'Moral Combat' by Michael Burleigh (2010)

Moral Combat: A History of World War II - Michael Burleigh

Michael Burleigh, Moral Combat: A History of World War II (London: HarperCollins, 2011), 650pp


This is a great book on World War II, but not quite the unique, genre-busting work that some reviewers would have you believe. There is little here that has not been covered extensively elsewhere; indeed, the two main areas of Burleigh's insight are the Holocaust and Allied strategic bombing – hardly fresh topics.

The hook of Burleigh's work is that he seeks to retell the story of World War II through a moral lens. Before reading the book, and given the title of Moral Combat, I eagerly expected a fresh investigation into what ordinary combat soldiers went through in the war and the difficult choices they had to make, often in the heat of the moment. This is dealt with competently in Chapter 14, 'We Were Savages', but disappointingly, the bulk of the book seems to deal with those in positions of authority. Indeed, the opening and closing chapters deal predominantly with the main 'predators', as Burleigh calls them: Hitler, Hirohito and Mussolini. The book also deals extensively with areas of the war which cannot be deemed 'combat', moral or otherwise, such as the German depravities towards civilians in the East (though Burleigh is in his element here, as he has written extensively on this subject in previous books). Often, the book is just yet another retelling of the course of the war to add to the voluminous number of straight histories of World War II, merely laced with anecdotes describing some of the atrocities committed. When he does address some interesting areas untouched by historians, such as "the murky history of British military procurement" (pg. 489) that left the country so woefully unprepared for war, the scope and breadth of the book prevents him from delving too deeply into any one such topic.

I cannot help but feel that embracing the moral philosophising Burleigh devalues so readily would have made for a more interesting book. That said, the author's scholarship is strong and the book is very readable. But it seems like a missed opportunity not to delve into the philosophical and psychological dilemmas faced by men in combat on all sides, an approach that would have been particularly daring considering that World War II is seen in the West as the last 'good war'.

As one final note, this book is not recommended for beginner historians. Whilst loosely chronological, the chapters are mainly thematic, covering such topics as life under Nazi occupation, the toll of decision-making on commanders, alliance politics, Allied bombing, etc. It requires prior knowledge of how the wars in Europe and the Pacific developed, as Burleigh (rightly) has little time for providing a mere chronological narrative of the course of the war that advanced readers will already be familiar with. Overall, it is a good history tome, but it feels like a missed opportunity.