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Moral Combat: A History of World War II [Hardcover]

Michael Burleigh
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
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Book Description

29 April 2010

From pre-eminent historian Michael Burleigh comes a brilliant new examination of the Second World War and a magisterial counterpart to his award-winning and bestselling THE THIRD REICH.

Literature on the Second World War is voluminous. In Moral Combat, however, Michael Burleigh achieves what few historians can claim to have done; by exploring the moral sentiment of entire societies and their leaders, and how this changed under the impact of total war, he presents readers with an entirely fresh perspective of this conflict.

Opening with the 'predators' - Mussolini, Hitler, Prince Hirohito of Japan - and moving onto appeasement (a popular policy or a 'wrong' policy?), the rape of Poland, Barbarossa, the role of Churchill, and the Holocaust, Burleigh analyses the moral dimension of the Second World War's most important moments. More than merely a history of 'great men', however, Burleigh also examines the moral reasoning of individuals who had to make choices under circumstances difficult to imagine. Stressing the maxim that the past is used to make sense of the present world we live in, he takes us right up to today's war on terror - a war of competing ideas. What, in the end, will constitute its victory? Burleigh's fascinating and deeply engaging exploration refuses to draw lessons from the past for the future, remaining instead firmly focused on the on-the-spot decisions that came to define the conflict.

Original, perceptive and remarkable in scope, this is an unforgettable and hugely important Second World War history.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 672 pages
  • Publisher: HarperPress; 1st edition edition (29 April 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007195761
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007195763
  • Product Dimensions: 16.5 x 24.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 246,273 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.

Product Description


‘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.… Burleigh takes strong stances on almost every controversy of the war…This book is full of poignant nuggets of information…but easily its greatest strength lies in the wise, civilised but unshakeable moral certainty of its author.’ Andrew Roberts, Sunday Telegraph

‘Burleigh’s book is infinitely better than the usual tiresome trudge through the battlefields of North Africa or rose–tinted retrospective of the Battle of Britain. More than any book I have read on the war, it confronts us with the ethical questions millions of people faced in their daily lives… Perhaps the most impressive thing about Burleigh’s book is that, unlike so many historians, he has a refreshingly realistic, clear-eyed view of human nature.…One of the strengths of Burleigh’s analysis, however, is that while he is well aware of allied atrocities, he never loses sight of the basic moral difference between the warring parties.… Although Burleigh leaves us in no doubt that the Second World War was a just conflict, he simultaneously leaves us under no illusions about the horrors of modern warfare. This is a book in which heroism is inevitably flawed and tempered; in which the choice is always between two evils.…if we are to avoid repeating such horrors in our own lifetimes, then, as Burleigh’s outstanding book reminds us, some things should never be forgotten.’ Dominic Sandbrook, Sunday Times

‘powerful and timely…This is one of the most important books on the Second World War to be published in recent years’ Evening Standard

About the Author

Michael Burleigh is Distinguished Research Professor in Modern History at Cardiff University. He is the author of nine well-received books, including ‘Earthly Powers’, ‘Sacred Causes’ and ‘The Third Reich’, for which he was awarded the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2001.

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Customer Reviews

4.3 out of 5 stars
4.3 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
75 of 82 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The best book I have read on WW2 8 May 2010
By Bobby Smith TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I have a lot of books on WW2 - approaching one thousand as a conservative estimate. However, this is currently occupying number one place in my library - it is that good.
Burleigh manages to merge the readability of Niall Ferguson with the cool, calm analysis of Robert Kershaw or John Keegan in his prime. Although the subject matter has been covered before, Mr Burleigh adds the crucial moral debate to all aspects of the war - from the RAF bombing campaign, through to the Holocaust (not that the two should be linked morally together). What I found fascinating, in reading this military/political history, was that Burleigh's arguments come from a right of centre perspective; for instance, he rightly asks the question why the Soviets have not been blamed for bombing the railway lines to Auschwitz - given that they were far more easily reached via the Ilyushin Sturmoviks than the hordes of RAF Lancasters. A question completely ignored by the media in this country (and in Russia).
Frequently the author goes off on tangents, giving the book a fresh feel and adding the human dimension amid all the suffering so eloquently described. In short this is a book that anyone with an interest in history will enjoy. Mr Burleigh, I take my hat off to you for your work of genius.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Masterly prose and analysis from Burleigh. 20 Jan 2011
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
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.
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36 of 41 people found the following review helpful
Michael Burleigh has achieved a virtual miracle by finding a new slant on the Second World war that he manages to extend into a fascinating and important new book. Sure loads of other authors have touched on the moral issues around war and WWII in particular, but to my knowledge no one has managed to put together such an all encompassing and engrossing book which deals solely with such a sensitive subject. The great success of this book is that it treats an often harrowing and potentially divisive subject with care and compassion, making few judgements, offering a few potential explanations but on the whole just reporting the facts as they were at the time. This is an important point as it is easy to look back with rose tinted glasses and wonder where to draw the moral line.
The overall feeling I had when finishing this is that the war is often not as futile as we would like to think, many so called atrocities are committed by scared young men (predominantly) fighting for their lives but that some atrocities are indeed unforgiveable in any context and such lessons from WWII have still to be learned.
It may seem a strange thing to say given the subject matter but this was a genuinely enjoyable read and I feel relieved that I haven't yet and hope never to have to meet some of the moral challenges faced by the protagonists in this book. If you are fed up with Gung Ho accounts of "The War" then this book will redress that balance in a big way
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars No good guys in war 28 Jun 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
When I started reading Moral Combat, I was tempted to put it down after the first 50 pages because it was overloaded with so many details and facts. I'm glad I gave the writer the benefit of the doubt because this preliminary information is necessary to understand the intricate politics behind WWII. Studies of WWII seem to obsess over battles and the upper echelons on power. Moral Combat explores the reasons behind many of these policies.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great read 31 Jan 2012
By jeff
Not in to writing lengthy reviews of books, but for anyone wanting a good overall read on World War II, this book is excellent. I, like some of the previous readers am an avid reader of Second World War non fiction books. This books rates very highly as being one of the most interesting well written ones I have read. Easy to read with a wealth of informative and interesting information.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Moral combat
Very informative, well written and most of all, sad to realise that what the author reveals about human beings and their actions, still goes on today. Read more
Published on 2 Nov 2011 by Rog the dodge
5.0 out of 5 stars Moral Combat
This is a book I bought for a friend of mine who is interested in World War I and II. I looked through it before I gave it to her and decided I wanted one for myself. Read more
Published on 19 July 2011 by Sheileen
5.0 out of 5 stars A genuinely new perspective
I came to this book with low expectations, as I found Burleigh's Third Reich a turgid read, packed with detail but providing no new perspective. Read more
Published on 17 July 2011 by BHA till I die
5.0 out of 5 stars An important book
This is an important book examining the rights and wrongs of actions taken during the second world war. Read more
Published on 8 May 2011 by South Yorkshireman
1.0 out of 5 stars Lord of the Rings view of history
Yes, this is erudite and well written, but the bias made it unreadable to me. It just seems to be your geographical location that matters. Read more
Published on 27 April 2011 by IAN CAMERON-MOWAT
4.0 out of 5 stars A brilliant book, although my copy did contain a production error
I purchased this book after reading a number of reviews in the national press and it did not disappoint. Read more
Published on 23 Feb 2011 by P. Kirkham
5.0 out of 5 stars Thought provoking.
This is not only a first class book in the context of its subject period, but also a thought provoking one in the area of all armed conflict. Read more
Published on 18 Nov 2010 by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars A unique perception
Once again the convoluted knot of history is unraveled by Michael Burleighs' unique take on the events, cleanly revealing both obvious and hidden truths. Read more
Published on 7 Sep 2010 by Mr Balmer
5.0 out of 5 stars A Present
I'm sorry but I am unable to provide a full review as I purchased the book for my father.

What little I read while I had a peek was up to the usual standard of the... Read more
Published on 3 Aug 2010 by N. Ridgway
4.0 out of 5 stars Valuable if distressing
This book is well worth reading. It is not really a history of the second world war; it is an account of the atrocities which it generated. Read more
Published on 16 July 2010 by Michael G. Hinton
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