Related articles bear titles like "Holocaust Researchers Catalog 42,500 Nazi Ghettos, Camps; Numbers Are 'Unbelievable'" (The Huffington Post, 02.03.2013), "Full Scale of Holocaust Revealed: Researchers Discover 42,500 Camps and Ghettos" (The Algemeiner, 02.03.2013) and "The Holocaust Just Got More Shocking" (The New York Times, 1 March 2013).
What is it exactly that the "full scale" of has been "revealed"?
Not the Holocaust in its restricted sense as meaning the attempt of Nazi Germany to exterminate the Jews of Europe. Also not the Holocaust in any wider sense, encompassing both Jews and some or all of those victimized by Nazi Germany’s criminal policies and practices against non-Jewish non-combatants, which together claimed more deaths than the genocide of the Jews (see the blogs 5 million non-Jewish victims? (Part 2) and Nazi persecution and mass murder of Jews and non-Jews). If anything has been revealed in its full scale, it is the types and respective numbers of coercive controlled enclosures – ghettoes and camps – in which the Nazis imprisoned people, forced them to work or into prostitution, mistreated, tortured or murdered them. Nothing less, and nothing more.
In what respect does the high number of camps and ghettos recorded by the USHMM researchers make the Holocaust (in its restricted sense or in a wider sense) more "shocking", as claimed by the NYT? Does it imply a higher number of victims than hitherto assumed? Asked this question in an interview with the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit, Megargee gave a clearly negative answer (my translation):
ZEIT ONLINE: Must the history of the Holocaust now be rewritten? Is it possible that more people perished than was known so far?
Megargee: I don't think that our work will materially change the assessment of the victims' number. This number was researched rather precisely by other means, for instance in demographic studies. What we are doing here changes our understanding of how the Holocaust happened.
Like the English-language articles mentioned before, Megargee’s interview with Die Zeit contributed little to making clear that he was using the term "Holocaust" in a wider sense (including non-Jewish victims of Nazi criminal policies) and that the inmate population of the coercive controlled enclosures recorded by his research team consisted mostly (not to say overwhelmingly) of non-Jews. More illuminating in this respect is an article by Bernhard Schulz dated 3 March 2013 on the website of the German newspaper Tagesspiegel (my translation):
In detail there were counted 980 concentration camps, 30,000 labor camps including their often numerous dependencies, 1,150 Jewish ghettos, 1,000 prisoner of war camps and no less than 500 forced brothels. For Berlin alone there was established a number of 3,000 forced labor camps and so-called "Jewish houses", in which Jews were accommodated after having been expelled from their apartments and kept captive for the later transport to concentration camps.
The latter number, however, also shows the problems of adding all numbers across the board. Purpose and dimension of the camps differ considerably. It doesn’t make much sense to, for instance, put a labor camp together with the Warsaw Ghetto. Also it must be taken into account that not all 42,500 camps existed at the same time. Thus the "wild" concentration camps in the early times of the NS regime were mostly dissolved until 1934.
The enormous number, however, makes clear one thing, in the words of project leader Martin Dean: "One could literally go nowhere in Germany without encountering forced labor camps or concentration camps. They were everywhere." Insofar the museum's research corroborates what has meanwhile been proven by numerous accounts from contemporary witnesses, i.e. that knowledge of the Nazis' terror and extermination policies was general in the German Reich. And not only towards Jews, but also for instance towards the 3.3 million Soviet prisoners of war. The forced laborers working everywhere, up to twelve million in total from all over Europa, were a sight known to everybody anyway.
3.3 million was the number of Soviet prisoners of war captured by Nazi Germany in 1941. Until the spring of 1942, about 2 million of these prisoners had been killed by their captors or had perished in German camps, mostly of starvation and exposure (Christian Streit, Keine Kameraden. Die Wehrmacht und die sowjetischen Kriegsgefangenen 1941-1945, Bonn 1997, pp. 128-137; see also the blog Scrapbookpages on Subhuman Cannibalism and the texts transcribed or translated in the HC forum’s thread The Fate of Soviet Prisoners of War). 3.3 million was also the total number of Soviet prisoners of war who perished in German captivity throughout the war, according to Streit – 57.8 % of a total of 5.7 million prisoners taken. The overwhelming majority of these prisoners of war were non-Jews.
Schulz mentions up to 12 million forced laborers. By far the majority of these were civilians, and the civilians in turn were almost wholly non-Jews. For the summer of 1944 alone, the page Nazi Forced Labor of the website Forced Labor 1939-1945 mentions "six million civilian laborers, two million prisoners of war and over half a million concentration camp prisoners" who were "forced to work in the German Reich". According to German historian Dieter Pohl (Verfolgung und Massenmord in der NS-Zeit 1933-1945, p. 61) there were as many as 13.5 million forced laborers, a number that is also mentioned at the side of an interactive map on the aforementioned website, though the subtotals by country add up to only 13,020,000. Megargee and Dean, according to the aforementioned NYT article, "estimate that 15 million to 20 million people died or were imprisoned in the sites that they have identified".
The high number of camps and other coercive controlled enclosures being expected to have little or no impact on calculations or estimates of the number of victims, as pointed out by Megargee in his interview by Die Zeit, what makes this number such a "sensation", to use Megargee’s term? Do the mass killings performed in some camps, and the suffering and dying of camp inmates and ghetto occupants, appear in a more sinister light because the number of camps and ghettos turned out to be much higher than was hitherto known? The NYT tries to make this case by pointing out the case of Henry Greenbaum, an 84-year-old Holocaust survivor who "had been enslaved in five camps in five years, and was on his way to a sixth, when American soldiers freed him in 1945". One is tempted to ask: And so? Would Mr. Greenbaum have suffered less, would his experience had been less appalling, if he had spent those five years in "only" one or two camps?
Another argument invoked to point out the importance of the USHMM researchers’ finds is that these finds leave no doubt "that many German citizens, despite the frequent claims of ignorance after the war, must have known about the widespread existence of the Nazi camps at the time", according to Martin Dean, who is furthermore quoted in the NYT article with the statement that "You literally could not go anywhere in Germany without running into forced labor camps, P.O.W. camps, concentration camps". Dean’s assessment is echoed by German historian Michael Wildt, who is quoted in an article by Amory Burchard and Tilmann Warnecke, published on 05.03.2013 on the Tagesspiegel website with the following statement (my translation): "Whoever lived in Germany in the years from 1942 until the end of the war could not overlook especially the forced laborers and the camps in which they had to live".
Yet it is rather doubtful whether the USHMM study contributed any new knowledge in this respect. For about 30,000 of the 42,500 coercive controlled enclosures throughout Europe established by the USHMM researchers – three in four – were forced labor camps, and it was known already before this study to what extent German citizens were aware of the presence of forced laborers amongst them. If anything, the number of forced labor camps established corroborates what has already been proven by the numerous accounts from contemporary witnesses mentioned in Schulz’s Tagesspiegel article, and was also inevitable in view of the enormous number of forced laborers on which the German war industry depended, forced laborers who, as Schulz put it, "were a sight known to everybody" in Germany. Does this mean that German civilians were equally aware of Nazi policies more sinister than forced labor, especially the systematic mass murder of Jews? Hardly so, as pointed out by German historian Mark Spoerer, quoted in the aforementioned Tagespiegel article by Burchard and Warnecke (my translation):
Mark Spoerer, Professor for Economic and Social History at Regensburg University, warns against concluding from the large number on the "knowledge about the Holocaust", the murder of millions of European Jews: "Prisoner of war camps with 100 Frenchmen, from which forced laborers were taken each morning, were see by the population as due to wartime circumstances". Spoerer points out that, despite the often inhuman living conditions of forced laborers, such camps were something entirely different than the system of concentration and extermination camps.
Spoerer’s above-quoted statements lead to yet another concern, also mentioned in Schulz’s article: what’s the point of adding "across the board" places whose size and purpose was entirely different, and which accordingly also differed considerably in what concerns their death toll and the horrors experienced by their surviving occupants? What’s the point of mentioning small labor camps alongside places like the Warsaw ghetto, the Treblinka extermination camp or the murderous POW camps in Belorussia listed by German historian Christian Gerlach (see the translated excerpts from Gerlach’s book Kalkulierte Morde)? POW camps like the ones at Lesnaja near Baranovichi, at Minsk, at Vitebsk or at Darnitsa in the Kiev area more than fulfill Megargee’s criterion of places "at which someone was persecuted, forced to work, tortured, imprisoned or murdered", but does this apply to all of the about 1,000 prisoner of war camps counted by Megargee, Dean et al, or to all parts of POW camps that held prisoners of various nationalities? British and American prisoners of war were essentially treated in accordance with the rules of the 1929 Geneva Convention, which is why their mortality rate, as pointed out by Streit, was minimal in comparison with that of Soviet POWs. Should a prisoner of war camp or section thereof run in accordance with the Geneva Convention be considered a site of imprisonment alongside a concentration camp, one of the aforementioned camps for Soviet POWs or even an extermination camp?
I hope that Megargee, Dean et al have made or will make the necessary distinctions in their published or upcoming books, lest the results of their hard work be diluted by bunching up places of utmost horror with others that were considerably less terrifying, or even with places that shouldn’t be considered sinister at all under the circumstances of the time (namely POW camps or sections thereof where British or American prisoners of war were held in compliance with international conventions about the treatment of such prisoners).
Another concern, related not only to the way the USHMM study is being divulged by the media but also to the study itself, is that the focus on camps and ghettos in the study and as a consequence thereof may obfuscate the fact that a large proportion of Nazi genocide and mass murder occurred outside such coercive controlled enclosures. This applies, for instance, to the Siege of Leningrad, which I (in accordance with Jörg Ganzenmüller, and unlike Dieter Pohl) consider a genocidal rather than a legitimate military undertaking, as its purpose was to depopulate the city rather than force it’s surrender. It also applies to the selective hunger policy, applied mainly against the inhabitants of Soviet cities in occupied territory, which according to Pohl may have claimed far over a million lives. Most of the civilians murdered in the course of anti-partisan operations (about half a million in the occupied Soviet territories alone) never got to see the inside of a camp, and the same applies to a significant part of the (by my estimate) about 1.9 million Jewish victims of mobile killing operations, like the victims of the Kamenets Podolsky and Babi Yar massacres. Ghettoized Jews who fell victim to mobile killing operations were mostly killed outside the ghettos they had lived in. And the extermination camps Chełmno, Bełżec, Sobibór and Treblinka, as well as the dual-purpose camps Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek, were hardly experienced as camps by the deportees killed immediately upon arrival without ever becoming camp inmates, who made up the overwhelming majority of the victims of the latter and all but a tiny minority of the victims of the former.
In fact it was not the most numerous camps, which together held the largest number of inmates, that claimed the largest number of fatal victims. Quite the contrary. According to Pohl (Verfolgung und Massenmord, page 61) the number of fatalities among (non-Jewish) civilian forced laborers from Poland and the Soviet Union was in excess of 150,000. The aforementioned map mentions 1,600,000 civilian forced laborers from Poland and 2,775,000 civilian forced laborers from the Soviet Union, besides 355,000 Czechs, 960,000 Italians, 375,000 Belgians, 475,000 Dutch, 1,050,000 Frenchmen and large numbers of Serbs (210,000 prisoners of war and civilian laborers), Croats (100,000 civilian laborers), Slovakians (100,000 civilian laborers), Danes (80,000 civilian laborers), Balts (75,000 civilian laborers), Hungarians (45,000 civilian laborers) and others (440,000 civilian laborers). Assuming that half the forced laborers from Serbia were civilians, there were a total of 8,535,000 civilians from all European countries forced to work for the German war effort (besides 4,485,000 prisoners of war, thereof 1,950,000 from the Soviet Union, 1,285,000 from France, 495,000 from Italy and 300,000 from Poland). Of the civilian forced laborers 4,450,000 were from Poland and the Soviet Union including the Baltic countries. The mortality rate among these forced laborers was about 3.37 %, if one considers Pohl’s above-mentioned figure of about 150,000 fatalities. High though this rate is, it bears no comparison to the mortality rate among Soviet POWs, which approached 60 %, let alone to places like the Bełżec extermination camp, where there were only three survivors (Pohl, Verfolgung und Massenmord, p. 95) from among 434,508 deportees. The death rate among forced laborers from western countries was even lower – Pohl (Verfolgung und Massenmord, p. 61) mentions 10-20,000 French and 8,500 Dutch civilian forced laborers who died working in the Reich (respectively 1.9 % maximum and 1.79 % of the total number of civilian forced laborers from these countries).
It seems safe to assume that the largest part of the 42,500 coercive controlled enclosures identified by Megargee, Dean et al claimed but a relatively small part of the deaths caused by the Nazi camp and ghetto system, whereas the large majority of deaths occurred in a relatively small part of these camps and ghettos – mainly the extermination camps, the dual-purpose concentration camps and POW camps for Soviet prisoners of war. The Nazi ghetto and camp system, in turn, accounted for only a part of the (according to my comparatively conservative estimates) about 12,495,000 to 13,265,000 mostly non-Jewish non-combatants killed by the criminal policies and practices of Nazi Germany and its European allies.
This further calls in question the relative importance of a USHMM research project that has been going on for 13 years, employs about 400 people and is meant to go on for another 12 years, if one considers that – as pointed out by Dieter Pohl – there are still no valid statistics about the total number of deaths that resulted from Nazi persecution and mass murder, with further laborious calculations being necessary to precisely establish this total. Would the money and time spent by the USHMM in identifying all coercive controlled enclosures of the Third Reich not have been better invested (at least from a historiography point of view) into a duly detailed documentation of the overall death toll of Nazi crimes?