MORAL COMBAT: GOOD AND EVIL IN WORLD WAR II
By Michael Burleigh
HarperCollins, $29.99, 650 pages
Evil is a word that seems to have fallen out of current usage. The eminent British historian, Michael Burleigh, however, doesn’t shy away from using it and describes in bone-chilling detail its manifestations in his latest book, “Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II.”
To describe it properly he begins as he must with World War I. Human casualties were enormous. For years after the war France had a declining population due in part to the war’s decimation of its young males.
Pacifism became the political byword and popular novels and plays all hewed to the pacifist line. Perhaps the most famous example of how pacifism had become deeply embedded in the British consciousness was the debate at Oxford Union in 1933 where the side that said it would not fight for king or country won. This widespread feeling, the author writes, prevented politicians in both France and England from resisting the rising totalitarians or modernizing their military. As the author states, during the Spanish civil war, British leftists felt arms for the Republicans were fine, but arms for Great Britain were not.
In other parts of Europe, pacifism existed, of course, because human casualties had been equally enormous; the most popular and longest lasting pacifist novel, “All Quiet on the Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque was published first in Germany, to much popular acclaim. The Germans, however, did not attempt to restrict their military; the Versailles treaty did that for them, and anything that worked against that hated treaty was welcomed.
The advent of Adolf Hitler and the rise of Nazism changed the country immeasurably, for Nazism was like a new religion that had to be accepted in its entirety. Vehement and illogical racism was central to its doctrine. Only Germans could be relied on to safeguard civilization for they were the world’s supermen (Ubermensch) or Aryans (Indo-European speakers). Jews were Semites, non-Aryans, and therefore should not be allowed to corrupt German purity. This nonsense was filled with contradictions, of course.
The grand mufti of Jerusalem, very much a Semite, was welcomed with open arms in Berlin, and the Muslim soldiers of Bosnia who joined the German forces were always treated well. But religious doctrine is infallible and if the Fuehrer says pigs can fly, look up into the sky and count them.
Slavs are not German, but if the word Aryan means anything (the word originally meant people living in Iran, the progenitors of the Indo-European language family), they are Aryans, but they were hated intensely by the Germans (because they inflicted so many casualties on their attackers?) and like the Jews, were treated as subhumans. After the invasion of the Soviet Union, savagery became policy. Special battalions were organized to round up Jews and potential partisans behind the advancing German lines were held as hostages. If one German soldier lost his life because of underground activity, 10 hostages were shot, sometimes more. Eventually most were killed in extermination camps.
Someone once said that the death of a person is a tragedy, but the death of a million is a statistic. The author gives us the statistics in overwhelming numbers, so much so that it is difficult to grasp the enormity of what happened; yet his vivid and powerful writing brings comprehension.
There were rumors, as there always are, of Americans shooting or being abusive to German or Japanese prisoners. In rare instances, that may been true, but in the American Army violence against a prisoner of war is a court-martial offense, and some men have been court-martialed for exactly that..
In the Nazi army things were different. When one German general was asked about execution squads and concentration camps, he replied that he knew nothing about such matters and he didn’t want to know. In any case, authorization for such acts came directly from Hitler’s headquarters and the Fuehrer must be obeyed.
The firebombing of both German and Japanese cities presented another moral problem but the rationale was that they quickened the ending of the war. There was good reason to believe that without the atom bomb, which killed tens of thousands, the Japanese would not have surrendered until their islands had been invaded and conquered foot by foot. The loss of life, estimated from previous island invasions, would have been enormous, far, far greater than that incurred by bombing.
The author feels that the purveyor of moral equivalence, who says we are all guilty so let’s not be too harsh, shows his lack of comprehension and vision of the evils that occurred. In particular, he chastises Hannah Arendt for titling her book “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.” He feels there was nothing banal about Adolf Eichmann, whom he considers a raging psychopath who used his office to live out his pathology. He applauds the Nuremberg trials and the later trials in Tokyo because he feels they were an essential finish to one of the world’s worst blood-stained eras. He felt it essential that the world recognize the evils that had been committed and resolve to insure they did not occur again.
Mr. Burleigh has written a powerful, gripping book that will be essential reading for an understanding of World War II. It is already a selection of the Army Book Club, and is worthy of anyone’s attention who is interested in that war.
Sol Schindler is a retired Foreign Service officer.