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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1998, Vol. 1 No. 1 .


Ethics and Extermination: Reflections on Nazi Genocide
Michael Burleigh.

(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).
261pp. Index. 35.00; ISBN 0-521-58211-3
Pb.: 12.95; ISBN 0-521-58816-2.


In this book Michael Burleigh, the highly regarded historian of Nazi Germany, groups together nine of his essays relating to the German 'east' (Part I), euthanasia (Part II) and Nazi racial extermination (Part III). The force of the book comes from its demonstration through critical reflection (whether on medieval history, war studies, social scientific approaches, the ethics of euthanasia or personal histories) that the Nazi state was racial to its core. The power of the book comes from its lasting capacity to convey the brutality and barbarity of the Nazi regime, its total lack of pity and 'scruples of any sort' (Hitler). Convincingly Burleigh argues that the arguments in favours of modern euthanasia based on 'compassion for suffering individuals' has no relation to 'a murdering regime seeking racial purity.'

The essays are also fuelled by Burleigh's conviction that the Nazi regime could not have been sustained without the sea of German social attitudes: eugenics, as elsewhere, was acceptable in Weimar Germany, families frequently did not want responsibility for their mentally ill relatives, gypsies were regarded as nuisances, individuals acted as informers and so on. Burleigh understands the dilemmas faced in a country run by a government 'consisting mostly of gangsters or cowed conservatives', but he knows that for institutions, such as churches and psychiatric bodies, Nazi policies should have been confronted rather than 'refined'. Compassion, not the 'ultimate ends' of some historians, past and present, inspires his work.

This book is a must for anyone interested in the history and politics of Nazi Germany or genocide studies.


Rosemary H.T. O'Kane, University of Keele



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