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
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