In a recent article in Haaretz on January 16, 2022 by Nirit Anderman entitled “This filmmaker dares to question the figure of 6 million Jewish victims in WWI,” David Fisher, a 65-year-old Israeli filmmaker drops what he intended as a bombshell. As a child of Holocaust survivors who produced several films relating to World War II, he has a number of questions about who determined that this was really the number of Jews who were killed during the war. This article will attempt to answer him.
In our book Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It? historian Michael Shermer and I address this issue. Most Holocaust historians place the total between 5.1 and 6.3 million Jewish victims. While estimates vary, there is independent corroboration between historians, using different methods and different source materials. The variation adds credibility to the figure of around six million, for it would be more likely that the numbers were “cooked” if they all came out the same. The fact that they do not come out the same, but are within a reasonable range of error variance, gives us assurance that somewhere between the earlier estimates of five million and more recent estimates of six million Jews died in the Holocaust.
More accurate estimates will be made as new information from Russian and formerly held Soviet territories continues to surface. The overall figure is not likely to change by more than a few thousands, and certainly not by millions.
Significantly, the Nazis themselves estimated that at least six million were murdered. On November 26, 1945, at the first Nuremberg trial, the Nazi physician Dr. Wilhelm Hoettel testified: “In various concentration camps approximately four million Jews had been killed, while about two million were killed in other ways, the majority of these having been killed by the action squads [Einsatzgruppen] of the security police. Himmler had not been satisfied with the report, since in his opinion the number of Jews killed must have been greater than six million.”
Himmler said he would send Adolph Eichmann a man from the Office of Statistics to make sure he had the correct number. Hoettel said he assumed Eichmann provided him with the correct number of Jews who were murdered, “since he ‘delivered’ the Jews to the death camps with his special commandos and, therefore, knew this number precisely, and second as department head in Section IV of the RSHA (The Reich Security Main Office), which was responsible for Jewish matters, he certainly knew best the number of Jews who had died in this matter.”
How Do We Calculate the Number of Murdered Jews?
As historical scientists, Shermer and I recognize that even such powerful statements by perpetrators must be corroborated. Wolfgang Benz, a German historian, who served as the director of the Center for Research on Antisemitism of the Technische Universität Berlin, noted that “original and undeniable sources are available for the research and calculation of the dimension of this genocide, but there are massive difficulties still. A major part of the murder actions was secret, concealed by euphemistic expressions like the Final Solution, and proofs for the crimes had been destroyed during the last effort of the National Socialist regime. Thus, it will never be possible to quote an absolute figure that counts every single human being, but it is possible to position the measure beyond speculation.”
Benz described two methods of calculation: “the direct estimating method which sums up the number of victims in concentration camps, extermination camps, through killing squads plus all additional material about people killed; [and] the indirect method of statistical comparison [although] there is a lack of useful statistics (mainly in eastern European countries), and the often-changed borders make some of them incompatible.” By combining the two methods and looking for a convergence of evidence on one range of figures versus another, we can estimate with a high degree of confidence’ the figure is six million or close to it.
We used statics found in Gerald Reitlinger’s The Final Solution (1953); Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews (1961); Yisrael Gutman and Robert Rozett’s article ”Estimated Jewish Losses in the Holocaust,” in the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust(1990) and Wolfgang Benz’s, Dimension Des Volkermords: Die Zahl Der Judischen Opfer Des Nationalsozialismus (1991). In his book A Concise History of the Holocaust, Wolfgang Benz said, “At least six million human beings were deliberately murdered because they were Jews.”
Historian Gerald Reitlinger, political scientist Raul Hilberg and historians Yisrael Gutman and Robert Rozett derive their figures using several methods including: population demographics before the war, the number reported transferred to the camps, the number murdered by the Einsatzgruppen, the number liberated from the camps. The margin of error is about 8.5 percent, or about half a million.
They concluded: Reitlinger: 4,578, 800; Hilberg, 5,109,822; Gutman and Rozett, 5,859, 622; Benz 6,269,097.
A Final Note
In an interview with the late historian Yisrael Gutman, the Academic Advisor to Yad Vashem, he told us that he was confident that the numbers in the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust “will not change in any substantial way. There are places where we know exact numbers; we know about Poland, we know about Belgium. But we don’t know enough about Russia because we did not have clear figures on the Soviet Jews during the Second World War.” The “encyclopedia’s estimate could vary by a few hundred thousand, but not an order of magnitude difference. Moreover, as we can see from the most recent figures—those from Benz— revisions, based on accurate data, have increased, rather than decreased, the estimate.”
Dr. Alex Grobman is senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.