It’s notuncommon for those studying or reading about World War II to ponder thequestion, “What would I do?” Would I have helped the Jews? Would Ihave dropped the atomic bomb? Would I have made a deal with Stalin? These moralquestions are precisely the ones that concern Michael Burleigh, noted historianof the Third Reich, in his new book, MoralCombat: Good and Evil in World War II. Inwriting what he calls “a moral history of the Second World War,”Burleigh sets out to excavate the “prevailing moral sentiment of entiresocieties and their leaderships, and how this changed under the impact of bothideology and total war.”
Burleigh’s approach to the war puts the amoral policies and conduct ofthe Nazi and Soviet regimes front and center. His comparison of the twobrilliantly delves into the mindsets that fueled their disregard for civilianlives and encouraged targeted killing based on racial criteria. He highlightsthe culpability of the German army, not only the SS, in the Holocaust. Officerswere promoted based on body counts, while foot soldiers were told killing Jewswould save German civilization—a message reinforced by the brutal conditions ofthe Eastern Front. At the same time, Burleigh takes the Soviets to task fortheir treatment of civilian populations as the Red Army pushed the Germans backto Berlin.
He has no time for historians who want to diminish the magnitude ofsome crimes to elevate the criminality of others. This particularly comes outin his discussion of the Allies. He argues that the Anglo-American bombingcampaign against Germany, which resulted in the firebombing of Dresden, wasindeed morally defensible and not equivalent to the Holocaust, as somehistorians suggest. As Burleigh writes: “No serious person can compare thehard-fought bombing campaign with slaughtering innocent civilians incircumstances where the only risk the perpetrators ran was to be splashed withblood and brains in some ditch in the Ukraine.”
Moral Combat toursthe war’s ethical hotspots small and large. Burleigh upholds the decision todrop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, asserting that the alternative wasthe continuation of conventional bombing or the use of a naval blockade tostarve Japan. He shows the pains that Britain’s Special Operations Executivewent to in order to limit civilian reprisals for its actions in Nazi-occupiedterritory, which only throws into sharper contrast the Nazi regime’s bloodlust.Grappling with the question of the Allied bombing of Auschwitz, Burleighwonders why the Soviets haven’t been taken to task for failing to bomb the campwhen it was within easy reach of their bombers.
Burleigh gives the reader plenty to chew on, but Moral Combat has its problems. The book is less a history of the warthan a series of thematically related essays. The Pacific Theater gets shortshrift, and Burleigh limits his discussion of “Resistance” to Francealone. There is also no discussion of naval combat, which seems an odd omissiongiven the Battle of the Atlantic and the centrality of naval warfare in thePacific. He ignores the morality of Sweden and Switzerland opting to remainneutral. The book also just ends—there is nothing resembling a conclusion,which the reader is hungry for after being ensconced in a moral morass for morethan 550 pages.
Despite these complaints, there is much to appreciate. The writing iselegant, the observations incisive, and the opinions plentiful. Burleigh has aneye for evocative details and thick description that brings to life momentsthat might otherwise be flattened by the introduction of the ethical questionsraised. Those interested in the Second World War will find it a provocative, ifimperfect, companion to the operational and diplomatic accounts that alreadyline their shelves.