A British historian surveys the moral dimensions of signal moments of the 20th century’s most destructive war.
Burleigh (Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism, 2009, etc.) sets a daunting task: examining the moral landscape of entire societies, the sentiments that animated their leaderships and the moral reasoning of individuals forced to make excruciating choices under unimaginably difficult circumstances. Moreover, he refuses to conduct his thoroughly researched discussion according to the slippery rules of the faculty lounge or the theoretical constructs of a philosophy seminar, where a moral equivalence between, say, the Allied bombing of Dresden and the Holocaust, or Hitler the aggressor and Churchill the “warmonger,” is too frequently and erroneously drawn. The author rightly insists on acknowledging the messy, complex manner in which the history unfolded, on distinguishing among lesser evils and on marveling that “in circumstances where the temptation to inhumanity must have been overpowering, a vestigial regard for decent or lawful conduct survived at all.” Among the numerous topics he considers: how the lingering trauma of World War I accounted for 1930s pacifism, made appeasement popular and eased the deliberate aggression of Italy, Germany and Japan; how the doctrine of the police states permitted them to remove entire categories of people “from the orbit of reciprocal moral obligation”; how the rules of engagement varied depending on the theater; how the civilian populations of the totalitarian states wittingly conspired with their foul regimes. Burleigh examines the concessions of collaborators, real and supposed, the bravery of the depressingly small local resistance movements, the moral dilemmas accompanying secret warfare, the unspeakable Nazi extermination camps and the inverted moral universe within them, and the “statistically insignificant” acts of rescue (e.g., Schindler, Wallenberg).
Sometimes difficult, but always discerning and immensely rewarding.