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Moral Combat
A History of World War II

By Michael Burleigh. 672 pp.
HarperCollins, 2011. $29.99.

In recent years, some historians have combined archival evidence with a refusal to see moral differences between how the Allies and Axis conducted World War II, thus reconfiguring the war’s image. The concept of a “good war” waged against absolute evil is giving way to a narrative that tracks and compares self-interest and power on all fronts. Allied operational decisions that spilled civilian blood are rated as morally equal to the ideological imperatives that drove the Germans and Japanese to slaughter millions of “inferior” peoples on the Eastern Front and in China. Quasi-victim status of the kind Japan claims for Hiroshima, for example, is granted to Germany for its suffering from Allied air raids.

And so for his latest book, British historian Michael Burleigh merits praise for his professional courage in bucking this trend, as well as for his scholarship, insight, and narrative flair. Burleigh’s previous works focus on the moral dimensions of terrorism, the Third Reich, and the relationship between religion and politics; Moral Combat examines the Second World War in the moral contexts of the societies involved and their leaders. Burleigh presents a cogent and persuasive case that World War II’s central events were driven by human decisions—decisions shaped by prevailing moral matrices and individual moral reasoning.

In one sense, Moral Combat is an extended case study in what French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called the “dirty hands problem,” where individuals facing a conflict of values must choose between unsatisfactory alternatives. Burleigh demonstrates how conscience, ideology, and contingency interacted when, as often happened in this total war, decisions had to be quickly made and carried out. The war in Russia was uniquely savage. The war in the Pacific followed a downward spiral into mutual policies of no quarter. Neither the Western Allies nor the Soviets took significant direct action against the extermination of the Jews. But beyond all this carnage and misery wrought on both sides, Burleigh’s account of the development and implementation of the Final Solution, designed to transform its victims into a herd of animals for slaughter, presents his most powerful and terrifying indictment: the war’s morality was completely distorted by the Nazis’ justification of using hideous means to pursue a “glorious” end. The only alternative to surrender, enslavement, and death was resistance.

That basic yet profound insight does not diminish the moral problems created by, for example, the West’s alliance with the Soviet Union or the tens of thousands of French deaths caused by the Allied invasion of Normandy. It does, however, provide context for those actions, and that context fundamentally challenges the facile, utopian moralizing that de facto equates America’s internment of Japanese civilians with Japan’s mass murder of Chinese.

Total war is truly hell, and Moral Combat often paints a picture of “human darkness, shading from pitched black to generalized grey.” Yet Burleigh also finds it impressive that while the predators sank further into infamy, regard for decent and lawful conduct nevertheless survived among their enemies, despite obvious temptations toward inhumanity or indifference. For example, the ongoing air offensives against Germany and Japan ultimately became a calculation of lesser evils, since their intransigent foes insisted on continuing a war they clearly could not win. Allied battlefield atrocities, even those of the rapacious Red Army in 1945, owed more to “the filth of war” than to officially sanctioned murder. And at the conflict’s end, its losing perpetrators were given trials. These were not perfect, but they did seek to render justice for the perpetrators’ crimes—and to restore a sense of justice and responsibility to a world that had looked too long and too closely into a bottomless moral abyss.

Dennis Showalter is a professor of history at Colorado College, and a fellow of the Barsanti Military History Center at the University of North Texas. He has written extensively on World War II, including Patton and Rommel: Men Of War in the 20th Century (2005) and If the Allies Had Fallen: Sixty Alternate Scenarios of World War II (2010).