Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II

Overview

In this sweepingly ambitious history, Michael Burleigh explores the moral sentiments of the societies and leaders of World War II, brilliantly revealing how their attitudes motivated the conflict—and how they were ultimately transformed by the shock of total war. Burleigh's painstaking scholarship and profound sensibility reveal how the choices made by governments, communities, and individuals to enthusiastically embrace evil, to consciously reject it, or to determinedly overlook the war's moral quandaries were ...

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Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II

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Overview

In this sweepingly ambitious history, Michael Burleigh explores the moral sentiments of the societies and leaders of World War II, brilliantly revealing how their attitudes motivated the conflict—and how they were ultimately transformed by the shock of total war. Burleigh's painstaking scholarship and profound sensibility reveal how the choices made by governments, communities, and individuals to enthusiastically embrace evil, to consciously reject it, or to determinedly overlook the war's moral quandaries were critical factors in a conflict that grew to consume the globe.

Spanning both major theaters and a wide spectrum of issues, from the Axis "predators" to the Allied appeasement, from the rape of Poland to the complexities of reparation, Moral Combat illuminates how the war was driven by—and decided by—this deadly conflict of philosophies. 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

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.”
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 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.”
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.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060580988
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 5/15/2012
  • Pages: 672
  • Sales rank: 689,947
  • Product dimensions: 5.42 (w) x 7.80 (h) x 1.19 (d)

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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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.
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Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgement vii

Maps xiii

1 The Predators 1

2 Appeasement 35

3 Brotherly Enemies 76

4 The Rape of Poland 115

5 Trampling the Remains 134

6 Not Losing: Churchill's Britain 158

7 Under the Swastika: Nazi Occupied Europe 190

8 Barbarossa 221

9 Global War 253

10 The Resistance 268

11 Moral Calculus 287

12 Beneath the Mask of Command 311

13 Antagonistic Allies 334

14 'We were Savages': Combat Soldiers 360

15 Massacring the Innocents 394

16 Journeys through Night 419

17 Observing an Avalanche 443

18 Tenuous Altruism 463

19 'The King's Thunderbolts are Righteous': RAP Bomber Command 478

20 Is That Britain?-No, It's Brittany 506

21 The Predators at Bay 533

List of Illustrations 563

Notes 567

Select Bibliography 603

Index 623

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Sort by: Showing all of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Posted June 23, 2011

    Superb-a must for all who think they know all about this war.

    This was a war where one thought that the divide between good and evil was "self-evident." There was no moral equality between the axis and allied powers, but parallels between them are disconcerting to say the least. One of the most engaging books about the war I have ever read, and I have read many.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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