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Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II Hardcover – March 22, 2011

3.6 out of 5 stars 25 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. A moral history of WWII would be brief, said one wit, but respected British historian Burleigh (Blood Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism) delivers a long, riveting account of awful events and the perverted reasoning behind them. Communist, Nazi, Fascist, and Japanese systems claimed to be regimes of public virtue carrying out inexorable historical processes. Proclaiming that the only evil was obstructing this march to utopia, all discarded the rule of law and alternative moral authority (religion, ethics). The Holocaust and other familiar WWII atrocities top off an exhaustive litany of mass murder, brutality, and squalid cruelty perpetrated by governments, military leaders, local officials, and ordinary individuals who, acting without moral values, became monsters. Burleigh does not ignore Hiroshima and Allied mass bombing campaigns, but deplores the current fashion for balancing the moral books. All nations acted shamefully, he concludes, but denies that Eleanor Roosevelt's youthful anti-Semitism made America complicit with Hitler, as one recent revisionist implied. 16 pages of color photos. (Apr.)
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“A bold, blunt, and sometimes beautiful defense of morality in history . . . . Mr. Burleigh poses the moral questions to the people that mattered at the great turning points of a vast war.” (Timothy Snyder, The Wall Street Journal)

“Chilling. . . . A deeply researched and vividly written book.” (The Cleveland Plain Dealer)

“This is a superb work of scholarship with fresh insights on nearly every page that will likely leave the reader asking hard and troubling questions long after finishing it. . . . An exceptionally important book.” (The Christian Science Monitor)

“Burleigh has written a powerful, gripping book that will be essential reading for an understanding of World War II. It is worthy of anyone’s attention who is interested in that war.” (The Washington Times)

“Burleigh serves up an array of new interpretations which is not simply a new overview of the war, but rather an examination of the prevailing moral sentiments of entire societies and their leaderships.” (The Tucson Citizen)

“Michael Burleigh has long been one of our foremost writers on the importance of ethics in history, and in this deeply researched, closely argued and well-written analysis of the moral issues thrown up by the Second World War he has reached the zenith of his career.” (Andrew Roberts, National Review)

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 672 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; 1 edition (March 22, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060580976
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060580971
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.5 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,034,529 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
This (very lengthy) book reads like an extended essay, filled with acute, and sometimes controversial, observations on moral aspects of how World War II was prosecuted. Those looking for a more conventional, narrative history of the war should turn to the work of someone like John Keegan. At the end of the day, Burleigh doesn't have a whole lot to say that is particularly new, but his arrangement of the material, and the passion and erudition of his presentation, make compelling reading. His point of view is mainstream, British-centric, in line with writers such as Andrew Roberts and Max Hastings, and is a refreshing corrective to certain revisionist, moral equivalence points of view, which seek to tar all participants with the same brush. Burleigh's is a "warts and all" perspective on the Western allies, but he is clear on the essential moral distinctions that made this a necessary, if occasionally troublesomely prosecuted, war.
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Format: Hardcover
It's difficult to bring up the topic of morality in terms of warfare, but then if it wasn't Michael Burleigh wouldn't have been compelled to write this book, I imagine. Besides, he demonstrates clearly it is a fertile ground for exploration.

The Axis to any surface examination of the war represent unmitigated evil, while the Allies represent qualified good.

Burleigh delves deeper, discussing the moral issues which arose in the prosecution of history's bloodiest conflict. Even beneath the surface, the Axis remain evil and corrupt upon examination, with the author focusing on the overwhelming scale of massacres of Jews, Slavs, gypsies, Russians, and others. The systematic conquest and further destruction and "clearing" of Poland for settlement is described in detail.

In their attempt to supplant the Western colonial governments in Asia, the Japanese get attention for their brutality, enthusiastically cultivated by the militarists who controlled the society. The Japanese would have had an easier time succeeding as a benevolent Asian colonial power, through their Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, offering leadership to their conquests, had they not casually and repeatedly unleashed their brutality on the people of the countries they occupied.

Little attention is given to Italy, led by Benito Mussolini, who even Italians referred to by derisive nicknames. Not that it matters. From Berlin, Hitler invariably called the shots. The other Axis partners had no input on decisions made regarding direction of the war. As for the Japanese, they would no doubt have been Nazi victims, had they not been of similar outlook, and, more to the point, so distant as to be irrelevant to Hitler's aims.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is the kind of book that you read with both eyes open and a red pen to hand. It's very good in parts, but quirky, unfair, and weakly argued in others. Generally, it's strong on the Nazis and Soviets and weak on the Allies. As in his fantastic The Third Reich: A New History, Burleigh writes about the Nazis with raw contempt, which is one of the better ways of dealing with them. He's excellent on the venality of the regime, and at picking out telling details to illustrate guilt, like Manstein's request for watches torn from dead Jews.

The Soviet chapters get distracted by side-swipes against a nebulous cabal of left-wing historians but are good when he sticks to the issues. As for the Allies, the treatment of "hot-blooded" warm crimes and the resistance movements is ok, but the chapters on air power surprisingly tired. Allied atrocities get no personalization, their cost in life presented only in numbers.. Burlieigh also likes to make little ad hominems on the proponents of the other side (Bishop Bell's supposed vanity, for instance) and drag out the kind of silly or misplaced-in-hindsight comments everybody makes, while giving no such treatment to those he favors.

On the cranky conservative side, there's nothing as magnificently odd as the several-page rant about the Irish in Sacred Causes: The Clash of Religion and Politics, from the Great War to the War on Terror, but there is a lot of straw-manning of left-wing positions and refighting High Table battles from the late 1980s.
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Format: Paperback
This is an interesting, little-written-about topic. Author Burleigh has written a book about the 3rd Reich, and another about religious influence in history, and now he's decided to write a whole book on the moral aspects of World War II. The author clearly believes that while the Western Allies were guilty of some war crimes, now and again, these were the actions of individuals; the Nazis, Soviets, and Japanese especially committed war crimes as a matter of government policy, over and over. He goes over the various incidents, campaigns, invasions, and so forth that might be included in such a discussion, and while his decision to include this and not include that is at times eccentric, the result is a relatively interesting piece of work.

The author's range of view seems to be land warfare, aerial warfare, and non-combat subjects such as the Holocaust. He pays little if any attention to the Naval aspects of the war, for instance, and doesn't ever mention the questionable legality of the submarine campaigns carried on by the Germans against the British, and the later one carried on by the Americans against the Japanese. Instead he's very interested in German atrocities in Europe (of course you could write a whole book on them alone, and many have), the Soviet atrocities, and with a little less attention, the Japanese atrocities committed in the Far East. He sort of half-slides over one of my particular points about the Japanese war crimes: the Japanese *enjoyed* themselves a great deal more than the Germans did, on average. The Germans managed to turn mass murder into an assembly-line process, while the Japanese turned it almost into a sport or performance piece.

Regardless, the overall subject matter is interesting, and well-done.
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