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Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin
Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin
Timothy Snyder
Basic Books, 2010
544 pp., $29.95

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Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II
Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II
Michael Burleigh
Harper, 2011
672 pp., $29.99

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Donald A. Yerxa


The Moral Imperative of History

Lessons from World War II.

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Dismissing Hannah Arendt's phrase "the banality of evil" as little more than a cliché, Burleigh remarks that those involved in the Final Solution had many attributes, "but banality was not one of them. The fertility of their cruelty and malice rippled out to any number of actors in Germany and beyond." And he cautions against seeking too much consolation from the "tiny gleams of light provided by the stirring human-interest dramas" of people like Oskar Schindler or Raoul Wallenberg: "Rescue was statistically insignificant in a story of catastrophic bleakness, from which there is no redemptive message [;] … human goodness really did not triumph in the end."

Burleigh is particularly effective analyzing life in occupied France. He rightfully draws attention away from the collaborator celebrities—people like Maurice Chevalier or Coco Channel—to the "grubby complicities" of the common man or woman. He notes that collaboration was partly a function of "geographical or occupational fate. The Germans were unlikely to trouble the isolated farmer, but bar staff, chambermaids, cooks, typists, and waitresses in garrison towns would have frequent dealings with them." He also confronts the reader with the moral dilemmas of violent resistance. The Germans routinely shot French hostages (at ratios ranging from 10:1 to many times that) and rounded up large numbers of workers for deportation to Germany in reprisal for assassinations and sabotage committed against the German occupiers.

Winston Churchill comes off well in Moral Combat. Burleigh notes early on that what perhaps separated Churchill from his colleagues was "the capacity to imagine the diabolic," something which probably "required having a little of the devil in himself." He also offers a nuanced and basically sympathetic treatment of the much maligned Arthur Harris, head of the RAF's Bomber Command and, indeed, of the entire Allied bombing campaign against both Germany and Japan, including the decision to drop the atomic bombs. Burleigh has no patience for those who would argue for the moral equivalency of the Allied bombing campaign and the ruthless bloodletting of the Nazis. "No serious person," he argues, "can compare the hard-fought bombing campaign with slaughtering innocent civilians in circumstances where the only risk the perpetrators ran was to be splashed with blood and brains in some ditch in the Ukraine."

Like Snyder, Burleigh has a keen sense of the importance of specificity and evocative details. Students of World War II are well aware that Germany faced huge logistical obstacles in Russia. But Burleigh makes this point graphically when he notes that German planners anticipated that Army Group Center would need 24 trainloads of supplies per day to operate successfully in the Ukraine and Russia. Even before they ran into unanticipated stiff resistance from Soviet forces in December 1941, only half that number of trains fed the German assault. Again, the superior performance of German troops is a commonplace, but Burleigh drives this home with the stunning assertion that throughout the war—"in attack or retreat, with or without local numerical, artillery and air superiority"—the Germans inflicted 50 percent more casualties on their opponents than they suffered themselves. He also peppers his narrative with memorable anecdotal nuggets. For example, there is the story of Konstantin Rokossovsky, a Russified Pole, who in 1940 went from a NKVD torture chamber (where, among other refinements, he suffered three mock executions, had his fingernails pulled out, and lost nine teeth) to command a Soviet army. This same officer became Poland's defense minister after the war, and in 1956 ordered tanks to put down the Poznan uprising. Then there is the account of the head of the General Government for occupied Poland, Hans Frank, presenting a gold watch at the Cracow railway station in 1943 to the millionth Pole deported to Germany as a forced laborer.

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