Some background information pertinent to the meaning and significance of the six million figure

It is now fairly well known that the figure of six million Jews was widely used before it came the canonical holocaust death toll, and that it was announced as said death toll at far too early a date. Some aspects of this topic have been treated in a book by Don Heddesheimer,[1] although the digitization of news archives has allowed researchers to locate a much larger pool of sources than was available to Heddesheimer. Orthodox writers have hesitated to face these revelations head on, and have generally stuck to the lie that the figure originated with Wilhelm Hoettl.[2] In this post, however, I am not aiming here to add a few more examples to the mass of early six million references that has already been compiled,[3] but rather to offer some additional context relevant to the interpretation of these sources.

Anti-revisionist authors have sometimes argued that the figure of six million cannot have been symbolic, because other figures were also used, most notably at the Nuremberg trials, where the indictment “conservatively estimated” a loss of 5.7 million Jews;[4] alternatively, they have argued that the figure was not particularly prevalent.[5] The central issue is whether the six million figure had a symbolic significance to those who originated and first promulgated it.[6]

In a slightly different context, Gerald Reitlinger acknowledged the possibility that even unbiased observers would regard Jewish witnesses as “Orientals, who use numerals as oratorical adjectives.”[7] The question we face is whether Jewish use of the six million figure should be seen in such a light, or whether its use was always based on the rational use of numbers as nothing more than quantities.

It has long been noted that the figure 600,000 has a symbolic significance for Jews, deriving from it being the reported number of adult male Jews who are said to have left Egypt (Exodus 12:37). A few fundamentalists aside, no-one today believes in the exodus of such a large population as a historical fact.

Already in this example we see familiar patterns in the manipulation of figures. For example, the use of approximations to a symbolic figure. Subsequent censuses are said to have given figures approximating 600,000. Supposedly 603,550 men aged 20 or older were counted (Exodus 38:26, Numbers 1:46, Numbers 2:32). In a census taken decades later 601,730 men were counted (Numbers 26:51). The censuses are even broken down by tribe, and despite radical changes in the population of individual tribes, the total stayed close to the symbolic 600,000 (how providential). It should go without saying that the creation of a breakdown of the 600,000 figure by tribes is not regarded by scholars as constituting evidence that there really was an exodus with 600,000 adult male Jews. (Nor, for that matter, is the six million figure validated when writers attempt to break down Jewish holocaust population losses by nation, achieving a sum which approximates the a priori figure of six million.)

It has long been remarked that use of the 6 million figure was remarkably plastic. It was used as a population figure (for several different regions, and at different points in time), a count of endangered or suffering Jews, a count of dead Jews, a count of Jews killed in concentration camps – whatever the situation required. The same flexibility can be seen in the use of similar symbolic numbers in antiquity. In his discussion of Titus’ suppression of the first Jewish revolt, Tacitus states (Histories 5.13) that he had heard that the total population under siege was 600,000. Given the symbolic significance of the figure, it’s reasonable to assume that it originated in Jewish sources.

Josephus’ treatment of the same episode (Jewish War 6.420) gives the figures of 1,100,000 dead in Jerusalem, most of them Jews, and 97,000 taken prisoner. Note that we are dealing with approximations to 1.2 million (2*600,000).

While in the context of the holocaust and the six million figure, such symbolic interpretations are often dismissed by anti-revisionists as the mark of a “conspiraloon”, the interpretation given above is quite mainstream. A modern discussion of these sources is worth quoting in its entirety:

The devastation of the Jewish population of Jerusalem was as extensive as the destruction of the physical fabric of the city. Estimates of the population of Jerusalem in peaceful times—based on density, area, water supply and other factors—have foundered on the lack of solid data, and thus not surprisingly vary considerably, from 25,000–30,000 to 150,000 or more. Even more difficult is calculating the number of Jews who died in the war. Information from the Jerusalem necropolis cannot help, as we shall see presently. Josephus records that 1,100,000 people died in the siege, mostly but not all Jews, and another 97,000 were taken prisoner in the war (B.J. 6.420). Anticipating incredulity, he gives a proof that the city could hold so many by citing a count made by Cestius Gallus of the Passover sacrifices, a census which yielded a total of more than 2,500,000 people in the city! Both of these numbers are of course impossible (in B.J. 2.280, three million are said to be in Jerusalem on Passover). Yet it should be noticed that Josephus cited a reliable Roman source for his information. Moreover, the same information is echoed in the rabbinic story at b. Pesah. 64b, which relates, in language very similar to Josephus’, that a count by King Agrippa of the kidneys from Passover victims yielded “twice the number of those who departed from Egypt,” i.e. 1,200,000 sacrifices (yielding a population of twelve million; cf. Lam. Rab. 1.2, t. Pesah. 4.15). Although details and orders of magnitude vary, this number, 1,200,000 = twice 600,000, had roots in local tradition. Josephus’ 1,100,000 becomes 1,200,000 when his figure of nearly 100,000 Jewish war captives is added. Tacitus, who did not use Josephus or any other Jewish source in his account of the war, reported the Jerusalem casualty figure at 600,000 (Hist. 5.13.3),[8] reflecting somehow the same local source. Thus there was a widespread historical memory of Jerusalem casualty figures being a multiple of 600,000. The number is incredible, but the memory is itself an important historical fact. The memory also reflects the undeniable fact that a huge number of people perished in the siege, especially by ancient standards.[9]

There is no reason why similar reasoning cannot be applied to the holocaust.

We can see the same phenomenon at play in the third Jewish revolt (the Bar Kokhba revolt). Cassius Dio (Roman History, 69.14) states that 580,000 Jewish men died in battles and raids, while “the number of those that perished by famine, disease, and fire was past finding out.” There is no question that this figure is absurd, particularly since it is a figure for battle deaths. For comparison, the Colonial forces in the American revolution suffered 4,435 battle deaths. Even in the bloodbath of the American Civil war, Unionist battle casualties were 140,414 – less than one fourth of Cassius Dio’s figure.[10] Yet while the figure of 580,000 battle deaths is absurd from the standpoint of rational history aiming at historical fact, it makes sense within cultural landscape that uses numerals as oratorical adjectives and attaches significance to the figure 600,000. This points to a Jewish source for the 580,000 figure which Cassius Dio passed on.

One should also note the similarity between Cassius Dio’s 580,000 (just shy of 600,000) and the IMT’s 5,700,000 (just shy of 6,000,000). Again, the use of approximations to symbolic figures does not in any way contradict the symbolic nature of those figures.

While this excursus into ancient history certainly does not establish the truth about the jewish death toll during the second world war, it does show that the anti-revisionist position of deafness to the rhetorical rather than numerical use of the six million figure is indefensible.


[1] Don Heddesheimer, The First Holocaust: Jewish Fund Raising Campaigns with Holocaust Claims During and After World War One, Theses & Dissertations Press, Chicago, 2003
[2] See, for example,
[3] Most notably at the blog
[4] IMT vol. 1, p. 34
[5] See e.g.
[6] For one take on this, see
[7] Gerald Reitlinger, The Final Solution, Thomas Yoseloff, South Brunswick, 1968, p. 581
[8] Here Price errs. Tacitus’ figure is not a casualty figure but a population figure. The confusion between the two types of figures is reminiscent of the similarly variable use of the six million figure. –FJ
[9] Jonathan J. Price, ‘The Jewish Population of Jerusalem from the First Century B.C.E. to the Early Second Century C.E.: The Epigraphic Record’, in Mladen Popović (ed.), The Jewish Revolt against Rome: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2011, pp. 399-417, here pp. 410-411.

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