crises, the "blank check" to Austria) in a powder-keg situation meant that Germany was a major contributor. Germany's chess game against Russia in the Balkans was a major provocation. And, regardless of the fact that the invasion of Belgium was a handy pretext for Britain to decalre war, nevertheless Germany *did* invade Belgium.

> World War Two, they started: but it's really only a continuation of the first war.

That's what the Nazis wanted us to believe, anyway.
posted by rodii at 6:55 PM on February 11, 2001

this link updates the IBM story. It indicates that (1) a law suit has just been filed against IBM, (2) that IBM has already been paying into a pool for compensation because of its alleged involvement in the Nazi regime's enormities--a sense and feeling that they admit they were in the wrong.
posted by Postroad at 7:47 AM on February 12, 2001

I call this yet another reason for me to quit. I work for IBM, and I've already been thinking about quitting for awhile. Being associated with an entity that so clearly helped the Nazis in this way is something I don't want to do.

I'm curious to see what the official corporate resopnse will be - probably denial of responsibility. Bleagh.
posted by beth at 2:02 PM on February 12, 2001

I'm guessing we're not going to see any trendy blue letterboxed commercials featuring that DS9 guy bragging about using IBM technology to kill millions...
posted by ritualdevice at 5:58 PM on February 12, 2001

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