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The idea of "six million" Jewish victims, either from persecution, disease, or famine, was common long before World War Two. It seems to have started in the late 19th Century as "2.5 million Jews" and then increased over time, arriving at the six million total in the article "The Crucifixion of Jews Must Stop!" by Martin H. Glynn which appeared in The American Hebrew and Jewish Messenger on Friday, October 31, 1919. This discusses "six million men and woman... dying from lack of the necessaries of life" and calls the event a "threatened holocaust of human life." The article appears on the CODOH website in Inconvenient History, and was found by the Polish Historical Society.
As to the particular fixation on "six million", it probably goes back to Jewish tradition which held that the totality of the Jewish people in Egypt at the time of the Exodus was 600,000. Making the appropriate changes for the large size of the Eastern European Jewish community, to speak of "six million dead" in this context is simply a way of saying that the Jewish community was also destroyed in its totality by the end of World War Two: which in fact it largely was, but not at the cost of six million lives.
Looking back on it, the rhetoric of "six million" threatened with "extermination" one way or the other was meant to get people's attention: either the attention of western governments to open their doors (or the doors of their territories, like Palestine) to immigration, or to get wealthy diaspora Jews to make contributions to their East European brethren.
As to the response, it should be recognized that most people worldwide didn't care about the Jews in the 19th Century, nor did they care much during the Nazi period, including during World War Two. This is all well known, and is proved by the fact that the Allies did nothing to help the East European Jews who, while not being exterminated, were nevertheless being severely persecuted. All of this just goes to prove that World War Two had nothing to do with morality, it had to do with power politics and economic power, just like any other war.
After the war, however, a large effort was launched to justify Allied conduct, including what one might call war crimes, and this effort, mostly directed by the United States at Nuremberg, did foster a myth of morality that informed Allied conduct in the war.
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|Dates||published: 1998-01-01, first posted on CODOH: June 29, 1998, 7 p.m., last revision: n/a|