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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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on 20 January 2011
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.
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on 31 January 2012
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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on 28 June 2013
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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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 16 May 2010
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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on 2 November 2011
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. Perhaps we will never find out why people and especially Germans behaved like they did. Some famous Geman statesman once said that moral courage wasn't a Germans strongest virtue, but put a uniform on him and it disappears completely.
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on 21 June 2010
I read the newspaper reviews of this book and noted the positive nature , especially regarding the standard of writing. I have read many books about the 2nd World War so I purchased this expecting a new slant. I wasn't prepared for the outstanding level of scholarship and understanding of the issues involved. Rarely does one gasp at the how complex and disturbing matters are contained within sentences an paragraphs that are astounding.
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on 27 May 2010
In reviewing this book nothing is more important than placing it in the right perspective. (Perhaps the publisher is at faujlt for putting "A history of World War II on the front of the dj) This is not a straightforward
history of WWII (like Roberts' superb "The Storm of War"). It focuses on one vital component of WWII history, namely (as the title suggests), its moral aspects. So while roughly chronological in approach, the overall detail is concerned with the decisions, both by the Axis Powers, and the Allied forces, in their moral impetus and consequences. And as such, recognizing the parameters which Burleigh sets himself, it is, I think, a superb pice of work. The sheer magnitude of evil which swept across Europe (The Nazi war machine, and expecially 'The Final solution'), and Asia (The Japanese) is sometimes so horrifying that the reader wonders whether he can take any more. The sheer numbers of deaths, the misery, the cruelty, the horror mount up page after page. (The chapter on 'The Rape of Poland' was a real eye-opener) Burleigh is an excellent historian in that he allows the facts to dictate the sweep of narrative--but he is not above making comments which show where his sympathies lie. An example of his balance is in the discussion of the moral dilemmas faced by those responsible for developing (and using) the atomic bomb.
Having read other books by Burleigh, I have a great admiration for his skill and authority as a historian. I believe that read rightly (i.e. bearing in mind the perspective from which he writes), this is a deeply moving and sombre account of the terrible and tragic storm that engulfed the world during those war years.

Brian Butler
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on 17 July 2011
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.

This book could not be more different (I'm frankly staggered they were written by the same author) This is no trudge through the strategy and battlefields, but rather the war viewed through the lens of the moral dilemmas and decisions of it's participants.

He manages to say more about Churchill in a few pages than many have in long winded biographies, and when he decides the subject is worth a detailed analysis the result is fascinating and truly illuminating (for example the Lodz ghetto)

He achieves a genuine new perspective by examining the issues and decisions from axis and allies alike, but very consciously avoids the trap of even hinting at any kind of moral equivalence between the two.

The best WW2 book since Armageddon.
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on 18 November 2010
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. It also manages to examine the "out of bounds" areas that many left wing historians have avoided such as Russian and Italian activity in morally murky waters.
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