Many Brown students, faculty and staff don’t know that Brown University’s Center for Information Technology is named for Thomas J. Watson, Sr. Even fewer are aware that there is compelling and largely undisputed evidence that Watson Sr. maintained business ties to Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler or was complicit in the Holocaust.
During his tenure as President and CEO of International Business Machines, Watson Sr. and the corporation leased and regularly maintained technology to Nazi Germany through its German subsidiary that directly supported the regime’s ability to carry out the Holocaust. This technology — punch-card machines that created “19th-century barcodes for human beings” — was used for the express purpose of systematically identifying and tracking Jews and others targeted in the Holocaust, according to investigative reporter Edwin Black’s book, “IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance between Nazi Germany and America's Most Powerful Corporation.” IBM technology was also used to facilitate military operations and coordinate concentration camp functions, such as the complex network of trains that took passengers to them.
The corporation’s involvement in Nazi Germany was not only substantial, it was prolonged. IBM leased its technology for two Nazi censuses, in 1933 and 1939. The second census was particularly heinous, with The New York Times publicly reporting in 1939 that the census would:
provide detailed information on the ancestry, religious faith and material possessions of all residents. Special blanks will be provided on which each person must state whether he is of pure ‘Aryan’ blood. The status of each of his grandparents must be given and substantiated by evidence in case of inquiry.
The history of IBM machines in the Holocaust is well-documented, including inside an exhibit at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Watson lined his pockets with cash made from the Nazi regime with IBM’s German subsidiary, Dehomag, which brought in over half of IBM’s overseas income during Hitler’s rule.
To be clear, at this point the world knew the vile nature of the Nazi regime. Watson and IBM had no claim to ignorance. On just one day in 1933, the year of the first census, The New York Times front page covered: a 100,000 person mass protest in New York against Nazi antisemitism; Nazi book burnings in Berlin attended by 40,000 Germans; and Nazi officials threatening UK officials following British public outrage at Nazi persecution of Jews.
In January 1939, the second year in which IBM technology was used for a Nazi census, Hitler delivered his Reichstag speech in which he referred to himself as a “prophet” and predicted “a world war” which would result in “the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.” Excerpts from this speech were translated and printed in The New York Times the next day.
Watson himself had a unique and troubling connection to Hitler as the first-ever American honored by Hitler with the Nazi “Order of Merit of the German Eagle.” The swastika-laden award, intended to “honor foreign nationals who have made themselves deserving of the German Reich,” was bestowed upon Watson in Berlin in 1937. Surviving photographs show Watson and Hitler, meeting over tea in 1937 in an exhibit in the Computer History Museum.
Some argue that Watson’s most direct connection to the Holocaust was his establishment of an IBM subsidiary, Watson Business Machines, in Nazi-occupied Poland. According to historian and investigative journalist Edwin Black, whose work focuses extensively on Watson Sr.’s involvement with the Third Reich, Watson Business Machines “reported directly to the New York headquarters through the Geneva offices of International Business Machines Corp.” According to Black as referenced in The Guardian, the subsidiary’s “sole purpose was to service the Nazi occupation” by producing and supplying tabulating technology.
While there is some historical debate over the exact uses of IBM technology in Nazi Germany and IBM’s awareness of Nazi genocide, it is still clear that Watson and his board continued to provide services to the Nazi regime for years despite massive public reporting, awareness and outrage against the Nazi regime’s racist brutality.
Following similar recent student calls at the California Institute of Technology to remove Watson’s name from their school, their administration released a report that acknowledged that IBM technology was utilized by the Nazi regime in both “censuses” and “concentration camps,” that IBM and Watson controlled their German operations until 1941 and that Watson was “well aware of the Nazi’s anti-semitism.” The report also includes other examples of patterns of behavior that further affirm Watson was not ignorant to world events or ambivalent about his support. Watson Sr. personally wrote to congratulate one of his German employees on a 1933 speech idealizing Hitler and Nazi values. Moreover, Watson was “defensive” when questioned about his Nazi honors and asked a fellow CEO why “you feel that you have a right to … (tell) me what to do.'' Nonetheless, Caltech stated they needed more “determinative evidence” to no longer honor Watson on their campus.
Looking at Watson with even the most uncritical eye invokes deep concerns about his ethics and what his association means for the University and our community. More critical readings of his actions implicate Watson and his executives directly in the genocide. Either way, he should not be honored on our campus. Therefore, a resolution calling for the removal of Watson’s name has been adopted by the Undergraduate Council of Students and will head to the newly formed Advisory Committee on University Resources Management.
This would represent the first-ever naming issue presented to such a committee at Brown, so the framing of the discussion will be paramount. An “innocent until proven guilty” mindset does not apply to this situation as no one has an inherent right to have buildings named in their honor. If anything, the onus is on the University to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the individuals it honors weren’t implicated in genocide.
Honoring a man who profited off of and assisted in the critical aspects of the organization of genocide doesn't represent the values of the University and the faculty, staff and students who work here. We should not stand for this figure to be honored in this manner.
While ACURM will evaluate the “social responsibility” of the naming, we add that there are very simple frameworks and arguments for changing the name. Firstly, the University renames buildings all the time for a variety of relatively benign reasons. For example, Professor James Walter Wilson is still held in high regard but in 2018 Brown chose to remove his name from the 69 Brown Street building to instead honor two of Brown’s first Black alumni. Secondly, Watson Sr. is not a Brown graduate and few members of the Brown community even know the CIT is named for him. As such, the association hardly benefits Brown in the first place. Lastly, as a matter of simple humanity, Brown students, faculty and staff shouldn’t be forced to associate with someone whose legacy is tarnished with the horrors of the Nazi regime and the Holocaust. As long as Watson Sr.’s name remains on our campus, students will have to learn in a space honoring a man described by The Atlantic as “Hitler’s willing business partner.”
Swaths of Brown students come from communities or hold identities of groups persecuted by the Nazis (with the support of IBM tech); these groups include Jews, Romani people, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Slavic peoples, people with disabilities, members of the LGBTQ+ community, as well as peoples of African descent.
While our country faces its history and reckons with the white supremacy that we know continues to fester, it is important that we as a university do the same and take an active role in dismantling systems that honor, normalize and perpetuate white supremacy and discrimination on our campus. Renaming the CIT is a necessary first step.
Are we as a community comfortable honoring Watson Sr.’s legacy and promoting his name on our campus? We certainly shouldn’t be.
Jason Carroll ’21 and Deborah Meirowitz ’22 can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org. They would like to encourage you to attend “IBM and the Holocaust”: author, historian and investigative journalist Edwin Black’s lecture sponsored by UCS and the Computer Science Departmental Undergraduate Group on Feb. 9th at 7 p.m. They would also like to encourage you to sign and share the petition to demand that Brown cease honoring a genocide collaborator by removing Watson Sr.’s name from the CIT. The authors’ opinions are their own. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.