Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War IIby Michael Burleigh
In this sweepingly ambitious overview of World War II, Michael Burleigh combines meticulous scholarship with a remarkable depth of knowledge and an astonishing scope. By exploring the moral sentiments of entire societies and their leaders, and how such attitudes changed under the impact of total war, Burleigh presents readers with a fresh and powerful perspective… See more details below
In this sweepingly ambitious overview of World War II, Michael Burleigh combines meticulous scholarship with a remarkable depth of knowledge and an astonishing scope. By exploring the moral sentiments of entire societies and their leaders, and how such attitudes changed under the impact of total war, Burleigh presents readers with a fresh and powerful perspective on a conflict that continues to shape world politics. Whereas previous histories of the war have tended to focus on grand strategy or major battles, Burleigh brings his painstaking scholarship and profound sensibility to bear on the factors that shaped choices that were life-and-death decisions. These choices were made in real time, without the benefit of a philosophers reflection, giving a moral content to the war that shaped it as decisively as any battle.
Although the Nazis and the Japanese had radically different moral universes from those of their Allied opponents, as rejected in the atrocities they committed, the Western Allies found themselves aligned with a no less cruel dictatorship after rejecting the option of appeasing aggression. The war was the sum total of myriad choices made by governments, communities, and individuals, leading some to enthusiastically embrace evil and others to consciously reject it, with a range of more ambiguously human responses in between. Spanning both major theaters and ranging across these issues and more, from the predators (Mussolini, Hitler, and Hirohito) to appeasement, from the rape of Poland, Barbarossa, and strategic bombing to the complexities of justice and retribution, Moral Combat sheds a revealing light on how entire nations changed under the shock of total war.
Emphasizing the role of the past in making sense of the present, Burleighs book offers essential insights into the choices we face todayin some circles it is always 1938 and every aggressor is a new Hitler. If we do go to war, we need to know what it will mean for the individuals who command and fight it. Original, perceptive, and astonishing in scholarship and scope, this is an unforgettable and hugely important work of Second World War history.
A British historian surveys the moral dimensions of signal moments of the 20th century's most destructive war.
Burleigh (Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism, 2009, etc.) sets a daunting task: examining the moral landscape of entire societies, the sentiments that animated their leaderships and the moral reasoning of individuals forced to make excruciating choices under unimaginably difficult circumstances. Moreover, he refuses to conduct his thoroughly researched discussion according to the slippery rules of the faculty lounge or the theoretical constructs of a philosophy seminar, where a moral equivalence between, say, the Allied bombing of Dresden and the Holocaust, or Hitler the aggressor and Churchill the "warmonger," is too frequently and erroneously drawn. The author rightly insists on acknowledging the messy, complex manner in which the history unfolded, on distinguishing among lesser evils and on marveling that "in circumstances where the temptation to inhumanity must have been overpowering, a vestigial regard for decent or lawful conduct survived at all." Among the numerous topics he considers: how the lingering trauma of World War I accounted for 1930s pacifism, made appeasement popular and eased the deliberate aggression of Italy, Germany and Japan; how the doctrine of the police states permitted them to remove entire categories of people "from the orbit of reciprocal moral obligation"; how the rules of engagement varied depending on the theater; how the civilian populations of the totalitarian states wittingly conspired with their foul regimes. Burleigh examines the concessions of collaborators, real and supposed, the bravery of the depressingly small local resistance movements, the moral dilemmas accompanying secret warfare, the unspeakable Nazi extermination camps and the inverted moral universe within them, and the "statistically insignificant" acts of rescue (e.g., Schindler, Wallenberg).
Sometimes difficult, but always discerning and immensely rewarding.
- HarperCollins Publishers
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- 5.80(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.70(d)
Read an Excerpt
It seems like a throwback to a bygone epoch to talk about good and evil in history….Michael Burleigh succeeds in avoiding easy, snap judgments. Instead, he has written an insightful, often moving account of the war's players, great and small, and the principles that guided them. Burleigh succeeds in finding new insights into almost every major event of the war, on both sides, as often by sharp counter-questioning as by logistical and political analysis. Burleigh examines many of the most ethically complicated parts of the conflict to unravel the values and visions they embody. The result is extremely satisfying.
Meet the Author
Michael Burleigh is the author of Earthly Powers, Sacred Causes, and The Third Reich: A New History, which won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Nonfiction. He is married and lives in London.
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