Hitler And IBM


As the Nazis wrested Dehomag from IBM’s control, it became more and more a pawn of the Reich. It played a central role in a 1939 national census that identified “racial Jews” and gathered information on the bloodlines of everyone living within the expanded Reich. Black states that by 1940 “deniability was constructed with enough care to last for decades.” It indeed appears that no one at IBM in the United States really knew what was going on at Dehomag, and there is no smoking gun anywhere for Watson’s or any American’s witting involvement in Nazi crimes.


After Kristallnacht , in November 1938, when Hitler’s shock troops incited riots against Jews and the destruction of synagogues all across Germany, Watson sent a letter of protest to Hitler that can only be considered pathetic in its attempt to be diplomatic: “I find a change in public sentiment and a loss of good will to your country, and unless something can be done to bring about a more friendly understanding on the part of our people, I feel it is going to be difficult to accomplish mutually satisfactory results iti connection with our trade relations. ... I respectfully appeal to you to give consideration to applying the Golden Rule in dealing with these minorities.” The letter was misaddressed and never reached the Führer. It was returned unopened by the post office.

Finally, in June 1940, after Germany seized the Netherlands and began its invasion of France, Watson sent back his medal, with a letter stating that “the present policies of your government are contrary to the causes for which I have been working and for which I received the decoration.” This so enraged the officials at Dehomag that the general manager, writing to inform Heidinger of “this stupid step,” explained Watson’s “personal hatefulness and stupidity” by conjecturing that he had been “surrounding himself with a group of Jews who fled from Europe.... The influence of these Jews, in addition to the anti-German Jewish and other lies in newspapers, are beginning to affect his mind....” Dehomag’s founders, as well as the Nazis, now tried to remove all vestige of IBM control, exposing the financial tangles that had made German ownership of the company something of a front. And in August, a putsch put Nazis, including a staff adviser to Rudolf Hess, in charge of Dehomag.

Germany had not actually seized the business, and neither did Watson renounce it. He would not yield ownership, far though the company now was from his grip, and he refused to allow it to be bought out, nor did IBM officials stop reviewing Dehomag financial reports that passed through the Geneva office. But IBM’s assets in Germany were already blocked until the war’s end. And then when Pearl Harbor put the United States and Germany at war with each other, Dehomag, like all American businesses in Germany, was seized to be run by Reich trustees, under long-standing German alien-custody laws that protected enemy property during wartime.

Black details the murderous use to which Dehomag’s punch-card machines were put during the war. They were em- ployed in many of the concentration camps, and they helped automate the mass production of death (though they were in such short supply that the Race and Settlement Office of the SS didn’t have one until 1943). He also describes IBM’s and Watson’s own extensive and energetic service to the Allied cause, which included sharing every bit of information they had about Germany’s use of punch cards; building a factory within 60 days of Pearl Harbor to turn out cannon, automatic rifles, gas masks, bombsights, and more; turning the company’s main training facility into a military academy for the use of punch-card machines; and supplying the machinery that, in England, broke the Axis’s Enigma code.

After the war, IBM got Dehomag back and renamed it IBM Deutschland, but the parent company does not seem to have gotten much in the way of war profits with it. As early as May 1941, Dehomag was cutting prices to support the German war effort and, in the ruins of the Reich in the summer of 1945, the firm was reduced to making toys from scrap metal so back salaries could be paid. That summer, the company’s machines were used to carry out the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, the government’s full evaluation of the air campaigns that had done so much to bring the war to an end.

Watson and IBM certainly did not behave in exemplary fashion in the years leading to war, but the evidence suggests that they did no worse than countless other multinational corporations. And once America was in the war, they gave enormously to the Allied cause. What was the role, ultimately, of IBM’s punchcard technology itself? It served both sides, of course, and served them powerfully—which illustrates a truth about technology that was eloquently summed up by the historian Melvin Kranzberg: “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.” The fruits of human inventiveness—whether punch-card machines, miracle drugs, atom bombs, or plowshares—contain no morality whatever in themselves, but how they are used is absolutely always a moral matter. It is a tragedy that Watson didn’t find a way to prevent the immoral use of his company’s machines, even if he was far from the active collaborator Black tries to suggest he was.