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Q&A: Author Edwin Black

IBM’s Third Reich Ties Presage Today’s Big Tech Ambitions

By Samantha Stone

Edwin Black wrote two decades ago about a stalwart American business and its underreported role in Nazi atrocities.

His book, “IBM and the Holocaust,” was a success by any measure. It had a respectable stint as a New York Times best-seller. It was lavishly praised by other journalists. It won awards and was published in multiple languages.

Black maintains IBM has never challenged the substance of his book. For its 20th anniversary, Black has been making the podcast-interview rounds defending his work and underscoring how IBM’s activities presage today’s Big Data.

“What most people can derive from my book at this particular point in time is that history repeats itself,” he said in a February podcast on the U.K.’s Revelation TV.

“We are now seeing what Hitler did with punch cards at the rate of 64,000 cards per hour — and compare that to what can now be done with Twitter, with Google, with supercomputers, with AI, with handheld devices.

“I think that we are headed toward a very dark path back to where we were when technology became a very evil tool in its Promethean option,” Black continued, “and I just want people to look at what was done with the slow technology and contemplate what can now be done with the speed of light.”

Black explained to Digital Privacy News how IBM’s data-collection program became a tool for tyranny.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Your description of IBM’s early activities invites comparison almost 100 years later with Big Data. What are the strongest parallels?

The first thing to understand is the information age was not born in Silicon Valley but in Berlin in 1933.

The information age is the individualization of statistics. That is, the ability to not only complete a count but to give a complete picture of those being counted. 

“If Hitler could do what he did in 12 years with paper cards, what might he be able to do — or a despot like Hitler be able to do — with the technology we have today?”

Prior to IBM’s Hollerith (punch) card, you could count on your toes and your hands — but you could never grasp any real information about those you had counted.

With the IBM punch card, you could not only count how many people were in the room — you could count how many of them had brown hair, how many of them were men, how many of them were fathers, how many of them were Jews, how many of them were Muslims.

What we now call “granular information”?

Yes, you could call it “granular.” There are many names for it.

This information was cross-tabulated, with holes that were punched strategically into rows and columns — and then fed thru a high-speed reader and sorted.

So, if Hitler could do what he did in 12 years with paper cards, what might he be able to do — or a despot like Hitler be able to do — with the technology we have today?

The book illustrates the direct consequence from institutional data-gathering. But there’s a lot of room for smaller abuses before you get to genocide. 

We’re already seeing the initial road markers of the Nazi assault in places such as China — where they have a social-credits system, where they have (facial recognition) at all the major intersections.

“All the trains in Europe were running on IBM punch cards. People were metered out of their ghettos.”

They cross-index that against your social media, against your personal information, against your (geographic) information — and they’re able to determine whether you’ll be permitted to get on a train, on a bus, on an airplane, get a job, be maintained or expelled from some type of an association. 

This is what Hitler did, with the six steps. These are six important steps, because they apply today.

What were they?

First, identification of the Jews.

This is what IBM did for Hitler by hiring thousands of people to do a national census — door to door, filling out those forms with a pen and paper — and then transporting them, en masse, to a giant warehouse in Alexanderplatz, in Berlin, and tabulating them day and night. 

This would be where they started converting small bits of personal information to something larger?

In one column, you had your mother tongue, another column you had your nationality.

A third column, your religion. A fourth column, your profession. Another column, your location.

And, then, at the rate of 64,000 cards-per-hour, the Nazis knew exactly how many Jews of Polish extraction in Berlin were practicing law.

What was next?

The second process is exclusion.

Take all that information about all these Jews — (and compare it with) the bar association rolls, the faculty rolls, the medical association, the manufacturers association — and purge all those people.

That was done all by custom IBM programs. IBM (essentially) said, “What would you like to do?” — and then they devised the system to do it.

“In the 1940s, we used location and Hollerith information from the census to pick up the Japanese.”

The third aspect was confiscation.

Identify the Jewish bank accounts, savings accounts, investment accounts. Target them for “aryanization.”

Immediately apply a 25% flight tax, criminalize them — and, ultimately, pauperize the Jews.

What happened after they were stripped of assets?

The fourth step was ghettoization.

One day, the Jews were in their homes — and they’d go across town, and there were eight families to a bombed-out slum on the other side of town.

Everybody knows their street. Everybody knows their address. Everybody knows the stairwell, the floor and the apartment number.

The fifth step would be deportation.

All the trains in Europe were running on IBM punch cards. People were metered out of their ghettos. … They’d spend one to two days going across the land to a concentration camp, often a death camp.

“We’re already seeing the initial road markers of the Nazi assault in places such as China.”

The sixth step would be extermination.

IBM even developed the extermination-by-labor program, by which it would catalog all the skills — bricklayer, doctor, auto mechanic — and juxtapose those against the slave-labor needs.

Then, (the German government) would move people across Nazi Europe and work them to death in precisely the correct job.

We’re a long way from the Holocaust today, in 2021. But I would remind you that 2021 is a high-velocity technical year — and we see what happened with the Uighurs (in China).

A semantic note, about calling those services a “solution.” It’s a charged word in the Nazi context. It’s also what Silicon Valley calls its services. Did you choose that word when you wrote the book, or did IBM actually use it to sell the Hollerith services? 

It’s clear to anyone that IBM has identified itself as “the solutions company.”

You come to them with the problem — and they give you the solution.  

So, this wasn’t “put something in a box and send it.”

One of your six steps is identifying assets — which, to a great extent — is occurring now at full efficiency. Can you comment on that? 

What we’re seeing today — identification is omnipresent.

Exclusion, cancellation — whatever term you want to use — is at high velocity.

We don’t have confiscation at this time, but we have pauperization by deplatforming people.

“Who is at the head of cancel culture today? It’s the media.”

By severing their business relationships at all levels through this cancellation process, we have pauperization.

In the 1940s, we used location and Hollerith information from the census to pick up the Japanese.

They lost their property and were relocated to camps.

So, the antecedents are there.

We have good cause to worry. We see the road we’re going down. 

In a recent episode of your online show, you lamented that the media is not doing its job. To a great extent, has the media been subsumed by the very entities it should watchdog?

Your question should be: “If a human-rights or privacy violation of great proportions did occur, would the media even report it?”

That’s your question. Or, would all the media report it?

Five years ago, they would have reported it. Today, we don’t know.

If we are to get data-privacy reform, it’s in the hands of Congress.  But the Real Clear Politics poll average has congressional approval rating at 28%. So, we’re putting our data-privacy in the hands of people we don’t trust — and people who can benefit greatly from abusing it.

The outlook is dim.

The outlook is foreboding, precisely because our problem springs from your question about the media.

Remember, the Sedition Act of 1918, which criminalized negative commentary about the government, was propelled by media support. 

“We don’t have confiscation at this time, but we have pauperization by deplatforming people.”

Who is at the head of cancel culture today? It’s the media.

So, we are seeing the darkest impulses — not forces, darkest impulses — converging from their parallaxes, with the Pravda-ization of the media and politicization of the intelligence community. 

We have all the makings of a very bad decade.

Samantha Stone is a Nevada writer.

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