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Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II
by michael burleigh 
harper, 672 pages, $29.99

World War II—the bloody denouement of the “Thirty Years War” of the first half of the twentieth century—is in the popular imagination a “good war,” but the English historian Michael Burleigh prefers to call it a “necessary war” since no war is in principle a “good war.” Even though fifty-five million people perished and whole societies were transformed almost beyond recognition, the alternative was the triumph of a National Socialist regime committed to altering “the moral understanding of humanity,” one that was lawless to the core, had nothing but contempt for Christian ethics and the civilities characteristic of a liberal order, and had “modernized barbarism into an industrial process.”

The recognition of the necessary character of the war is the first step in coming to terms with the moral issues raised by the conflict. Burleigh describes this endeavor as a historical one, but one that is also sensitive to the “prevailing moral sentiment of entire societies and their leaderships.” He is a historian who exercises moral judgment while rejecting a “dubious moral relativism ... . in which all belligerents were as bad as one another.” On the whole he succeeds brilliantly, never losing sight of good and evil as ultimate standards of judgment, even as he remains faithful to what he calls “commonsense realism.”

As in Moral Combat ’s predecessors, The Third Reich: A New History and Sacred Causes: The Clash of Religion and Politics, from the Great War to the War on Terror, Burleigh offers a kind of moral history. He insists that we must avoid moralism, which is to morality what religiosity is to religion and sentimentality to sentiment, that is, it entails a fundamental distortion of moral judgment in the direction of ideology and sentimentality. He rejects, for example, a pacifist response to totalitarian aggression as both politically and morally unserious, since it would necessarily entail the “abnegation of everything decent, humane, or joyous in our condition, ushering in an era of heroic scientizing barbarity.”

The Nazi regime could not be appeased, because its “geo-racial vision” rejected all humane criteria, as well as the sense of compromise that was essential to traditional diplomacy. Burleigh shows how the Western advocates of appeasement like Neville Chamberlain tried to convince themselves that deep down even Hitler shared the desire for peace that animated the democratic leaders.

This was folly. Burleigh deftly demonstrates that the appeasers’ abysmal failure of moral reasoning, their inability to understand evil when it directly confronted them, emboldened Hitler and convinced him that the democracies were too decadent to come to the defense of nations that were about to be incorporated into the Nazis’ New World Order.

Wiser men like Churchill knew precisely what was at stake in the conflict between Western democracy and National Socialist despotism, yet once Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, the democracies found themselves allied with a regime that was in decisive respects as evil as the one that posed the immediate threat. That alliance was indeed necessary since Nazi Germany could not be defeated without Soviet help, but Burleigh appreciates its tragic nature.

One of the strengths of Moral Combat , in fact, is the way it compares the two totalitarianisms, the two “non-God religions,” as Churchill called them. Burleigh, like Churchill, sees Communism and Nazism as frères-ennemis, brotherly enemies, who reduced human beings to “culpable groups” and saw “the solution to the problems of mankind in their extermination.”

One of the other strengths is Burleigh’s detailed portraiture of the Nazi regime and his description of the “vast areas of human darkness, shading from pitch black to generalized gray, that defined the moral behavior of the time.” Without taking this into consideration, he argues, we cannot seriously weigh the morality of the Allies’ actions.

In some of the finest pages of the book, he traces the self-radicalization of the Nazi regime as it moved into the “Wild East.” The true nature and distinctive racial fury of the regime only became apparent when it ruled uncontested over subject peoples. The Nazis unleashed a war of annihilation against Soviet and Polish Jews, and governed the Poles and other subject peoples with a cruelty that was beyond sadistic.

There was nothing “banal,” he insists, about the evil that unfolded after September 1939: By a transvaluation of values, murder and cruelty became the hallmarks of a new kind of ideological fanaticism that brought out the worst in human nature. Even before the industrial extermination of Polish Jews began in camps such as Chelmno (and later Auschwitz), 2.9 million Jews died at the hands of the Einsatzgruppen, “killed by men standing a few feet away from them.”

Burleigh also makes clear the voluntary character of complicity with the Final Solution: “There is not a single recorded instance of any German mass murderer being sanctioned in any formal sense for refusing to participate in what were voluntary activities.” There was no “putative emergency” that obliged the unwilling to participate in mass murder.

Altruism proved tenuous when men and societies were confronted by this radical evil. Many non-Germans informed on Jews for personal advantage and many more served as functionaries and police under occupation regimes. And in the death camps, the number of non-German guards far outnumbered the SS. Many more were complicit in the ideological crimes of the Nazi regime than the comparatively small number who heroically came to the rescue of those whose lives were in imminent danger.

Yet, there was something clarifying about the Second World War. In a fine chapter on resistance in Europe, Burleigh stresses that a commitment to “essential moral truths” and a conviction that Nazism was “inherently evil” drew together the disparate characters who took up arms against the Nazi behemoth.

The diverse men and women who came to the rescue of European Jews included renegade German officers and soldiers, religious believers and clergy who were motivated by a sense of decency and moral obligation, and ordinary men and women who saw “fellow human beings in distress rather than the Jew the Nazis meant them to see.” Sometimes whole communities came to the rescue of the persecuted, as with the five thousand Jews who were saved by the Huguenots at Le Chambon in France and the eight thousand Jews who were ferried across the sound to neutral Sweden by their Danish neighbors in October 1943.

Having set the scene in which the Allies found themselves acting, Burleigh takes up some of their most controversial decisions. He sheds important light, for example, on the vexing question of why they failed to bomb the death camps in the final years of the war. He makes clear that this would not have been easy. Allied bombing was anything but precise, and the “absolute priority” and “agreed strategy” was to defeat Nazi Germany as quickly as possible.

Moreover, he points out that the Soviets were in a much better position to bomb the concentration camps, to air-drop arms to Jewish and non-Jewish resistance in Poland, and “to drop paratroops who would have made short work of the SS men who ran the death camps.” They surely knew of their existence since they ran a ubiquitous camp system of their own. Yet while there is a large literature taking Britain and the United States to task for their failure to bomb the extermination camps, there is little scholarly discussion of Soviet inaction in response to the Holocaust.

The most delicate issue he tackles is the increasingly “promiscuous” character of Allied bombing against Germany and Japan in the final years of the war, when the inaccuracy of Allied bombing and the desire to end the war quickly contributed to the move to area bombing in 1942. Churchill called the fire-bombing of Dresden in 1945 “an act of terror and wanton destruction” even though it was the culmination of a larger policy he had repeatedly endorsed.

Burleigh takes seriously arguments such as those of George Bell, the Anglican Bishop of Chichester, that saturation bombing sullied the dignity of the Allied cause and did not adequately distinguish between atrocious regimes and the people who lived under them. But putting the Allied decisions in context, he also points out that many more Japanese died in non-nuclear bombing raids than in the two atomic thunderclaps over Hiroshima and Nagasaki and provides particularly vivid descriptions of Japanese depredations throughout China. Fifteen million perished at the hands of the Japanese, and they imposed untold cruelties throughout the rest of their “co-prosperity sphere,” as it was euphemistically called.

While he neither approves nor disapproves of Allied bombing policy, Burleigh does his best to avoid the kind of quasi-judicial commentary that goes looking for war crimes. British and American aircrews fought for freedom and did not set out to murder civilians indiscriminately. Allied air commanders who advocated area bombing, like Arthur “Bomber” Harris and Curtis Le May, were “not as entirely insensible to questions of morality as the caricature” of them suggests, he argues. Harris, for example, believed that bombing “was more humane than either the military casualties sustained on the Western Front or the civilian losses due to the British naval blockade of Germany between 1914 and 1918.”

Burleigh is sensitive to arguments that question the military value of area bombing and that remind us of the need to maintain a high moral tone when fighting against totalitarian evil. But it is clear that he believes that the great moral desideratum was to quickly and decisively defeat Hitler’s regime. Burleigh thus leaves us with a disputed question, an aporia of sorts, rather than a simple condemnation”or blanket endorsement”of Allied bombing policy.

Moral Combat is a welcome addition to Michael Burleigh’s ongoing reflection on the struggle against ideological or political religions in modern times and his continuing efforts to pioneer a model of “moral history” that embodies a judicious mean between pretentious moralism, on the one hand, and a relativism that is blind to the moral dimensions of human thought and action, on the other. In the process, he has illumined the moral dimensions and the political stakes of the Second World War as well as anyone to date.

Daniel J. Mahoney holds the Augustine Chair in Distinguished Scholarship at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Photo by the German Federal Archive. Licensed under Creative Commons.