Midsummer is nearly upon us and I have to admit my energy levels are flagging a bit as I try to refocus myself for the work of writing, researching, and doing history in general. It is clear that I have allowed myself to be distracted by too many reading excursions and side projects. Originally started as diverse amusements, they eventually have become excuses for procrastination rather than sources of inspiration and a calm no-expectations space in which to marshal my energies. That said, I have read a number of wonderful books this year already and would like to just make a few comments on my latest diversion before I let go of it and rededicate myself to antiquity.
The book I am talking about made quite a stir when it first came out and when it debuted I immediately wanted to read it. I knew it would be a challenging and disturbing read and so it waited. That was nearly twenty years ago and only just now have have I read and finished Edwin Black’s chilling historical exposé, IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation. Black’s book is certainly convincing and he appears to have accumulated damning evidence to support the case that IBM’s highest officials—including Thomas Watson—was at the very least complicit in the Third Reich’s use of IBM punch card technology to identify, sort, and categorize their victims up until 1937, and in all likelihood maintained more than merely vestigial control of IBM’s European and German subsidiaries until the end of the Second World War.
But what I want to do here is not to rehash Black’s argument of IMB culpability, nor to create a general review of the work, but rather to highlight a particular section of the narrative which tells an astonishing and inspiring story of resistance to the Nazi’s genocidal endeavors with respect to the Jews of Europe.
In the ninth chapter of his book, Black details the use of punch cards; census reports; and IBM designed, owned, and leased, data tabulating machines, in the Nazi subjugated states of Holland and France, both occupied and free. One of the surprising outcomes that we learn from this comparison is that while Holland, which was not only tolerant of its Jewish population but even resistant to Nazi persecutions against them to the point of open defiance, eventually suffered a death ratio of 73% of its estimated 140,000 Dutch Jews, whereas France (free and occupied combined) which was in many ways less tolerant of Jews, especially those who were considered to be refugees from abroad, only suffered a 25% mortality rate of its estimated 300,000-350,000 Jews during the war.
The reason that French Jews fared so much better than their Dutch counterparts was due, at least in part, to the brave work of a French resistance operative named René Carmille. Carmille worked as the head of Vichy France’s Demographic Service from which vantage he was able, not only to sabotage the Nazi efforts to corral the Jewish populations of France, but also to use the Reich’s own Tabulating machines against it.
Just days after the French mobilized in Algeria the Nazis discovered that Carmille was a secret agent for the French resistance. He had no intention of delivering the Jews. It was all a cover for French mobilization….(Black, 329)
Carmille had deceived the Nazis. In fact he had been working with French counter-intelligence since 1911…. And he had been laboring for months on a database of 800,000 former soldiers in France who could be instantly mobilized into well-planned units to fight for liberation.
Indeed, while Black’s retelling of this episode takes up only a small part of one chapter of his book, as well as brief revisitation included in the expanded supplemental materials, where he recounts speaking to Carmille’s son, it is the kind of story that might well have provided the subject of a stand alone work, either fictionalised or historical. Unfortunately it was Carmille’s fate to eventually fall into the hands of the Nazis he had so brilliantly thwarted. In 1944 the brave intelligence operative was arrested and interrogated by the notorious “Butcher of Lyon, Klaus Barbie.” As Black notes, “He never cracked.” (Black, 330)
– Edwin Black, IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation, expanded edition. Dialog Press: Washington DC, 2012.