Distorting the Holocaust: Why Numbers Matter
One of the most common errors in describing the magnitude of the Shoah is the number of people who died. Figures range from 50 million to 11 million, a reflection of a fundamental misunderstanding of the uniqueness of this catastrophe. The use of 11 million is a particularly egregious historical distortion as it equates the destruction of the Jews of Europe with that of the others who were murdered.
We study the Shoah to understand what transpired, why it happened and what it tells us about the attitude of Western civilization toward Jews and other minorities living in the West. It is not a contest to see which group suffered the most or sustained the greatest numerical losses.
If we are to learn from history, we must be concerned about objective truth, with transmitting what actually ensued and not allowing those with their own particular agenda or ignorance to obscure our understanding of what occurred. Distinguishing between different historical events does not, and should not, lessen or demean the suffering of others.
When we refer to the Holocaust, we mean the systematic bureaucratically administered destruction by the Nazis and their collaborators of six million Jews during the Second World War. The Jews were found "guilty" only because they were viewed inaccurately as a race. The Nazi state orchestrated the attempted mass murder of every person with at least three Jewish grandparents.
Millions of civilians and soldiers were killed as a consequence of war. Communists, political and religious leaders were eliminated because they were viewed as a potential threat to the Nazis. When the Nazis murdered approximately 10,000 Polish intelligentsia, in 1939-1940, and Polish Catholic priesthood in western Poland, for example, they were trying to prevent these groups from becoming a political and spiritual force that could unite the country against them. Similarly, when the Nazis murdered more than two and one-half million Soviet prisoners of war, they were killing a military force that had fought them on the field of battle.
European Jews, on the other hand, were the only people marked for complete destruction. To the Nazi leadership, the Jews were a satanic force that controlled both the East and the West and, posed a physical threat to the German nation. There was no way to stop this alleged international Jewish conspiracy from gaining total control of the world, the Nazis reasoned, except to physically destroy every Jewish man, woman, and child. Failure to do so, Hitler believed, "would not lead to a Versailles treaty but the final destruction, indeed, to the annihilation of the German people."
When the executioners questioned their superiors about the need to kill every Jewish woman and child, Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, claimed that he would not have been "justified in getting rid of the men-in having them put to death, in other words—only to allow their children to grow up to avenge themselves on our sons and grandsons. We have to make up our minds, hard though it may be, that this race must be wiped off the face of the earth."
For a number of reasons, we do not know the exact number of Jews who were killed. German historian Wolfgang Benz posits that there were 6,269,027, which is more than earlier studies by Jewish scholars. Six Million is the most accurate term and acceptable.
The Nazis also annihilated a minimum of 300,000 Sinti and Roma from Germany, the Baltic region, Ukraine, Croatia and Serbia, although the precise number cannot be determined. Many thousands of others were also killed: the physically and mentally disabled, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, socialists, communists, trade unionists, and political and religious dissidents.
None of these groups, however, were the primary target of the Nazis—not the mentally disabled, who were killed in the euthanasia centers in Germany (here it is to be noted that the Nazis did not export this program to the civilian populations outside the Reich); not the homosexuals, who were regarded as social deviants but for whom the Nazis did not have a consistent policy (homosexuals were persecuted only in the Reich and in areas annexed to it but not in countries the Germans occupied); not the Gypsies, who were partly seen as "asocial" aliens and Aryans within society and therefore did not have to be annihilated completely; and not the Jehovah's Witnesses, who had refused to swear allegiance to Hitler and who declined to serve in the German army, but who were not marked for extinction; in fact, only a small number were incarcerated in the camps, and most of them were German nationals. The Nazis also did not single out every socialist, communist, trade unionist, or dissident—just those they perceived as a threat to the Reich. The Jews alone were the primary target of the Nazis.
When we use 11 million or any other number than the Six Million to describe the Shoah, we are distorting the historical record. We trivialize the importance of this unprecedented event in modern history, minimize the experiences of all those who suffered and prevent a legitimate understanding of its causes and its universal implications for Western society.
The stakes are too high to misrepresent history for as Richard Rubenstein accurately noted, "Auschwitz has enlarged our conception of the state's capacity to do violence. A barrier has been overcome in what for millennia had been regarded as the permissible limits of political action.” Our continued interest and fascination with the Nazi period should keep us vigilant Jacob Talmon observed for "it is entirely possible that this is the end that awaits many races and nations -- maybe all of them. And the Jews will then prove to have been the first victim of this new experiment."
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Elliott Aron Green - 9/9/2009
`Umar, I am very impressed by the profound wisdom of Israel Shahak. But I find it curious that you are willing to accept his interpretation of Jewish religious writings with which you are not familiar, whereas you claim to be unable to form an opinion of plain statements in the Quran which you are able to read on your own in the original Arabic and which, in my opinion, do not need much interpretation, since the same hostility toward Jews appears quite a few times in the Quran, along with some verses that might be considered Zionist.
I also note that you mightily strive to split hairs, as when you separate Haj Amin el-Husseini from the Nazis, as if Husseini was only allying with Germany, not with the Nazis who ran Germany at that time. Further, Husseini clearly identified Nazi ideology with Islam in a speech to the Bosnian Muslim SS division, the Handschar, which he had helped to orgnanize. By the way, the Handschar [khanjar] division went around murdering Serbs, Jews and Gypsies [Roma]. They were also used against Tito's Communist partisans, as Philip Mattar, an apologist for Husseini, has hinted in his whitewash biography of Husseini and in an article about him. I wonder what Shahak, who was a Communist, had to say about the murders of Tito's Communist Yugoslav partisans by Muslim SS troops organized by the Mufti.
For a speech by the Mufti to the Bosnian Muslim SS, see:
Joseph Schechtman, The Mufti and the Fuehrer.
Again, in the speech as quoted Husseini likened Islam to Nazism. But I suppose that it's kind and generous of you to still sympathize with Husseini. I will stop here since going on would be tedious.
omar ibrahim baker - 9/6/2009
"I am appalled at this continual dimunition of all the others from the Holocaust. Egregious wrong being perpetuated even now. You don't count if you are not a Jew. Now how is that for using victimhood to promote yourself over others equally victimized and slaughtered. That is obscene and anti-humanistic."
Besch's words above says all there is to say about the shameful attempt by some to distinguish, and thus over glorify, ones' victimhood from the Gentiles'!
All forms of exploitation of an abominable crime against humans should stop .
Unless, of course, but sadly as seems to be the case it is another ploy to single out, and thus prioritize, a certain number of people, or the community they belong to, to justify, diminish and atone for the wanton victimization of an uninvolved, totally innocent, community by some of theirs.
Randll Reese Besch - 9/6/2009
Most of the time I only see the 6 million number given. Only that. So the others who were targeted which included colored badges to wear to identify you along with the familiar yellow Mogen David. The triangles including pink, black, lavender, and green (capo) and the red stars for communists and socialists. The Jews were the primary ones along with the Roma who in many cases were killed on the spot! I dare say that any of those wearing those badges or stigmata were targets at one time or the other. You weren't safe wearing such in the Reich or those who agreed out side of it.
I am appalled at this continual dimunition of all the others from the Holocaust. Egregious wrong being perpetuated even now. You don't count if you are not a Jew. Now how is that for using victimhood to promote yourself over others equally victimized and slaughtered. That is obscene and anti-humanistic.
omar ibrahim baker - 9/4/2009
My first step is to remind you that Zionism, now Israel, committed a huge crime against my people who, as a people, had nothing to do with the Holocaust thereby Zionism/Israel assumed the role of butcher against a totally innocent people and that is my overriding concern.
1-Hajj Amin, may God have mercy on his soul, was looking for allies among the major nations to combat the Zionist/British alliance and he found in Germany, not in Nazism, a potential ally.
Incrimination by alliance, per se, is, I presume you know, infantile except when it reflects an identity of ideological orientation as with Israel and the defunct South Africa of Apartheid fame both of which share an intrinsic racist orientation.
No such ideological affinity ever existed between the Palestinian people, or with Hajj Amin, and Nazism.
He was simply looking for an ally among the major nations to combat world Zionism which had then launched its colonization of Palestine campaign and Germany happened to be Nazi dominated and oriented at the time.
2-Jizya was part of a taxation system wherein Moslems were subjected to other taxes, such as zaket and usher, from which Ahl Al Kitab were exempted.
As with all taxation systems some things might look odd but NOT necessarily discriminatory.
3- I am in no position, due to the paucity and shallowness of my religious knowledge, to discuss the, historical and /or religious context in which the suras you refer to could be interpreted.
The thing to recall, though, is that whereas Jews and Christians in Islam are "people of the (divinely inspired) Book" both Christians and Moslems are GOYIM/Gentile in Judaism.
You must read Israel Shahak to know the implications of that.
As a reminder I will quote him for you:
“According to the Jewish religion, the murder of a Jew is a capital offense and one of the three most heinous sins (the other two being idolatry and adultery). Jewish religious courts and secular authorities are commanded to punish, even beyond the limits of the ordinary administration of justice, anyone guilty of murdering a Jew. A Jew who indirectly causes the death of another Jew is, however, only guilty of what talmudic law calls a sin against the 'laws of Heaven', to be punished by God rather than by man.
When the victim is a Gentile, the position is quite different. A Jew who murders a Gentile is guilty only of a sin against the laws of Heaven, not punishable by a court 1 .
To cause indirectly the death of a Gentile is no sin at all.2"
1- The Jews themselves universally described themselves as a religious community or, to be precise, a religious nation. 'Our people is a people only because of the Torah (Religious Law)'-this saying by one of the highest authorities, Rabbi Sa'adia Hagga'on who lived in the 10th century, has become proverbial.
2- By Emperor Joseph II in 1782.
(All above quotations are from Israel Shahak's monumental oeuvre "Jewish History, Jewish Religion : The Weight of Three Thousand Years" , Chapter two.
The book is available on the web at: http://www.geocities.com/israel_shahak/book1.htm#5)
Elliott Aron Green - 9/4/2009
Your wonderful message above makes one rejoice. You denounce the Holocaust and you stand for the equality of all humans. Great.
Now, your next steps ought to be
1) denouncing the Arab leaders who took part in the Holocaust. You might start with Haj Amin el-Husseini, the British-appointed Mufti of Jerusalem who urged the Nazis and the satellite states in Eastern Europe to kill more Jews and not let any escape. He also prepared the ground ideologically and psychologically for the Bagdad Farhud of 1941 that massacred an estimated 180 Jews, although some 600 were murdered.
2) disavow Sura 9 verse 29 of the Quran which calls for imposing tribute on the Ahl al-Kitab [Jews and Christians]. After all, if Jews & Christians are equal to Muslims, why should they have to pay tribute [jizya]?
3) disavow the Quranic verses which call Jews "sons of apes and pigs." If Jews are "sons of apes and pigs" then they can't be equal, can they??
Let me know of the progress that you are making in the tasks listed above.
N. Friedman - 9/3/2009
I certainly agree that one should recognize all of those who suffered and/or died in concentration camps (and, to add, in other settings) at the hands of the Nazis. To that extent, we have no argument at all. Their suffering and deaths are all equal.
My focus is elsewhere. I am concerned how we understand the phenomena that effected different groups. To me, what occurred to Jews was not the result of the same phenomena that impacted non-Jews who died in the same settings. Which is to say, the Nazis singled out the Jews for complete elimination, which was not the aim with other groups. That is not a distinction without a difference (except, of course, to the dead).
I do not think that the Jewish and non-Jewish suffering and deaths at the hands of the Nazis grew out of the same historical roots. I do not think that Jews were singled out for reasons similar to others who were singled out. That, after all, is why the effort to kill Jews was directed at killing all Jews, not only those who opposed, crossed or annoyed, etc., the Nazis at any given moment.
If, in fact, we are dealing with a seemingly related but, in fact, substantially different phenomena, then each needs to be understood and, I should add, named separately.
Further, the racial distinctions drawn by the Nazis have precedent in Europe and thus bear separate consideration. Spaniards made similar distinctions when they attacked the Conversos in 15th Century Spain. The argument made was that the Conversos (New Christians) with Jewish heritage - i.e. Christians who had converted from Judaism or were the children or grandchildren, etc., etc. of Jews who had converted to Christianity - could not be true Christians because Jews were racially different. Hence, the Conversos would always be Judaizers and could not shed their Jewishness by conversion. Neither could their children or grandchildren and, if I recall correctly, their great grandchildren.
So, in fact, we have a very specific phenomena that, in both cases, concerned, in considerable measure, Jewish assimilation. Both Nazis and 15th Century Spaniards who opposed the Conversos said Jews were not able to assimilate - they were always Jews. And, that, of course, resulted in widespread mayhem because these people were, in fact, within but not accepted by society. And, there were, of course, Conversos from Islam but they were not treated quite the same as Jews. Why? Because a Muslim could, racially speaking, make the leap to Christianity. A Jew could not, at least to those who held the racialist theory.
Regarding what you write: Why draw a line in one place (e.g. soldiers killed in battle are not part of the Holocaust) rather than another place? And, ought there not be some way that we, not to mention history, distinguishes wholesale efforts to single out a specific group for total elimination?
I think these are central historical and, I should add, moral/practical questions that have present day significance. That question is taken up, among other topics, in Lévy's book, although this is not the central topic of his book.
One of Lévy's concerns is what he calls the New Antisemitism, which arises, on his telling, from, inter alia, attempts to alter the traditional understanding of the Holocaust - and, according to him, is not caused solely by those who are crude Holocaust deniers. As exemplar of that phenomena are those who say that what happened to Jews was not so unique. Usually, the argument goes that many suffered in human history; Jews are attempting to monopolize human suffering for their own selfish ends. Throwing in those who suffered in concentration camps and saying they were part of the same event is, no doubt unintentionally on your part, a way of re-casting history, making a rather unique phenomena as it relates to Jews, into something less unique by yoking related but different phenomena. [Note: I am not attempting to place you in this boat, merely to note where your argument can lead or how it can be twisted.]
So, I do not think this is a question, as you suggest, about how Jews feel about the matter. I think this is a question of calling things what they are. And, the Holocaust was about the destruction of the Jews. That is the historical, moral and dictionary meaning.
omar ibrahim baker - 9/3/2009
Your reasoned attempt to stress the imperative to recognize the equal horror of the Holocaust to all its victims and hence their equal human worth is bound to be construed, by some, as an attempt to undermine a hugely profitable "monopoly"!
omar ibrahim baker - 9/3/2009
The cheap exploitation of a horrendous human tragedy, the abominable Holocaust, has had its many facets; financial and otherwise .
The attempt to depict some of its victims as “unique” i.e. for one reason or another, "special" and unlike any other boils down to an implicit attempt to classify human beings.
However once classification has started some of its victims are bound to be classified not only as different but, having been singled out, as “special” which inevitably implies superior to other victims who ,also inevitably are ,then, deemed as inferior.
To attempt to bolster a deeply rooted racist ideology recently morphed into a political cause and implemented as an equally racist “nation/state” through a special/confessional/“racist” classification of the victims of the Holocaust, and in the process “monopolizing” the sympathy ( and other outputs/benefits) generated and accrued there from while failing to advance that cause, certainly a positive output, does at the same time reflect negatively on the utter horror of the Holocaust by tainting it with a racist brush and thus decreasing its criminality: certainly a negative output!
The Holocaust should stand out as an abominable crime of unprecedented criminality and horror by both its intent and the number of its victims: all being human beings of , intrinsically, equal worth.
Kirk Randall Marusak - 9/3/2009
I still want emphasis to focus on the suffering of the Jewish people who died in the concentration camps as it has been for the last 64 years. However, if 11 million people actually died in the concentration camps, then 11 million people should be counted. The number of Holocaust dead should not reflect an individual's background. Every one of the 11 million people were either murdered or starved to death. People cannot change the amount if the actual truth is 11 million.
I was only referring to the Russians soldiers on the battlefield because Dr. Grobman made the statement that the Russian soldiers were only killed because they wanted to stop the Nazi Army. Regardless, 2,000,000 to 3,000,000 million Soviet soldiers died in the German Nazi concentration camps. Whether the German Nazis killed them because the soldiers tried to stop Germany's push into Russia, their racial inferiority or because they were communists (which is opposed to Nazi fascism), the 2 to 3 million figure is still a part of the 11 million people. That is why I said, "a murder is still a murder."
I will read the book by Bernard-Henry Levy as you suggested. I do understand how some Jewish people feel about the 11 million figure. I have not disputed the differences between Nazi's desire to completely eliminate the Jews and how they treated the other groups. Historical research concerning the events that led to 6 million Jewish people dying must continue.
At the same time, each person that perished in the concentration camps would want their name added to the list of Holocaust dead, and each family of that individual would want them included in the 11 million. By continuing to keep the 11 million amount does not eliminate the books or the knowledge that Germany attempted to kill every Jew based on their race. Emphasis will always be placed on the Jewish people and their stories. I have never walked into any Holocaust museum that did not stress what happened to the Jews in Europe through their exhibits.
You might talk to the survivors that are not Jewish to understand how they view the 6 million figure. Even though they are not a part of the Holocaust amount, they want the members of their group (i.e., Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals, Roma) who died to be included. Many are offended if the members of their group who perished are not a part of the total figure.
N. Friedman - 9/2/2009
I am afraid that I must differ with you. Your argument, as I understand it, boils down to, to quote you, "Murder is still murder." In other words, your contention is that intention does not go to the heart of what distinguishes the Holocaust from other historical episodes of mass killing.
I would strongly suggest that you read what Bernard-Henri Lévy has written on this topic in his interesting but oddly written book, Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism. Lévy distinguishes what occurred to the Jews during WWII to other episodes of mass killing and of genocide, most particularly the Armenian genocide. As he notes, an Armenian who left the Ottoman Empire was no longer the target of Ottoman policy. Which is to say, the attacks on them were circumstantial. For Jews, the world was a trap, in that the Nazis aimed to destroy Jews wherever they lived.
Now, you are correct that those other than Jews who were killed in WWII need to be remembered. As do the tens of millions of soldiers who died in the war against the Nazis. On your telling, the soldiers were part of the Holocaust. To me, focusing on the deaths - without regard to the intent (which is what distinguishes genocide from other horrors) - as what defines the Holocaust is an absurd abuse of language.
As British novelist Howard Jacobson notes:
When Jews demur from the word Holocaust each time there is an instance of man's inhumanity to man, it is not because they think their suffering is keener, or somehow more pristine, than anyone else's. It is simply that one thing is not another thing. When next there is an attempt first to slander and then to wipe out a whole people, to burn away every trace of them and their beliefs from the face of the earth, to make it as though they never were and to ensure they never will be again, Jews will accept that Holocaust is the word.
This is not a species of scholasticism, verbal fastidiousness for its own sake. If we do not properly describe what a thing is like and not like, we do not know what it is. It is in the nature of hatred not to know what a thing is like and not to care. Which is why we say that hatred is blind. Indeed, one of the signs that hatred is being brewed, in an individual or a community, is the deliberate wedding of like to unlike. Brutes yoke unlikes together in haste, enjoying that surge in emotional violence that blurring all distinctions brings.
Here is why intellectuals, philosophers, artists, poets, are so important to our wellbeing. By exploring the ways things are different, however much they may sometimes look the same, by showing us how and why a thing became the thing it is and not another thing, they help still the undifferentiated violence of the furious and embittered. Little by little, they bring the calm of distinctness and individuality back into our lives.
Howard Jacobson, "Think what you like about Israel, but to equate Zionism with Nazism is simply incendiary," The Independent, April 20, 2002.
Think about it.
Margaret Notappro - 9/2/2009
Unwittingly, or Enthusiastically, ... Anybody who is denying the extent of the Holocaust is laying ground for the next one.
Kirk Randall Marusak - 9/2/2009
I disagree with Dr. Alex Grobman's contention that 6 million rather than 11 million people should be counted as part of the Holocaust. Although I am the Coordinating Chairperson of the U.S. Federal Government's Federal Interagency Holocaust Remembrance Program, the views I express here are my own personal views and not in any way the official views of the federal government. Dr. Grobman believes that since the Jewish population was targeted solely based on the Nazi regime's hate and desire for the total destruction of the Jewish people, we should only count the 6 million Jewish people who perished as part of the Holocaust numbers and not the 5 million people from the other groups (i.e., non-Jewish Poles, Roma, Jehovah's Witnesses) who died. I do agree with Grobman's contention that the Jews have a special place among Holocaust history. I also support emphasis of the Holocaust being placed on the Jews since the Nazi regime spent so much of their resources on eliminating the Jewish population in Europe and because of the history of anti-Semitism in Europe. I agree with his contention that Catholic priests and Soviet troops were killed because they were either a threat to the regime or because they fought the Nazi military on the battlefield. However, it must not be overlooked that it was easier for Nazi troops to kill the Polish intelligentsia and Russian troops because of the racial doctrine of the Nazi regime to treat ethnic Slavs as "Untermenschen" or subhuman.
But Dr. Grobman's position that people from the other groups killed in the Holocaust or 5 million people, in addition to the 6 million Jews, should not be considered as part of the Holocaust count is wrong. I have talked to the survivors of the concentration camps both Jewish and non-Jewish and their experiences in the camps were similar along with their suffering. The families of the people who died in the camps lost a loved one regardless of their background. Each person who died left a void in their family's lives. It does not diminish the horrors that the Nazis directed against the Jews from 1933 to 1945 by including the additional 5 million people. Holocaust history will always focus more on the Jewish people and rightfully so.
At the same time, genocide used against any person does not make them any less a victim whether they were killed based on hate or for war purposes. I just learned recently that my grandfather's brother, a Catholic priest in Poland, died in Dachau in 1942. By not giving credence to all of the deaths in the concentration camps reduces the responsibility of the German Nazi regime and the impact they had on the families they destroyed. By eliminating any of the 11 million people as part of the Holocaust numbers diminishes the worth of numerous people who perished.
There is a difference between killing someone based on hate for their group and murdering someone because they are the enemy. But genocide committed by any government is never acceptable; Murder is still murder. Would we consider the 2 million Cambodians destroyed by the Khmer Rouge any less a tragedy than the Holocaust simply because the killing was not based on hate for the victim's ethnic background? Should we only accept books and articles written in the future about Holocaust victims that only mention the 6 million Jewish people who perished? What does that say to the families of the people from the other victimized groups? Even though your relative suffered and died in a concentration camp, they are not important enough to be counted among the Holocaust dead.
Yesterday was the 70th anniversary of German invasion of Poland and the start of World War II, and both the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the German government recognize all of the groups of people who died in the concentration camps as part of the Holocaust numbers and include every person who survived the camps as victims. We must remember the 6 million Jewish lives and the tremendous efforts the Nazi regime took to destroy the Jewish people. At the same time, we must not treat the deaths of the other 5 million victims of the Holocaust as insignificant, whether they were Freemasons, political opponents, Roma, homosexuals or individuals from other groups.
There is a possibility that as historians do more research, the number of people we count as part of the Holocaust may change. But for now, we should continue to recognize that 11 million died in the Holocaust regardless of their background. By hearing and reading the stories of all of the victims of the Holocaust, we enrich future generations with knowledge. To exclude any person who died in a concentration camp from the total number of Holocaust dead does a disservice to history and to the families of the victims.
Elliott Aron Green - 9/1/2009
Alex, the Jewish historian Salo Baron, estimated the number of Jews murdered in the Holocaust as closer to seven  million than to six  million.