One of the most well-known, if not iconic, facts known about the Holocaust is the number of Jewish victims killed by Nazi Germany up through the end of World War II. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is also this number - six million - that Holocaust deniers aim at when trying to discredit the essential nature of the Holocaust.
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Where did the number six million come from? And considering the amount of original research that has been done in recent decades, is it still considered accurate by scholars of the subject?
The number seems to have first been mentioned by Dr. Wilhelm Hoettl, an Austrian-born official in the Third Reich and a trained historian who served in a number of senior positions in the SS.
In November 1945, Hoettl testified for the prosecution in the Nuremberg trials of accused Nazi war criminals. Later, in the 1961 trial in Israel of Adolf Eichmann, he also submitted to a lengthy series of questions from the prosecution, speaking under oath from a courtroom in Austria.
On both occasions, he described a conversation he had had with Eichmann, the SS official who had principal responsibility for the logistics of the Jewish genocide, in Budapest in August 1944. In the 1961 testimony, Hoettl recalled how “Eichmann … told me that, according to his information, some 6,000,000 Jews had perished until then -- 4,000,000 in extermination camps and the remaining 2,000,000 through shooting by the Operations Units and other causes, such as disease, etc.”
On its website, Yad Vashem, Israel’s principal Holocaust research center, quotes the Eichmann reference, and then says that both early and more recent estimates by a variety of different scholars have fallen between five and six million.
Such estimates are arrived at by comparing pre-war census data with population estimates made after World War II. The Germans, though they treated their plan for annihilation of the Jews as a state secret of the highest order, also kept scrupulous records of deportations and gassings, which also serve as a vital source of data.
One of the earliest researchers, Raul Hilberg, came up with a figure of 5.1 million in his 1961 classic “The Destruction of the European Jews.” In the third edition, from 1985, he provides a lengthy appendix explaining how he calculated the estimate.
Lucy Dawidowicz, in her “The War Against the Jews” (1975), used prewar birth and death records to come up with a more precise figure of 5,933,900. And one of the more authoritative German scholars of the subject, Wolfgang Benz, offered a range of 5.3 to 6.2 million. Each used his or her own method to arrive at the totals.
Yad Vashem itself also has its Names Database, an ongoing project in which it attempts to collect the name of every Jewish victim of the Nazis. It relies on testimony from family and friends of those who perished, official archives from the period, and local commemoration projects. As of early 2012, Yad Vashem estimated that the database contained the names of a little over four million different individuals (an exact number is not yet possible because it believes that some hundreds of thousands of people appear in multiple records).
One of the largest sources of uncertainty concerns the number of Jews murdered in the Soviet Union. Whereas the Jews of the countries of Europe occupied by the Germans were for the most part deported to death camps, where fairly good records were kept, the murders in the USSR were carried out by Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units), as the German army made its way east. Their records were far less comprehensive, so that it is possible only to make a rough estimate of the numbers of Jews killed – generally between 800,000 and 1 million.
The overall death and destruction that took place during World War II may well be beyond human comprehension. Historians estimate that military casualties on all sides, in both the European and Pacific theaters, reached up to 25 million, and that civilian casualties ranged from 38 million to as high a figure as 55 million – meaning that somewhere between 3 and 4 percent of the world’s total population died in the conflict.
Nonetheless, the murder of the Jews of Europe is in a class by itself – not because of the numbers, but because of the ideology behind it, which placed the elimination of an entire people and their culture from the earth as one of its primary goals. It was unique because Nazi propaganda focused so intently on the Jews as an almost supernatural cause of evil, and the German war machine remained devoted to killing Jews up to the very last day of the war, long after it was clear that that war was lost.
That is to say: Murdering the Jews was an end in itself, and it was used to motivate the German nation to great sacrifices of its own.
That being said, there were other groups and peoples that were singled out by Nazi eliminationist ideology. Most notable among these were the Roma, or Gypsies, with estimates of the number killed ranging from 90,000 to 1.5 million. (One reason estimates vary so widely is attributed to a traditional secrecy and silence among the Roma regarding what they endured.) Proportionally, these numbers are as high or higher than the fraction of Jews who were killed. But it was the nomadic way of life, rather than their supposed racial background – which was Aryan – that made them enemies of the regime. And indeed, by late 1943, Nazi policy centered upon non-sedentary nomadic Gypsies, and declared those Roma who had settled in a single place to be considered like citizens of that place.
“Six million” is not, and was never intended to be, a precise accounting. But the number, which has now been part of the public consciousness for more than 50 years, would never have continued to be cited if it did not mirror the scholarly tallies that have followed in the succeeding decades, and confirmed that rough figure.
This article was originally published in August 2013