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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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Why do these distinctions matter? Snyder observes that, to this day, nationalists throughout the bloodlands have "indulged in the quantitative exaggeration of victimhood." Russian leaders, for example, conflate Soviet and Russian losses and arrive at a highly exaggerated Russian death count. Given this "politics of inflated victimhood," a sober history of mass killing is needed to "unite the numbers and the memories" in an impartial reckoning. "By repeating exaggerated numbers," Snyder maintains, "Europeans release into their culture millions of ghosts of people who never lived. Unfortunately, such specters have power. What begins as competitive martyrology can end with martyrological imperialism [—the wars for Yugoslavia in the 1990s, for example]." He concludes that "[w]hen history is removed, numbers go upward and memories go inward, to all of our peril."

But more is needed than just getting the numbers right. We must resist the understandable temptation to let the numbing enormity of these deaths lead us to abstraction. Rather than harboring a generic mental image of some Jew dying, multiplied by the millions, we need to recall, whenever possible, individuals like Dobica Kagan, a girl in killed in a Ukrainian synagogue. This leads Snyder back to the numbers. He notes perceptively that the "cultures of memory are organized by round numbers." But if we use the specific number of 780,863 as the tally of individuals killed at Treblinka, for example, the three people at the end of that number "might be Tamara and Itta Willenberg, whose clothes clung together after they were gassed, and Ruth Dorfmann, who was able to cry with the man who cut her hair before she entered the gas chamber."

Bloodlands is a depressingly important book. It is a scholarly and moral act of the highest order to get this history "right"—as far as that is humanly possible. Similarly, it is an act of moral and intellectual cowardice to ignore such horrific aspects of human sinfulness—a theological category the author does not employ—because of their manifest unpleasantness. To his credit, Snyder prompts us to attempt to understand the logic of the perpetrators along with the suffering of the victims. In fact, he argues that it is "morally more urgent to understand the actions of the perpetrators." There is never the "moral danger" that one might become a victim, but it is indeed possible that someday under some circumstances "one might be a perpetrator or a bystander."

A similarly discomfiting sense of urgency informs Michael Burleigh's Moral Combat. This is not a standard operational history of World War II; rather, it is an examination of the "prevailing moral sentiment of entire societies and their leaderships" as well as of the moral reasoning of ordinary individuals who had to make choices under the most difficult of circumstances. Burleigh is well-suited for the task. He is one of Britain's leading historians and an eloquent wordsmith. After his award-winning The Third Reich (2000), he left the academy to concentrate on his writing. American readers may know him best for his two-volume study of political religion, Earthly Powers (2006) and Sacred Causes (2007).

Moral Combat is not an exercise in abstract moral theory; nor does Burleigh adopt a preachy voice. He masterfully shapes his historical narrative in such a way that the reader cannot miss how the war strained conventional morality, frequently ripping it to shreds. For Burleigh, while no war has ever been good, World War II was necessary. And without whitewashing its many moral compromises or dismissing the monstrous conduct of the Soviets, he defends the overall Allied war effort.

The North African campaign was probably the "cleanest" active theater of the war. But elsewhere there was much savagery, especially in the Nazi-Soviet "bloodlands" (to borrow Snyder's fitting term) and the war in the Pacific. Burleigh devotes the most attention to the primal contest of wills, machines, and ideologies between Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union from 1941 to 1945. The rape of Poland in 1939 previewed the bestiality and gratuitous violence that became routine in the gigantic war of attrition and retaliatory violence in Russia. Burleigh notes that it is impossible to maintain the fiction that German generals were unaware of the murderous intentions of the Nazi regime. They knew what the SS was doing in occupied Poland and Russia, and attempted to abdicate moral responsibility almost as rapidly as possible. What is striking is that the German occupiers often felt sorry for themselves for having to do such brutal things in the name of duty, discipline, racial purity, or the German mission in the east, and they constructed twisted moral codes that emphasized order and efficiency to help rationalize their murderous behavior.

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