Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

Keith Lowe argues that in history, there is no weapon quite so powerful as a good statistic.

Dresden after the Allied bombing raid, 1945

In history, there is no weapon quite so powerful as a good statistic. Any fact can be made to sound more factual, and any truth can be made to sound more true, simply by putting a number on it.

The problem is that these numbers can be, and frequently are, made up. Probably the most abused area of study is that of the Second World War and its aftermath, where statistics are routinely manipulated, stamped on or simply plucked out of the air, depending on the speaker’s personal or political agenda. If there is something to be gained by inflating or deflating the figures, then inflated or deflated they shall be. In the past, such alternative versions of history would be published in grubby pamphlets, to be passed round in private societies – but nowadays they are more likely to be published on grubby websites that put themselves forward as beacons of hidden or subverted ‘truth’.

 Some of the statistics circulating on the internet today are not only absurd, they are outrageous. For example, there are dozens of websites that claim that 3 million German prisoners of war, and a further 3 million German civilians, were killed in revenge after World War II. It is no coincidence that these figures add up to 6 million, which exactly equates to the number of Jews murdered during the Holocaust. The most enthusiastic propagators of these dodgy statistics are of course the far right – because, in the dubious logic of ‘an eye for an eye’, 6 million dead Germans represents this Nazi debt paid off in one fell swoop.

Needless to say, such numbers are complete nonsense. They come from German government sources in the 1950s, which had reasons galore for inflating the figures. Modern German scholars think the true number of civilian deaths after the war was more like half a million, and of deaths amongst prisoners of war to be around a million. This adds up to a huge number – more than enough to give us a sense of the horror experienced by these people, but not enough for the German right if they want to rehabilitate themselves.

It is not only the Germans or the far right who play such games. Some Italians still claim that 300,000 Fascists were killed in revenge after the war; and some Frenchmen claim that over 100,000 collaborators were murdered by Communist partisans. Both numbers must be divided by ten to get to something close to the real figure. Polish and Ukrainian nationalists routinely inflate the numbers of people killed at each other’s hands, also by a factor of ten. Tito’s postwar government added some 700,000 to the number of their war dead, because it allowed them to claim more in reparations from Germany. And the Soviets exaggerated their war losses at every turn in order to milk eastern Europe for compensation.  After the war everyone had an agenda – the discovery of the truth was pretty far down their list of priorities.

Unfortunately, historians can also be tempted to exaggerate. Sometimes this is for political reasons – for example, David Irving famously claimed that 100,000 civilians died in the bombing of Dresden, when the real figure documented by the local authorities at the time was less than a quarter of that. Sometimes it is for dramatic reasons – for example, it is much more exciting to claim that a million German prisoners of war were starved to death by the American army than it is to choose the less controversial (and more accurate) figure of just four or five thousand.

Digging around in this mire is one of the most interesting but unpleasant jobs any historian of the period must endure. Every now and then one is presented with a beautiful sight: an academic paper written by an author with no extreme political or national bias, in which all the numbers are backed up with clear evidence and watertight statistical data. More often, however, one finds oneself a witness to bitter disputes, where statistics are wielded like weapons  – the bigger the better – in a battle between races, between nationalities, or between right and left. In such an atmosphere it is little wonder that the real numbers – the dispassionate sort that cannot be disputed – are always left on the sidelines.

Keith Lowe is the author of Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II