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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About 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.
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.
Table of Contents
Preface and Acknowledgement vii
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
Select Bibliography 603
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
To some, it may seem oxymoronic to talk about morality and war in the same sentence, and yet each side in modern wars tends to think that it alone is on the side of God. Indeed, the Crusades, full of bloody cruelty, were a series of religiously sanctioned military campaigns waged by much of Roman Catholic Europe. The American Civil War, to take a more recent example, was considered - especially by Northerners- to be primarily a moral conflict. As Lincoln famously noted in his Second Inaugural address:"Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.¿World War II was called ¿the good war¿ by the Western allies, who used the language of morality to justify both the entry into the war and the manner in which it was waged. ¿What is our policy?¿ Churchill asked in 1940: ¿To wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime."It seems fitting, then, that Michael Burleigh has written a history of World War II from a moral (rather than the more common operational) perspective. And in this war we can see that, as with all wars, many ethical compromises were made in the effort to eradicate perceived evil.Burleigh describes in detail episodes that required moral judgments on the part of the participants, who had to make such judgments in the face of extraordinarily difficult and complex circumstances. He maintains that the Nazis ¿tried fundamentally to alter the moral understanding of humanity, in ways that differed from the moral norms of Western civilization.¿ The first great moral issue faced by the Western countries was how to deal with the predator nations of Germany, Japan, and Italy. Burleigh deals sympathetically with British appeasers led by Chamberlain, who ¿saw themselves as realists, although their own chimerical quest for a general European peace settlement, without alliances or threats of war to strengthen their own hand, was incredibly idealistic¿what Churchill would call the pursuit of `futile good intentions.¿¿ What the appeasers were unable to fathom was that the dictators of Germany and Italy were not ¿fundamentally reasonable, decent men¿ like themselves.Burleigh¿s account of the ¿rape of Poland¿ details how egregiously the Nazis trampled on traditional Western notions of morality. Soviet behavior in the same area and time was not much better. The massacre of some 22,000 Polish officers at Katyn Forrest has only recently been formally acknowledged by the Soviet government. Conditions of life under Nazi occupation varied significantly from country to country, depending how ¿Aryan¿ the population was. The occupation was rather benign in Denmark, as the Nazis thought the Danes to be racially similar to themselves. At the other end of the spectrum, conditions for the natives in Poland or the USSR were bestial. Conditions in France were intermediate. Nazi occupation posed two significant moral problems for the indigenous population. One moral issue was how much to ¿collaborate,¿ in particular, whether to assist the Nazis in identifying Jews or to assist the Jews in hiding or escaping, for which the punishment was death. A second issue was faced by the ¿resistance,¿ the natives who became saboteurs. Killing Nazi soldiers or effecting significant damage to key assets invited savage reprisals, usually the execution of innocent hostages. In addition, the Germans usually replaced the Nazis assassinated with someone even more vicious than the person killed. Sometimes politics trumped morality in the decision to assassinate. The Czech resistance killed Reinhard Heydrich knowing the German reaction would bring barbaric rep
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.