Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Michael Burleigh's "Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II"

This was a different kind of history of WWII. Instead of focusing on leaders or battles, it focuses on good and bad acts done in the context of WWII. I found that interesting. Overall I enjoyed the book but at times I felt the focus got fuzzy as he moved from detail to detail without surfacing to give the reader a "lay of the land" overview. This book is not for the neophyte. You do need a sound knowledge of WWII in order to appreciate this book.

Here are some bits that I felt brought out the issue of evil and guilt. First, as a Canadian, I find it important that Burleigh notes that all sides had their own crimes in this war:
Canadian troops routinely killed German captives after D-Day, partly because there had been instances of atrocities, but mainly because they were viewed as an encumbrance to advancing troops. That then developed into a grudge match between the Canadians and the Waffen-SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend, whose commander Meyer was found to have murdered 134 Canadians.
But Burleigh is not into the game of "moral equivalence". He notes that the evil of the Nazis was orders of magnitude greater than the Allies. They were more evil than the Soviets, but the Soviets had many, many crimes that he identifies in this book.

He is good at explaining the shading of evil and how certain small steps led to later, more organized evil:
Many German officers had a hazy understanding of the rules governing captured enemy troops. In mid-September, General Walter von Brauchitsch issued an order that explicitly associated all Polish POWs with the localised murder of ethnic Germans in Bromberg. This opened the door to systematic mistreatment of prisoners, while the reasoning behind the order set a precedent for the infamous 'Commissar Order' issued two years later in Russia. In a significant number of cases, prisoners were simply not taken. They were shot or herded into barns, which were then torched with pitch and petrol. After an intense fire-fight in a wood near Ciepeilow on 8 September, in which a Wehrmacht captain was shot in the head, the monocle-wearing colonel commanding a motorised infantry unit ordered three hundred Polish soldiers to remove their uniforms and then machine-gunned them as insurgents. Prisoners of war were corralled in primitive circumstances, often in fields ringed with barbed-wire. Food and sanitation were inadequate. At night the Poles were ordered to remain seated on the ground as their mass was swept with searchlights. Inevitably some stood up, or moved when a fight or panic broke out, which at Zambrow on 11 September resulted in two hundred killed by machine-gun fire and a hundred wounded, who were left untreated. Another violation of the laws of war involved the separation of some fifty thousand Jews from the mass of Polish prisoners of war by means of interrogations, or based on circumcision or names. They were held in separate ghetto POW camps and used for forced labour. By early 1940, half of them, or twenty-five thousand presumably fit young men, had perished.
Individual army commanders issued orders that were plainly illegal under treaties to which Germany was a signatory. On 4 September, Eighth Army decreed that civilians who were suspected of having shot at German troops, or who were inside buildings from which fire had come, or who had weapons at home, were to be summarily shot without any legal proceedings. Walter von Reichenau, the commander of Tenth Army issued similar orders the same day, augmented by instructions to shoot three hostages for every German soldier killed. On 10 September Fedor von Bock decreed that, in the event of his troops taking fire from a house, it was to be burned down. If no specific house could be located, then the entire village should be burned down. Further orders lowered the age at which captured resisters could be shot to cover those younger than eighteen, although in practice such orders were academic, as the entire campaign was characterised by massive violence that only firm and repeated intervention by officers at all levels could have stopped.
The cruel treatment of the millions of Russian POWs has always disturbed me. Burleigh treats the subject but I would have appreciated more:
By 1 February 1942, the Germans had captured 3,350,000 men. Of these 1,400,000 died between June and November 1941, and a further 600,000 in the winter months of December and Junauary. By the end of the war, some 3,300,000 Red Army prisoners were dead. ...

Assuming they were not simply mown down at the point of capture, the initial ordeal was the march to the first stockades. On Hitler's express instructions, prisoners were robbed of any serviceable winter kit such as fur hats, scarves, gloves, and felt boots, with which the Russians were generally well equipped. If they were lucky, they might be marched through fields that had not been picked clean by German troops or harvested for the Reich, where food from Russia was regarded as essential to maintaining popular morale. Drinking water was what rain could be captured in some improvised device or one's bare hands. Those who fell exhausted by the wayside were routinely shot by their guards, as there was no medical provision. The shooting was done by regular German troops seconded to guard them. For example, the 113th Infantry Division guarded two hundred thousand prisoners during a march to the rear in October 1941 and shot one thousand en route. The 137th Infantry Division left Vyazma for Smolensk with nine thousand prisoners, and arrived with only 3,480, having shot the rest along the way. Those who were transported by rail fared no better as the freight wagons were sometimes uncovered and always unheated so that, after a journey of three weeks in sub-zero temperatures, between 25 and 70 per cent of each rail transport might have perished.

In the camps, daily rations of 150-200 grams of bread ensured staggering death rates of up to 2 per cent a day, with hundreds of corpses dumped into hastily excavated mass graves each morning. Even the permanent camps in Austria or the General Government merely consisted of fenced-off areas situated on former military training grounds. The POWs were expected to build their own huts, but in practice they dug holes in the ground, since they were given no building materials.
And finally, here is a bit where he discusses the moral ambiguity of the "war crimes" trials:
A War Crimes Group accompanied the US army into German, which by March 1947 disposed of a staff of 1,165 investigators. If their initial remit concerned the lynching or shooting of downed Allied airmen, it quickly expanded to the surviving personnel of Dachau (the Americans had shot some of them already) and other major concentration camps such as Buchenwald, Dora-Mittelbau, Flossenburg and Mauthausen. Availing themselves of twelve and a half tons of evidence, an America military court tried 1,672 people at hearings held with Dachau, transformed in the interim into a giant internment camp for former Nazis. Of these accused, some 1,416 were found guilty and 426 sentenced to death, although only 268 of these sentences were eventually carried out within the main prison for war criminals at Landsberg. Those convicted included those who had murdered Allied airmen as well as seventy-three SS men accused of the Malmedy massacres in the Ardennes offensive. A striking forty-three death sentences were passed in the Malmedy trial, a figure reduced to twelve after the court seemed to accept that some of these defendants had been beaten into confessing. In the event, none of the Malmedy murderers was excuted, after the intercession from afar of Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, who had many German constituents.
The UK's The Telegraph has a review of the book:
Burleigh takes strong stances on almost every controversy of the war, writing of 'the central role of Emperor Hirohito’ and 'the false SS-Army dichotomy’. One sub-chapter about the United States Army Air Force’s bombing of Japan is entitled 'Had to be Done’. Only once does he write 'The author neither approves or disapproves of this development’, and that is apropos the way that in postwar conflicts, human rights lawyers and the media have effectively become an independent non-combatant arm. Yet even there it isn’t hard to discern actual disapproval.
It is a thoughtful book well worth the read.

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