HarperPress, £30, 650pp. £27 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Moral Combat, By Michael Burleigh

Michael Burleigh announces a book about "the prevailing moral sentiment of entire societies and their leaderships... as well as what might be called the moral reasoning of individuals", in the moral cauldron of the Second World War. Not a military history, then, but a mentality history: "There is also the matter of moral judgement," he adds, with a touch of menace, by which he means understanding on-the-spot behaviour, as he calls it, and avoiding armchair hindsight. "Wars are not conducted according to the dessicated deliberations of a philosophy seminar full of pursed-lipped old maids," he writes, characteristically, "and the threshold of what could be countenanced evolved over time and under the pressure of circumstances as sensitivities dulled and scruples relaxed."

That is a capital subject and a tall order. The present author (as he styles himself) is undaunted. His purview is vast: Moral Combat ranges from Munich to Nuremberg via Auschwitz, Casino, Stalingrad, Guadalcanal, Dresden, Oradour-sur-Glane and Hiroshima, embracing almost every means of killing, and much more besides, by way of depredation, barbarisation, mutilation and elimination – the full spectrum of man's inhumanity to man.

Through this blood-soaked tide the present author wades with something like aplomb. In a chapter on "Brotherly Enemies", for example, he considers Communism and Nazism and their respective parties and systems, men and measures, noting that, "in both political creeds, entire categories of people were removed from the orbit of reciprocal moral obligation through the use of egregious stereotypes that converted individuals into members of demonised categories.

Both totalitarian parties used zoomorphic imagery to associate their opponents with insects, rats and other vermin, but it was their ability to substitute categories for individuals that was especially pernicious. A man with a Jewish best friend saw him being arrested for deportation by the Gestapo. He recalled that at the time he had not thought "how terrible they are arresting Jews", but instead "what a misfortune Heinz is Jewish".

This is Burleigh at his best. His forte as a historian is the crisp reminder, or rectification, with a telling example, or chilling detail. "Lest we forget, Poland was invaded and occupied from two directions, and was treated as an experimental laboratory by two totalitarian ideologies... Ribbentrop put in a request for more caviar, destined, he claimed, for the sensitive palates of the German war-wounded. There were also... joint commissions of the NKVD and SS, although neither side had any interest in publicising such contacts."

Moral Combat is a sort of blood sausage of such passages, strung together in more or less free-standing chapters; often in short, cocktail-sausage sections, complete with admonitory stick. ("Some patriotic myths are not only useful but true; so were the virtues which accompanied them.") The reader gorges on these as at an all-you-can-eat buffet, with little or no idea about when the next dish will arrive, or what it will consist of, or how the proceedings will end.

As it turns out, the end comes rather abruptly, with an almost throwaway conclusion: "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." The best ideas in the book are similarly under-developed. "War's important moral aspect, namely not to squander whatever moral capital one's own side possesses through gratuitous violence," is a proposition enunciated but never fully explored. The notion of "the moral crime" a propos the killing of the Jews – the idea that a self-sustaining system of extermination depended on the perpetrators retaining a perverse sense of morality, including perhaps a pride in their work – pops up, and then disappears without trace.

Burleigh is a consummate encapsulator, with a masterly grip on an enormous literature (in English and German) and a magpie eye for quotation, but his authorial persona can be alienating. He has the habit of remarking on "often unremarked" aspects – the effectiveness of Churchill's war-making machinery, the intensity of small-group loyalty in battle – which are the common currency of any serious discussion of the issue, and have been for years. He trails his coat with monotonous enthusiasm, taking gratuitous swipes at predictable pet hates – the BBC, "which seems to have appeasement written into its DNA"; academic philosophers, "of whom history has recorded not a single example of altruism in this era"; Communist intellectuals, as personified by Eric Hobsbawm; left-wingers of every persuasion ("treasured left-wing dramatist Alan Bennett"); loose thinkers, likewise, such as "the moral-equivalence claque", who supposedly attempt to equate (our) area bombing with (their) mass extermination; and many more.

There is also some slapdash slang of his own ("kicked into touch", "the blame game" "take a hit"), especially inappropriate in the circumstances, of which "the full-on malice" of concentration-camp guards takes the biscuit, as he might say.

Much of this is merely irritating, though it cannot but mar a work of high moral seriousness. Occasionally, the prejudicial hauteur shades into doubtful interpretation. "The cliché 'banality of evil' was coined by Hannah Arendt, a US Jewish intellectual who covered the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem," he writes.

Leave aside the objection that it was not a cliché when she coined it. Burleigh seems to think that Arendt was exculpating the perpetrators (out of ignorance, he says, politely): "the suggestion that many of those involved in the Final Solution were unimaginative clerks has been one of the more persistent alibis used to minimize their whole-hearted participation in the revolting enterprise". Surely this is to misunderstand the thrust of the idea.

"The banality of evil" suggests something not so far removed from "the moral crime" – office hours, tea breaks, bureaucracy, efficiency, clockwork, perhaps even clockwatching. It does precisely what Burleigh hopes to do. It demystifies, and presses on us the moral imperative of self-examination. What would we have done?

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham; his latest book is 'On Art and War and Terror' (Edinburgh University Press)

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