Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, The End of Civilization
By Nicholson Baker
Simon & Schuster
576 pages, $30
This curious book is in the form of a chronicle, a stark chronology in which the author has made himself all but voiceless, thus suggesting that his narrative is determined by deity or fate. Hundreds of scraps of history, all drawn from previously published sources in English, purport to depict the years preceding World War II and the conflict’s first twenty-seven months, up to and including the entry of the United States after Pearl Harbor.
The tone is flat and unornamented, and almost every item concludes with the same calendrical flourish. For example: “The moon was almost full. The British attacked Berlin’s electric-power station and the working class Moabit district surrounding it. The next night, the Germans bombed Stoke Newington, a Jewish working-class neighborhood in London. It was October 14, 1940.”
What is Baker up to? He is a novelist and occasional polemicist—note his outrage in his book Double Fold, seven years ago, at the destruction of original newspaper files. A determined, even addicted newspaper reader, he has relied particularly on The New York Times and its worldwide network of correspondents. The result is a highly eccentric, fascinating, and often revealing selection of anecdotes, all circling the question of how humankind came to punish itself with the bloodiest war of all time (to date).
Baker suggests that the leaders of the participating nations, most of whom had matured during what was known in its own day as the Great War, were more than willing to rearm and inflict death on soldier and civilian alike. He does not, as some reviewers have suggested, excuse Hitler and the Nazis, but his glimpses of Churchill and Roosevelt and their military cadres are chilling. All parties accepted merciless war as an unavoidable policy of the twentieth century.
Baker’s secondary theme is the fate of Europe’s Jews. Surprisingly, Baker shows that the Times, which has been accused of ignoring the Holocaust, provided strong coverage through 1941 on the development of Nazi policies of expulsion and extinction. Even so, the Nazis’ road to genocide was witnessed with indifference by America and Britain; the British even interned Jewish refugees as enemy aliens. The United States declined to offer haven.
While Baker seems to scoff at the powerful, he finds heroes in small clusters of pacifists—shouted down, abused, and in the end ineffective. On them, he offers his one outright opinion in the last paragraph of the book: “They tried to save Jewish refugees, feed Europe, reconcile the United States and Japan, and stop the war from happening. They failed, but they were right.” This suggests that Baker believes he has proved that the so-called good war was a bad war. But he has declined to use the powerful tools of historical analysis—that is, assuming the burden of offering in his own voice conclusions based on a full presentation and weighing of evidence. In this sense, Human Smoke may raise doubts, but it does not convince.
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