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.

May 2, 2011    |     Volume LXIII, No. 8

Books, Arts & Manners
  • Andrew Roberts reviews Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II, by Michael Burleigh.
  • John Derbyshire reviews The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance, by Jim al-Khalili.
  • Thomas Donnelly reviews U.S. Civil-Military Relations After 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain, by Mackubin Thomas Owens.
  • Anthony Paletta reviews An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War, by J. Hoberman.
  • Richard Brookhiser muses over graveyards.
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Happy Warrior  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
The Bent Pin  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .