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.

Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II By Michael Burleigh HarperCollins 672 pp.

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.

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.”

Most of the book focuses on the war in Western Europe and Russia – the conflicts in the Pacific, North Africa and Italy get far less attention. There is almost nothing about the war at sea, in either the Atlantic or the Pacific. The bulk of the narrative concerns the killing fields located between Odessa and the Baltic Sea because this was the area that saw the most horrific and inexplicable moral depravity and barbarism. There were, of course, depredations in Western Europe, such as mass hangings at Tulle and the destruction of Oradour-sur-Glane, but they were not the norm. By contrast, on the Eastern Front, such events “were all in a day’s work.” He adds “The war in Russia was uniquely savage.... One becomes insensible by the catalogue of horrors, the victims to a degree dehumanized by the sheer numbers involved.”

Indeed, the cruelty and malice he records will shock any reader. According to Burleigh, nearly 3 million Jews were massacred not in ovens but by men standing a just a few feet away – there was nothing industrialized or factory-like about it. Some of this was done by shooting victims in the back of the head. But the killers complained that when they did this “brains, blood and bits of skull flew back into their faces.” After careful consideration, victims were made to kneel or lie down before being executed. Presumably, in this fashion, fewer uniforms were soiled.

Burleigh is an accomplished historian and the work reflects extensive and careful scholarship. The writing is crisp and the author is clear about his opinions and biases. He has an unfortunate tendency to use clichés and make flip judgments that are grating in such a serious work of history: The New York Times is “always a paper that can be relied on the question US motives and methods”; the British Royal Family is described as “those quintessential experts on dynastic survival”; and “Second eleven British generals” were “clueless.” The extensive footnotes and bibliography will make it easy for the interested readers to pursue particular topics in greater detail. Given the large number of place names he mentions, it is terribly disappointing that the book does not include sufficient maps to help the reader locate the events.

This is an exceptionally important book. However, because it so relentlessly bloody it is not for the faint of heart. The examples of barbarity and violence that Burleigh describes are too numerous to count. But by compiling this record, Burleigh gives us a terrifying reminder of the brutality and barbarism that even the most civilized societies are capable of unleashing.

Terry Hartle is senior vice president of government relations for the American Council on Education.

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