The oversaturation of World War II in the historical-media field can make it seem impossible for anything new to be said, but author Michael Burleigh punctured that myth with his The Third Reich: A New History a decade ago. Eschewing a conventional chronological, coherent narrative about the course of the war, Burleigh brilliantly synthesized the wide range of scholarship both macro and micro to create a compelling, encompassing description of how the Nazis seized and wielded power.
Moral Combat: Good And Evil In World War II, burdened by an overly ambitious yet misleadingly simplistic title, initially seems like a continuation of the earlier work, meant to encompass all of the belligerents in World War II. Instead, it acts as something of a mirror—where The Third Reich required pre-existing knowledge of the war and Nazi regime to be comprehensible, Moral Combat provides a more general history. The broad lens of moral decisions made by leaders, generals, soldiers, and civilians manages to encompass most of the most-discussed controversies and strongest emotional narratives of the war. Moral Combat serves as Burleigh’s response to the way World War II is portrayed in modern culture, in addition to standing as history on its own.
Though it succeeds as a narrative, Moral Combat isn’t an unmitigated success. Burleigh’s cranky conservatism has been toned down from its excesses in his more recent works, but it still occasionally jumps out, most egregiously when he claims the BBC “seems to have appeasement built into its charter.” More importantly, the book betrays a significant bias toward the European theater in general, and the British experience in the war specifically. Two full chapters are dedicated to the Allied strategic bombing of Germany, while only one is dedicated specifically to Japan’s role in the war, with the remainder of the Pacific theater dealt with haphazardly. Strangely, Moral Combat comes to an abrupt end while describing the modern ramifications of Japan’s treatment of China in the war, even though the book otherwise barely mentions the war in China, beyond its opening section. Most surprisingly, there’s no mention of the Yalta Conference and the division of post-war Europe for in-war gains, in spite of the topic’s perfect thematic congruence with Moral Combat’s central thesis that the men and women on the side of right did the best they possibly could under exceptional circumstances.
Such flaws are directly related to the book’s scope, though there’s already enough in the dense tome as it is. Burleigh’s prose is as subtly strong as ever, remaining readable in spite of its complex information, intense subject matter, and impressive number of footnotes. Moral Combat manages to portray the war as a series of decisions, made from the highest levels of Churchill and Hitler to the lower levels of a frightened French resister or a German soldier on the barbaric Eastern Front. It isn’t a new history of the war, but it is an impressively organized depiction of the largest conflict in human history.