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The Moral Crucible of the Bloodiest War: Historian Michael Burleigh on Good and Evil in the Second World War

Lindley:  You’ve written extensively on war and morality.  As a child, you must have had relatives who were affected by war.

Burleigh:  Three of my uncles were killed in the First World War and my father actually fought in the First World War.  And my grandfather, Bennett Burleigh, was one of Britain’s most famous war correspondents.  He was born in 1840 and, as a young man, he fought in your American Civil War, I regret to say for the South.  He became the Daily Telegraph’s main war correspondent.  He died in 1914.  He’s mentioned in Amanda Foreman’s new book about Brits who fought in the Civil War.

Anyway, my father fought in the First World War and then in the Air Force in the Second World War, so it was very present.  Where I grew up on the south coast of England, among the first places I remember playing in were concrete pillboxes, gun emplacements that were built to repel German invaders who would probably have landed there.  So [the war] was in my mind from an early age.

Lindley:  Did you want to be a historian when you were younger?

Burleigh:  Yes, because that part of England was one of the most used invasion routes and where the Normans landed to conquer England.  And I grew up virtually next to a castle whose outer walls were an older Roman castle, which they built when they invaded England that became a Norman castle when they invaded.

One of [my] first abilities was a sense that time was terribly long.  I was very aware of the Roman walls, and that the Norman walls must have been built a thousands years later, and then the pillboxes would have been built almost a thousand years after that.

Lindley:  Living in the south of England, you must have grown up with a sense of how desperate Britain was at times during the Second World War.

Burleigh:  Not really.  I was too young to make that connection to the danger.   In any case, I was probably much more worried at that age about nuclear weapons.

Lindley:  Did you have the nuclear bombing defense drills in school like we did in the U.S.? 

Burleigh:  On no.  We would have all just been incinerated.  Nothing sophisticated like that.

My interest in moral questions goes back to when I was student in history in London.  My tutor was an expert in Elizabethan England and was interested in questions of morality and corruption in government.  I read some of his books, and found it very interesting, and that very much interested me the rest of my life.  I also taught for three years and did research at New College, Oxford.  I became good friends with moral philosophers like Jonathan Glover who, since then, has written a book on humanity and moral history.  Those questions run like a red thread through my work.

Lindley:  Your book Moral Combat is sweeping in its scope.  Could you talk about your plan for the book?

Burleigh:  It is chronological and my publishers were insistent that it be a narrative. It starts with the acts of aggressors then to appeasement and then on and on.  I’ve written on the Third Reich with specialized books on eugenics and euthanasia.  This is the first time I’ve tried to give the Allied powers and the other two main Axis powers equal billing with what I’d done with Nazi Germany, so it’s my first attempt to write about my own country and America as well as Japan and Italy. 

Lindley:  You look at the war in a completely different way than political philosophers such as Michael Walzer who writes of just and unjust wars.

Burleigh:  I’m not a philosopher or a lawyer.  Increasingly lawyers are writing about history and they tend to bring an agenda to it, which I don’t have.  When they write books on strategic bombing in World War II, they’re not really interested in strategic bombing in World War II.  They’re actually interested in putting American Air Force pilots in front of a court because of the war in Iraq.  They have an agenda and I don’t bring that to the table.  I wanted to look at how people thought about things at the time, and I’m not writing advocacy.

Another thing is, as I’ve got older—I’m in my mid-fifties—I write very different books now than I did in my late twenties.  As you get older, you become less outraged by the people you’re writing about.  I’m roughly the same age as a lot of the people who were general and politicians and generals in World War II, so I have a much more developed feeling for what it’s like to make decisions as an author who is the same age as the people [I am writing] about than I would have when I was in my late twenties.

Also I’m more involved in politics and public policy.  I’ve been advising the government about Islamic radicals in universities here and on counterinsurgency and counter-extremism strategy.

Lindley:  You’re very busy, and yet you’ve put together this magisterial history of World War II.  It must have taken several years to write Moral Combat.

Burleigh:  Yes, it did.  And whenever I finish a book, the first thing I think about is what have I missed?  I’m not a military historian, but I’ve obviously read a great deal of it.  The trouble with it is it’s quite formulaic and doesn’t dwell on generals who assess a situation and then step back from it.  A very good example is Matthew Ridgway, one of my favorite American World War II commanders.  He had one of the toughest objectives of any general since Hannibal, which was to take Rome.  He sent people into Rome to talk to the Italian generals who were thinking of defecting.  Even as he had the 101st or the 82nd Airborne loaded up and ready to drop into Rome, he cancelled the operation because it was too risky.  

I wish I could have looked more into people who did that because it must have happened all the time.  Military history is a record of battles that got fought, and actually you could write a very good history about ones that were never fought but broken off.  It would make a very good book and confound that whole tradition of military history.

Lindley:  Your book does not shrink from describing the savagery of combat for Allied soldiers as well as their enemies.

Burleigh:  You didn’t have professional soldiers as you do now.  You had civilians fighting the war, and they were put into situations where they were expected to kill another human being, which is something most of us don’t do, unless you’re a deep-sea fisherman like me where you get the opportunity to kill something roughly the size of yourself.  And it’s a shock.  I caught a 55-pound white marlin off the coast of the Dominican Republic last year.  When the man in the boat hit it on the head with a wooden mallet I thought, “My God, I’ve just killed something the size of a 13-year-old boy.”  And people must have had that experience. 

Lindley:  You write that the war in the Pacific between the Japanese and the Allies is probably the campaign that’s closest to a race war.

Burleigh:  Yes, although there was a history in the case of America with their extremely sanguinary conquest of the Philippines, which in turn [reflected] the Indian wars. 

It struck me that the Japanese knew more about our culture than the other way around.  Many Japanese officers could speak English and had been to the States.   Kuribayashi on Iwo Jima was trained in the United States and very Americanized.

Lindley:  You describe vividly the brutality of the German invasion of Poland.

Burleigh:  They thought they were going into what we would call an undeveloped country—that once you crossed over the German border you went down an abyss into a completely retrograde civilization.  The Germans had an imperial mission to sort it out, and it’s an imperialist war in Poland and in Russia.

Lindley:  The losses in Poland were incredible.

Burleigh:  Ultimately the Germans killed three million Christian Poles and three million Jewish Poles, a huge number of people, at minimal loss to themselves.

Lindley:  And Hitler justified the invasion with false claims that the Poles were killing German citizens.

Burleigh:  Yes.  He routinely multiplied the figures by a factor of ten to turn the victims into the aggressors.  He committed naked aggression against Poland.

Lindley:  And Hitler saw eastern Europeans and Russians as inferiors or Untermenschen to be destroyed.

Burleigh:  With a much more subtle policy, Hitler might have won, but he wasn’t subtle.  Many of his subordinate officers realized that the Soviet Union was an empire and that you could have pried apart subject populations and brought them onto your side, had you been smart.  They missed that opportunity by treating them all as low-grade people.  There were plenty of people in the Soviet Union who would have happily fought for the Germans against Stalin, like the Ukrainians and Latvians and Estonians, and more obscure groups of people like the Kazaks.

One of the big surprises for the British and Americans after D-Day was how many Russians were among those they captured in German uniforms.  I think it was an Allied war crime that, because of the Yalta agreement, we handed [these prisoners] back to the Russians knowing full well that they’d be shot.  Hundreds of thousands were sent back and they were shot or put into prison camps with all of the Soviet soldiers who had been in German prison camps, bearing in mind that three million of them died in prison camps.  Stalin automatically sent any survivors to the gulag because he thought they might have been corrupted by the higher living standards they might have seen in Nazi Germany.

Lindley:  It must have been an impossibly unforgiving situation for Soviet troops.  They had NKVD blocking divisions behind the front who would mow down any troops who tried to retreat.  An incredible situation.

Burleigh:  Yes.  We don’t live in totalitarian states.  How many people would be fighting for Col. Qaddafi right now if someone wasn’t pointing a gun at them? 

Lindley:  In the U.S., I don’t think most of us understand how costly the war was in Russia.  We lost about three hundred thousand soldiers, an extremely significant loss for us, but didn’t the Russians lose 20 million?

Burleigh:  More like 25 million.  Another thing we don’t understand at all is that 15 million Chinese were killed by the Japanese. 

Lindley:  When you compare the conduct of the Allies and the Axis powers your verdict is that the scales of justice weigh heavily in favor of the Allies.

Burleigh:  Yes.  Nobody had any choice, and we would have faced national extinction if Hitler won.  And America couldn’t possibly accept a European continent dominated by Nazi Germany given that Europe was America’s principal economic market.  There was no way they would tolerate one country being in charge of the whole of Europe, which at the time would have given Hitler enormous economic might.

Lindley:  What’s your sense of President Franklin D. Roosevelt?

Burleigh:  Contrary to popular belief, I think the Americans are reluctant warriors and they pick their fights carefully.  I think [FDR] approached the situations in Europe and Asia in a fair-minded way, bearing in mind the fact he wasn’t going to allow the Japanese to dominate the Pacific or have America excluded by force from the Pacific.  Likewise he wasn’t going to allow the Nazi government to take over the whole of Europe, which would be catastrophic to America’s international position.  So he had no choice.

To be fair, Roosevelt’s opponents were caricatured as isolationists.  That could mean lots of different things.  It could, for example, mean a legitimate posture for Americans, especially for people like you who live on the Pacific, that the whole of Europe was a complete mess and the destiny of America was in the Pacific and particularly in China.              Plenty of so-called isolationists were nothing of the sort.  They saw America’s economic future in China.  Of course, that’s where American missionary activity was directed historically.  That’s a comprehensible position because America faces in two different directions.  And after Pearl Harbor, America had no choice and all bets were off.

Lindley:  How do you respond to the criticism of the intense Allied bombing of Germany late in the war?

Burleigh:  Britain is not a great power in the sense of armies and historically waged war by sea and then increasingly by air.  Insofar as it was fighting the Germans around the Mediterranean periphery and in North Africa, the only way it could strike at Nazi Germany was to bomb its industrial centers.  And every time Churchill met Stalin, Stalin said, “My men are dying by the hundreds of thousands, and you’re too frightened to fight them.”  In the end, Churchill came up with something to show he was fighting, and [aerial bombing] was a relatively low-cost way of fighting the enemy in human terms.  The British Army would have been destroyed at the first encounter.  If they had actually tried to open a second front in northern Europe, they’d have been wiped out.  So the only way to fight them was by [bombing]. 

Lindley:  You also write about the high casualty rates among the fliers.

Burleigh:  Yes.  It wasn’t a risk free activity.  People describe it was like pushing people into gas chambers.  If you read what I say about the aircrews and doing that every night, it was terrifying.   Just think about what it would be like if you’re in a modern aircraft and someone was shooting at you.   The conditions in those planes were dreadful.  And every night you’d see people you know very well plunging out of the sky or blown to pieces, and you’d have to get up the following evening and do it again.

Every combatant in the war said that civilians in war-related industries were doing as much as the men fighting at the front.  That line was taken so that if you worked in a munitions factory you were doing something as valuable to the war effort as being a soldier.  That’s like pinning a target disk on people.  You’re saying they’re combatants.  The distinction between civilians and combatants gets very blurred in total war. 

The British bishops were on both sides of the issue [of bombing civilian populations].  It depended on who they were and how they felt about Germany.  Remember that, theologically speaking, these bishops would have been very influenced by the German theological tradition in Protestantism.  Some would have been Germanophile and others weren’t.  The best thing any of the bishops said (and I wish our present Archbishop of Canterbury would internalize this message) is that we’re not experts.  We don’t know enough about it and we can’t comment, which is the honest position to take.

When talking about commanders, look at the case of Arthur “Bomber” Harris.  In the First World War, he was a fighter pilot and spent his time flying over the trenches of the Western Front.  If you think of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, twenty thousand British soldiers were killed and another forty thousand wounded.  He saw this sort of thing very clearly.  And he was carrying out government policy.

With air power in general, as in Libya now, you can see that air power is like our first kiss:  it promises more than it delivers.  In Libya, it promises a quick solution and fails, of course.

Lindley:  And in the war, the bombers were very inaccurate.

Burleigh:  They still are.  Just watch the news.  They’re not defeating Qaddafi with air power.  But you can see how you would be quite attracted to the idea of the instant obliterating blow.  Oh yes, if you just give us more planes, we’ll destroy their industrial centers and they won’t be able to make anything or move it. 

There are also more cold-blooded arguments.  Men are fighting a war of resources and they’re not infinite.  Now in the British armed forces there’s the doctrine of use it or lose it: either you use your new weapons or the people who control the money will take it away from you.  In the Second World War, that was true fifty times over, and unless you use these weapons, why did you invest all the money in them?

Lindley:  Some observe that many aircraft were produced so they had to use them and thereby support the aircraft manufacturers.

Burleigh:  I talk about aircraft manufacturers in the book and their relationship with Harris and how corrupt it was.  They were selling him defective planes or planes that didn’t do what they’d said, and Harris was quite ruthless in dealing with them.

Lindley:  You also discuss the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.  Some argue that these attacks were unnecessary because the Japanese were ready to surrender if they’d known the Emperor wouldn’t be dethroned, which is what happened.

Burleigh:  There are two things.  The doctrine of unconditional surrender was specified in 1943 and that had real consequences.  Once that was specified the [Japanese] people were going to fight to the bitter end. 

Second, the Kwantung Army of the Japanese was still intact in mainland China and there was an army throughout the Pacific, and civil contingency plans to arm every Japanese so that even a child would have a sharpened bamboo stick.

And then there are the casualty projections.  A friend of mine, who is 94, was in the wartime SAS and captured by the Germans on the Western Front.  He escaped from prison camp and two peasants basically broke his neck when they surprised him in a farmhouse.  When he was recuperating, he was given the job of calculating the casualty figures for an invasion of the main island of Japan based on the casualty figures for every seaborne invasion.  They came up with an incredible figure of dead with six hundred thousand American dead and eight hundred thousand Japanese dead in the first three weeks.

If you didn’t drop the bombs, what would they prefer as the alternative?  Six hundred thousand dead Americans and multiply that by the number of their relatives in the States?  How many upset people do you want?

Lindley:  That’s twice as many killed as the U.S. lost during the war.  Yet some argue that the Japanese Army was in tatters by the summer of 1945.

Burleigh:  It wasn’t at all in tatters in China.  It was completely intact.  The only problem was in Manchuria where that great guerilla fighter Kim Song Il was in charge of the resistance. 

Lindley:  I don’t think most Americans know the toll of the war in China.

Burleigh:  They’re not interested.  It’s not us.  How many more Chinese would you like the Japanese to kill if you didn’t drop the bomb on Japan?

Lindley:  Once China became communist, its history is a blur for many of us.

Burleigh:  It is, which is a pity because there was so much American interest in China going back a long way.  That generation of the OSS (U.S. Office of Strategic Services) people knew what they were doing.  I’m writing a book about the global Cold War from 1945 to 1955.  These American agents working in China and Indochina were smart people and knew that part of the world and what they were doing.  It’s a pity that all that’s gone in a sense.

Lindley:  You spend several chapters on the Holocaust.  You write that Hannah Arendt in a sense underestimated the work of Holocaust planner Eichmann and others by using the phrase “the banality of evil.”

Burleigh:  It sounds clever, but it isn’t, and it underestimates the extent to which these people were ideological fanatics.  They were very [committed to] what they did.  They spent a long working day, 10 to 12 hours a day, thinking what they could do to kill other people.  That’s what bureaucrats do.  Eichmann was always traveling and thinking what he could do next.  You actually have to work at that and it’s much less passive than “the banality of evil.”  If you treat them like clerks, it makes them sound much more passive than they actually were.  They were activists and ideological fanatics constantly on the move.

Lindley:  After the war, many of the perpetrators of the mass killing cast themselves as victims.  You use the term “putative emergency” as the defense they used for their actions.  But most of these people volunteered.

Burleigh:  They did.  Nobody forced these people to do this.  They were all very eager to do it.  They thought they were involved in a great historic task, which had only been made available to their generation of people that they’d been put on the planet to carry this out.

Lindley:  You also point out that some Germans refused to engage in the mass killing and did not face repercussions. 

Burleigh:  No.  There’s little evidence of anything being done to anybody for refusing to do it. 

Lindley:  Can you talk about beginnings of the Holocaust with the advance east of the Nazi killing units, the Einsatzgruppen?

Burleigh:  They were constantly competing with one another to see who could kill the most people. 

Lindley:  Wasn’t their assignment specifically to kill Jews?

Burleigh:  It was, but then they [included] the Red Army saying they were all communists, and then they killed all partisans, and then gradually extended the parameters to include everybody so, by the end, you could kill a baby on the grounds that the baby might one day grow up and want revenge.  They constantly shifted the rationale until the got what they wanted: to kill anybody.

Lindley:  Were these killing units part of the SS?

Burleigh:  They were recruited from different elements of the police and the SS.  They beefed up the numbers by recruiting local collaborators.

Lindley:  And the troops of these killing units became so traumatized by killing people with small arms that they demanded a more sanitary method of killing, so you get to Eichmann and death camps with gas chambers?

Burleigh:  Yes. You could kill much larger numbers and make it more clinical.

Lindley:  Can you talk about some of your influences as a writer and a historian?

Burleigh:  It’s hard even to begin.  I like reading [material] written at the time by those who lived it and they have a lot of insight.  The intervening sixty years of academic obfuscation doesn’t add a lot to the basic insight.  The best book on Hitler, in my opinion, was written by Conrad Heiden in 1934 when he was expelled from Germany, and he was on Hitler’s case right from the start in Der Fuhrer.  That book has more insight on Hitler than virtually anything else I’ve ever read, and only goes to 1934.  There’s a lot of interesting writing that gets shoved to the margins. 

Lindley:  That’s a useful attitude for a historian: to study the sources at the time and imagine the people then who don’t know what’s going to happen next.

Burleigh:  Yes, that’s true.  But also they somehow have very great insight.  I make my living now also as a journalist.  I don’t think my former profession [as a historian] has a monopoly on human insight. 

Lindley:  You close the book with this sentence: “For although the events of the Second World War seem so far behind us, in many ways they continue to structure mentalities in the contemporary world.”

Burleigh:  It obviously does.  It’s a bit like Chou En Lai’s statement when he was asked about the effect of the French Revolution and he said, “It’s too early to tell.”  I feel like that. 

I met [Gen.] David Petraeus a few years back, and he said he rewrote the U.S. Army’s counterinsurgency manual.  There was one thing missing from it: what did the British Army or U.S. Army actually learn from Japanese counterinsurgency tactics?  If you look at the American military advisors in Korea in the late 1940s when there were left-wing uprisings in the southern part of South Korea, the tactics used were straight out of the Japanese military playbook, including the “hearts and minds” campaign.  Strategic hamlets, used by the British in Malaya and by the Americans in Vietnam, were previously used by the Japanese in Manchuria.  We’ve obliterated that from our collective memory.

And you look at the British fighting communists guerillas in Malaya in the 1950s.  Where did the communists learn to fight like that?  Of course the British Special Forces trained them to fight the Japanese like that.  We decorated the insurgency leader as a war hero in 1945 and later took away his medals.

Lindley:  I’d like to close by asking about your new projects.  You mentioned your book project on the Cold War and your writing as a journalist.

Burleigh:  Right at this minute I’m writing a big piece about the war in Libya for the Sunday Times.  I think Obama has played it brilliantly by saying it is Europe’s war and getting on with it.  And it’s revealed interesting stances in the American Republican Party, with some saying this has nothing to do with us and it’s a waste of money.  Actually, it’s also a terrible lesson in what’s going to happen more and more where you believe the rhetoric of your opponent. 

We saw it happen with Saddam Hussein when he was bluffing about weapons of mass destruction basically to frighten the Iranians, and we took him literally.  Now, with Qaddafi, he was threatening to exterminate the population of Benghazi like rats and cockroaches—which is how people in that part of the world talk all the time.  I saw [Sen.] John McCain pop up and say [Qaddafi] was going to commit genocide.  He wasn’t going to commit genocide.  The bad pictures and human rights groups and international lawyers put pressure on policy makers, notably Cameron and Sarkozy, to go to war, and they promptly exceeded the United Nations resolution, which was to achieve a ceasefire.  They’re actually arming one side and trying to kill Qaddafi, and not doing it very effectively.  Obama should keep himself out of it.  It’s amazing.