BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
War and conscience
, April 25, 2015
A History of World War II
by Michael Burleigh
(New York, Harper Collins)
Paperback: 576 pages
Reviewed by Angelique Barr
Michael Burleigh’s wide-ranging book examines the moral sentiments of the societies and leadership of the warring parties of World War II. He attempts to explain how social attitudes, belief structures and ideologies paved the road to conflict.
He believes that individuals, communities and governments deliberately chose to embrace evil or conscientiously reject it. At other times, he maintains that many determinedly chose to overlook moral quandaries that would explode in a global war on a scale never before witnessed by humanity.
Burleigh attempts to cover a broad spectrum of issues, including the complexity of reparations after World War I, the philosophies of the “Axis Predators”, the impact of the Great Depression on Germany and Europe, and the stark reality of Soviet involvement.
He maintains that the very personalities of the leadership of all countries involved in the war had significant input as a prelude to war. For example, he suggests that Hitler understood Neville Chamberlain’s personality well and easily manipulated the British prime minister into his policy of appeasement.
As for Hitler himself – was he the brave little corporal leading his country out of destitution, the ring-leader of thugs and brutality, the ideologue who founded the wonderful new philosophy of National Socialism, dictator of the Final Solution – or a psychotic mad man? The answer of course is “yes”, he was all of these things and more.
Burleigh outlines the thinking behind the Nazi regime very well. He also gives a clear picture of Mussolini’s fascism, Stalin’s Russia and Allied responses to aggression.
Of course it is moral to defend one’s self, family, home, country and way of life. From here, however, Burleigh suggests that the waters of moral conduct become murky for everyone involved. He laments German and Japanese captives exported to slave labour, deprived of food and driven to exhaustion, disease and death.
Was it necessary for either side to bomb civilian populations, to kill or maim innocent children, women, the sick or the elderly?
Burleigh asserts that the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima at 600 metres over a hospital, on a city mostly filled by civilians, was based on lies. He says that U.S president Harry Truman swallowed the fiction that the atomic bombs were being used against vital industrial and military targets. Final approval for the bombing was given by General Curtis LeMay.
Burleigh recounts: “In his memoirs, LeMay dismissed the moral qualms of aged beatniks, savants and clergymen. ‘I suppose they believe that a machine gun is a hundred times more wicked than a bow and arrow ... we in the bombardment business were not at all concerned about this. We weren’t bothered about the morality of the question. If we could shorten the war, we wanted to shorten it.’ ”
After the war, many argued that shortening the duration of the war was in fact the morally responsible thing to do, as a choice between the lesser of two evils.
Statistics for World War II vary in their estimation in the total number of war dead. From 50 million to 80 million people are believed to have died.
The higher figure includes those who died as a result of war-related famine and disease. Civilian deaths include those killed through strategic bombing, the Holocaust, German and Japanese war crimes and population transfers in the Soviet Union. These figures also include almost 40,000 Australian deaths in combat.
Burleigh does make it clear that overall he is on the side of the Allies. He also notes that while Churchill, Roosevelt, Truman and others had their moral dilemmas, Stalin did not seem to suffer such problems. Russian soldiers were just as likely to starve, freeze or be killed by their own comrades, or the NKVD (Stalin’s secret police, the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) as by the enemy.
From moral attitudes and quandaries at the heights of political and military decision-making, Burleigh attempts to understand the mindset of individual combatants.
He maintains that survival and dealing with personal fear become the greatest concerns for every soldier. All else is arbitrary in war. He describes what happens in the minds of the rank and file that they may become killing machines, dehumanising the enemy and possibly themselves in the process.
What happens in the hearts of men who later claim they were just following orders? The guards and officers at the Nazi death camps provide an example of this shifting of moral responsibility; or was it just a disguise for the complete lack of conscience in the first place?
Overall, this is an ambitious book that seeks to come to terms with morality in wartime. Yet, it is an undeniably scholarly work in the recounting of historical events and reactions to the juxtaposition of good and evil in WWII.
Michael Burleigh is clearly an historian however, not a moral philosopher or theologian.
After reading this book I came to the conclusion that Truth is not the first casualty of war. Morality is the victim, while Truth becomes subsumed as collateral damage. General Sherman was correct in any case: “War is Hell.”