Between 1939 and 1941, nearly 3 million Jews were butchered not in concentration camps but in cold blood, at massacres such as the infamous Babi Yar, where visitors were even invited to watch the slaughter of thousands of men, women and children. All this, as Michael Burleigh's magnificent book demonstrates, was regarded as wholly normal behaviour, and was a major war crime for which many in the German Army were as culpable as their SS colleagues. As Burleigh observes, "killing people became a job of work in which the killer could take a craftsman's pride. This shortened the moral distance and enabled killing to become routine."
But Burleigh also narrates another, quite extraordinary, story. Heinz Steeten, commander of one of the very worst Einsatzkommando killing units in the SS, was a keen philatelist. He, and then others in his unit, started to steal Russian stamps, and he soon did so on such a scale that he was formally censured by the authorities in Berlin. So, it appears that the genocidal slaughter of what ended up as 6 million Jews and million Russians was morally acceptable, but the taking of stamps was immoral. It is the description of this aspect of the war that makes it, as Richard Holmes has already stated in a recent interview, one of the most significant books on the Second World War in recent years.
Newspaper reviews have concentrated understandably on Burleigh's surely correct interpretation of the war that refuses to equate Allied bombing raids with massacres such as Babi Yar. Although he does not defend the RAF raid on Dresden in 1945, he does point out that for Londoners, the death toll from the Blitz was equivalent to 9/11 every month for a year. There were things that the Western Allies should not have done, but none of them even approaches the enormity of the genuine war crimes committed by the Nazis throughout the conflict.
Press reviews of this book have also commented what a relief it is not to be bogged down by descriptions of obscure battles in North Africa. I agree. For by far the most fascinating sections of the book are those in which Burleigh describes the areas where most of the horrors took place, especially on the Eastern Front, the war between the Reich and the USSR. In Britain, we forget that 85 per cent of Germans fought there, not against us in the West. But Burleigh does not, and Moral Combat is all the more powerful for it.
He calls the USSR and the Third Reich "brotherly enemies" and this is most apt. Joseph Stalin killed more than 20 million of his own people in the purges before 1939, and was effectively allied to Hitler from 1939 to 1941. Furthermore, the Red Army method of fighting was as barbaric as that of the Wehrmacht, with Soviet NKVD battalions killing some 13,500 of their own side for cowardice at Stalingrad. Although the scale of the horrors makes for distressing reading, Burleigh's excellent writing makes the sheer moral abyss of the Eastern Front vividly clear.
This is not, despite the subtitle, a history of the Second World War. It is a groundbreaking study of the moral dimension to that conflict that shows that the rather more cheerful, popular view of that war is now untenable. There are some unfortunate tabloid-style sideswipes at political correctness, but apart from that, military history does not get better than this. In historians such as Richard Evans and Michael Burleigh, Britain is blessed with academics who write accessibly without dumbing down. Moral Combat is just such a book.
Moral Combat: A History of World War II
By Michael Burleigh. HarperCollins, 672pp, £30.00. ISBN 9780007195763. Published 24 May 2010