Thomas Watson is the pride of the Binghamton area: He is the man who started the internationally recognized and revolutionary company International Business Machines (IBM) out of Endicott, and whose name is memorialized by our Thomas J. Watson School of Engineering. Few know Watson as a man unworthy of this honor, a man who Adolf Hitler honored in 1937 with a specially created award for extraordinary service by a foreigner to the Third Reich and whose company’s technology was responsible for the tattoos given to prisoners at concentration camps.
In 1933 as the Holocaust began, Watson provided Hitler with IBM’s punch-card system — a precursor to the computer that could hold information for data processing and control-automated machinery — and assisted Hitler in committing his genocide as extensively and efficiently as possible. Edwin Black’s book “IBM and the Holocaust,” which is based on over 20,000 pages of documentation drawn from archives in seven countries, sheds light on IBM’s involvement in the Holocaust and received much media attention at its time of publication in 2001.
According to Black, IBM’s technology played a role in all phases of the Holocaust. The Nazis believed anyone with a Jewish grandparent was Jewish and thus needed IBM’s punch cards to sort through census information and locate them. In addition, IBM’s technology tracked trains, organized food allocation and managed the concentration camps’ populations.
Especially disturbing are IBM concentration camp codes, which highlight the extent of IBM’s involvement in the camps. Prisoners were coded into the system by their “type”: homosexuals were 3; Jews, 8; and Gypsies, 12. The way prisoners were murdered was also encoded: 3 represented death by natural causes; 4, by execution; 5, by suicide; and 6, by gas chambers. IBM engineers designed these codes and every two weeks did maintenance on the machines within the concentration camps. Over 2,000 machines were used in Germany alone, and IBM had a department in almost every concentration camp to manage punch cards and track prisoners. Illustrating the ubiquity of IBM technology in the Holocaust, the famous tattoos given to prisoners began as punch-card numbers.
Watson and IBM were aware of what their technology was being used for. Watson visited Nazi Germany many times and even dined with Hitler. IBM leased their machines to the Third Reich and therefore remained active in the maintenance of them and knew what they were being used for.
Operations of IBM’s machines in Nazi Germany were managed directly by IBM headquarters in New York and later through its subsidiaries in Europe. In fact, IBM headquarters actively recruited Nazis for top management positions in its subsidiary in Germany in order to enhance its business relationship with Hitler.
While Watson was a brilliant man who has done great things for our city, we cannot ignore the horrors his company was involved in. While it is possible that Watson was forced to do business with Hitler or lose his assets in Germany, this does not excuse his actions.
The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide says that among the “acts [that] shall be punishable” include “complicity in genocide.” Our engineering department highly emphasizes ethics and according to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the world’s largest technical professional organization, engineers must commit “to accept responsibility in making decisions consistent with the safety, health, and welfare of the public, and to disclose promptly factors that might endanger the public or the environment.”
We have named our engineering school after a man who represents polar-opposite values and who assisted the Nazis in the killings of millions of Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, paraplegics and other non-Aryans. It is custom to name buildings, roads, monuments and the like after people we idolize. People whose actions we seek to emulate and whose legacies we wish to cement into history. We must decide which values we stand for.
Michael Harel is a junior double-majoring in history and psychology.