Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Clarifying War

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Clarifying War

Article excerpt

Clarifying War Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II BY MICHAEL BURLEIGH HARPER, 672. PAGES, $29.99

World War II- the bloody denouement of the "Thirty Years War" of the first half of the twentieth century - is in the popular imagination a "good war," but the English historian Michael Burleigh prefers to call it a "necessary war" since no war is in principle a "good war." Even though fifty-five million people perished and whole societies were transformed almost beyond recognition, the alternative was the triumph of a National Socialist regime committed to altering "the moral understanding of humanity," one that was lawless to the core, had nothing but contempt for Christian ethics and the civilities characteristic of a liberal order, and had "modernized barbarism into an industrial process."

The recognition of the necessary character of the war is the first step in coming to terms with the moral issues raised by the conflict. Burleigh describes this endeavor as a historical one, but one that is also sensitive to the "prevailing moral sentiment of entire societies and their leaderships." He is a historian who exercises moral judgment while rejecting a "dubious moral relativism ... in which all belligerents were as bad as one another." On the whole he succeeds brilliantly, never losing sight of good and evil as ultimate standards of judgment, even as he remains faithful to what he calls "commonsense realism."

As in Moral Combafs predecessors, The Third Reich: A New History and Sacred Causes: The Clash of Religion and Politics, from the Great War to the War on Terror, Burleigh offers a kind of moral history. He insists that we must avoid moralism, which is to morality what religiosity is to religion and sentimentality to sentiment, that is, it entails a fundamental distortion of moral judgment in the direction of ideology and sentimentality. He rejects, for example, a pacifist response to totalitarian aggression as both politically and morally unserious, since it would necessarily entail the "abegnation of everything decent, humane, or joyous in our condition, ushering in an era of heroic scientizing barbarity."

The Nazi regime could not be appeased, because its "geo-racial vision" rejected all humane criteria, as well as the sense of compromise that was essential to traditional diplomacy. Burleigh shows how the Western advocates of appeasement like Neville Chamberlain tried to convince themselves that deep down even Hitler shared the desire for peace that animated the democratic leaders.

This was folly. Burleigh deftly demonstrates that the appeasers' abysmal failure of moral reasoning, their inability to understand evil when it directly confronted them, emboldened Hitler and convinced him that the democracies were too decadent to come to the defense of nations that were about to be incorporated into the Nazis' New World Order.

Wiser men like Churchill knew precisely what was at stake in the conflict between Western democracy and National Socialist despotism, yet once Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, the democracies found themselves allied with a regime that was in decisive respects as evil as the one that posed the immediate threat. That alliance was indeed necessary since Nazi Germany could not be defeated without Soviet help, but Burleigh appreciates its tragic nature.

One of the strengths of Moral Combat, in fact, is the way it compares the two totalitarianisms, the two "non-God religions," as Churchill called them. Burleigh, like Churchill, sees Communism and Nazism as frères-ennemis, brotherly enemies, who reduced human beings to "culpable groups" and saw "the solution to the problems of mankind in their extermination."

One of the other strengths is Burleigh's detailed portraiture of the Nazi regime and his description of the "vast areas of human darkness, shading from pitch black to generalized gray, that defined the moral behavior of the time." Without taking this into consideration, he argues, we cannot seriously weigh the morality of the Allies' actions. …

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