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Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II by Michael Burleigh, Some Thoughts

September 9, 2016
Polish hostages hanged by the Nazis near the Płaszów-Prokocim train station in Crakow, Poland, June 26, 1942. Burleigh's descriptions of the Nazi onslaught in Poland is one of the best, if most painful, chapters of "Moral Combat"

Polish hostages hanged by the Nazis near the Płaszów-Prokocim train station in Crakow, Poland, June 26, 1942. Burleigh’s descriptions of the Nazi onslaught in Poland is one of the best, if most painful, chapters of “Moral Combat”

For some, reading about World War II is “old hat.” What more can be learned? It could be just the opposite. I find that particular war a laboratory of the human experience in all its aspects, what humans are capable of unfortunately ; I continue to read and reflect upon that experience even more today than I did when I was young. To that end, I just finished reading Michael Burleigh’s “Moral Combat” last night, read cover to cover. I finished the last page with mixed emotions. Although the book’s sub-title is “Good and Evil in World War 11; there is very little “good” and mostly “evil” in this text, suggesting rather vividly that ours (humanity), is not a particularly “nice” species, one which, having destroyed so much of the natural world – with gusto even –  gives increasing indications of being its own  undoing.

On the one hand, Moral Combat is about as accurate a description of the horrors of WW2 as one can find…excellent discussions on all kinds of morbid things – Allied bombings, the Nazi invasion of Poland, what was going in Italy, the einsatzgruppens in Poland and Lithuania (who killed my relatives in Bialystok, Grodno, Prienai and Vilnius), the resistance movements, the fate of Eastern European Jews, Stalins pre-war and war excesses. His apologist portrait of Churchill, a man who had much reason to be immodest about, is interesting, but self-serving, that of Mussolini very well done. I suppose, Englishman that Burleigh is, the contrast between the two leaders should not be so surprising.

Typically, the Asian part of World War II is covered in a more cursory fashion than its European counterpart, but still, not without some interesting little jewels – like the way the Japanese destroyed more than 70% of all documentation relating to the war crimes they committed, mostly against Chinese in the interim between the time the two atomic bombs were dropped and when the U.S. Occupation forces landed on the island nation.

While I am familiar with the Nazi death machine in all its aspects, still, the way he treated the material was fresh and thoughtful, if devastating. But then that is the nature of the subject matter, No other way to describe it. Burleigh attempts do so with cold accuracy and for most of the book, he succeeds, making the reading quite painful.  I had to put the book down many times and could not read it before going to sleep. And of course the man can write like few can.

Burleigh  is a bit of what I would call a “gonzo historian.” At his best, he reminds me of the best of the gonzo writers, Hunter Thompson, a verbal “welder” bringing together good history with searing personal portraits and critiques. He is unsparing of personl ideosyncratic behavior which he unearths and shares, giving life  to otherwise sterile historical figures. Burleigh is not an intellectual lightweight.

On the other hand, a careful reading suggests Burleigh’s many prejudices. It is not so much a case of lying or telling untruths about people, situations as it is a question of emphasis: emphasizing the downside of political movements he opposes or distrusts, downplaying the foibles of that which he generally supports: the status quo. Burleigh is particularly “soft” on British imperialism and its connivances, seems to suggest that British and/or American capitalism is as good as it gets and so we might as well be satisfied with it because the alternative will inevitably turn into Stalinist gulags. Life might have its challenges, excesses, but any change from the status quo is too fraught with dangers (Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union being the negative examples) to consider social change a viable option.

When it comes down to brass tacks, he is the secular version of Catholicism in a way he relates to history except there is no afterlife: do good deeds, if you have the courage, ability to do so, you’ll be in an elite category since history suggests many to be craven cowards, or sadistic bastards like the SS and Stalin’s secret police. But it will do very little good – and working for “change”? – Forget it; not worth it, you’ll only create more problems than the effort merits. Bottom line: accept the world the way it is – warts and all…or prepare for the worst.

This is consistent with an earlier book he wrote – Small Wars, Far Away Places – in which Burleigh explores anti-colonial movements in post World War 11 Third World Country. While there is an occasion soft slap at British and French colonial practices, Burleigh takes much sharper aim and the foibles of Third World leaders and the social movements, armed struggles they led; he takes particular pleasure in savaging the likes of Patrice Lumumba, the Viet Minh and other Third World radicals. Not that all of his criticisms lack validity, but somehow the book misses the main point: colonialism was racist, exploitative system and the British and the French went to great ends to maintain it – and deeply regretted and romanticized that experience after it was over.

Still, a master of detail and of the suffering that people inflict upon one another, even Small Wars, Far Away Places is not void of  value as much of what Burleigh writes is accurate and possessed of historical value. I have the feeling that if he wrote a book about the European colonization of America he’d bring out many interesting, relevant incidents, but in the end justify “Manifest Destiny” in the same way he, subtly perhaps but still, rationalizes the “White Man’s Burden” and the French “mission civilisatrice” in the end, ie, like Mortal Combat, the book makes interesting reading, is not void of what I would call factual insights, but at the same time prioritizes the facts in such a way as to let the historical culprits he supports (British, U.S. Imperialism) off the hook.

burleighAt a certain point, a rather early in Moral Combat at that, the main problem with Burleigh’s writing  comes through like a flashing neon sign: the man exhibits nothing short of a visceral hatred of any political movement left of center. While his criticisms, well that is too weak a word, his pulverization, of Stalin’s USSR – including before and during the war – are accurate – Burleigh cannot resist taking a shot at anyone, any movement that is even a little left of center.

As a friend  aptly noted , “he [Burleigh]has a tendency to sacrifice accuracy when discussing people he does not like for a turn of phrase.” Thus he speaks of Einstein’s “flakey pacifism”, makes dumb comments about Chavez of Venezuela whom he calls “stupid”, savages Vera Brittain, the British pacifist, for her opposition to the British carpet bombing of Nazi targets and seems very happy that the CIA undermined the campaign of the Italian Communists in 1948. He seems to be arguing that the resistance movement in different countries was useless and even worse, provoked massive Nazi counter measures and so were not worth the effort, the sacrifice. He takes gratuitous offensive shots at Italian Jewish Auschwitz survivor, Primo Levy,  as if to make the point that it is not only radical leftists for whom he feels contempt but moderate humanists as well, which are almost as naive and dangerous! Burleigh’s defense of dropping the A bombs on Japan is quite pathetic and conventional. He exhibits something approaching contempt for pacifism in any form, movements of social change and throughout the book is constantly taking cheap shots – really dumb remarks – sprinkled among which, is, still a fascinating and valuable book.

For all that, Mortal Combat is an important book and I’ll use it as a source of much of what I write, think on World War II. I would add, my ambivalence, my frustration with Burleigh results in large measure from the respect due him for an earlier work he wrote, which I used as long as it was in print as a text in teaching, Death and Deliverance: `Euthanasia’ in Germany 1900-1945. Based on Nazi films and films found in East German secret police “Stasi” archives after the collapse of communism there, it is nothing short of a masterpiece dissecting the Nazi eugenics program.

Of course, Burleigh neglects to mention, as a part of the complex portrait he paints of Churchill in Mortal Combat, that, among other things, the British prime minister was a life-long eugenicist and racist himself who considered colonized peoples as unfit to govern. No Churchill didn’t gas people in mobile death trucks like Nazi einsatzgruppen members did – but he did send tens of thousands of (mostly) Australians and New Zealanders to their deaths at a place called Gallipoli in World War One, had few qualms about Churchill’s air war against Iraqis in the 1920s (which also killed thousands) so that it is not unreasonable to conclude that his moral outrage – for in the end this is exactly what Moral Combat is about, is essentially selective and politically motivated. A shame – such a mix of wisdom and stupidity – to use the word he uses cut the late Venezuelan Hugo Chavez down to size. All wrapped up in one man, how…human!

________________

Recommended Readings:

Jacques Pauwels. The Myth of the Good War. James Lorimer & Company: 2015

Timothy Snyder.  Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and WarningDeckle Edge: 1015

 

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