Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II
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Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II

by Michael Burleigh
     
 

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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

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Overview

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 philosopher’s 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, Burleigh’s book offers essential insights into the choices we face today—in 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.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
A moral history of WWII would be brief, said one wit, but respected British historian Burleigh (Blood Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism) delivers a long, riveting account of awful events and the perverted reasoning behind them. Communist, Nazi, Fascist, and Japanese systems claimed to be regimes of public virtue carrying out inexorable historical processes. Proclaiming that the only evil was obstructing this march to utopia, all discarded the rule of law and alternative moral authority (religion, ethics). The Holocaust and other familiar WWII atrocities top off an exhaustive litany of mass murder, brutality, and squalid cruelty perpetrated by governments, military leaders, local officials, and ordinary individuals who, acting without moral values, became monsters. Burleigh does not ignore Hiroshima and Allied mass bombing campaigns, but deplores the current fashion for balancing the moral books. All nations acted shamefully, he concludes, but denies that Eleanor Roosevelt's youthful anti-Semitism made America complicit with Hitler, as one recent revisionist implied. 16 pages of color photos. (Apr.)
AMERICA IN WWII
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.
Library Journal
Burleigh (The Third Reich: A New History) presents an examination of controversial and morally questionable choices made during the war. All nations had blood on their hands—the Allies reasoning that bad things must sometimes be undertaken to accomplish the greater good. Burleigh covers the Holocaust itself, the aerial bombings of Germany, and the atom bomb, as well as Marshal Pétain's possible agenda in Vichy France, resistance activity, and Churchill's religious interpretation of the war. Burleigh also fills out the personal contexts in which particular leaders and soldiers operated, but additional specific discussion may have further aided readers. Nonetheless, this is a good starting point for debates on morality in wartime.
Kirkus Reviews

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.

Timothy Snyder
“A bold, blunt, and sometimes beautiful defense of morality in history . . . . Mr. Burleigh poses the moral questions to the people that mattered at the great turning points of a vast war.”
Andrew Roberts
“Michael Burleigh has long been one of our foremost writers on the importance of ethics in history, and in this deeply researched, closely argued and well-written analysis of the moral issues thrown up by the Second World War he has reached the zenith of his career.”
The Tucson Citizen
“Burleigh serves up an array of new interpretations which is not simply a new overview of the war, but rather an examination of the prevailing moral sentiments of entire societies and their leaderships.”
The Washington Times
“Burleigh has written a powerful, gripping book that will be essential reading for an understanding of World War II. It is worthy of anyone’s attention who is interested in that war.”
The Christian Science Monitor
“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. . . . An exceptionally important book.”
The Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Chilling. . . . A deeply researched and vividly written book.”
The Christian Science Monitor
“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. . . . An exceptionally important book.”
The Washington Times
“Burleigh has written a powerful, gripping book that will be essential reading for an understanding of World War II. It is worthy of anyone’s attention who is interested in that war.”
The Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Chilling. . . . A deeply researched and vividly written book.”
The Tucson Citizen
“Burleigh serves up an array of new interpretations which is not simply a new overview of the war, but rather an examination of the prevailing moral sentiments of entire societies and their leaderships.”

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780060580971
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
03/22/2011
Pages:
672
Product dimensions:
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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