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)

Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?