Review of “Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II” by Michael Burleigh

To some, it may seem oxymoronic to talk about morality and war in the same sentence, and yet each side in modern wars tends to think that it alone is on the side of God. Indeed, the Crusades, full of bloody cruelty, were a series of religiously sanctioned military campaigns waged by much of Roman Catholic Europe. The American Civil War, to take a more recent example, was considered – especially by Northerners- to be primarily a moral conflict. As Lincoln famously noted in his Second Inaugural address:

Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”

World War II was called “the good war” by the Western allies, who used the language of morality to justify both the entry into the war and the manner in which it was waged. “What is our policy?” Churchill asked in 1940: “To wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime.”

It seems fitting, then, that Michael Burleigh has written a history of World War II from a moral (rather than the more common operational) perspective. And in this war we can see that, as with all wars, many ethical compromises were made in the effort to eradicate perceived evil.

Burleigh describes in detail episodes that required moral judgments on the part of the participants, who had to make such judgments in the face of extraordinarily difficult and complex circumstances. He maintains that the Nazis “tried fundamentally to alter the moral understanding of humanity, in ways that differed from the moral norms of Western civilization.”

The first great moral issue faced by the Western countries was how to deal with the predator nations of Germany, Japan, and Italy. Burleigh deals sympathetically with British appeasers led by Chamberlain, who “saw themselves as realists, although their own chimerical quest for a general European peace settlement, without alliances or threats of war to strengthen their own hand, was incredibly idealistic…what Churchill would call the pursuit of ‘futile good intentions.’” What the appeasers were unable to fathom was that the dictators of Germany and Italy were not “fundamentally reasonable, decent men” like themselves.

Chamberlain and Hitler in 1938

Burleigh’s account of the “rape of Poland” details how egregiously the Nazis trampled on traditional Western notions of morality. Soviet behavior in the same area and time was not much better. The massacre of some 22,000 Polish officers at Katyn Forrest has only recently been formally acknowledged by the Soviet government.

Conditions of life under Nazi occupation varied significantly from country to country, depending how “Aryan” the population was. The occupation was [relatively] less onerous in Denmark, as the Nazis thought the Danes to be racially similar to themselves. At the other end of the spectrum, conditions for the natives in Poland or the USSR were bestial. Conditions in France were intermediate.

Nazi occupation posed two significant moral problems for the indigenous population. One moral issue was how much to “collaborate,” in particular, whether to assist the Nazis in identifying Jews or to assist the Jews in hiding or escaping, for which the punishment was death.

A second issue was faced by the “resistance,” the natives who became saboteurs. Killing Nazi soldiers or effecting significant damage to key assets invited savage reprisals, usually the execution of innocent hostages. In addition, the Germans usually replaced the Nazis assassinated with someone even more vicious than the person killed.

Sometimes politics trumped morality in the decision to assassinate. The Czech resistance killed Reinhard Heydrich knowing the German reaction would bring barbaric reprisals on the Czech people, but they feared the Germans might seek a negotiated peace resulting in the disappearance of the Czech nation all together. Edvard Beneš, the future prime minister of Czechoslovakia, on learning of the assassination said, “What the Germans are doing is horrible, but from the political point of view they gave us one certainty: under no circumstances can anyone doubt Czechoslovakia’s national integrity and her right to independence.”

Edvard Beneš - President of Czechoslovakia, 1942

Treatment of prisoners was another area in which conceptions of morality differed among the combatants. The Japanese had no tradition of surrender and thought it was dishonorable. Hence, they treated prisoners with contempt, often starving or beheading them. Toward the end of the war, the Japanese themselves were often short of rations, and were not inclined to share them with the dishonorable dogs who had surrendered to them.

The Germans and Soviets each took hundreds of thousands of each other’s prisoners; only about 10-15% survived the war. In stark contrast, the Allies perceived the Germans fighting in North Africa to be honorable opponents. In general, treatment of prisoners on the western front was far better than in the east or the Pacific.

Methods of motivating the fighting forces also raised moral issues in the different approaches used by the combatant parties. Both the Germans and the Soviets utilized fear, executing thousands of their own forces for cowardice or desertion. The Soviets executed an astounding 200,000 of their own men, 13,500 in the battle of Stalingrad alone!

Soviet Soldiers at Stalingrad (from

Nazi immorality is nowhere evinced more clearly than in their barbarism toward the Jews. Burleigh points out, however, that that widespread coercion of the German populace was not necessary to impose the “final solution”: “there were always enough volunteers.”

Some of the most gruesome moral decisions of the war were thrust upon the Jewish Councils of Elders that were established in the ghettos and concentration camps. They were often tasked with selecting which members of their group would be relocated to extermination camps. Many Council members simply refused to co-operate in such life-and-death decisions, either by committing suicide or being shot after registering their dissent.

Burleigh devotes an entire chapter to the issue of whether the Allies could have done more to ease the plight of the Jews. In particular, the Allies have been condemned for their failure to bomb the Auschwitz concentration camp. Jewish leaders pleaded with the Allies to sacrifice those already in the camp for the benefit of the many more who would be sent there in the future.

Burleigh seems to agree that anti-Semitism played a role in the decision-making process when he points out: (1) “the only apparent interest of the U.S. government was to block Nazi-induced Jewish immigration”; (2) “[t]here is no point in denying that British politicians like Foreign Secretary Eden were biased in favour of Arabs over Jews,” undoubtedly because of oil; and (3) “[t]he US military was also keenly sensitive to avoid anything that might suggest that Gentile soldiers were dying to save Jewish lives.”

Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden in 1943

Nevertheless, and irrespective of any implicit anti-Semitism on the part of the Western powers, Burleigh points out the problems a mission to bomb the camp entailed. “The practical difficulties and extremely remote prospect of success have been forcefully demonstrated by distinguished historians of the air war…” He concludes [untenably, some might counter] that the British and American decision not to bomb the camps “categorically had nothing to do with anti-Semitism, and everything to do with Allied priorities for winning the war.”

The decision to drop the two atomic bombs over Japan was (and still is) justified [again, quite controversially] as a means of reducing the total number of people killed by the war, particularly innocent civilians:

Those who object to the dropping of two atomic bombs might ask themselves how many Americans (and Russians) they would have preferred to see killed. Would they prefer that LeMay’s fleets continued to burn their way through cities? How many civilian Japanese would they prefer to have been slaughtered or starved to death by a tightening naval blockade that had cut all food imports, while, as in Europe, conventional bombing wrecked the entire transport infrastructure?”

The Mushroom Cloud Over Nagasaki

Evaluation: This book is a very rich and probing investigation of many difficult and often subtle moral decisions that were made and forced upon various people, famous and unknown, powerful and impotent, by the circumstances of World War II. This review covers some, but not nearly all, of the issues elaborated therein. Not everyone will agree with all of the author’s interpretations and conclusions, but the book is well-written and thoroughly researched. I highly recommend this for any student of history, as well as for any book club that includes non-fiction selections.

Rating: 4/5

Published by HarperCollins Publishers, 2010

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