One can sense that many historians of the 20th century want to grapple and grasp with the Second World War, the conflict that defined the way we live our life today. There's a sense of completeness about the subject, from the way that we see the rise of a vagabond to the most powerful man in the Europe to the unusual synchronicity of the two main totalitarian regimes involved. Add the end of Empires and the dramatic rise of the USA bookmarked at the end by the Atomic Bomb and you have all manner of historical themes that start, intertwine and end within this relatively short period of six years.
Michael Burleigh's book takes a different stance to such recent studies of the period as Andrew Roberts' "The Storm of War" or Norman Davies "Europe : Divided" which look to provide a grand overview. Neither does it seek to mark or bullet point turning points or strategic decisions taken by the military, like in Ian Kershaw's "Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions That Changed the World, 1940-1941". Instead, applying the forensic historical research that made his 2000 book "The Third Reich" such a powerful read, Burleigh takes this conflict and the actions contained therein to an atomized, human level.
This isn't a book primarily about strategy, equipment or economic decisions made by the political and military commanders on the battlefield, it's principally about the business end of war, namely the horrendous killing and its consequences. That ranges from the gut-wrenching experiences of combat troops, to resistance under foreign occupation, the systematic death brought by ideologies to their enemies via death camps and the long-range destruction wreaked by bombing. What Burleigh is often at pains to point out is why the prevailing moral sentiments at the time changed under pressure from ideology and the mobilization of countries towards what Joseph Goebbels famously called "Total War".
"Moral Combat" reads well. Burleigh's prose is inflected with the confidence and vigour of a man who knows his subject and he isn't above withering criticism of certain individuals with a stroke. His previous historical research, especially the study of the Third Reich, serves him well . However, it's a book that begins to reap rewards once we arrive at subjects ridden with moral ambiguity. The first half is similar to others, providing a backdrop to many of the important events of the war. When Burleigh arrives at subjects like Operation Barbarossa though, you can sense that this is where he begins to grapple with the book's main objective.
One of the most horrific sections contains Burleigh's scalpel-like analysis of the events of June 1944 in the French town of Sait-Amand, where the actions of Maquis resistance fighters spurred on by the Allied invasion and the SS troops mobilized to meet them led to a horrific chain reaction of events. It's not the gory details of the deaths tjat chills you, it's how the moral compass swung wildly between the occupying forces and the unhinged, desperate actions of resistance fighters that came about because of the threat of violence. In the end, the Germans found the idea of executing 500 innocent villagers as a response to the Resistance far too easy to comprehend. SS General Heinz Lammerding, in response to the protesting mayor, said it was "nothing for us" as they had hanged "a hundred thousand" people in Kiev and Kharkov. Of the 500, they hanged 99 at lunch whilst listening to gramaphone records. The effects of a murderous campaign where soldiers had become so accustomed to treating other humans as utterly insignificant had taken its toll.
You can sense that Burleigh himself is combative in that he wants to stamp out some of the moral arguments that have arisen since the war finished. It is easy, he argues, for armchair philosophers to make judgments about the decisions taken by those, such as Curtis Le May or Arthur "Bomber" Harris, who were forced to carry the can and thus became by association notorious with the event, when often they were carrying out orders from above. The latter in particular has become so associated with what is seen as the senseless destruction of Dresden in February 1945 that it's often forgotten that he was in favour of other targets, when Churchill provided the order. Burleigh's view is that the Allied bombing of Germany and the targeting of civilian populations was utterly vindicated because of the upmost support of the regime by them. He takes time to point out that the systematic oblivion of the Holocaust was well known to them to, as many saw the bombing as "retribution for their actions towards the Jews". Whilst you can sense that Burleigh doesn't apply the same level of detail with his sections on Japan, his targeting of Hirohito as someone "who got away with it" makes for gripping reading.
"Moral Combat" ends in a fashion too that makes it stand out as a fine book for the subject, by tackling the legal history of both Nuremberg and Tokyo in a concise way. No international standard was in place for something of this nature, given that in 1918 the Germans had not been occupied. The remoteness of the Japanese trials from the countries of the victors (essentially the US) was laced by the fact that many in Asia saw the victors as interlopers on their own territory. In the final sentence the author brings the subject up to date, reminding us that "the 15 million Chinese killed by the Japanese may prove to be, in the long-term general trend of the world, the deed that will prove to have turned most notably against Japan's interest, for there can be little doubt about who is going to be the super-power of the 21st century".
Backed by outstanding historical research and a prose that never wavers into nebulous ambiguity, "Moral Combat", perhaps in a way that mirrors the subject it covers, gathers at an unstoppable pace as Burleigh takes you into the heart of Armageddon.