Commentary Magazine


Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker

Immoral Equivalence

Human Smoke:
The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization

by Nicholson Baker
Simon & Schuster. 800 pp. $30.00

A writer of some note, whose last book, Checkpoint (2004), was a novel debating the merits of assassinating George W. Bush, has now published a work characterizing Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill as warmongers and claiming that, thanks to them, Western civilization was lost.

This is a view with some history behind it: it was, at least in part, Hitler’s view. But Nicholson Baker is one of those writers whose stock in trade is to shock, and that is what he has set out to do here.

Human Smoke is devoted to the paradoxical proposition that the Allies lost World War II by winning it. For Baker, Churchill and Roosevelt were just as bad then as Bush is now: foolish, small-minded cowards who ordered the bombing of innocent civilians from the air and so participated in a process of reciprocal killing, both blind and, worse, needless. The Allies’ military victory was thus a moral defeat that compromised the civilization these leaders claimed to be upholding.

The book is a highly artful exercise: a scissors-and-paste compilation of extracts from well-known printed sources covering, in chronological order, the years leading up to the war and stopping at the end of December 1941, by which point the trial of strength between the opposing powers could only run its course. In order to expose the “grain of events,” as he puts it in an author’s note, Baker presents materials from the contemporary newspapers as well as from “diaries, memos, memoirs, and public proclamations, each tied as much as possible to a particular date”—with, here and there, editorial signposting from Baker. We are given, for instance, snippets from the diaries of decision-makers like Joseph Goebbels, General Raymond E. Lee (the American air attaché in London), and Count Ciano (Mussolini’s son-in-law) and of some who had to live with the consequences of those decisions: Victor Klemperer in Dresden, the Romanian writer Mihail Sebastian, Ulrich von Hassell, a participant in the 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler, and so forth.

But what does Baker do with these materials? Matthew Arnold once said that the historian Thomas Macaulay wrote in a style in which it was impossible to tell the truth. So it is with Nicholson Baker.

The writing of history requires context in which to assess the information provided. By treating history as though he were writing a novel, Baker is able to dispense with context and select solely whatever material he can find to substantiate his one predetermined conclusion: that the Allies were as bad as the Axis, and civilization was the loser. By this method, self-defense can be made to appear the same as attack, the resolve to fight one’s enemies or even to give one’s life for the freedom of others becomes no different from aggression, and the refusal to resist aggression becomes the highest form of bravery.

For Baker, the concept of a just war does not exist. Although his extracts do not deny that Hitler and the Japanese were aggressors, with ambitions to re-order as much of the globe as possible, they are marshaled so as to suggest that aggression should have been met with kindness and thereby turned aside. Thus, Baker digs out of obscurity a crew of Western loners and egoists, often rather innocent churchmen, who preached pacifism. Among them were Clarence Pickett, Professor Rufus Jones and the Quakers of the American Friends Service Committee, the Reverend Harry Fosdick, and Muriel Lester. Space is likewise allotted to a man named John Haynes Holmes, the author of an antiwar play in which an American President counters a surprise attack on the U.S. fleet by flying to Japan and touching the emotions of the Japanese people so deeply that they revolt against their native militarism, and “everything turns out fine.”

Individuals who went to prison rather than be conscripted into the armed forces of the democracies are especially highlighted. In England, they included members of the Peace Pledge Union and Bloomsburyites around Frances Partridge. But none carried wartime pacifism to a higher extreme than Mohandas Gandhi in India, who is quoted often and admiringly in Human Smoke. His advice to the British was to fight Nazism without arms, even if the results were to prove suicidal.

Other public figures similarly advocated appeasement and accommodation, although not out of pacifist beliefs. They included Charles Lindbergh, Sir Oswald Mosley, General Antonescu in Romania, Pierre Laval in France—and Joseph Stalin. A single extract of eight lines offered by Baker makes Stalin out to be Hitler’s passive victim. This is to falsify the entire Nazi-Soviet relationship of the period. In historical fact, the pact Stalin so gladly signed with Hitler in 1939 put paid not only to any possibility of peace but almost to Western democracy and the Soviet Union alike.

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And then there are the villains. In the opening years of the war, Roosevelt was playing a secondary role. Baker’s vignettes have been chosen to show him in a poor light—for example, loosely telling a Senate committee that Hitler was a nut who imagined himself the reincarnation of Julius Caesar and Jesus. Among other senior American officials on display here are Harold Ickes and General Hap Arnold of the Army Air Corps, who were pressing for armaments and (like Churchill from London) doing their utmost to pull along a Roosevelt who might otherwise have saved the American national soul by listening to the Picketts and the Fosdicks.

Early American measures like sending arms to China and imposing economic sanctions on Japan were—we are given to conclude—bound to provoke the Japanese to fight. So America is made to bear responsibility for Pearl Harbor. And the same goes all the more for Europe—the main theater at that time just as Churchill was the leading Allied protagonist.

After the Polish campaign and the fall of France, Hitler briefly held back in the belief that Britain would now accept his “peace” terms, according to which the British were to be allowed to keep their empire in return for granting the Nazis a free hand on the continent. But Chur-chill refused a deal that in the end could only leave British sovereignty and survival at the mercy of Nazi Germany, and so Hitler and Goebbels, disappointed and a little mystified, began preparations for invasion. When Churchill undertook the bombing of German targets to demonstrate that the British air force was fully operational and in a position to defend the country in the event of invasion, the Nazis were bound to retaliate in kind. What else could they do? Thus, in Baker’s reconstruction, did Churchill bring the raids on Coventry and London on himself while also assuming primary responsibility for all subsequent bombings of cities and the death of civilians everywhere—just what Hitler and Goebbels themselves used to charge.

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Baker’s fictionalization of World War II depends not only on what he includes but on what he leaves out. In the grim early stages of the war, for instance, Britain’s cabinet secretary informed Churchill that the German battleship Bismarck had been sunk with all hands; as they went down, they had sung Deutschland über alles. Churchill’s eyes filled with tears and he said: “Such brave men to die in so foul a cause.” Baker makes sure to omit any such evidence of Churchill’s essential humanity because it would demolish the representation of him as a killer.

Another example: in a diary extract quoted by Baker, Lord Halifax, the then foreign minister, says that Churchill had talked “the most frightful rot” at a meeting of the cabinet. “It does drive me to despair,” Halifax continues, “when he works himself into a passion of emotion when he ought to make his brain think and reason.” What is missing here? Only that the evacuation from Dunkirk was then under way, and the prospect loomed of total British defeat—and that, in the midst of this make-or-break crisis, Halifax was urging peace talks with Hitler and had at the back of his mind a role for himself as the British Marshal Pétain.

The point of all this manipulation of history is of course to draw a line of moral equivalence between the Allies and the Axis. Baker dramatizes the point by presenting the two sides’ supposedly analogous foul deeds on facing or sequential pages. Thus, fearing a Nazi invasion, the British are shown arresting local fascists and also rounding up some 11,000 Jews who were refugees from Germany and therefore suspected of being unreliable. Exactly one page later, we read
a memorandum from Heinrich Himmler to the effect that European Jews will have to be deported to Africa or elsewhere. So injustice on the part of panicky British officials is equated with mass persecution.

Again: a preliminary British report about the state of research into an atom bomb raises the prospect of “concentrated destruction.” On the very next page, a memorandum from a senior SS official to Adolf Eichmann asks “if it would not be more humane to finish off the Jews.” So the Allies become no less bent on mass murder than their fascist enemies.

And again: in July 1941, the New York Times reports that the Greek people are facing famine and death because the British have commandeered their fishing boats. The very next extract conveys the instructions given by Reinhard Heydrich to special SS units for killing whole categories of civilians. So death as a result of war operations becomes the same as planned genocide.

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In an interview a few years ago about his novel Checkpoint, Baker candidly emphasized the hatred he felt for the “foolish, small-minded, cowardly men” gathered in the Bush White House “who will not hesitate to order the bombing of civilians from several miles in the air.” Even at this late stage of history, it appears, a stance of credulous and mindless pacifism can be trotted out whenever democracies act to defend themselves against totalitarian enemies determined to destroy them. But at least in World War II—despite the strenuous efforts of Baker’s heroes—everything did turn out fine, because real heroes were prepared to make the sacrifice. Civilization did not come to an end but instead fought to live, and thereby lived to fight another day. The place of Churchill and Roosevelt in history is secure. The same will never be said about this mendacious book or its author.

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