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Why Numbers Matter In Understanding The Shoah
By Dr. Alex Grobman
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 found. Six Million is the most accurate and acceptable term.
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."
An historian, Dr. Grobman's most recent book is Battling for Souls: The Vaad Hatzala Rescue Committee in Post War Europe. He is also co-author of Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened? His newest book is Nations United: How the UN is Undermining Israel and the West.
from the December 2006 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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