Moral Combat: A History of World War II Book Review - -
Moral Combat: A History of World War II
Reviewed by
David Robert
Moral Combat: A History of World War II Book Review. By definition a work of this kind could never be rightly termed definitive, but Moral Combat comes as close as any history could hope. 
Moral Combat: A History of World War II
Michael Burleigh

Review Information

Reviewer: David Robert
Review Date: April 2012

Book Information

Publisher: Harper Press
RRP: $69.95


out of 10



In a diverse career which now spans more than 25 years British historian Michael Burleigh has produced several highly-regarded books on Nazi Germany, including Ethics and Extermination: Reflections on Nazi Genocide and the widely lauded The Third Reich: A New History, which won the 2001 Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction. 

Turning his scholarly attentions once more to the period, Burleigh attempts in this latest work to provide a ‘moral history’ of World War II by exploring the myriad moral dilemmas and crises of conscience faced by soldiers, statesmen and civilians alike during the six years of ‘the Good War,’ as the Americans would later term it.  Good or not, all sides could at least agree that the war was a necessary one.  Necessary in Hitler’s view to secure sufficient German lebensraum in the East and ‘destroy once and for all the Jewish-Bolshevik menace,’ the overarching obsession of his adult life, and necessary to Churchill because the tyranny and joylessness of Nazism as well as its ‘idol worship’ of a demagogue he described as ‘a monster of wickedness’ required stopping at any cost.   

The cost, of course, was getting into bed with Stalin, a man who willingly slaughtered millions of his own people and whose ‘lust for blood and plunder,’ to again quote Churchill on Hitler, made Hitler’s pale in comparison.  This was of course perfectly well known to the British Prime Minister, as was the hard truth that the premise given for going to war with Germany, the invasion of Poland, applied equally to Russia (it is a fact often glossed over that the Red Army invaded Poland a fortnight after Germany, and the two uneasy allies divided the country between them in accordance with the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.  The world also largely chose to overlook Stalin’s subsequent annexations of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and northeast Romania as well as his invasion of Finland two months later, an unprovoked attack that raised barely a peep in the West, so fixated were its leaders on defeating Hitler). 

As Churchill put it, ‘if Hitler invaded Hell I would make at least a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.’  The British leader invoked similar imagery on a subsequent occasion, claiming that in spite of his abhorrence for the Soviet system he was ‘willing to sup with the devil in hell to defeat Nazism,’ and sup with the devil he did.  Similarly burdensome if less prodigious choices were made on a daily basis by tens of thousands of people throughout the war, oftentimes life and death choices the likes of which most of us living today will thankfully never be required to make.  

Moral Combat succeeds entirely as a history, though perhaps less convincingly as a moral history.  In spite of Burleigh’s assertion in his acknowledgements that ‘this is not another history of the Nazis,’ the sections of the book which focus less on subjective ethical considerations and more on historical phenomena are far and away its most successful.  Its opening chapters offer as elegant and succinct an encapsulation of the circumstances which led to the war as has ever been penned, and the section dealing with the nightmarish occupation endured by the Poles likewise displays Burleigh’s rare gift for fluidity, proving stunningly evocative, even poetic, a neat trick in light of the horrors which abound. 

Melodious turn of phrase and artful concision aside, Moral Combat does however come across a tad disjointed.  Its author’s insistence on incorporating both theatres of war into his analysis effectively doubles the scope of the book, though the bulk of its 600 pages remain devoted to the conflict in Europe, and whether by necessity or design those sections dealing with Japan often prove startlingly brief in comparison.  Burleigh’s own palpable biases also frequently intrude.  He is certainly far from impartial in his assessment of the leading wartime personalities, espousing at some length on the manifold vulgarities of the respective German high commanders whilst painting a near-saintlike portrait of Tadamichi Kuribayashi, the stoic, principled Japanese General immortalised in the 2006 movie Letters from Iwo Jima.  Winston Churchill is likewise given lavish treatment: even his legendary alcohol intake is excused on the dubious grounds that the rigours of his job ‘might have killed’ a more ‘abstemious’ fellow.  Furthermore a number of contentious (not to say monumental) statements are airily offered without so much as a hint of referencing, such as this bit of offhand reportage: ‘the SS man told the Army man that Himmler had been instructed by Hitler to exterminate all Jews,’ or the flip, overconfident assertion two pages later that ‘Witnesses in post-war German trials who testified that SS or policemen were executed or sent to concentration camps for refusing to obey orders were all subsequently shown to have committed perjury,’ both of which could probably have benefited with at least a cursory footnote. 

Yet when all’s said and done, this attempt at a moral history of history’s bloodiest war stands as a magnificent one and Burleigh’s intentions are, as ever, admirable.  He writes beautifully and even his more wryly acerbic turns, as when he descends on the ‘bumptiously ignorant Lord Duffy’ or likens 1930s British foreign policy to the meddling of a ‘busy-bodying schoolmistress,’ come across as cheeky rather than combative.  By definition a work of this kind could never be rightly termed definitive, but Moral Combat comes as close as any history could hope. 

650 pages, with 16 pages of colour and black-and-white photographs


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