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A darker view of World War II

Nicholson Baker uses historical vignettes to suggest that there is no such thing as a ‘good war.’

By / April 6, 2008



Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization is an original, provocative, sometimes breathtaking read. At its core lies a simple but highly debatable message: War is never right. Up until now, Baker has been best known as the author of minutely observed works of fiction (“The Mezzanine”, “A Box of Matches”).

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Here, he studies the runup to World War II and his nonfiction treatment becomes almost a piece of visual art. After combing through volumes of material – newspaper and magazine stories, radio speeches, letters, memoirs, diaries – Baker snips bits and pieces of vignettes that interest him. These fragments (none more than a few paragraphs long) are arranged collagelike to tell the story of the folly and human error involved in war.

Baker’s take on the Second World War is not likely to be popular. Most of us are accustomed to thinking of World War II as “the good war,” a war that needed to be fought. What Baker does is to rearrange the furniture in a familiar room. Without commentary, simply through the pieces he chooses to include and the way in which he orders them, he suggests that it’s far too simple to call the Allies the good guys and the Axis the bad. If there is a villain in “Human Smoke,” it’s whatever it is in human nature that sees war as a solution.

“Human Smoke” begins in August 1892, with explosives manufacturer Alfred Nobel wondering if soon all armies will not “recoil with horror and disband their troops.” It finishes on the last day of 1941 (shortly after the United States’ entry into the war), with Jewish writer Mihail Sebastian, in Bucharest, writing in his journal, “There is still time; we still have some time left.”

In between are heard the voices of world leaders (including Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, and Adolf Hitler), politicians, pacifists, writers, journalists, and ordinary citizens.

Churchill and Roosevelt come across as anything but heroic. Churchill rattles his saber and barely bothers to conceal his own anti-Semitism. Roosevelt dallies while desperate Jews are continually refused entrance to the US or other havens. Hitler rages like a madman and abuses Jews for years as the world does nothing. Japan issues bellicose warnings that seem to fall on deaf ears.

The book’s ordinary citizens sound notes that are both horrifying and heroic. A rabbi in Berlin warns that, “The domain of our existence becomes daily narrower. Our strength threatens to give out” (1938). An art student living in the Lodz ghetto notes that the nude models used in drawing class are visibly starving (1939). In Connecticut, a draft resister is placed in solitary confinement after writing that war is “the greatest evil known to man” (1941).

Punctuating all of this are the words of those who argued against violence and aggression – no matter what the circumstance. “War has been tried through all the centuries and has absolutely failed,” says British politician George Lansbury in 1939. “It is the problem of our age: hatred of Germans poisons everyone’s mind,” writes a young Jewish woman trapped in Amsterdam in 1941. In some of the vignettes Baker includes, acts of violence unintentionally harm the innocent, as when French resisters kill a Nazi officer and several thousand Jews are killed in reprisal. In others, acts of war unknowingly inflict auxiliary damage, as when British troops commandeer fishing boats in the Mediterranean and children and animals on the Greek island of Santorini begin to starve.

“Human Smoke” is a book bound to infuriate. The fact that voices other than Baker’s tell the story greatly increases the drama of the narrative and yet a reader is left constantly longing to know what Baker himself thinks, how exactly he imagines the Axis powers could have been stopped without shedding blood. In his role as editor Baker suggests but is never required to substantiate or defend.

However, whatever the drawbacks of the method, it is hard to deny the power of “Human Smoke.” Especially at a moment when the US finds itself deep in a military engagement that many consider avoidable, it is hard not to be unsettled by the fragments reproduced in this book. Perhaps Eleanor Roosevelt, speaking of war in 1934, stated it most hauntingly: “How deadly stupid we are that we can study history and live through what we live through, and complacently allow the same causes to put us through the same thing again!”

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