Sometime in 2002, a colleague from IBM’s communications team asked me if I would be willing to talk to some people that were doing a documentary on corporations and social responsibility. I was told that the request had come to us from the CEO of Burson Marsteller , a global public relations firm, who himself had been interviewed for the documentary. He contacted a friend in IBM and recommended that someone from the company should also participate, given IBM’s strong interest and long history in social responsibility. Moreover, we were told that the highly respected Canadian Broadcasting Corporation was somehow involved in producing the documentary, presumably to be broadcast over the CBC sometime in the future.
It all seemed quite reasonable at the time. My IBM colleagues felt I was the right person to do this interview given my interest in the subject as well as my personal involvement in the kinds of activities we would likely cover. They contacted the people involved with the documentary, and asked them what kinds of issues they wanted to focus on, so I could be as well prepared as possible to answer their questions. We got back a very good set of questions, mostly asking about the kinds of initiatives IBM was engaged in that we felt would benefit societies around the world.
It was not difficult to come up with such a list given the many relevant projects IBM has been involved in, from the use of advanced supercomputing in personalized medicine and pharmaceutical research, to the use of IT and the Internet in particular to improve education around the world. I was also prepared to talk about another important aspect of social responsibility, namely IBM’s exemplary record in support of diversity in its work force.
So, sometime in 2002 I went with my colleague to a suite at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City were the interview was being filmed, and after some friendly chatter, proceeded to do the interview. Mark Achbar, one of the directors of the documentary was asking the questions.
We talked for about an hour about the topics they had sent us, and it all went rather well. But all of a sudden the nature of the questions changed when Achbar asked me if a company was responsible for its actions in the past. I replied that this was too broad a question to answer in general, but if he could be more specific about a concrete issue, perhaps we can shed some light on it. He then proceeded to ask me about IBM’s role in the Holocaust, especially about the allegations made in a 2001 book on the subject by Edwin Black.
I told Achbar that I was really not the right person to discuss Black’s book. I, of course, knew about the book, but had not read it and was not at all an expert in the topics it discussed. IBM had issued a response when the book first came out, and I offered to put him in contact with the right people who could best answer his questions.
But Achbar said he just wanted my opinion, and out of politeness, after all we had been nicely chatting for over an hour, I told him my personal feelings on the matter. It was a fact that the Nazis used equipment manufactured by IBM’s German subsidiary, as was the case with hundreds of foreign companies that did business in Germany at the time. However, as to Black’s allegations of IBM’s complicity with the Nazis, I felt that they had been pretty much discredited based on what I had read on the subject.
Let me take a minute to explain my answer. When Black’s book first came out, I read a number of reviews and articles, being quite interested not only as a Jew but also as an IBM executive. For example, the New York Times reviewer wrote in March of 2001:
“ . . . midway through his fervent exposé, Mr. Black also says that many American companies did what I.B.M. did. Namely, they "refused to walk away from the extraordinary profits obtainable from trading with a pariah state such as Nazi Germany." What then makes I.B.M. different? What makes it worthy of Mr. Black's study and justifies the phrase "strategic alliance" in its title, suggesting something far more sinister than a mere willingness to do business with an evil state?”
The review concludes by saying: “Mr. Black's case is long and heavily documented, and yet he does not demonstrate that I.B.M. bears some unique or decisive responsibility for the evil that was done.”
A second Times article a couple of weeks later wrote:
“Drawing on documents from archives in the United States and across Europe, Black tells the astonishing story of a corporation and a corporate leader, Thomas J. Watson, eagerly conniving with the Nazis as they carried out their murderous program. This, of course, is an explosive charge, made all the more sensational by the fact that of the major histories on the Holocaust published in the last 50 years, not one so much as mentions I.B.M.'s contribution to the Nazi Final Solution, not even (I believe) in a footnote.”
This article later adds: “ . . . Black stakes out a number of far-reaching claims that he is unable to sustain, most crucially that Hitler's quest to exterminate world Jewry was ''greatly enhanced and energized'' by the I.B.M. corporation and its leader.”
It then reaches its own conclusions: “ . . . the evidence Black adduces never proves anything of the sort,” as well as “Black, in any case, never discusses whether I.B.M.'s trading relationship with the Nazis was thicker or thinner than that of other multinational companies.”
Most of what I read about Black’s book reached similar conclusions, so my answer to Achbar was not intended as a defense of IBM but as a simple statement of what I had concluded about his book based on what I had read about it.
But Achbar was not satisfied and kept asking me questions about the allegations in Black's book. I did not know the answers and repeated the offer to put him in touch with the proper experts.
Finally, my IBM colleague put an end to the interview, as we had veered way off the subjects we had come to discuss. We both left pretty upset, as it felt that we had been ambushed by the interviewer with a set of questions that had nothing to do with the topics we had been led to believe they wanted to talk about. A few phone calls were made complaining of the turn the interview had taken, and we got assurances that this was just a small part of the material they collected and it would all be properly edited.
Then, about a year later we finally found out the truth. Achbar and his team were not making a CBC documentary at all. They were in fact making a film, co-directed by Achbar and Jennifer Abbott called The Corporation , based on a book called The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power by Joel Bakan , who also wrote the script for the film.
The book and film are based on the premise that an in-depth psychological examination of the behavior of corporations would reveal that they typically act like a dangerously destructive psychopath without conscience. The film then tries to prove its premise through various case studies, including a segment claiming that American corporations played a key role in the rise of Nazi Germany and in the Holocaust, singling out IBM based on the allegations made by Edwin Black, who appears in the segment.
Just about everything about the my interview, other than the final questions about the Holocaust was a lie, a ruse to get me to come to the Waldorf and talk to them on camera. They had to waste an hour asking me questions about medical research, the environment and education, which they clearly cared nothing about. But, I guess that was a small price to pay to get my short statements on Black’s book so they could include them in their film.
I wonder if Achbar and Abbot high-fived each other when they got me to say something on camera, even if it was quite short. I wonder if they felt pride in having so tricked someone from the kind of evil, psychotic corporation their film was about.
For my part, I felt deceived and used. Even worse, I felt violated, especially as a Jew. The fact that these people brought up the Holocaust during our interview in such a roundabout and deceptive way was particularly offensive given my background and my own family losses in the Holocaust, including grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.
Given what had transpired, I wanted nothing to do with the film and made no attempt to go see it. My IBM colleague did see it shortly after it was released, and felt that my role in the segment was pretty innocuous. I agreed with the conclusion when I finally did see my own segment online a few years later. I generally don’t think much about it, but every so often someone I know tells me that they saw me in The Corporation.
So, why is it that after all these years I am writing in my blog about this unfortunate incident instead of just letting sleeping dogs lie?
A key reason is that the Holocaust has been in my mind recently. This summer I attended a conference in Berlin and went to the haunting Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe. Somewhat later in the summer, I watched The Reader on DVD, an excellent film with the Holocaust as a central theme. Then a few weeks ago I got an e-mail from someone that had just seen me in The Corporation segment on You Tube, and was asking me how I, as a Jew, could have agreed to appear in such a film allegedly defending IBM’s role in Nazi Germany. And then while in Chile a few weeks ago, a Jewish colleague from IBM Chile asked my opinion of the Black allegations.
I have also been recently thinking a lot about civilized behavior, or the lack of it increasingly seen in our society as we are trying to find rational solutions to very complex subjects like health care and immigration. My experience at the Waldorf feels to me like a concrete example of such a breakdown in civility on the part of people who should know better.
The producers of The Corporation may have been after IBM, a large public company, but it was me, an individual, that they ensnared in their nets. It is me they mugged, by getting me to come to the Waldorf under totally false pretenses, and it is me whose identity they essentially stole by including me in a film I never agreed to be associated with. I suspect that they would argue that their noble objectives to expose the evils of corporations justifies their deceptive means, an argument that has been used through history to justify all kinds of bad behaviors and actions.
Finally, having gotten this tale of deception off my chest by writing about it in my blog, it is time to move on . . .