Hawking Up Hairballs

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Human Smoke

Nicholson Baker's latest book is Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization. Baker is the author of ten novels, if my count is correct, but this is a work of non-fiction, consisting of a series of vignettes gleaned from newspapers and contemporary sources in the years leading up to the War and ending on Dec. 31, 1941. Baker doesn't make any arguments as such. He just presents his vignettes and lets the reader draw his own conclusions. He makes his point in the selection of items to include, and his perspective is pacifist. He seems to believe that all wars are horrible and inexcusable, and that there are no good guys to found among the combatants. All are culpable, even in a conflict like World War II.

The book has been well received by some, but it has been harshly criticized by others, particularly those who feel that it was necessary to fight World War II. William Grimes, a book reviewer for the New York Times, is one of those. He found the book muddled and infuriating. I found it neither. It was informative, though it grew tedious. After three or four hundred pages, these short vignettes come to seem the similar, falling into a handful of categories. Nonetheless, I thought that the book was well worth reading.

Most who are critical of the book advance the usual argument that Hitler had to be stopped, given what he was doing to the Jews of Germany and Eastern Europe. Baker dwells upon two points that run counter to that argument. The first is that neither the British nor the Americans were much concerned about the fate of those Jews. Roosevelt, for one, repeatedly refused to expand immigration quotas so that Jews could immigrate to the U.S., even when that was still possible. Baker also seems to believe that, if the British has negotiated an end to hostilities after the German conquest of Poland, the Holocaust would never have taken place. This may well have been true. Hitler wanted to negotiate after his conquest of Poland, and a deal probably could have been struck. How long would it have lasted is another question. Hitler had a history of these seizures. He took Austria and the Sudetenland in 1938. It would have been hard to believe that he could be trusted.

The pivot around which Baker's book turns is the viability of pacificism. Would a refusal to fight lead to peace? Sure, if the refusal was widespread on both sides of the conflict. Unfortunately, the world doesn't work like that. In practice, the logic of pacificism is a hard one. This is made clear in a couple of quotations from Gandhi in the book. Here's one that struck me. He's talking about the prospect of a German invasion of the British Isles. "If these gentlemen choose to occupy your homes, you will vacate them. If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourself, man, woman and child, to be slaughtered, but you will refuse to owe allegiance to them." Like I said, it's a hard logic, and how does it really differ from war? In either case, mass killing is the result.

Though I'm a pacificist myself by inclination, the just doesn't work in the real world, and the truly sad thing is that, once a war starts, both sides lose. Not only are the soldiers, and possibly civilians, of both sides brutalized, but look at what war does, even to the society of the winners. The main effect of World War Two within America was to establish the military as an overwhelming force in our society. Dwight Eisenhower saw it. When he was president in the 1950's, he warned against the military-industrial complex, but it was too late. That complex was already too strong to rein in.

One thing I hadn't realized before reading Human Smoke was how widespread ant-Semitism was in the West at that time. Baker quotes the public, anti-Semitic remarks of a number of prominent figures. Franklin Roosevelt himself was an anti-Semite, not of the virulent Nazi variety, but a bigot nonetheless. For example, while a lawyer in New York City in 1922, he noticed that one-third of Harvard's freshman class was Jewish. At the time, he was on the college's Board of Overseers, and he brought the issue up with them. To quote Roosevelt from Baker's book, "It was decided that over a period of years the number of Jews should be reduced one or two percent a year until it was down to 15%."

And while I'm on the topic of Roosevelt, he dearly wanted to get into the war, but there was little public support for entry, so Roosevelt engaged in a series of provocations. As Henry Stimson, his secretary of war, wrote in his diary on Nov. 25, 1941, "The question was how we should maneuver them (the Japanese) into the position of firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves." They didn't expect an attack on Pearl Harbor. They thought it would come in some place like the Philipines.

As for Winston Churchill, it's clear that he was a brute, and a fascist by temperament, a man who absolutely loved war. He was a fervent admirer of Mussolini. As he said in Oct. 1937, "It would be a dangerous folly for the British people to underrate the enduring position in world history which Mussolini will hold, or the amazing qualities of courage, comprehension, self-control and perseverance that he exemplifies."

I could go on, but I will close with an anecdote which made me smile and shake my head. In October 1941, Heinrich Himmler, German Foreign Minister Ribbentrop, and Mussolini's son-in-law, Count Ciano went hunting together. Ciano shot 620 pheasants, Ribbentrop 410, and Himmler 95. It sounds like those boys would have gotten along famously with Dick Cheney.


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