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In this sweepingly ambitious overview of World War II, Michael Burleigh combines meticulous scholarship with a remarkable depth of knowledge and an astonishing scope. By exploring the moral sentiments of entire societies and their leaders, and how such attitudes changed under the impact of total war, Burleigh presents readers with a fresh and powerful perspective on a conflict that continues to shape world politics. Whereas previous histories of the war have tended to focus on grand strategy or major battles, Burleigh brings his painstaking scholarship and profound sensibility to bear on the factors that shaped choices that were life-and-death decisions. These choices were made in real time, without the benefit of a philosophers reflection, giving a moral content to the war that shaped it as decisively as any battle.
Although the Nazis and the Japanese had radically different moral universes from those of their Allied opponents, as rejected in the atrocities they committed, the Western Allies found themselves aligned with a no less cruel dictatorship after rejecting the option of appeasing aggression. The war was the sum total of myriad choices made by governments, communities, and individuals, leading some to enthusiastically embrace evil and others to consciously reject it, with a range of more ambiguously human responses in between. Spanning both major theaters and ranging across these issues and more, from the predators (Mussolini, Hitler, and Hirohito) to appeasement, from the rape of Poland, Barbarossa, and strategic bombing to the complexities of justice and retribution, Moral Combat sheds a revealing light on how entire nations changed under the shock of total war.
Emphasizing the role of the past in making sense of the present, Burleighs book offers essential insights into the choices we face todayin some circles it is always 1938 and every aggressor is a new Hitler. If we do go to war, we need to know what it will mean for the individuals who command and fight it. Original, perceptive, and astonishing in scholarship and scope, this is an unforgettable and hugely important work of Second World War history.
Michael Burleigh is the author of Earthly Powers, Sacred Causes, and The Third Reich: A New History, which won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Nonfiction. He is married and lives in London.
“A bold, blunt, and sometimes beautiful defense of morality in history . . . . Mr. Burleigh poses the moral questions to the people that mattered at the great turning points of a vast war.”
-Timothy Snyder, The Wall Street Journal
“Chilling. . . . A deeply researched and vividly written book.”
-The Cleveland Plain Dealer
“This is a superb work of scholarship with fresh insights on nearly every page that will likely leave the reader asking hard and troubling questions long after finishing it. . . . An exceptionally important book.”
-The Christian Science Monitor
“Burleigh has written a powerful, gripping book that will be essential reading for an understanding of World War II. It is worthy of anyone’s attention who is interested in that war.”
-The Washington Times
“Burleigh serves up an array of new interpretations which is not simply a new overview of the war, but rather an examination of the prevailing moral sentiments of entire societies and their leaderships.”
-The Tucson Citizen
“Michael Burleigh has long been one of our foremost writers on the importance of ethics in history, and in this deeply researched, closely argued and well-written analysis of the moral issues thrown up by the Second World War he has reached the zenith of his career.”
-Andrew Roberts, National Review