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Journals of the Day Tell a Tale of IBM

February 18, 2001|EDWIN BLACK | Edwin Black is the author of the just released book, "IBM and the Holocaust" (Crown)

Society typically consigns the writing of history to historians. The reporting of history is the duty of journalists. But can history be written by journalists?

It can, as has been proved again and again. William Shirer, the Berlin correspondent of Columbia Broadcasting, wrote "Rise and Fall of the Third Reich," which has stood the test of time as arguably the best chronicle of Hitler's regime. James Toland did it with his monumental study "Hitler." Many others have used their journalistic skills to capture and portray the historical record.

Melding journalism with history was required to research and write my book, "IBM and the Holocaust." The book traces the 12-year strategic alliance between IBM and Nazi Germany, an alliance that allowed Hitler to automate every aspect of his persecution of the Jews through the use of punch cards. The task was daunting, especially since the topic would substantially change our understanding of the Hitler regime. To undertake this research, I had to develop a method that would withstand challenges from academic sources, defensive corporate spin machines and an astonished public.

A guiding imperative for any such undertaking is establishing the many layers of context. The reader is entitled to understand not only what was done, but the context in which the action was taken. Individual context means individual awareness. Therefore, in the case of IBM founder Thomas J. Watson's dealings with the Third Reich, to demonstrate personal context I relied on the pages of his hometown newspaper, the New York Times.

Historians of the Holocaust frequently discard newspaper articles as unreliable, preferring instead to consult diplomatic papers, intelligence, letters and postwar memoirs. But no one can argue that an executive of IBM enjoyed access to diplomatic and other papers. However Watson did know what the world knew. Hence, the value of the newspapers catapults.

For example, shortly after World War II erupted with the invasion of Poland, the New York Times ran a Sept. 13, 1939, article hinting that the sudden removal of 3 million Polish Jews announced by the Nazi invaders might well spell the "extermination" of those civilians. Such articles were not isolated horror stories but formed a continuing saga of atrocity coverage that began in 1933 and continued right through the war. Whether the 1939 news accounts hinting at Polish extermination are accurate is less important than the impression they might have made on Watson.

My job as a journalist here was to place the reported story in context, identify whether the report was exaggerated and then to describe what action Watson took in the midst of such headlines. In the case of Watson, on Sept. 13, 1939: The IBM chief, just days later, agreed to the transfer of powerful alphabetizing machines into his German subsidiary in response to a letter from managers there declaring they were suddenly needed. More than that, Watson proceeded to incorporate a special German subsidiary in occupied Warsaw and maintain a printing facility across the street from the Warsaw ghetto, which printed some 20 million punch cards. The majority of those cards were utilized by the railroads.

The wider context must also be established. What was the Polish economy like under the vandalizing occupation of the Nazis? What was known in the newspapers about the brutality and rape of Poland? What was known about the erection of the Warsaw ghetto, and how well-reported were its gruesome conditions? By drawing all this together, one paints both a picture and a perception of reality at the time. But reality checks are constantly in order.

Hence, the journalist is handcuffed to the necessity to continuously double-check and triple-check his reported information with scholars who have studied the period. Not just any expert will do. Just as the journalist has been trained to check his facts with a variety of sources, the historical journalist must submit his findings to both general and niche experts.

In my case, "IBM and the Holocaust" was submitted to continuous review by some 35 Holocaust historians and experts. The historical journalist can never be reviewed by too many experts.

Moreover, the journalist must be willing to accept the criticism and suggestion of the reviewers. I did. One chapter was rewritten some 40 times as historians added one layer of context after another.

In Europe, the concept of the historical journalist is well-established. With the skills of advanced information gathering perfected by many journalists, we can only expect to see the discipline of historical journalism developing in the U.S. as well.

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