Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II
British historian Michael Burleigh offers a sweeping assessment of the ethical dilemmas posed by World War II, faced by everyone from world leaders to soldiers in foxholes.
For most Americans, World War II was the quintessential good war – it had a clear, unambiguous purpose, was successfully concluded, and led to a better world than would otherwise have existed. But it was also the bloodiest event in human history and claimed somewhere in the vicinity of 50 million lives.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
With the exception of the voluminous literature on the Holocaust, few authors have examined in detail the moral choices and ethical dilemmas faced by those who were part of the conflict. And those that have usually addressed a single issue or incident, such as the morality of using the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki or the British decision to bomb Hamburg to rubble. (After seeing a film showing the results of the raid, Churchill asked “Are we beasts? Are we taking this too far?”)
Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II, a new book by the brilliant British historian Michael Burleigh goes well beyond the rather narrow focus of most of the existing literature and offers a sweeping, panoramic assessment of the ethical dilemmas facing everyone from world leaders to soldiers in foxholes. This is a superb work of scholarship with fresh insights on nearly every page that will likely leave the reader asking hard and troubling questions long after finishing it.
The volume is organized chronologically, but Burleigh dispenses with the detailed assessment of military strategy and individual engagements. Major battles are often described in a single, short reference while relatively minor engagements or incidents are generally given a lengthy treatment if they illustrate a broader point. Among the topics considered in detail are the crushing of Poland and the brutal subjugation of the Polish people; the Battle of Britain and the Blitz; collaboration, cooperation, and resistance in the occupied countries; the invasion of Russia; leadership tensions; the day-to-day experiences of soldiers (in a chapter aptly titled “We Were Savages”); the massacring of millions of civilians in every theatre of the conflict; the Holocaust; the carpet bombing of Germany and Japan; and the justice meted out by the victors once the conflict had ended.
In a section entitled “Tenuous Altruism,” Burleigh looks for “individual instances of moral greatness” – in other words, he looks for heroes. Unfortunately, it is a very short chapter. He writes, “human goodness really did not triumph in the end.... The tiny gleams of light provided by the stirring human interest dramas of such as Schindler or Wallenberg are lost in the vast areas of human darkness, shading from pitch black to generalized grey, that defined the moral behavior of the time.”