Michael Burleigh’s new history of World War II is the latest in a seemingly endless procession of works on that subject. Antony Beevor, Max Hastings, Norman Davies, and Rich Atkinson have all produced well-written and well-received histories of the war, and the reader is justified in questioning whether there is need of yet another one. What sets Moral Combat apart is Burleigh’s examination of the moral aspects of the war and the choices made throughout by the participants. As in previous works of his, dealing with the nonmilitary history of the Third Reich, secular pseudoreligions of the modern era, and terrorism, Michael Burleigh approaches the subject from the viewpoint of an English Catholic conservative.
For Burleigh, World War II is a painful personal reality. His grandfather was a friend of Churchill, and his father was a wing commander in the wartime RAF. Burleigh wrote the book yards away from a London park where over a hundred Londoners died when their bomb shelter took a direct hit during the Blitz. To him, World War II was not only a necessary but a moral war. The work discusses and describes all aspects of World War II, from Mussolini’s rise to power to the fall of Berlin, and from Operation Barbarossa to the bombing of Hiroshima.
As Burleigh convincingly shows, even the most hideous regimes have their admirers. Nazi Germany’s British defenders included the treacherous Lloyd George, who kept wailing for a peace treaty with Hitler during the darkest days of the Blitz, and the loathsome Edward, Duke of Windsor, who gave up the British crown for a divorced demimondaine and went on a tour of Germany, where he ostentatiously gave Nazi salutes and fawned over Hitler. These shabby characters had their leftist counterparts in the “upper class traitors who infested Oxbridge and from their vantage points in the Foreign Office or MI6 kept Stalin abreast of sensitive developments.” Another communist fellow traveler was Joseph Davies, a wealthy contributor to FDR’s campaigns who became, in turn, his ambassador to Moscow and his main advisor on the Soviet Union. Stalin won over the reprehensible Davies by a combination of bribery (the Soviets gave the obsessive art collector exclusive export licenses) and a cultivation of the Democrat’s long-held leftist views. Other prominent Americans who became cheerleaders for Stalin’s bloody regime were FDR’s “infirm emissary” Harry Hopkins, ambassador to Moscow Averell Harriman (a “plutocrat . . . who successfully washed off the dirt of a dynasty of robber barons with art and racehorses”), and Vice President Henry Wallace, who accepted at face value a Potemkin-village tour of Kolyma.
The author is not afraid to remark the diminished attention given to Stalin’s victims and the whitewashing of the Soviet Union in leftist circles. While every schoolboy in the West knows of Auschwitz and Majdanek, how many have ever heard of Vorkuta and Kolyma? Burleigh muses that, as most modern Europeans and Americans live in urban societies, it is far easier to empathize with Hitler’s victims—“the sort of people who share their own culture and could be living next door”—than with the “anonymous millions of peasants from cultures they do not comprehend.” Another reason for the obfuscation of Soviet crimes is the fact that “communism shared the legacy of the Enlightenment and socialism with entire swathes of liberal and socialist opinion in Western democracies.” For Western liberals to expose Stalin’s crimes was to question the very foundations of their own existence.
To this day, America and Britain are criticized for not bombing Auschwitz—something that “categorically had nothing to do with anti-Semitism, and everything to do with Allied priorities for winning the war.” The woeful inaccuracy of Allied bombers must be taken into account (according to one British report, only one in five British bombers dropped its load within five miles of the target), and so should the Allied attempts to bomb Nazi prisons and concentration camps that resulted in collateral damage. Burleigh cites numerous examples of wartime Soviet antisemitism. Stalin promised Ribbentrop that he would remove Jews from leading positions in the coming years and told Molotov to purge Jews from the foreign ministry. When the Soviets invaded Poland and the Baltic states, thousands of Jews were deported to the Gulag, where many perished. Synagogues, schools, and community institutions were shut down, and rabbis were tortured, deported, and shot. A Lithuanian Jewish poet, Zelig Akselrod, was shot by the NKVD when he protested against the closure of Jewish schools and newspapers in Vilna.
Another contentious issue Michael Burleigh addresses is the extent of the Wehrmacht’s responsibility for Nazi atrocities. While some on the right choose to ignore the uncomfortable evidence of the German army’s widespread complicity in atrocities against Jews and Slavs in the East, Burleigh’s verdict is uncompromising: The Wehrmacht was just as responsible for various atrocities as the SS units were. In the Polish campaign of 1939-40, there had already been instances of the widespread massacre of POWs and civilians. Army guards shot 200 Polish war prisoners at Zambrow and deliberately left the wounded without treatment, and Gen. Walter von Reichenau ordered the execution of three Polish civilian hostages for every German killed. By the conclusion of the Polish campaign, the Wehrmacht “summarily executed 16,000 Poles.”
During the invasion of the Soviet Union, atrocities committed by the Wehrmacht grew even wider in scope. It is, of course, important to remember that the Rumanian and Hungarian troops that accompanied the Wehrmacht during Operation Barbarossa behaved with even greater barbarity. But the evidence of German-army atrocities is overwhelming—and, as Burleigh points out, is not a recent discovery by left-wing historians. Red Army soldiers captured by the Germans suffered the worst. The prisoners who looked Jewish or Asiatic were often murdered on the spot, as was anyone suspected of being a commissar. By the end of the war, over three million Red Army POWs were dead, compared with the several hundred thousand Germans (many of them SS) who died in Soviet captivity. In 1942, the Wehrmacht commander Keitel arranged with Himmler for the execution of all crippled Soviet POWs, after some Wehrmacht commanders set these unfortunates free.
The Wehrmacht also helped the SS round up and execute Jews in the east and supplied soldiers to assist with the murder of Jews in the Crimea. Afterward, Field Marshal Manstein (a figure lionized by some on the right) asked the SS executioners for the Jews’ watches and received over a hundred of them as gifts for himself and his staff. In one of the book’s most chilling passages, German officers lounged about and picnicked, watching the SS and Ukrainian auxiliaries shoot Kiev’s Jews in the ravines of Babi Yar.
On the other hand, there are numerous examples of selfless righteousness included in this book. Wehrmacht Maj. Max Liedtke and Lt. Albert Battel saved over 3,000 Jews in the Galician town of Przemysl from deportation to death camps. These officers held the SS forces off at gunpoint and did not allow them to enter the local ghetto. Battel was a lawyer and a longtime Nazi who helped his own sister and her Jewish husband escape to Switzerland when Hitler came to power. After the war, former colleagues denounced Battel as a Nazi to the occupation authorities, and he was imprisoned. Liedtke was detained by the Soviets in Denmark and died in a prison camp in the Soviet Urals. The commander of Italian forces in Yugoslavia, Gen. Mario Roatta, harbored thousands of Jews and Serbs who escaped the genocidal frenzy of the Croatian Ustasa and fled to a coastal strip of Dalmatia occupied by the Italians. Roatta and his chief of staff, Gen. Clemente Primieri, gave their word of honor to protect the refugees and enabled thousands of Jews and Serbs to survive the war. At times, the Italian military directly interfered to prevent massacres by the Ustasa, as in the Bosnian town of Mostar, where the Croatians were about to massacre local Jews and Serbs.
There are, naturally, deficiencies in Burleigh’s work, among them his lack of attention to Soviet military history, the lack of detail regarding resistance activity in the east, and a dearth of specifics concerning naval warfare, especially the crucial Lend-Lease convoys. Also disappointing is his misrepresentation of Pat Buchanan’s position, so well elaborated in the magnificent Churchill, Hitler, and “The Unnecessary War,” as that of an “Irish nationalist” who viewed Churchill as a dangerous hawk, eager to involve the United States in a war to preserve the British Empire. While some readers will undoubtedly find Michael Burleigh’s pro-British bias irritating, the fact remains that Burleigh’s work is one of the best histories of World War II published to date.
[Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II, by Michael Burleigh (New York: Harper) 672 pp, $29.99]