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Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II Paperback – 15 May 2012

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Product details

  • Paperback: 650 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (15 May 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060580984
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060580988
  • Product Dimensions: 13.5 x 2.7 x 20.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,162,927 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Michael Burleigh was born and educated in London. He was an academic for eighteen years before deciding to write full-time in 2001. He has won three major film awards for television documentaries (including 'Selling Murder' which won a BFI award) as well as the 2001 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction. He is married and lives in central London although he travels extensively, particularly in Asia. In 2012 he won the Nonino International Master of His Time Prize. His new book, Small Wars, Faraway Places: The Genesis of the Modern World 1945-1965 will be published in 2012 by Macmillan.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Brian Griffith on 13 Sept. 2013
Format: Paperback
There is very little philosophy in this volume. Burleigh plows straight into blow by blow accounts of Italian and Japanese aggressions leading up to the great war. The deeds of the antagonists are compared in a literal way. The fairly detailed accounts of mass murders, partisan raids or mass bombings directly illustrate degrees of depravity or altruism. Much of the book concerns the dilemmas of people under Nazi rule, such as French resistance fighters or Jews drafted as "council elders" over ghetto communities, for whom there were probably no good options. In evaluating the Allies, Burleigh highlights Russian cruelty to the point of making Western sympathists for the Soviet cause look like total fools. The options of the British and Americans are mainly weighed against alternatives rather than principles. As in the recent war on terror, we see the hope that bombing from the air can actually minimize the total casualties required for victory. The book describes a world turning toward holding individuals accountable for their own actions in war. But on the slippery slope of collective guilt or virtue, Burleigh places the Western democracies a cut above their foes.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By huey on 2 Jan. 2012
Format: Audio CD
Burleigh is one of the foremost historians of the period and in this book sets out a brilliant analysis about why ordinary Germans and people from other nationalities did such despicable things in war and why others did good things. It looks at the evidence in a rigorous but novel way. An excellent audio book read well. Long car journeys can be enlightening with an audio book like this.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 25 reviews
63 of 69 people found the following review helpful
Enduring work. 5 April 2011
By Mark Twin - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Halfway through the book.
Already enough to justify rereading, reshelving (to must reread) and recommending. There seems to be at this moment in history a glorious glut of uber-literate military historians: Norman Stone, John Keegan, Martin Gilbert, Ian Kershaw, Richard J. Evans, Richard Bessel et al, and Michael Burleigh seems in both his 'The Third Reich' and this 'Moral Combat' to exceed above all. Mr. Burleigh succeeds in making one gape and gasp in despair as he details, point after dread point, the terrible depths to which both individuals, whether dictator or general or field soldier, and groups will descend physically, mentally, and above all morally, in order to eradicate that with whom or with which they disgree.
This book is an anti-war book in the best possible tradition: it describes the daily disgrace perpetrated upon one man to another, justified by pact or privilege. It argues cogently for human understanding without once resorting to rank politic. It bemoans the fad of revisionism, of relativism, of reductionism. It is a readable and engrossing and a fascinating book.
35 of 40 people found the following review helpful
Thought Provoking 6 April 2011
By El Briano - Published on Amazon.com
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.
78 of 99 people found the following review helpful
Cranky but interesting 10 April 2011
By James Palmer - Published on Amazon.com
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.

There's very little on the Asian theater, which is really just as well, because Burleigh clearly doesn't know anything about it. There's some outright howlers like Shinto being "a State form of Buddhism," or the claim that the Japanese have "stubbornly refused to apologize or pay compensation." They've done the first numerous times - [...] - and they paid compensation at a state-to-state level, which is why they refuse individual claims - this was actually the situation in Germany for decades as well. His image of Japanese culture is full of outworn and untrue stereotypes - thus we learn, for instance, that it was "a culture that vested all authority in the divine Emperor" and "lacked an external frame of moral reference."

Take one clause, "Since the Japanese had never surrendered in their 2,600 year history ..." - putting aside the dubiousness of the date, what the hell does this mean? "Japan" as a nation had never "surrendered" because its foreign involvement before the 1870s was limited to two invasions by the Mongols, which failed fast, and Hideyoshi's imperialist adventurism in Korea. In Japanese warfare, mostly internal, clans and armies surrendered a whole bunch (see Karl Friday's Samurai, Warfare and the State in Early Medieval Japan (Warfare and History) for example). Burleigh seems to wholeheartedly swallow the regime's own account of Japanese history and culture, which is very dubious.

Dealing with Japan properly would also have required Burleigh to tackle an issue he clearly doesn't want to - colonialism. Colonialism played a strong role in German attitudes to the East, in particular, and Japanese atrocities make considerably more sense if considered in the light of, for instance, the French habit of executing fifty Vietnamese for every dead Frenchman when putting down colonial uprisings in the late nineteenth century. Burleigh sniffily dismisses Mark Mazower's Hitler's Empire: How the Nazis Ruled Europe as "dedicated to smearing the record of various colonial empires through association with Nazism," without actually tackling any of the issues around colonialism and Nazi atrocity.

Not worth picking up as an introduction to the issues, but but interesting if you're a WW2 buff or a fan of Burleigh's other work.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
What's the Moral Standard in History's Biggest War? 26 April 2012
By Nick Howes - Published on Amazon.com
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.

On the Allied side, the chief flaw that calls into question their position on the side of good, was that of Soviet leader, Josef Stalin, arguably more murderous than even Hitler, his ethnic cleansing and just plain slaughter kept largely within Soviet borders.

Burleigh examines a range of other moral issues including those posed by Allied bombing policy and bombing accuracy, the brutalizing foxhole experiences of soldiers and what it did to them, the appeasement by Chamberlain and the French at Munich where they handed over Czechoslovakia without consulting the Czechs, the treatment of POW's by the Japanese, the rise of the Resistance in the various occupied countries, among many other matters.

An interesting, thought-provoking book.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Long and complex; interesting nonetheless 17 Jun. 2012
By David W. Nicholas - Published on Amazon.com
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. I thought he wrote a little bit too much on the Holocaust, and the book itself is very involved and detailed. The author's writing style involves long sentences and longer paragraphs (something that seems to infect British academics more than American ones, for some reason) and he uses a lot of unusual words and foreign words and phrases. I don't speak French or Latin, so I had to spend some time on the Internet translating some stuff, and looking up definitions. He also, in the area of mistakes, gets a few details wrong when he chooses to detail individual incidents involving both German and American army units, in one case mis-stating a Division commander's name and in another instance apparently mislabelling a regiment as a division. Neither of these errors affects the points he was making in either case one whit; I believe his overall conclusions to be sound, and backed by history.

I generally thought well of this book. The author's overwordy writing style kept it from getting five stars, but for someone interested in the subject, who's already knowledgeable about World War II, this is a good place to start on the subject of morality in the context of the war.
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