n Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization, Nicholson Baker explains the world's long, terrible spiral into the cataclysm that was the Second World War. It is a pointillist's history of the march to war, drawing on a vast number of speeches, memoirs, diaries, newspaper and magazine articles, and other primary sources—much of it material from pacifists, protesters, and relief workers that is overlooked by traditional histories. Each of the book's 475 pages contains a vignette or two that captures an attitude, a feeling, an opinion, a decision, or an event that was expressed or took place between 1914 and the end of 1941. Skeptical of historians—"Sometimes I think historians are a little like saute chefs," the author told the New York Times a week before the book's publication. "They cook everything up and soften the edges"—Baker inserts space between his hard-edged vignettes in a way that heightens their poignancy, and that seems to let them tell their own story, without filtration, one that is "truer and sadder and stranger than the received version," as he put it in the Times. Of course, using spaces to replace context merely invites the reader to infer a context from the masterfully manipulated vignettes. Unfortunately, in creating a history using material that has been often omitted, he has given us a history fatally full of omissions itself. And in an effort to insist on a different view of the war, Baker has produced a book perversely ignorant of what everyone seems to know.
In Human Smoke—the title comes from a phrase used by one of Hitler's generals to describe the atmosphere at Auschwitz—Baker hopes to elucidate a pacifistic interpretation of events, one that argues that both sides were supporters of inhumane policies and authors of terror and destruction.
To do this, Baker employs a moral relativism that is as astonishing as it is infuriating. Perhaps if one aims to produce a truer, sadder, stranger history of one of the most chronicled episodes in human history, it is natural and even necessary to demythologize the heroes of the conventional narratives. Baker attempts this with artful acts of character assassination. For example, in one of the first thirty of his thumbnail sketches, Baker offers us Eleanor Roosevelt in 1918 snidely reporting on a party for Bernard Baruch as having been attended by "mostly Jews," and one about Franklin Roosevelt supporting a quota on Jewish admission to Harvard in 1922. He serves up five stories about the RAF's use of heavy bombers to combat insurgents in Iraq, India, and the Sudan in the 1920s, and a full dozen about the moral and political shortcomings of Winston Churchill: Churchill, as the first lord of the admiralty in World War I, rather warmly supporting the blockade that will starve German civilians; Churchill in 1920, writing a newspaper article disparaging the connections between Jews and Bolshevism; Churchill in 1930, advocating the use of gas against rebellious Iraqis; Churchill as chancellor of the exchequer in 1924, adopting the gold standard and bringing on a massive depression; Churchill in 1927, saying he was "charmed by Signor Mussolini"; Churchill in 1929, accepting financial underwriting for an American speaking tour, as well as investment advice, from an arms manufacturer; and Churchill being quoted in 1929 as saying, not really apropos of anything in particular, "I like things to happen, and if they don't happen, I like to make them happen."
I'm not going to waste wordage excusing the utterances of the Roosevelts or the excessive use of force by the RAF. Clearly Churchill's comments about the blockade and famine are unsettlingly cold-blooded, although a mention of the lethal U-boat campaign that was being waged by Germany against the United Kingdom to a similar purpose would make the comment seem less unbalanced. I can't defend Churchill's statement about Jews, but I will say that since Baker recognizes the usefulness of historian "Martin Gilbert's many books," he might have made more use of Gilbert's Churchill and the Jews: A Lifelong Friendship, which chronicles Churchill's many warm personal relationships with Jews and his staunch support for Jewish causes. Still, all these things are regrettable or worse. Let's plead nolo condere to the lot.
But here's the thing: among these thirty entries, there is one—one—about the Nazis. It's about Josef Goebbels and his infatuation with Adolf Hitler.
You remember the Nazis, don't you? Swastikas? Blitzkrieg? Six million dead?
This moral relativism doesn't stop after thirty vignettes; it pollutes the entire book. It's maddening to read Baker contend in his deadpan voice that Nazi efforts to forcibly relocate hundreds of thousands of Jews to Madagascar came to nothing because of Britain's refusal to lift its blockade. This leaves the implication that the fate of those Jews is on British hands, as if the Nazis were engaged in some kind of humanitarian relief effort instead of murderous ethnic cleansing, as if Germany was helpless to prevent their ultimate execution, as if Britain wasn't spending lives and treasure to eradicate the regime that was the author of this persecution.
It is an approach Baker follows with absurd consistency. In a passage that discusses Germany's proposal in 1941 to spare Britain and its empire in exchange for peace, it is Churchill whom Baker paints as a warmonger for refusing, even though it is Germany, at this point, which has invaded Poland, Norway, Belgium, Holland, and France, and launched its war of racial purification.
Here is an example of Baker at his very weakest. The vignette is about Churchill's first appearance as prime minister, in May of 1940, at the moment when German armies were in the process of ploughing through western Europe. Here is the vignette in its entirety:
Winston Churchill, taking his office as prime minister and minister of defence, offered blood, toil, tears and sweat. What was his policy going to be? Very simple—war—war against "a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime." What was the aim of waging the war? To win. The House gave him an ovation. Catching the eye of an aide as he walked out, Churchill said, "That got the sods, didn't it?"
Baker structures the piece to put all the focus on Churchill's last remark. So what are we to make of it? That he was insincere in some way about the gravity of the moment? That he was a shallow showman? That even under the darkest circumstances he was able to make a quip? The answer is that it's irrelevant. Whatever it reveals about Churchill, it reveals vastly more about Baker, a man who disdains saute chef historians but is willing to go Benihana all over one of the great speeches, and one of the great acts of leadership, in Western civilization. Baker accelerates through the line "a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime" like a hubcap-hungry terrier with the scent of a fast-moving Pontiac in his snout, treating it like a piece of annoying boilerplate that he had to get through in order to get to this terrific punch line about the sods.
But, as you know, it is not a piece of boilerplate. This is the reason for the war. Hitler was not some garden-variety warrior like all the Friedrichs and Henrys and Henris that had rampaged through European history, not some militaristic fortune-hunting imperialist stealing the unexploited riches of unsophisticated Second and Third World aboriginals, not a romantic egoist like Napoleon. He was something new: challenging five hundred years of Western civilization that had grown weak and demoralized, Hitler was a man of action, inspired by an ideology, propagated by modern media, supported by a rich, industrial nation, ready to subjugate the peoples and lands around him to his pathological vision.
And Churchill, for all his shortcomings, knew as early as anyone that Hitler did not mean merely to wage war. He meant to bring an end to Western civilization. In his most famous speech, delivered after the fall of France to the Germans, Churchill described the stakes.
The Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. If we can stand up to [Hitler], all Europe may be free, and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if ... we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, and all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of a perverted science.
Churchill gave that speech on June 18, 1940. Baker doesn't mention it.
In his afterword, Baker writes, "Was it a good war? Did waging it help anyone who needed help?" From a writer who has spent his life in broad, sunlit uplands, expressing his ideas and engaging in the free life of the mind, it is hard to imagine a stupider question.
What is a shame is that there is much in this book worth reading and remembering. Baker reminds us of the callous refusal of Britain and the United States to accept more refugees; the reactionary arrest and detention of enemy aliens, including, in the United Kingdom, the arrest of German Jews who had fled Germany; the easy evasions and justifications of the British and American governments when faced with inconvenient challenges; the professional military's callously blase attitude toward violence. At a moment when a hundred thousand troops sit in Baghdad near the graves of a couple hundred thousand Iraqi casualties of a war that continues to cost America $12 billion a month, it is worth remembering what Baker has shown us: that every war invariably turns victims into victimizers, leading people to terrorize in the name of liberation, to torture in the name of freedom, to kill in the name of peace. The lesson we must draw from the experience of World War II is not that it is possible to fight a good war, but that fighting even a good war is so terrible, so corrupting, so malignant, that contemplating waging any war over lesser stakes is the act of a fool.
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Jamie Malanowski is managing editor of Playboy magazine. His most recent book is The Coup, a satirical novel about the nation's capital.