To what extent were Jews killed outright?

Published: 1998-01-01
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Dear AnswerMan,

Would you be kind enough to tell me to what extent you think Jews were killed outright in camps during WW2?

If you also could share a simple opinion on the same activity on the war front I'd be grateful for that too

Name withheld


AnswerMan Replies:

To gauge the extent to which Jews were killed by Nazi Germany and its allies (or even its opponents) can go two ways: one is to focus on the kinds of conditions which could or would lead to Jews being killed (or dying), the other is the simple attempt to count the victims.

The victim count strategy is hampered by the fact that it's almost impossible to quantify the numbers in a realistic way, and this concerns not just Jewish Holocaust victims, but also the victims of strategic bombing, the victims of the expulsions, the victims in the Soviet Union and Poland, the victims of collectivization, the Russian Civil War, and so on.

On the number-counting front it is safe to say that almost any number pertaining to Eastern Europe in the 20th Century is going to be heavily estimated. The prodigality of these numbers began in World War One, when it was claimed that some 12 million Russian soldiers lost their lives. Numbers in the millions are automatically staggering; they may be true, or partly true, but to what degree? As with any of the tragedies in Eastern Europe, the first question has got to be: where are all the bodies? But in discussing Eastern European history, there are strong political, historical, and evaluative forces at work, and a large force at work when discussing numbers in 20th Century history in Eastern Europe is simply to make your enemy look worse than you.

Of course, with the Holocaust one is additionally looking at the sole claim of mass death in Central and Eastern European history where the bodies were deliberately made to disappear. However, this fact should automatically make one skeptical of Holocaust claims. The science is all on the revisionists' side: you can't just make bodies disappear, en masse, by burning. If we take the claim seriously, of the total disappearance of Jewish remains, but also take the science of burning seriously, we are bound to get total Jewish deaths as a result of Nazi persecution and mass murder in the high hundreds of thousands or low millions.

Other attempts at quantifying victims, either of Hitler, Stalin, or someone else, are basically mathematical models based on pre- and post- statistics, combined with assumptions about birth rates, emigration rates, assimilation rates, and death rates. These analyses are all in the assumptions, which is why these analyses always miraculously give the answer the author wants to get: somewhere in the neighborhood of six million, or, if a revisionist, somewhere in the neighborhood of less than anyone else. Such analyses are utterly worthless and are keyed to the same kind of science that shows up in the popular media, where we can read on almost a daily basis that, say, 600 people (and 150 children!) die each day from second hand smoke, or trans fats, or Chinese toothpaste. In this respect everyone is entitled to their own obsession.

The other way of looking at the Holocaust issue is to start with some basic, generally accepted facts about the situation of Jews under the Nazi umbrella. Among these facts are the following:

  1. Many people in the German government hierarchy, particularly Goebbels, Himmler, and, for most (except David Irving), Hitler himself, were profoundly anti-Jewish and felt that they should be eradicated from Europe, whether living or dead was of no concern.
  2. Jews in any area where the German Nazis were present were at the absolute bottom of the food chain. They were last in line for consideration, protection, food and medical care.
  3. At the same time, the Jews were first in line for being exploited, robbed, put to work, harassed, dragooned in to labor battalions, or put into camps. This was because it was assumed that any Jewish wealth or status was ill-gotten.
  4. Once the Soviet Union was invaded, the Commissar Order provided in effect a pretext for killing Jews, since many Jews in the Soviet Union were members of the communist party, if they were in the middle strata of Soviet society (and the vast majority were.)
  5. Jews were routinely killed as hostages, and the German army has traditionally killed hostages in ever increasing numbers ever since the Franco-Prussian war. What happens is this: German soldiers were killed, a group of civilians were rounded up, and they were killed both in retaliation and as a deterrent. Bearing in mind the anti-Semitic nature of Nazi Germany, Jews were the obvious candidates for reprisal shootings\.

    What happened in the Russo-German War (1941-45) is that the Germans lost many, perhaps half a million, troops to partisan or irregular Red army activity, and carried out massive reprisals. In addition, the curve of reprisal numbers had been rising for almost a century. In the Franco Prussian war, a handful, or possibly ten, individuals might be killed as hostages. In World War One, during the passage through Belgium, a few thousand total over the course of some months. In the Russo-German War, however, reprisals — that is, killings — of hundreds and even thousands of civilians was frequent. Even in Western Europe, reprisals against civilian populations in the hundreds, particularly in France, Italy, and Belgium, happened dozens of times. The victims in these latter cases were usually not Jewish, and that is because there were few identifiable Jews, since they had either been deported or had gone to ground.

  6. Jews were treated in an appalling fashion both in the ghettoes and the concentration camps. The problems were similar. Overcrowding, lack of hygiene, lack of food, social breakdown due to overcrowding, and a general breakdown, which tended to confirm to the observing Germans their prejudices about the less-than-human (read: less-than-German) status of the Jews, which in turn only reinforced the neglect.

Under the above conditions it should be clear that the death rate among Jews under Nazi control would have been high, and should have been high, and that would give us a likely total in the low millions. Probably many of these deaths occurred as a result of reprisal shootings — in which every arm of the Wehrmacht took part, not just the SS or police battalions — others as part of a very elastic reading of the Commissar Order, others, probably, as a result of using reprisals or the Commissar Order to justify killing groups of Jews who could not be properly fed or cared for.

This last element — killing Jews who were incapable of being being cared for — was probably implemented in the camps as well, as a crude form of triage. In these cases, shootings or injections were probably used. The idea that poison gas of any kind was ever used to kill any significant number of people is just an absurd legend of the Second World War. On this last point, the revisionists again have all the science, and all the hard evidence, on their side.

Returning to the overall question about "extent" — clearly there were many conditions favorable to killing Jews, or, persecuting or neglecting them to hasten their deaths. And we would agree — although history is not really about morality — that the culpability of Germany in either case is identical.

However, the prosecution of Max Taeubner in 1943 — an SS major tried for killing a few dozen Jews in an extra-curricular massacre — does make it clear that, although Nazi Germany caused, directly or indirectly, the deaths of many Jews, with our personal estimate is in the range of one to two millions, it did not tolerate disorganized killings, individualized killings (like the Ralph Fiennes character in Schindler's List), or sadistic killings. Thus the idea that some Nazi in World War Two could go out and shoot any Jew whenever he felt like it for any reason is also a fantasy, along with the gas chambers, the fantastic cremation rates, and the six million. Small consolation, of course, to any Jewish victim or survivor. And no excuse, either, for the persecution or murder of any group. But at the same time: Nazi Germany did not invent group persecution or mass murder, they were not the only ones to practice it, even in the Second World War, and the idea that focuses on Nazi crimes with a view to forgetting our own is another lazy and silly cliché that has long outworn its welcome.

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Author(s) AnswerMan
Title To what extent were Jews killed outright?
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Dates published: 1998-01-01, first posted on CODOH: June 29, 1998, 7 p.m., last revision: n/a
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