Magazine | May 2, 2011, Issue

A Just War

Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II, by Michael Burleigh (Harper, 672 pp., $29.99)

World War II has always been presented as “a good war” from the point of view of the Allies, who strove to destroy the undeniably great evil of Fascism, but was it? A number of revisionist historians have attempted in recent years to portray the Allied destruction of Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki as being morally equivalent to the Nazi and Japanese atrocities, with the intent of arraigning Western leaders such as Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill as war criminals. Scarcely a month goes by without another attempt of this nature, and they rarely fail to find sympathetic reviewers in the liberal press.

Very recently, a highly tendentious and factually flawed book about the Bengal Famine of 1943 — Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India During World War II, by Madhusree Mukerjee, which seeks to blame Churchill personally for the deliberate starvation of 3 million Indians — received a positive review in the New York Review of Books; and a New York Times review of another recent book about Churchill argued that he used poison gas against the Iraqis in the 1920s, when every scholar of the period knows it was actually tear gas that he was proposing to use. If Churchill were alive today he would garner millions of dollars in libel settlements alone, from writers who are too lazy or politically biased to go to the serious and substantial works of history on the subject. 

One of these serious and substantial works is Michael Burleigh’s magisterial Moral Combat, which examines in detail the ethics of the entire conflict — from Hitler’s invasion of Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, to Japan’s surrender six years later. With wit, incisive analysis, and the certainty of a moral philosopher who has spent half a lifetime examining this subject, Burleigh utterly skewers the moral equivalists, and effectively closes down the argument. He proves beyond any but the weirdest conspiracy theorist’s doubt that the Western Allies fought the war according to a far higher moral code than the Axis, and there is simply no need to indulge in the tortured mea culpa that self-hating Americans and Britons have so long and so noisily been prescribing for us.

Far from being a dry theological tome, this book is full of surprising aperçus, exquisite pen portraits, and even jokes, which might not be expected considering the subject matter.  Burleigh has the enviable ability to get to the core of an issue or personality, and to furnish us with precisely those little details that illuminate it perfectly. “Despite all the high-minded babble about German Kultur,” he writes, for example, “the realities of occupation were grimly sordid: drunkenness, inter-service brawling, brutality, rape, graft, extortion and theft being the everyday norm, along with some starving girl hitching her skirts in a dark alley in return for a half-loaf of bread.”

To illustrate the monstrous narcissism of Hans Frank, the Nazi governor-general of Poland, Burleigh focuses on the manner in which he “cast himself in the leading role in his own historical pageant”:

Mimicking royalty, whenever Frank was in residence in his castle the swastika billowed overhead. . . . His photograph hung in every room opposite where he sat, and he liked to hand out autographed copies to his guests. . . . He dispensed cigars from luxury humidors on which his castle was depicted. Trumpet blasts greeted his birthday mornings. In addition to dozens of uniforms, adorned with all his insignia and medals, Frank had 120 suits. A red carpet was to be unrolled wherever he trod.

#page#As for Frau Brigitte Frank: “Throughout her sojourn in Poland, she would roll up at furriers in the Jewish ghettos, where, leaving her youngest son to stick his tongue out at starving Jewish children from behind the car window, she would strike very hard bargains with the proprietors.” This is history writing at its best.

As well as covering the obvious issues regarding occupation, resistance, area bombing, the Holocaust, and so on, Burleigh examines those aspects of the war that are often skipped over, such as Soviet anti-Semitism even as the death camps were being liberated, or the 15 million Chinese who died — that’s over half as many as the Russians lost, but they have received only a fraction of the historical coverage — and the conventional bombing of Japanese cities, which killed far more than the atomic bombs. He deploys statistics superbly to illuminate the controversies. (For example, only 7,000 people joined the Free French in 1940, in defiance of Vichy’s poster of Marshal Pétain that asked: “Are you more of a Frenchman than him?”)

Burleigh takes strong stances on almost every controversy of the war, writing of “the central role of Emperor Hirohito” and “the false SS-Army dichotomy.” One sub-chapter about the U.S. Army Air Forces’ bombing of Japan is titled “Had to Be Done.” Only once does he write, “This author neither approves nor disapproves of this development,” and that is apropos of the way in which, in post-war conflicts, human-rights lawyers and the media have effectively become an independent non-combatant arm. Yet even there it isn’t hard to discern disapproval.

The chapter covering the work of the SS Einsatzgruppen (death squads) in Poland and Russia emphasizes how the Nazis did not attempt to abolish the concept of morality altogether so much as try to erect a competing sense of Aryan morality above the Judeo-Christian one. At SS training schools, the common denominator for selection was involvement in neo-fascist activities even in peacetime, for as Burleigh puts it: “These were the missionary elite of National Socialism, with a dualistic view of the world and no vestiges of the Christian upbringing or humanistic education many of them had passed through before acquiring a more compelling and narrower set of values.” Toughness and loyalty were prized above all other human virtues, with the result that “their signature approach to pacification was to hang people from lamp-posts.”

Since the Combined Bomber Offensive, undertaken by the RAF’s Bomber Command Wing and the USAAF against German-occupied Europe, is often presented as the most morally questionable aspect of the Allied war effort, Burleigh covers this issue in penetrating detail. He concludes, of the philosophical argument that the offensive was morally comparable to the Holocaust, that “no serious person can compare the hard-fought bombing campaign with slaughtering innocent civilians in circumstances where the only risk the perpetrators ran was to be splashed with blood and brains in some ditch in the Ukraine.”

The motto of the 44th (Rhodesia) squadron of the RAF’s 5th Bomber Group — the first squadron to fly the Avro Lancaster — was “The King’s thunderbolts are righteous,” and that is Burleigh’s conclusion too. At one point he describes the 55,000 volunteers who died in Bomber Command operations as “heroes,” a refreshing value judgment to find in a serious work of history. Burleigh emphasizes that if the Nazis had evacuated non-essential people from their cities, the death toll would have been much reduced, that it is easy to underestimate how much fight the Germans still had left in them even though their cause was objectively lost, and that “the Allied aim was to destroy military and industrial targets, their workforces included, to defeat an evil system that enjoyed overwhelming popular support.” Nor does he have much truck with the traducing of personalities such as Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris and his American counterpart Curtis LeMay, whom he presents as far more complicated figures than their caricatures.

#page#As for Dresden, the high death toll of over 25,000 — though nothing like the six-figure one claimed by Joseph Goebbels and David Irving — came not as a result of deliberate Allied policy so much as a number of accidental factors. Dresden was one heavy raid among a whole, deadly sequence of massive raids, but for various unpredictable reasons — wind, weather, lack of defenses, and, above all, shocking deficiencies in air-raid protection for the general population — it suffered the worst. When the Nazi gauleiter of Dresden, Martin Mutschmann, fell into Allied hands, he quickly confessed that “a shelter-building program for the entire city was not carried out,” since “I kept hoping that nothing would happen to Dresden.” (He had a shelter built for himself, his family, and his senior officials, however.)

Quite why Mutschmann thought that, alone of large German cities, Dresden should have been immune to Allied bombing is a mystery, because it was a nodal point in the region. Large railway marshalling yards were situated there, as well as a conglomeration of war industries, particularly in the vital optics, electronics, and communications fields. And the bombing worked politically: The respected German historian Götz Bergander believes that whereas before Dresden the concept of accepting unconditional surrender was considered unthinkable by ordinary Germans, “the shock of Dresden contributed in a fundamental way to a change of heart.” The attack on Dresden was proportionately less deadly than those on places such as Pforzheim and Würzburg, but Dresden’s architectural beauty was undeniable. Nor has anyone ever denied the horror of what happened there on the night of Feb. 13, 1945; the thousand-degree heat from the firestorm could be felt by the RAF aircrew at more than 10,000 feet above the city. But brave men such as Mike Tripp and Bruce Wyllie of Bomber Command and Alden “Al” Rigby of the USAAF attacked a functioning enemy administrative, industrial, and communications center that by February 1945 lay close to the front line. They did what they had to do.

Similarly, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are ably defended by Burleigh on ethical grounds, although he does quote LeMay as saying: “We just weren’t bothered about the morality of the question. If we could shorten the war, we wanted to shorten it.” Burleigh does bother himself about the morality, however, and comes to the following conclusion: “The U.S. could have simply continued the conventional bombing of Japan, which had already caused 30 times the devastation of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, though without the long-term radiological harm to the population. How many that would have killed can be surmised, although the survivors would not have been dying from obscure cancers decades after the event.”

We learn that when the Enola Gay B-29 bomber — whose somewhat incongruous call sign was “Dimples Eight Two” — dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, there were 43,000 Japanese soldiers stationed below as well as the 280,000 civilians, and that the weather was a balmy 27 Celsius, just before “the city was blasted with a light momentarily brighter than several suns.” One man who survived Hiroshima went home to Nagasaki, and then astonishingly survived that too.   

This book is full of poignant nuggets of information — on the day Mussolini left his villa for the last time, for example, his 18-year-old pianist son Romano played Duke Ellington’s “Saddest Tale” in an upstairs room — but easily its greatest strength lies in the wise, civilized, but unshakeable moral certainty of its author. When next you hear someone argue that Dresden or Hiroshima was on the same moral plane as the Holocaust or the Bataan Death March, this is the book to show him. It should reshape the entire terms of the debate back in the Western Allies’ favor. Moral equivalism, which is encroaching into the study of history despite having nothing whatever to contribute to it, clearly has a doughty foe in Michael Burleigh.

– Mr. Roberts’s The Storm of War: A New History of World War Two will be published by HarperCollins in May.

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