Moral Combat: A History of World War II

Evan Mawdsley looks at a highly readable account of the Second World War

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Reviewed by: Evan Mawdsley
Author: Michael Burleigh
Publisher: Harper Press
Price (RRP): £30

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Some of the best-known general accounts in English about the Second World War have been written by historians whose starting point, in terms of speciality, is Germany. Michael Burleigh continues this tradition.

Although some of his recent writing covers broad themes such as terrorism and the relationship between religion and politics, Michael Burleigh is best known for studies of the inner workings of Nazi Germany, which culminated in his 2000 book, The Third Reich: A New History.

Both advantages and challenges come from this ‘German’ perspective. No one can disagree that Adolf Hitler had a great deal to do with the start and course of the war in Europe. The crimes of Nazi Germany – especially wars of aggression and then genocide – were what especially characterised the 1939–45 period.

Michael Burleigh, as might be expected, is exceptionally good on developments in and around the Third Reich. To some extent this strength is bought at the expense of comprehensiveness.

This is a volume with 560 pages of text, but given the enormity of the six-year global struggle it is still a ‘short’ history. Out of 21 chapters, two are devoted to the Nazi occupation policy in Poland, and three more to the occupation in other parts of Europe. Four chapters are about aspects of the Holocaust.

There is a severely selective treatment here of strategy and operations, especially during the second half of the war. D-Day is hardly mentioned. ‘Ultra’ merits two references, one connected to the Holocaust. For the Italian campaign or the U-boat war or Yalta or the Allied ‘home front’ – to pick only a few examples – readers will need to look elsewhere.

Aside from seeing the war through a German prism, the other characteristic of the volume is ‘moral combat’. In the preface the author sets out to give an account of two things: (1) “The prevailing moral sentiment of entire societies and their leaderships, and how this changed under the impact of both ideology and total war,” and (2) “The moral reasoning of individuals who… had to make choices under circumstances difficult to imagine.”

Arguably the book has a third argument: the Allies, or at least the Americans and British, fought for a genuine moral cause; the Germans did not.

Burleigh dismisses accounts that treat the war in a relativistic way, singling out the 2008 revisionist treatment by Nicholson Baker, Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization. This reviewer would not disagree with the assertion that the British-American partners genuinely held the moral high ground. But that is, after all, the same view that was argued by the fighting Allies during the war, and by victorious Allies and contrite Germans after 1945; it is the Nuremberg verdict.

The strength of the book is the various episodes or vignettes of which it is made up. They are always interesting and highly readable; they will surprise even those who think they know a lot about the subject.

The war – both combat and criminality – is brought down to a human scale, for those making decisions, for those who were carrying out orders, and for those who were the victims.

Burleigh deals with features that many would see as the ‘essence’ of the Second World War and which distinguished that war from conflicts before and after. While this bleak and powerful account cannot be read for ‘pleasure’ it has the great virtue of making the reader think deeply about aspects of the great struggle. 

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Evan Mawdsley is professor of international history, University of Glasgow and author of World War II: A New History (CUP, 2009)