Documenting Numbers of Victims of the Holocaust and Nazi Persecution
The Holocaust is the best documented case of genocide. Despite this, calculating the exact numbers of individuals who were killed as the result of Nazi policies is an impossible task. There is no single wartime document that spells out how many people were killed.
Towards the end of the war, the Nazis and their collaborators attempted to destroy much of the existing documentation and other physical evidence.
To accurately estimate the extent of human losses, scholars, governmental agencies, and Jewish organizations since the 1940s have relied on a variety of different records—including census reports, captured German and Axis archives, and postwar investigations.
Current estimates might change as new documents are discovered or as historians arrive at a more precise understanding of the events. While no precise numbers are likely to ever be determined, after 70 years of research and increasingly open archives, these ranges are likely not to change dramatically in the years ahead.
The Holocaust was the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million Jewish men, women and children by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. The Nazis, who came to power in Germany in January 1933, believed that Germans were "racially superior" and they wanted to create a “racially pure” state. Jews, deemed "inferior," were considered an alien threat to the so-called German racial community.
During the era of the Holocaust, German authorities also targeted and killed other groups, including at times their children, because of their perceived racial and biological inferiority: Roma (Gypsies), Germans with disabilities, and some of the Slavic peoples (especially Poles and Russians). Other groups were persecuted for political or ideological reasons, or on the basis of what the Nazi regime considered to be criminal behavior. Among these groups were Communists, Socialists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and gay men.
Because the Nazis advocated killing children of “unwanted” groups, children—particularly Jewish and Romani children—were especially vulnerable in the era of the Holocaust.
Calculating the numbers of individuals who were killed as the result of Nazi policies is a difficult task. There is no single wartime document created by Nazi officials that spells out how many people were killed in the Holocaust or World War II.
To accurately estimate the extent of human losses, scholars, Jewish organizations, and governmental agencies since the 1940s have relied on a variety of different records, such as census reports, captured German and Axis archives, and postwar investigations, to compile these statistics. As more documents come to light or as scholars arrive at a more precise understanding of the Holocaust, estimates of human losses may change.
The single most important thing to keep in mind when attempting to document numbers of victims of the Holocaust is that no one master list of those who perished exists anywhere in the world.
Documenting the Holocaust: Examples of Documents
What follow are the current best estimates of civilians and captured soldiers killed by the Nazi regime and its collaborators.
These estimates are calculated from wartime reports generated by those who implemented Nazi population policy, and postwar demographic studies on population loss during World War II.
Number of Deaths
|Group||Number of Deaths|
|Soviet civilians||around 7 million (including 1.3 Soviet Jewish civilians, who are included in the 6 million figure for Jews)|
|Soviet prisoners of war||around 3 million (including about 50,000 Jewish soldiers)|
|Non-Jewish Polish civilians||around 1.8 million (including between 50,000 and 100,000 members of the Polish elites)|
|Serb civilians (on the territory of Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina)||312,000|
|People with disabilities living in institutions||up to 250,000|
|Roma (Gypsies)||between 250,000 and 500,000|
|Jehovah's Witnesses||around 1,900|
|Repeat criminal offenders and so-called asocials||at least 70,000|
|German political opponents and resistance activists in Axis-occupied territory||undetermined|
|Homosexuals||hundreds, possibly thousands (possibly also counted in part under the 70,000 repeat criminal offenders and so-called asocials noted above)|
Jewish Loss by Location of Death
With regard to the number of Jews who died in the Holocaust, best estimates for the breakdown of Jewish loss according to location of death follow:
|Location of Death||Jewish Losses|
|Auschwitz complex (including Birkenau, Monowitz, and subcamps)||approximately 1 million|
|Treblinka 2||approximately 925,000|
|Sobibor||at least 167,000|
|Chelmno||at least 167,000|
|Shooting operations at various locations in central and southern German-occupied Poland (the Government General)||at least 200,000|
|Shooting operations in German-annexed western Poland (District Wartheland)||at least 20,000|
|Deaths in other facilities that the Germans designated as concentration camps||at least 150,000|
|Shooting operations and gas wagons at hundreds of locations in the German-occupied Soviet Union||at least 1.3 million|
|Shooting operations in the Soviet Union (German, Austrian, Czech Jews deported to the Soviet Union)||approximately 55,000|
|Shooting operations and gas wagons in Serbia||at least 15,088|
|Shot or tortured to death in Croatia under the Ustaša regime||23,000–25,000|
|Deaths in ghettos||at least 800,000|
|Other1||at least 500,000|
Notes on Documentation
No single wartime document
There is no single wartime document that contains the above cited estimates of Jewish deaths.
There are three obvious and interrelated reasons for the lack of a single document:
- Compilation of comprehensive statistics of Jews killed by German and other Axis authorities began in 1942 and 1943. It broke down during the last year and a half of the war.
- Beginning in 1943, as it became clear that they would lose the war, the Germans and their Axis partners destroyed much of the existing documentation. They also destroyed physical evidence of mass murder.
- No personnel were available or inclined to count Jewish deaths until the very end of World War II and the Nazi regime. Hence, total estimates are calculated only after the end of the war and are based on demographic loss data and the documents of the perpetrators. Though fragmentary, these sources provide essential figures from which to make calculations.
Only one comprehensive statistical study conducted on behalf of SS chief Heinrich Himmler survived the war. A copy was among the records captured by the US Army in 1945. Likewise, several regional compilations of such gruesome data were among the records captured by US, British, and Soviet forces after World War II. The United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union have used most of these documents at one time or another as exhibits in criminal or civil proceedings against Nazi offenders.
Polish and Soviet civilian figures
With regard to the Polish and Soviet civilian figures, at this time there are not sufficient demographic tools to enable historians to distinguish between:
- racially targeted individuals
- persons actually or believed to be active in underground resistance
- persons killed in reprisal for some actual or perceived resistance activity carried out by someone else
- losses due to so-called collateral damage in actual military operations
Virtually all deaths of Soviet, Polish, and Serb civilians during the course of military and anti-partisan operations had, however, a racist component. German units conducted those operations with an ideologically driven and willful disregard for civilian life.
Counting victims is important for research and to understand the magnitude of the crimes. The magnitude is clear. And behind each number are individuals whose hopes and dreams were destroyed. Efforts to name the victims are important to restore the individuality and dignity their killers sought to destroy.
"Other" includes, for example, persons killed in shooting operations in Poland in 1939–1940; as partisans in Yugoslavia, Greece, Italy, France or Belgium; in labor battalions in Hungary; during antisemitic actions in Germany and Austria before the war; by the Iron Guard in Romania, 1940–1941; and on evacuation marches from concentration camps and labor camps in the last six months of World War II. It also includes people caught in hiding and killed in Poland, Serbia, and elsewhere in German-occupied Europe.
Critical Thinking Questions
- Why is it challenging to calculate exactly the number of victims of the Holocaust?
- Why is it important to document the events of the Holocaust?
- Research the roles and complicity of professionals such as record keepers, photographers, and accountants who created documentation of mass murder or witnessed it.