The Six Million Figure - Where Did it Come From?

1. "Six million Jews died in the Holocaust."? Just where did that figure come from? And what does it mean?

2. The earliest attempts to put a number on the dimensions of the Holocaust came from simple before-and-after demographic comparisons. Take the number of Jews in Europe before WWII, subtract the number found there after the war, add back those who managed to escape, and round it to the nearest million.

Of course, all these numbers are estimates. Even with the vigorous effort by the United States to count every single person once every ten years, and even with all our modern-day technology, it is widely recognized that the census misses over 1% of the total population - and that it misses minorities by an even higher percentage. In many areas of Europe at that time, census taking was not nearly as comprehensive as it is in the United States. Other writers, using different estimates, have proposed both lower and higher figures. Some go as high as seven million. At the other end of the scale, Gerald Reitlinger arrived at a figure of between 4.2 and 4.5 million.

This method of estimating also simplifies the issue slightly. An elderly person who died peacefully in bed in Paris the morning after the Germans invaded France was not really a victim of the Holocaust, but would be counted as such by the simple method above. The same goes for a Jewish soldier killed in battle. Accordingly, other writers have tried other methods to come up with a Holocaust death toll. For example, Raul Hilberg used more conservative definition, trying to count only those who were actually captured by the Nazis and died under their control, whether by shooting, gas, starvation, or disease. He came up with a figure of about 5.2 million.

These numbers are still estimates. This is true of any large-scale disaster. We do not have an exact figure for the number of people killed in WWII. We do not even have an exact number for the death toll of the 1900 Galveston hurricane - estimates range from 6,000 to 12,000, with 8,000 being the most widely-used figure. So it is not at all surprising or unusual that the estimates of Holocaust victims range from 4.2 to 7 million.

3. It is not, however, legitimate to argue that since these estimates are so wide the true figure could be much smaller (or, for that matter, much bigger) - say, by a factor of ten or more. Since the Nazis themselves explicitly reported shooting about a million Jews in the occupied Soviet Union before creating the concentration camp system, a number below 1,000,000 (as some Holocaust deniers try to claim) is not credible. The legitimate estimates all have actual foundations in evidence. "Since we don't know, it could easily be far less" is pure handwaving with no evidence at all.

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