I don’t think it takes much imagination for anyone who has even the slightest knowledge of world history to believe that World War 2 was one of humanity’s low points, and could probably list off a litany of evil acts which took place during that conflict. So I had to wonder just what Michael Burleigh might bring to the topic which hasn’t been done before.
One thing that stood out to me in reading this book was the author’s criticism of Hannah Arendt’s book titled “The Banality of Evil” – arguing that there is nothing about Evil – particularly the events of the second world war, which is in fact banal. I found, however, that this assertion was somewhat belied by the dispassionate tone which I felt the whole book was told in.
It’s easy to see the war in terms of good vs evil… the allies vs the axis… but the lengths to which both sides engaged in war-making, including the firebombing of Dresden, and Japanese cities, culminating ultimately in the dropping of the atomic bombs… must call into question where one draws the line between the two sides. There are large aspects of history which are at best glossed over by the author for the purposes of serving this narrative.
I will give the author credit – this is a long book, and comprehensive… as far as it goes. It focuses heavily on the stories of the Nazis, and their victims, and covers then in a depth that is impressive in a book which aspires to such heights as this one. However, while it discusses the war crimes of the Japanese, I felt that it largely ignored, or only gave passing mention to the Prisoner of War camps.
Ultimately I felt like this book was an academic essay without a conclusion, and perhaps that is as the author intended, leaving the question up to the reader to decide. After spending hundreds of pages beating the reader over the head with the gory details I was ready for something of a wrap and cap.
A comprehensive, and yet ultimately flawed read.