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Comparative Book Review of “IBM and the Holocaust” by Edwin Black and “Trading with the Enemy” by Charles Higham

November 28, 2008


Author’s note: These are two sources I have used for my thesis, “Facilitating the Nazis.” This piece compares the structure, sources, and impact of the two books. All comments are welcome. Thank you.

Americans are unceasingly reminded of the shared memories of the self-titled “Greatest Generation” that beat back the Nazis and saved the world from fascism. Is there a nether side to this heroic narrative? Although historians generally commend the United States as an instrumental force behind the undoing of Hitler’s Nazi regime, many prominent American companies and citizens knowingly aided the inception and military efforts of Nazi Germany.

Two texts, Edwin Black’s IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation and Charles Higham’s Trading with the Enemy: An Expose of the Nazi-American Money Plot 1933-1949, give this subject a significant degree of depth. Both works are groundbreaking in the information they present. Both have spurred new public dialog and research among historians. Although they involve similar types of activity, the two books have markedly different approaches and methodology. These differences present a challenge to researchers and the public in gaining insight into the big picture of this sordid past. To that end, exploring each book within the context of the other is essential.

IBM and the Holocaust is a thoroughly detailed book about the history of International Business Machines’ (IBM) dealings with Nazi Germany. As densely packed with information as this text is, its thesis is simple: Directed from its worldwide headquarters in New York, IBM was a willing and decisive organizational force behind Nazi rearmament and genocide plans. The documentation supplied to support this thesis is both massive and well organized. The text is presented in a loose chronological arrangement which employs the activities of IBM managers, especially those of CEO Thomas J. Watson, as a common thread for its narrative. Edwin Black has also written other books on the subject which lay equally grave criticisms at the feet of those Americans who were involved with the Nazis. Ultimately, these arguments have been the basis for several lawsuits brought against companies that engaged in Holocaust era profiteering and exploitation.

The text is divided into three sections. It begins with the history of information technology and how this industry was developed in both the United States and Germany. The narrative then follows the rise of IBM and its dominant position in both countries. This section eventually plays itself out as a power struggle between IBM and its subsidiary, Dehomag, as Nazi authorities were reviewing a possible contract between themselves and the corporation. With IBM victorious, the following two sections deal with the most chilling aspect of the book: how IBM facilitated the organization of census data for the Nazis to perpetrate wholesale mass theft and murder of Germany’s Jewish population, and IBM’s role in organizing the logistics of Hitler’s military buildup.

The author presents a massive amount of technical data on precisely how IBM’s “solutions” oriented business made these two goals possible. He traces CEO Thomas J. Watson’s struggle to maintain control over its subsidiary to guarantee the immense profits to be gained from such a lucrative and extensive contract. As more pressure was brought to bear on both sides of the Atlantic to cover up the connection between IBM and Dehomag, Black details the arrangement of trusted Nazi officials to protect IBM’s profits and provide stewardship of the subsidiary and its property. After hostilities commenced, the text details not only the day to day struggles Watson engaged in to maintain control of IBM’s European operations, but also how IBM expanded and supplied Hitler’s forces to continue their agenda as they conquered the European continent.

The last third of IBM and the Holocaust details how IBM became essential to the war aims of both the Axis and the Allies as World War II unfolded. At this point there is an obvious dichotomy. Black weaves between the war activities of each side. The focus on the rapidly culminating “Final Solution” becomes the centerpiece of the book as it reaches its conclusion. The detailed treatment of organizational details behind Hitler’s genocidal aims as they were reaching full fruition provides an emotional locus for the entire text. The final section of the book closes on IBM’s aggressive moves to secure all profits and property after Germany was defeated, underscoring the answer to the question raised by Black’s thesis: Why would any individual or corporation become a willing participant in such horrifying endeavor? Black’s answer: The singular focus of IBM’s profit motive reigned supreme over all else.

Throughout the book, Edwin Black diverges from the organizational narrative to the activities and communications of the players involved, providing a human dimension to the discussion. The struggles between Watson and Dehomag’s original manager, Willy Heidegger, are particularly dramatic. Later, Black details the circumstances surrounding Watson’s receivership of a Nazi medal and direct communications with Hitler himself. The amicable nature of these interactions are both captivating and chilling. Speaking to the pragmatic approach that IBM had with its German business, the communications detailed between IBM representative Harrison Chauncey and Nazi leader Karl Hummel are almost banal, considering the circumstances. This aspect of the book allows for some respite to the unrelenting details leading to what is inevitably a story about the mass execution of whole populations. In this way, Black portrays IBM as a company whose direction was both deliberate, and tightly controlled from the top down.

Due to the contentious nature of the subject, Edwin Black brings with him a mountain of data to back up his argument. The rational administration of IBM allowed for an extensively detailed account of IBM’s moves. To handle such a project, Black assembled a team of over one hundred researchers to wade through the copious amounts of available data existing in multiple countries and in multiple languages. The primary sources and endnotes are not only arranged in a simple and organized format, but the major repositories of information are also detailed, such as the location of various archives and other repositories of information situated throughout the world. What is perhaps most interesting, is Black’s detailing of requests for information from IBM itself. According to IBM and the Holocaust, the corporation made extensive efforts to block, hinder, and confuse investigation. When IBM realized the project already had extensive data to make its case, it attempted to whitewash its role issuing several public denials of its involvement.

IBM and the Holocaust made a considerable impact on both the reading public as well as historians when it came out in 2001. When it was released, the book ignited a flurry of media attention and became an immediate best seller. Simultaneously, a lawsuit was brought by scholars, Holocaust survivors and their families against IBM for the allegations presented in the text. As noted earlier, IBM repeatedly stated a simplistic argument that it lost control of its subsidiary and had no involvement with the Third Reich’s plans. What is problematic for IBM and its defenders is that no substantive rebuttals have yet to be made to any of the claims presented in the book. Although there are an overwhelming amount of details presented by IBM and the Holocaust, none have been actively contested. The larger stories that captured the imagination of the public, such as the communications between Hitler and Watson and receiving a Nazi Medal overwhelmed the tepid denials IBM and its historians made. Although the lawsuit brought against IBM was ended by the intervention of the US State Department in 2003, a concession was provided to have the corporation’s archives opened for further study. The US State Department has not yet released a date when this would occur. That same year, the research presented in Edwin Black’s book surfaced again in the widely acclaimed film, The Corporation, showing that public interest in corporate complicity with Nazi aims continues to grow.

Charles Higham’s book, Trading with the Enemy: An Expose of the Nazi-American Money Plot 1933-1949, has also cast a long shadow on the study of World War II era US corporate activity in Nazi Germany. Published nearly two decades before IBM and the Holocaust in 1983, the information presented in the text also has a continuing impact on the study of its subject matter. Like IBM and the Holocaust, Higham’s text also lays out an extensive array of details for the reader to digest. Higham’s thesis is also just as blunt: Many US financial and industrial figures knowingly aided Nazi war efforts. Higham supplies a selective bibliography to support his claims and provides copies of a few key primary sources at the end of the book. Trading with the Enemy is organized by business, exploring the activities of individuals and their related enterprises in each section chronologically. Higham closes the text by detailing how many of the accused Nazi collaborators covered up their activities at the war’s end. As an author who focuses mainly on the lives of famous personalities, such as Katharine Hepburn and Howard Hughes, it is unusual for such a detailed treatment of this topic to emerge from this catalogue. Higham states that he became interested in the subject of American collaboration with Nazis while researching Errol Flynn, who he also accuses of Nazi connections. Regardless of how it was formulated, the information presented in Trading with the Enemy has been the subject of historical discussion, and at least one lawsuit employed to bring more details to light.

As stated earlier, Higham details each business individually in his text. Trading with the Enemy begins with the Bank of International Settlements in Basel, Switzerland. Higham weaves a narrative of how the bank became controlled by confidants of Hitler and that its original purpose of disbursing reparations from Germany following World War I was subverted into a mechanism for funneling money into Nazi Germany, with the help of willing American counterparts. He continues this theme by exploring the financial connections between New York’s Chase bank and Nazis in Paris. Higham’s argument here is that Chase set up branches in Vichy France with the specific purpose of doing business with the Third Reich. It is important to note that as in the first section, Trading with the Enemy gives credit to American officials who became aware of such dealings and tried to stop them through their various offices, such as Treasury Secretary Henry Morganthau. However, each section invariably ends with the perpetrators escaping justice.

In the next several chapters, Trading with the Enemy tackles the involvement of heavy industry starting with Standard Oil of New Jersey and ending up with iconic American giants, General Motors (GM) and Ford Motor Company. Interspersed in this section, Higham also levels accusations against International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT) for its alleged dealings with the Nazis. Essentially, Trading with the Enemy accuses Standard Oil of New Jersey for supplying fuel to The Third Reich while Ford and GM were building military vehicles to advance the Nazi agenda of conquest. Higham blames ITT for supplying communication equipment, fuses for munitions, and involvement in research and development of rocket technology.

Contained in this central section of the book, Higham spends a great deal of time describing the interactions between the various CEOs of these corporations and their Nazi counterparts. The author takes special note to show that some US government officials were aware of their activities, but their investigations were inevitably eclipsed by the wealth and influence these would be collaborators had. This ultimately leads to Higham’s final third of the book, were he details the fate of the personalities involved and how they were able to obscure their activities and avoid prosecution.

Trading with the Enemy utilizes a selective bibliography and a few primary source documents at the end of the text to back up its claims. The book does not contain citations, though it does reference some of the bibliographic material within the narrative. The primary source documents have the common characteristic of generally implicating the corporations mentioned earlier. Many of them are memorandum from US Treasury Secretary Henry Morganthau, who as noted earlier, was a key figure in investigating American Nazi collaboration.

When it was released, Trading with the Enemy received little fanfare. In the intervening years since then, however, much more attention has been paid to the allegations presented in the text. In 1999, Michael Ravnitzky, an American lawyer that specializes in Freedom of Information Act cases, requested the source documents used for Higham’s book at the Nazi War Criminal Records Interagency Working Group. This action brought more attention to the text, which had been out of print. A new version has since been republished in 2007.

IBM and the Holocaust and Trading with Enemy diverge far more than they converge. However, it is important to note the similarities between each text. The most significant aspect each book shares with the other is tone. Though Trading with the Enemy takes far more liberties in narrative style, both authors give the reader the unmistakable impression that they are unsympathetic witnesses to such nefarious activity. Neither book gives a cold clinical impression; both remain firmly judgmental. Both texts are far more akin to appealing to the reader’s ire. Both works internalize the dominant historical narrative. The underlying theme of both Higham and Black’s work reference the polemical nature of the US vs. Nazi as Good vs. Evil and turn it on its head.

The differences between IBM and the Holocaust and Trading with the Enemy are stark. Edwin Black’s work reads as a well sourced piece of historical literature while Higham’s appeals to the tabloid style that is much more popular among conspiracy theory magazines and websites. To be fair to Higham, his work may have been meant for a different audience than Black’s. However, is it safe to assume that such a subject should be addressed without a foundation in rigorous scholarship? On the other side, Black’s work has been criticized for being too dense. This comparison draws out the problem inherent in much political literature: That consideration for an audience can come into direct conflict with the need for academic legitimacy.

Trading with the Enemy has a problematic relationship with its sources. Given its loose narrative style, it is sorely in need of endnotes, footnotes, or other reference to its supporting information. Additionally, the book only contains a selective bibliography, leaving the reader to wonder what was not included. As stated earlier, some copies of primary source documents are included at the end of the book, but they are far too general to constitute the forceful accusations in the text. Any serious researcher willing to verify or disprove Higham’s points faces the frustrating prospect of redoing his research in order to expose the facts.

In contrast, IBM and the Holocaust contains an overwhelming amount of source material. Even without much assistance from IBM, Black was able to put together an entire operational dossier of its European activities during the war years. Although his endnotes help in locating particular source documents, there is still a great deal of information to get through to verify each point. Whether or not this matters to the audience of this text is debatable. There is such a great deal of cross referencing in IBM and the Holocaust in respect to its sources that there is a diminished need to reestablish individual points, unless they are source of particular contention. This reality does not betray the weight Black’s thesis significantly.

Higham’s work is far more troubling, not just because of the difficulty in verifying the information in this work, but for the study of the subject as a whole. As stated earlier, American assistance to Nazi Germany is a contentious issue because it runs counter to the generally accepted story of World War II. Therefore, it remains important for all stories stemming from this countervailing historical narrative be as clear and well sourced as possible. Unfortunately, Higham’s work is not easy to classify here. Many of his points such as those on GM and Ford have been verified by newer and more academic texts, such as Working with the Enemy by Billstein, et. al. Additionally, his work has been cited in other academic journals on this subject. The only solutions to the problem presented by Trading with the Enemy appear to be clarifying each individual point, a haltingly cumbersome task, or requesting the author provide foot or endnotes. Neither of these options are palatable.

IBM and the Holocaust and Trading with the Enemy remain important books for several reasons. First, they are two of the most well known texts on the subject of American assistance to the Third Reich. As the study of this subject expands, these books loom large as a reference point for further research. In the case of IBM and the Holocaust, Black has provided an exemplary text for rebutting a well known historic myth: That US corporations have only American interests solely in mind. Trading with the Enemy, on the other hand, is one of the few books that engages the entire landscape of American interaction with the Nazis. This is a meaningful development. The entire field is in need of reappraisal to understand the intertwined nature of global business interactions, especially as they relate to large historical currents.

The numerous documentaries, cable channels, books, and magazines are a testament to the growing public interest in World War II. As more information becomes available on American involvement with the Nazis, it is imperative that it be done with clarity and academic rigor. Much of the popular media available in the US today still conveniently omits the stories explored here. Regardless, World War II remains a pivotal event that diminished some powers and elevated others, creating a new world order. We live in its remnants today. In order to understand our relationship to these events, they must be faced with the utmost clarity, even if these realities are heartbreaking, horrific, and contradictory.

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