IBM and the Holocaust, Part 2

An ad for Dehomag in the 1930s. Black background. A white eye in the upper left corner looks down upon a punchcard with a factory or city silhouette superimposed on it. It reads "ubersicht"
TC Talk
IBM and the Holocaust, Part 2

This is part 2 of 2 about the book IBM and the Holocaust by Edwin Black. In Part 1, we described how IBM, through its German subsidiary Dehomag, supported the mass extermination of the Jewish people. How do we know IBM’s involvement made a difference in the scope of the mass murders? One clue comes from comparing how things went down in the Netherlands vs. France. We also talk about surveillance, ethical hacking, why the logical fallacy “argumentum / reductio ad Hitlerum” shouldn’t be a thing, and what the story of IBM and the Holocaust has to do with UX design.

Sources and further reading

  • Black, E. (2001). IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation. Dialog press.
  • Gabriel, M. (2011). Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution. Little, Brown.
  • Gannon, L., & Rucker, R. (2022, November 17). Breaking Bad Energy. Building Local Power podcast
  • Is “Holland” the Same Place as “the Netherlands”? (n.d.). Retrieved April 24, 2023, from Brittanica
  • Katz, S. B. (1992). The Ethic of Expediency: Classical Rhetoric, Technology, and the Holocaust. College English, 54(3), 255.
  • Purnell, S. (2020). A woman of no importance: The untold story of the American spy who helped win World War II. Penguin Random House.


ALast time we talked about the book IBM and the Holocaust by Edwin Black and how Thomas Watson, the CEO of IBM knew Hitler, respected him, defended Germany against critiques from the world and overall did a great job hiding all this to the point that most people think of Watson as America’s businessman and not as a Nazi enabler. Does that kind of sum it up?
BYeah, that sounds about right. How different would you say the term enabler and sympathizer are?
AMaybe the distinction is in the motives? Like sympathizer, I presume means you will agree with someone. Enable means you make something possible for them regardless of belief. What do you think?
BYeah, I think that definitely a sympathizer knows what’s happening. An enabler may not know what’s going on.
ASo you think by that definition, Watson wasn’t an enabler, he was a sympathizer?
BI think so.
AWell, if it, if it comes down to awareness, then Watson was very clever about remaining strategically ignorant about certain things. But I think it’s hard to claim that he had no idea. As for his motivations, I think greed is as good a guess as any. He kind of said the right words to the right people to get what he wanted. I want to tell you a story that Number one, is very interesting and number two, helps demonstrate how essential IBM actually was to the Holocaust being able to exterminate so many people so efficiently. Because I can, I can anticipate that objection. People being like, well, wouldn’t Hitler have just found someone else to do it? Or how much did it really has to do with IBM versus any other number of factors. Which is true. I mean, both of those are good questions to ask.
BFair question. Yeah. So if Dehomag hadn’t been discovered and acquired by IBM, might it  have just remained a German company and then been found independently by Germany for its own purposes?
AYeah, that’s also a good question. I think given the scarcity of raw materials though in Europe at the time, the fact that IBM New York was able to swoop in and provide the paper for the punchcards,
BAh yes.
ALike that was a key piece of it.
BMaterial support.
Anot to mention, you know, they had the infrastructure to train people for these systems. They didn’t even sell them. They leased them.
BCapitalism at its finest,
ARight. Yeah. I mean, that’s a perfect bargain for a company if you can
BFern, get down.
AIf you can control the terms of how someone is using your hardware and also require them to use only your software. One way to help illustrate the importance of IBM to the Holocaust is to compare its implementation in two different countries, Holland and France. As you’ll remember, every time Germany invaded a new country, it was time to do a census in that country so that they could
BCount them up. Weed them out.
ASo they could identify the Jewish people and send them to concentration camps. When Germany took over the Netherlands, punch-card technology was already established in the country. So that country had the existing infrastructure. It already used Holleriths to do their census, as well as bill people for their utilities, inventory food, issue ration cards, all those kind of basic functions. And the Reich appointed a data nerd to run the census of the Netherlands as soon as it was taken over. And this guy’s motto was, “To record is to serve.”
BWow, that’s so dystopian.
AYeah. So he probably agreed with the Nazi ideals, but also wanted to prove himself and prove the capability of statistics. So he was very motivated for this to be a success. Although he was working against a more resistant population than average,
BThat’s true.
AI think it’s fair to say because the Dutch people saw the census for what it was.
BI know that there was a popular movement of non-Jewish Dutch citizens wearing the star.
AAbsolutely. And they also registered as Jewish during the census because they wanted to stand in solidarity with their Jewish neighbors and they wanted to screw up the system in whatever way they could.
BThey’re braver people than Americans.
AEngaging in the Holocaust is emotionally
ATaxing. And I find that I have to go like resupply some hope in humanity.
BWhere do you find it?
AWell, in stories like this.
AYes, some Dutch people wore the yellow star even if they weren’t Jewish. But according to the book, “it was not the outward visage of six gold points worn on the chest for all to see on the street. It was the 80 columns punched and sorted in a Hollerith facility that marked the Jews of Holland for deportation to concentration camps.” In other words, when we think of the Holocaust and the persecution of Jewish people, we think of that yellow star. And we think of, that is what singled them out. It was those behind the scenes records that made possible their mission to exterminate the Jews. The yellow stars served a different purpose, I think
BOstracism, right?
AExactly. It sent a message to the German people about who they should be rejecting. They didn’t have access to the Hollerith lists, but they could see a star on somebody.
BI find it interesting that you said that it was a data nerd. I mean, I have heard that nerds will rule the world someday.
ABut will they rule it ethically?
BYes, that’s exactly what I was going to say. Is that, that’s definitely true, but is that good?
AYeah, I mean, think of how many self-styled nerds haunt incel forums on the internet
BOr the halls of power, whether they be political, governmental, or corporate.
AAnd this isn’t to knock nerds. You are a paragon of nerdity.
BMe? Yes.
AAnd you’re proud of that.
BSure, yeah.
AThat’s what made me like you, you know, no, no. It was the Hawaiian shirts.
BIt was the Hawaiian shirts?
AAnd the faux leather orange throw pillows.
AThat was what told me this guy, he’s a keeper. Tech comm classes and other writing classes can really help to show that data is not neutral.
BYeah, absolutely. Like tech comm, you know, it selects for nerdery. And it’s definitely a place where like you imagine, like the scientist focusing on the task or the engineer focusing on the design constraints. Like they are only looking at problems that are not necessarily having to do with people or with interacting with people. The tech comm professional, however, is like the bridge from
Athe liaison,
BThe liaison from the siloed technical professional and an audience that to some degree is less technical than they are. That definitely places tech comm in a role where like the onus is especially on them to bring the ethics, to be the beacon of should this be done? I fight for the user.
AYou know, different stakeholders are going to have different measures of success. There needs to be that voice. At the same time I don’t want to imply that the humanities is going to solve these problems. Like, let’s not forget, Hitler had a giant library and he appreciated art, right?
AHe also appreciated children and dogs, which horrifies me because all of that serves to humanize him.
BOh my gosh. You mean he didn’t, he didn’t eat babies for lunch, breakfast, and midnight snacks? Hitler was still a human.
AAnd I think it’s important to humanize or cultural villains, not to hold them less accountable, but to shorten the distance between us and them and to recognize how part of being human is the capacity to be a monster.
AAnd that is hard to accept. You want to, you want to other-ize the villains, because you don’t want to think you could become one.
BMm-hmm. In a sense, the logical fallacy of argumentum ad Hitlerum is a step in the wrong direction. I mean,
AWhat is argument ad Hitlerum? The fallacy is in
BThe fallacy is in making that connection too quickly. Making that connection without justification like, oh, Hitler loved parades. You like parades. You’re like Hitler. Okay, that’s, that’s ridiculous. But you know, banning books, burning books, censoring books. That’s a continuum.
AThere’s absolutely fascist stuff going on
BRight now in Florida.
ASo, okay. Let me see if I’ve got this right. You think the term argumentum ad Hitlerum is unhelpful because it suggests that any comparison to Hitler is inherently too extreme
Bor fallacious.
BYeah, exactly.
AWhen in fact, it’s recognizing the similarities that we need to do, before it gets to the point of, let’s murder a specific group of people.
BYeah, I mean, it sort of sets up a false binary of like, well, there’s an uncrossable chasm between not like Hitler and like Hitler.
ABut I think it can be a fallacy. But I wouldn’t call it ad Hitlerum, I would call it false analogy in that case where it’s fallacious.
BThere you go. There, we solved it. You’re welcome, world.
AYeah. And I think it also depends on are you throwing it out there to win an argument or stop a certain thread of argument
BStop the conversation.
AYeah, exactly. I think that’s inappropriate. I don’t think it’s inappropriate to look at a definition of what fascism is, see what’s happening in the United States and call for action against it.
BYeah. And of course, the United States isn’t exceptional.
AWell, right now I’m reading about Nazis in the United States during the war. Yeah, sorry, we got off on a tangent. This is why everyone hates moral philosophers. I don’t know. Back to Holland. The Dutch people resisted bravely, but it was not enough to stand up against the literal machine. Of the estimated 140,000 Dutch Jews, 102,000 were murdered, a death ratio of 73%. So keep that figure in mind while we move on to France. It was a different story in France. France was more laissez-faire about their statistics and documentation in general.
BIt’s a French term, so I’d imagine.
AYep, right? For instance, when they did take their census, they didn’t ask about religion. Furthermore, the puppet government, the Vichy regime, horrible as it was, wanted to exercise some facade of independence and came up with all these exemptions for certain of their Jewish citizens, such as veterans.
AThe general attitude was less enthusiastic about Let’s use machines and punch cards to account for anything and everything. The census effort after Germany invaded France was a mess. There was no consistent method. They did things by paper form, also known as Tulard files, which required up to five pages per person. Things were just not going according to the Nazi requirements. They needed Holleriths. A guy named Renee Carmille was the Comptroller General of the French Army in the Vichy administration. And he steps up, he was a punch-card believer. He even had some Hollerith machines of his own. So he promised that his machines could quote, “deliver the Jews of France” unquote. So Vichy started planning another census. And the debate was whether to stick with the trusty Tulard files or the newfangled Hollerith punchcards. Carmille was lobbying hard for his proposal, but the Tulard forms won the day, at least until the Census Office found themselves buried in forms with nothing but Remington typewriters to help process them.
BRemington? The gun makers had a chance to crank out a few typewriters, huh?
AWe know that IBM made machine guns. So eventually they relented and arranged for the forms and materials to be transported to Carmille’s group. While they waited for Carmille to tabulate the forms, the Nazis commenced their raids on the Jewish people using the info they had gotten from the Tulard files. But those had such out-of-date information that
BThey were raiding the wrong place.
AYep. And Adolf Eichmann personally visited Paris to oversee the deportation of the Jews. Eichmann wasn’t happy with the progress they were making or lack thereof. They were still waiting for Carmille’s lists. And Carmille had the only copy of the card file. Meanwhile, Germany was losing battles in North Africa. This was 1942, 43. Somehow, an organized French Resistance Army had cropped up and valiantly kept the Germans at bay in North Africa. Where did they come from? It turns out that Carmille was a secret agent. He had used his Holleriths to help organize this army. Using the punch cards, he was able to track people’s professions and military specialties in order to organize and mobilize them quickly. And he never punched column 11, asking for Jewish identity. Supposedly he tampered with the Holleriths to disable the ability to even track that. Carmille was caught,
BOh shit.
ATortured at the hands of the Butcher of Lyon, Klaus Barbie. But he gave up no names and ultimately died in a concentration camp. Let’s compare the numbers. Estimated 73% of Dutch Jews died. In France it was approximately 25%.
BWow. Yeah, that’s a big difference. To be fair, there is a cultural difference between France and Belgium? The Netherlands?
AHolland, Netherlands. Yeah.
AWhat’s the correct term? What do they like to call their country?
BI think that the Netherlands and Belgium were, well, Belgium got its independence from. You’ll have to fact check.
AYeah, well,
Bthat’s what I’m getting around to.  I don’t know.
AAh, you admitted it. [The correct term for the country is The Netherlands. Holland describes the two most popular provinces within the Netherlands, which has 12 provinces total. However, Holland is often used to stand in for the whole of the Netherlands, in a type of synecdoche.]
BI’m currently reading through kind of a history of the late 1800s of Europe and France in particular, you know, they were the first European country to have their monarchy dissolved. The French Revolution was in 1789 before it was cool. It kind of relapsed with various attempts to reestablish a monarchy or a dictatorship, an emperor in France. During that whole time, getting resistance groups organized, it was like a joke. It was like a sad, bad joke because there were all of these different groups that were on the political left that wanted an end to whatever reactionary regime was in place at the time, but they had infighting and wouldn’t work together. I imagine that Holland didn’t have that fractious, sectarian kind of a system. Like they didn’t have as many splinter groups in their society. The more communal, like, you know, we will stand by our Jewish neighbors and wear this yellow star.
ABut you’d think that that attitude would ultimately work against the Nazi’s efforts
AHere’s the thing. We can’t know what a difference Renee Carmille made. There are a multitude of factors that explain the different outcomes for these two separate countries. But you cannot deny that what he did was heroic.
BYes. What he did was heroic and he personally, individually, I’m sure that he saved thousands upon thousands of Jewish lives in France.
AYes, he not only foiled the Nazis efforts, he actively worked against them. And it’s one of those things you can’t measure the impact. But the more I research about World War II, the more I realize it’s not down to one hero. Like it’s not just you know General Patton or Eisenhower or Churchill.
BIt was a time for the valiant.
AIt’s a combination of actions by individuals and choices by individuals that in the moment, in their little corner of the universe, might not have felt impactful. But in combination with others’ actions, made a difference.
ASo I suggest we look to those people as role models for our kids. Don’t have your kid do a book report on Thomas Watson. Have them research Rene Carmille or Victoria Hall. [Her name is Virginia Hall, not Victoria Hall. My bad.]
BThe unsung heroes of World War Two.
AYes. She was an SOE spy. Special Operations Executives. That was sort of the guerrilla warfare spy group that Churchill created to kind of sneak into, to parachute into France and do sabotage and organize resistance. Victoria Hall had a wooden leg. She was a woman. Those were things that blocked her from certain positions in society. And yet she gave her entire life to protecting the enemies of the Nazis and coordinating military actions against them. And she didn’t look for glory. But I tell you what, she had to deal with a lot of men who wanted to be James Bond and wanted to be a spy because it was sexy but they didn’t put in the work. And they didn’t put in the care and the caution
BAnd it cost lives.
AYes. I bring up the story of Carmille also because he’s been called the first ethical hacker. Thinking, you know, thinking back to what we were saying about technical people. How it can sometimes be a challenge to look beyond the immediate consequences of their actions or to think that the work I do in this cubicle or in this lab or what have you is, it’s just science or it’s just numbers and thereby distance themselves from potential human consequences of the technologies that they’re developing. I think this is a story that can show the power of a single technology to do harm and also when in the right hands to counteract that harm.
BYeah, holler at the machines were definitely used to run the Holocaust. But car mile figured out a way to use a hollow Earth machine to defeat the Nazis in North Africa.
AI don’t want to fall into the trap of saying any technology is simply a tool. It can be used for good or for bad. To some extent that’s true. But technologies can certainly be designed to lend themselves better to bad versus good consequences, for instance. And so that’s something we need to be alert to as well. Is that it’s, it’s not just how the machine, how the technology is used, but how it’s developed and for what purposes and with what capabilities?
BYeah. Definitely.
ABecause I think it’s very fair to say that the technology that was used to I don’t want to say innocuously because it wasn’t innocuous. But the technology that was used to conduct the 1940 census in America, was as good as it was because it had been honed in a different context for a different purpose,
AYes. And we know that the results of the census were used to put Japanese-Americans into internment camps. Which you’d think, you’d think we’d learn a lesson from the enemy.
BJust learned the wrong one.
AYeah. And that should cause us to question the narrative of progress as an inherent good.
BRight. It’s the myth of progress, even.
AYeah, and I’m sure many of my colleagues listening will have instantly connected the story of IBM and the Holocaust to Stephen Katz’s classic article, The Ethic of Expediency, which for those who aren’t familiar with it, Katz opens with an example of technical communication that by all accounts is pretty much doing the job that tech comm needs to do, or it conveys technical details, it’s formatted properly as a memo, it has precise specifications. And then you discover that it’s a memo discussing improvements to a mobile gassing unit.
AAnd then you read it through a new lens. You realize that words like “merchandise” are used to describe human beings. And you realize that genocide is being discussed dispassionately, technically, neutrally. I know for me in graduate school, that article was a turning point in me recognizing the ethical implications of technical communication, that it’s not enough to ask if something is effective, you have to ask, is it ethical? You have to ask who is this for? Who does it harm? Who might it harm? Another thing that’s notable about that, the euphemisms, in the memo.
BThat’s a choice.
AIt makes you wonder were they trying to distance themselves from the horrors that they were carrying out? Or was it for posterity so that the strategic ambiguity would help them skirt accountability. I don’t know. But that’s another lesson for technical and business communication. And it’s a lesson, it’s a line that Watson learned how to walk very well. As I was reading IBM in the Holocaust and reading about like, wow, the Germans were just obsessed with surveillance and tracking and sorting and ranking and categorizing. And yet the people at the top don’t want that transparency turned on themselves.
BThey never do.
ASo I want to show you a picture and tell me what you see happening in it.
BYou vill show me picture.
AOkay. Describe what you see here. This is an ad for Dehomag.
BAh. I see a giant eyeball in the sky. Looking down on, it looks like a, it’s probably a punch card, but it looks kind of like an apartment building behind a factory with a big old smokestack. And so it says in German “oversight with Hollerith”, lochkarten? I don’t know what that is.
AHere. It says in the caption. “See everything with Hollerith punchcards.”
AWhat’s the what’s the message here?
BOversight is good.
BUh-huh. Yeah. I mean, it could just be that it’s printed in black and white, but I imagine that it looks pretty Orwellian in whatever color as well.
AYeah. There’s absolutely a power imbalance in who gets surveilled and who is privileged enough not to. And I think that needs to be accounted for anytime you hear somebody saying more data is better. And then one more connection to tech comm. As I was reading IBM and the Holocaust, it occurred to me that there’s a parallel here with Katz’s work in that he’s talking to or he’s using this written memo as an example of how technical communication isn’t inherently good or neutral. And I think in this case, you can point to, you could almost call it a participatory design process. Because of how each punch card was so customized to a particular purpose and a particular user. And that by all accounts from, from a superficial glance at the situation would be an example of good UX practice. That’s what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to involve the people who will ultimately use your product and capture their needs and
AIt’s not enough to stop there. If the victims of the Holocaust were included in this design process, it wouldn’t exist to begin with. Do you see what I’m saying? Let me read a little bit from the book here. “None of Germany’s statistical programs came easy. All of them required ongoing technical innovation. Every project required specific customized applications with Dehomag engineers carefully devising a column and corresponding hole to carry the intended and corresponding hole to carry the intended information. Every order was different. Each set was meticulously designed, not only for the singular client, but for the client’s specific assignments. The design work was not a rote procedure, but an intense collaboration. It began with a protracted investigation of the precise data needs of the project, as well as the people, items or services being tabulated. This required IBM subsidiary field engineers to undertake invasive studies often on-site. So hearing about that process without context, you would say, Yeah. That’s what a good UX designer does. That’s what a good engineer does. That’s what a good technical communicator does, is
BSupport your product.
ALearn about your audience. Anticipate your client’s needs. And I say this to make clear that participatory design in and of itself doesn’t necessarily guard against
BBad participation?
AI don’t want to say the word evil, that’s too cliche.
BSo it doesn’t guard against
Aharm, we’ll say. Who are you participating with? To what ends? Who will be affected? Whether or not your client, whether or not they’re the one using the product or paying you for the work.
AThat looks like a dick. Sorry. It wasn’t on purpose.
BNo? Oh, okay.
AI doodle.
BYou doodle.
AI doodle on my notes while we talk and that was accidental.
BYeah. And in a sense like it makes sense because the we don’t want mob justice either, because that’s participatory. But it doesn’t mean that it’s going to be good.
AYeah, participatory design. Deep embedded field research and observation and interviews is not inherently socially just.
ASo what does that mean for teachers? For people doing UX? What takeaways do we want to leave our listeners with? I don’t want to say don’t do participatory design, right?
BSo for practitioners of UX, I would say it may not be popular to say every time you get involved with a project that you should have been involved earlier. But do it. Ideally, every project, every, every thing that’s supposed to have a great impact should start with an ethical study. Academia has the IRB step as like the gatekeeper for doing research. Industry no, nothing.
AI’m surely there’s some regulations to keep things in check.
BWell, yeah, the gatekeeper is whether a manager thinks the expense can be justified. Pretty much. Occasionally someone will think to involve legal in the discussion. But, you know, I have a feeling that people who are in legal departments for corporations probably feel like a lot of UX designers who are brought in three days before launch to get their blessing Instead of to get their input and direction.
AYeah. It doesn’t matter how closely you collaborate with your client if the end result is to better surveil, or locate or control people who don’t have a say in the product. So what do you think? I’m trying to I’m trying to wrap up.
AWhat do you think? I’m surprised that IBM has managed to keep its reputation so untarnished given this history.
BNo kidding.
AI’m sure we use and benefit from IBM products too. So it’s not simply a matter of boycotting it. But
BThey were probably one of the early adopters of the idea of brand renovation. I don’t know if that’s the right term even but it’s the only way I can put words to it.
AI don’t mean to say that IBM is the one and only bad guy.
BOh no.
AThat was another one of the annoying critical reviews I read on Amazon is, why are you singling out IBM? If you do that, then you have to call out all these other companies that were complicit. And it’s like,
BSo let’s do it. Call them all out.
AYeah. Like why not do a deep dive on one if it means that we can better recognize moves that make this possible?
BI know that it isn’t exactly the same thing, I heard a podcast about denialism and how its roots go back further than tobacco. Its roots,
ACorporate denialism?
BYes. Corporate denialism.
ALike saying we’re not part of the problem or we didn’t do this?
BYeah, that sort of thing. It goes back, in fact to electric companies. In almost all places they have what’s called a natural monopoly. And so they kind of don’t have to really compete because you can’t just pick another electric company to give you your power. They fought hard against rural electrification because they didn’t want to run all of those transmission lines. They wanted to power cities, they didn’t want to power farms. They basically created studies to show that this wouldn’t be feasible or that farmers don’t even want electricity.
AOh, use data and science to support their preconceived preference?
BYeah. So they, when tobacco’s turn came, there was a rule book.
BThere was a template already. And I imagine that IBM was just keeping it warm from, from the electric companies on to big tobacco. Oh no, no, no, we weren’t, We didn’t really like what Hitler was doing. I mean, it wasn’t that bad. So the whole deny delay minimize all of the strategies used for when your business model actively creates harm.
AWell, thanks for listening.
BYes. Until next time.
AIt was a challenge to read this book and not constantly report what I was learning because I didn’t, because I wanted to make sure we talked about it on the podcast.
BOh, it wasn’t out of respect for me reading my own book that you held back, it was because you wanted to have something to hit me with that I hadn’t heard before.
AYeah. Get a more genuine reaction. It’s not like you don’t interrupt my reading to show me your meme of the day.
BOh, come on. You get plenty of cute animal videos too.
AYeah. That makes it all worth it.
BWhen it comes down to it, cute animals, that’s what makes it all worth it.