Reviewed by David Beechey
Michael Burleigh, Moral Combat – Good and Evil in World War II, Harper Collins, ISBN-13: 9780060580971, 672 pp., 2011, $29.99
Americans like to think of the Second World War as “The Good War” and after reading Moral Combat they will find that Michael Burleigh also believes that description to be accurate. He is unsparing in his analysis of the horrors that both Nazism and Communism spawned and also quite clear that the Allies (excluding the Soviet Union) morally deserved to win whereas the Axis, by their actions, deserved to lose.
Burleigh makes it clear that Stalin probably caused the deliberate deaths of more Jews than Hitler but the German propensity for recording everything both on film as well as on paper has meant that we almost exclusively blame them not the Soviets.
The Japanese are a different matter and one comes to the conclusion that the war in the Far East became, in essence, a race war. U. S. Marines went into combat on Iwo Jima, according to Burleigh, with “Rodent Exterminator” stencilled on their helmets. He even goes so far as to state “American attitudes towards the Japanese were not far distant from the Nazi view of the Jews.” Phew! He goes on to cite many disturbing anecdotes to justify this. Don’t misunderstand this, though, because his documentation of the Japanese atrocities is vivid and detailed to a sickening degree.
This is a history of the Second World War viewed through the eyes of the men in the three totalitarian states, Germany, the Soviet Union and Japan – who either rejected morality or produced their own distorted one – and in Britain and the United States, where the great majority understood the choices available and got on with defeating what they perceived to be wickedness and evil.
He exposes the distorted morality of the Nazis with clarity and it is fascinating when he describes how they had a “moral code of a sort… and this was enforced by the courts” to such an extent that such crimes as being drunk, discharging firearms at signs, taking bribes, taking whores into the guardhouse and many other relatively minor offences were punished and often severely. Burleigh comes to the conclusion that “maintenance of this partial group morality made it easier for some Germans to behave so abominably to the majority population who were excluded from their orbit of concern and enjoyed no legal protections.” He also maintains that forbidden as they were both by inclination and law from showing pity to the people they ruled the “Germans felt sorry for themselves, for having to do things in the name of duty, discipline, racial consciousness and German prestige.” The Nazis in the higher echelons who ensured that this twisted morality was maintained had no compunction in “acquiring” country estates, villas, works of art and even Palaces as did Hans Frank who had been appointed by Hitler to head the Polish civil administration. The perpetrators of the killing of Jews “utterly depended on their retaining a sense of morality (Burleigh’s italics), however perverse that might seem” Killing the Jews was viewed as a mission with which the Germans had been burdened and it had to be kept secret because “the general population was not at a sufficiently advanced stage of consciousness to comprehend the necessity.”
Interestingly he spends some time on the occupied countries and in particular France and his description of the resistance employing what can only be described as sadists who appeared to enjoy torturing suspected collaborators or traitors including women and children. He makes it quite clear that most people got on with their lives by collaborating in one way or another often simply because they had jobs to do. The issue of Vichy France and its relationship with the Allies and the occupied part of France is also discussed.
The Wehrmacht are exposed at long last as being far from remote from the horrors and in many cases actively participated. I have never believed that they were not aware of what was going on and the detail provided is conclusively damning. Burleigh concludes that the “fiction of a decent but simple soldiery led astray by Nazi ideologues” was encouraged by the Western Allies after hostilities ceased because of the need to integrate West Germany into the NATO alliance.
Burleigh leaves us in no doubt that although the Allies did some terrible things – the firebombing of Dresden and other cities; the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – there was considerable debate beforehand. Churchill believed that because he had a war to fight which Britain did not start but did everything possible to avoid, then whatever measures were necessary to win it were acceptable. Amongst those measures was a pragmatic willingness to sup with the devil, Stalin, in order to defeat Nazism.
Churchill was well aware of the horrors of war and wrote before 1939 describing “the attritive slaughter of the trenches where combat had been reduced to a business like the stockyards of Chicago” and his actions showed that throughout the war he never forgot that. After the fall of France and the Vichy regime’s refusal to demilitarise the French fleet Churchill ordered it to be sunk by the Royal Navy because the risk of the Germans taking it was too great and wept when he did so. It is impossible to imagine Hitler or Stalin having had similar emotions.
The first part of the book is a history of the start of the war through to the occupation including some interesting observations on appeasement and many anecdotes that were new to me. Burleigh then moves on to the problems of command and the fighting itself. There are three chapters on the Holocaust and two on Allied bombing. He makes it quite clear that he considers the 55,000 men who died in Bomber Command to be “heroes.” He then deals very effectively with the pseudo moralists when he states, “no serious person can compare the hard-fought bombing campaign with slaughtering innocent civilians in circumstances where the only risk the perpetrators ran was to be splashed with blood and brains in some ditch in the Ukraine.” There is an interesting note that the deaths in the Blitz were the equivalent of a “9/11 once a month for a year.” Brendan Bracken, Churchill’s friend and advisor once said “our plans are to bomb, burn, and ruthlessly destroy in every way available to us the people responsible for creating this war” and that was the view of most of the British bomber crews who had seen the terrible effects of the Blitz first hand and who knew by their own experience that it had not been them who had started the bombing of civilians. Curtis LeMay, the U.S. Air Force General, dismissed the moral qualms of “aged beatniks, savants and clergymen…if we could shorten the war, we wanted to shorten it” and went further by believing that it was immoral to use less rather than more force and that the radiation from Nagasaki and Hiroshima was similar to the Romans sowing the site of Carthage with salt. Burleigh is scathing in his comment that those historians who have endeavoured to equate the Allied aerial bombing with Nazi crimes against humanity have done so “with more or less malign intent.” It is no wonder that he has turned his back on academia!
The anecdotes, many of which are fresh, are quite simply often sickening and in some instances are almost beyond belief. A particular example that I have not been able to forget is “one Einsatzkommando had tea breaks, while their victims shuddered in anticipation, although this unit thought it in poor taste that the tea was accompanied by canned blood sausage.”
Michael Burleigh has written an authoritative and balanced examination of how the great majority of men overcame their disquiet in dealing with the moral dilemmas that were posed constantly from that of an ordinary rifleman face to face with his enemies to the Generals and politicians directing the war who did not have to personally kill anyone. The horrors enacted by the three totalitarian states have been well documented in hundreds of books and Burleigh is unsparing in the details. He is unconvinced by the cliché – “the banality of evil” – and writes “the suggestion that many of those involved in the Final Solution were unimaginative clerks has been one of the more persistent alibis used to minimise their whole hearted participation in the revolting enterprise.”
When the narrative is ended the terrible fact that stands out is that men brought up in civilised countries perpetrated the bloody details we have read about.
This is not a book that concentrates on only the higher command structures but also on the ordinary soldier and his actions and choices and the morality of them. Finally what proved to me what an important book this is was the fact that it has left me wondering what I would have done under similar circumstances; and I have also been looking at friends and acquaintances, wondering what their actions would have been and sometimes even daring to ask them!
David Beechey was born in North Wales in 1942 but thinks of himself as British first and Welsh second. He obtained a degree in Civil Engineering and then a Diploma in Management Studies followed by becoming a Fellow of the British Institute of Management. He formed his own contracting company in 1979 and specialized in the building of bullion vaults and cash-in-transit centers and has expertise in their security. He still works in the business. He has maintained a serious interest in Political Science since winning the Current Affairs Prize in the last year at his College. His interests range from sailing, gardening, military history, reading, to classical music and the theatre. He has travelled widely and has flown over a million miles to the United States where he has a particular interest in the American West. He is currently completing a novel set in Arizona in 1942. He lives with his wife in Lancashire, UK.