WW II: Meeting Evil with Evil (Book Review)
Moral Combat: A History of World War II
By Michael Burleigh
HarperPress, 650pp, $69.99 (HB)
WHEN the Nazis invaded Denmark in April 1940, having steamrolled through Poland, the German commander, general Nikolaus von Falkenhorst, issued the following instructions to his troops: “Do nothing to offend their national honour!
“The Dane is self-confident and freedom-loving. He rejects every form of pressure and subjection . . . Therefore: fewer commands, no shouting . . . More will be achieved by adopting a humorous tone.” Not “no shooting” but “no shouting”.
Confronted by a conquering army of softly spoken, humorous Nazis, the presumably bemused Danes capitulated in 90 minutes.
Compare this with Hitler’s speech to his military commanders on the night before the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. “Annihilation of Poland in foreground . . . Close your hearts to pity. Act brutally. Eighty million people must obtain what is their right . . . The stronger man is right. The greatest harshness.”
Hitler’s reasons for invading Denmark were largely economic: Danish farmers supplied Germany with butter, eggs, beef and pork. The invasion of Poland was something much darker: a deviant moral crusade, a campaign for national and racial regeneration at the expense of the supposedly feckless and uncultivated Poles.
One of the great insights behind Michael Burleigh’s profound and compelling book Moral Combat: A History of World War II is that what the Americans still call the “good war” was not the manifestation of an absolute morality but the product of competing moralities, each of which emerged from a particular set of social and historical conditions. His book, he explains, is a moral history of the Second World War . . . it is about the prevailing moral sentiment of entire societies and their leaderships, and how this changed under the impact of both ideology and total war.
The difference between the “unimpeachably Aryan” Danes and the Poles was registered on a sliding scale of wartime atrocity: for each German killed in Denmark, five Danes were shot; in Poland, the reprisal shootings ratio rose from 10:1 in 1939 to 100:1 in 1941; in the Balkans and occupied Soviet Union, Burleigh writes, “it was not uncommon for three hundred people to die in reprisal for the killing of a single German”.
The war in the east was existential and ideological. Years spent being indoctrinated by the Hitler Youth and the Reich Labour Service had left the Nazi invaders convinced that Poland, with its large population of Jews, was culturally, racially and morally inferior. “Letters written by German soldiers serving in Poland again and again reported that these Jews were worse than even those crudely caricatured in Der Sturmer, the most prurient and viciously anti-Semitic Nazi publication.”
Contrary to the widely perpetuated myth that the regular army, the Wehrmacht, fought an honourable war, Burleigh insists that “the German army was as much to blame for atrocities as the various SS units that accompanied them” . Recounting the casual cruelties inflicted by German troops on Polish Jews, Burleigh concludes that “only the widespread acceptance of anti-Semitism in German society under the Nazis can explain how ordinary young men indulged in such extraordinarily aberrant conduct”.
Yet such conduct was not confined to the Nazis or to the Axis side. Burleigh tells us that US marines on the island of Iwo Jima went into combat with “rodent exterminator” stencilled on their helmets. Allied trophy hunters prised gold teeth from the mouths of dead (and even dying) Japanese soldiers and Japanese skulls were used as ashtrays or candleholders. Life magazine notoriously published a photograph on its cover with the caption “Arizona war worker writes her Navy boyfriend a thank-you note for the Jap skull he sent her.”
“In the anti-Semitic film The Eternal Jew,” Burleigh writes,
the Nazis depicted the inmates of the Polish ghettos as rushing vermin; at around the same time, the US comic Leatherneck discovered “Louseous Japanicus” . . . Flamethrowers and phosphorous grenades were recommended as the best means of “extermination”, although “before a complete cure may be effected the origin of the plague, the breeding grounds around the Tokyo area, must be completely annihilated”.
That such advice reflected more than the racist swagger of a few writers on the staff of an American comic was clear from the US government’s wartime internment policy. Nazi and fascist sympathisers were never rounded up, but all 110,000 Japanese-Americans were interned, often under terrible conditions.
While killing every German soldier was never considered a prerequisite to defeating Hitler, a US propaganda poster, published after news of the Bataan death march, exhorted Americans to “Stay on the job until every murdering Jap is wiped out!”
The Japanese, too, were fighting a race war, not to mention a war of national regeneration, and Burleigh cites numerous examples of Japanese atrocities committed in the name of ethnic, cultural and even moral superiority against the Chinese, the indigenous inhabitants of Indonesia, New Guinea and other invaded countries, as well as against captured Allied soldiers. In a culture which vested all authority in the divine Emperor, there was no transcendent moral code to check savage behaviour generated within the armed forces, in which, as in Nazi Germany, humanitarianism came to be seen as weak sentimentality.
Despite the great number of books that have been written about the Holocaust and about the atrocities committed by Hitler’s armies on the eastern front, and by the Japanese army in the Pacific, Burleigh consistently finds something new to say.
But perhaps the most original aspect of this magnificent book is what it tells us about the other side, the side that went to war, in Churchill’s words, “against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime” (a description that notably failed to account for his soon-to-be ally Stalin, on whose orders thousands of Polish officers were murdered at Katyn Forest).
“The Nazis,” Burleigh writes, “have become so synonymous with absolute evil that it requires considerable effort to understand how foreign statesmen reacted to them at the time.” Churchill, a historian and painter as well as a politician, was one of the few capable of imagining the diabolic. Burleigh contrasts Churchill’s clear-sighted understanding of Nazi ambitions — he quickly grasped the inherent menace of a partnership between Hitler and the armaments leviathan Krupp of Essen — with the delusions of aristocratic appeasers such as the foreign secretary, Lord Halifax.
Little or nothing in Halifax’s smooth progress to the top equipped him to deal with Europe’s declasse dictators. He was sincerely sly — they had the cunning of Al Capone. His memoirs describe with pious, self-deprecating smugness his smooth ascent, via Eton, All Souls and Delhi, where he was viceroy, all achieved through luck and nepotism . . . Rather revealingly, whereas Halifax routinely forwarded the letters of Nazi sympathisers to Special Branch, he always exempted those written by members of his class such as the Marquis of Tavistock.
The mention of Capone is illustrative not just of Burleigh’s wryly idiomatic writing style but also of his belief, implicit throughout the book, that morality is not an abstract quality but is grounded in the ideas and behaviour of individuals. Churchill is in a sense the moral touchstone of the book, but even his long-held moral certainties sometimes wavered under the pressure of total war. From the outset Churchill was convinced that Nazism had to be smashed and that any willingness — or perception of willingness — to reach a diplomatic accommodation with Hitler would so thoroughly destroy Britain’s moral capital as to be shameful and, ultimately, self-destructive. As John Lukacs brilliantly demonstrated in Five Days in London: May 1940, Churchill’s intransigence on this score came close to costing him his leadership.
Burleigh makes a persuasive case for what he calls Churchill’s “fundamental human decency”, noting, for instance, that “in 1940, as prime minister, he expressed ethical objections to attacks on civilians and flatly rejected a suggestion that German pilots descending by parachute should be shot”. (Three hundred pages later the author refers to downed RAF bomber crews being “lynched by cowardly German mobs”, one of a handful of occasions where Burleigh seems to be not just endorsing Churchillian rhetoric but channelling it.)
Hearing his son-in-law, Duncan Sandys, advocate “wrecking” Germany, including its libraries, so that “an illiterate generation might grow up” (a fate, incidentally, that Hitler had in mind for the enslaved people of eastern Europe), Churchill responded that he “did not believe in pariah nations” and “saw no alternative to the acceptance of Germany as part of the family of Europe”, while declaring that he would not “condone atrocities against the German civil population if we were in a position to commit them”.
Yet Churchill did condone them. Although an air ministry directive in June 1940 had “categorically ruled out” the indiscriminate bombing of civilians, the British press and public demanded retaliation for Luftwaffe raids on London, Birmingham, Coventry and Sheffield.
The political fiction that civilian casualties were a byproduct of attacks on war-related industrial targets was ultimately unsustainable as civilian morale itself became a target. Pointing out that “Bomber Command developed . . . as a cheaper way of waging warfare, then as now the defining feature of British defence policy”, Burleigh demonstrates how the moral objection to bombing cities evaporated as the war went on. (The Dambusters raid apart, the concept of “precision bombing” was more a propaganda myth than a strategic reality: analysis showed that fewer than one British bomb in five landed within 8km of the intended target.)
Visiting the London borough of Wandsworth after a Luftwaffe raid, an outraged Churchill spoke of “castrating the lot”. After the firestorm in Coventry on the night of November 14-15, 1940, Churchill’s private secretary John Colville remarked: “The moral scruples of the cabinet on this subject have been overcome.”
Even the terrible casualties of the London Blitz were overshadowed by those caused by the Allies’ retaliatory thousand-bomber raids into Germany. After seeing film of the raids that incinerated 42,000 people in Hamburg, Churchill was moved to ask whether they had gone too far, although, as Burleigh drily comments, “a few days later he was all for pummelling Berlin”.
Arthur “Bomber” Harris, more often cast as the arch villain in discussions of civilian bombing, emerges from Burleigh’s account a more complex figure, tenaciously protective of his air crews and contemptuous of the corrupt British arms barons who allowed them to be shot down in hopelessly inadequate aircraft.
In the end, Burleigh argues, any retrospective judgment on the Allies’ wartime conduct is irrelevant without a rigorous moral accounting of the ambitions of their enemies. In the words of Hensley Henson, bishop of Durham, “If Hitler is victorious what value any longer can attach to the few sacred monuments of European civilisation, which henceforth can only be intelligible as memorials and epitaphs of a perished culture?”
In War, his recently published account of a year with the US Army in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, Sebastian Junger writes: “The moral basis of war doesn’t seem to interest soldiers much, and its long-term success or failure has a relevance of almost zero.”
War fought without moral consciousness, by soldiers united only by their devotion to each other and their common interest in staying alive, is a frightening concept. But soldiers, by and large, are not philosophers, and we should not discount the bluster in Curtis LeMay’s brusque dismissal of the moral qualms of “aged beatniks, savants and clergymen”.
As commander of the US 3rd Air Division, LeMay flew on bomber raids over Germany. Later he was in charge of the US bombing campaign that laid waste to Japanese cities including Tokyo, killing nearly 130,000 people and destroying 1.5 million homes.
In his memoirs LeMay wrote: “We just weren’t bothered about the morality of the question. If we could shorten the war, we wanted to shorten it.” Most people know the name — Enola Gay — of the B-29 that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
Less well known is the name of the aircraft full of observers and monitoring equipment that flew alongside. It was called Necessary Evil.