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Blowing Smoke | The Nation

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Blowing Smoke

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I read Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization in galleys, obsessively, for hours at a stretch, in the beautiful northern Italian town of Pavia. Pear trees and plum trees were blossoming. The old university buildings glowed palely in the springtime sun. By the time I finished the book I felt something I had never felt before: fury at pacifists.

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Katha Pollitt
Katha Pollitt
Katha Pollitt is well known for her wit and her keen sense of both the ridiculous and the sublime. Her "Subject to...

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This was surely not what Baker had in mind. He dedicates Human Smoke to "American and British pacifists" who "tried to save Jewish refugees, feed Europe, reconcile the United States and Japan, and stop the war from happening." If everything you knew about World War II came out of this book, you might well agree with Baker: "They failed, but they were right" (the galleys, but not the published book, continue: "Winston Churchill, I'm sorry to say, was wrong"). Baker builds his case against the "good war" in a 471-page collage of scraps and snippets drawn mostly from contemporary accounts--newspaper reports, letters, diaries, memoirs. You watch the war unfold all over the world, as if in real time. Here are the bullies, intent on blood and glory: Hitler, of course; Churchill, delighting in bombing German cities; Roosevelt, refusing to support a bill to admit 20,000 Jewish children as refugees while secretly laying plans to join the war despite his campaign promise to stay out. And over here is a small, valiant cast of people who rejected jingoism, hatred and violence: Clarence Pickett of the American Friends Service Committee; Jeannette Rankin, who cast the lone vote in Congress against both world wars; Muriel Lester and other aid workers, who struggled unsuccessfully against the British ban on food shipments to feed the refugees of Europe; writers and diarists like Christopher Isherwood, Mihail Sebastian and Victor Klemperer. The antiwar conviction of these humane individuals is so vivid and so passionate you start to feel that it all could have turned out differently, if only. But is that true?

In its length and bagginess, Human Smoke feels different from Baker's novels, which are obsessive claustrophobic miniatures: two disembodied strangers talk on the phone about sex (Vox); one friend tries to dissuade another from assassinating the President (Checkpoint). But really his method is the same: Baker forces you to share his tunnel vision by rigidly excluding what doesn't fit and by giving everything he includes more or less equal weight. Thus, Hitler is an anti-Semite, and so is Roosevelt--one would go on to exterminate 6 million Jews, and the other thought there were too many Jews at Harvard. If you are naïve enough to believe that the United States went to war to save the Jews, Human Smoke will disabuse you. But the reader who is surprised to learn that neither Roosevelt nor Churchill did a thing to prevent the Holocaust is unlikely to know enough to question Baker's slanted version of other events.

For example, Baker insinuates that Roosevelt intentionally frightened Japan into bombing Pearl Harbor by putting the Navy there and by sending bombers to Chiang Kai-shek. In his version, China is the aggressor--never mind that Japan had occupied Manchuria since 1931 and savagely invaded China in 1937. Similarly, Baker cites numerous anecdotes to demonstrate the lack of anti-Semitic fervor among ordinary Germans throughout the 1930s. Fine, but that important point is then made to suggest a general lack of enthusiasm for Nazism and its dreams of German supremacy; you'd think the only Germans who adored Hitler were hard-core party thugs. In fact, Hitler was extremely popular throughout the period covered by Baker and remained so as long as the war was going well. Few Germans were interested in the passive resistance Gandhi urged on them (he gave the same advice to the Jews--stay and die). The Gestapo would have been happy to murder any who tried it, as it did other enemies of the state.

Baker's cut-and-paste method suggests without stating outright, much less making a coherent argument. Thus, he never exactly says that lives would have been spared had Churchill made a separate peace and Roosevelt stayed out of the war. But that is the implication. He allows the reader to imagine that the Nazis were serious about settling the Jews in Madagascar and came up with the Final Solution only when war made that plan impossible--so the Allies were, in a way, responsible for Auschwitz. He doesn't mention that Madagascar was supposed to be a slow-motion death camp ruled by the SS, nor does he note the Nazis' plans to murder and enslave millions of Slavs once the Jews had been disposed of. It is not so clear, in other words, that fewer people would have died had Britain and the United States let Germany take over Europe. Moreover, why trust Hitler to abide by a nonaggression treaty? The Hitler-Stalin pact didn't keep him from attacking the Soviet Union.

Baker says he relied on newspapers and other contemporaneous accounts because of their immediacy and freshness, the sense of the present as offering a range of possible outcomes. Fair enough, but you wouldn't necessarily go to them for perspective or truth, as anyone who has ever read about themselves in the paper knows all too well. The present seems open-ended not just because those living in it don't know what's going to happen next but also because they don't know much about what's really going on at that very moment. It wasn't obvious to the good kind Rufus Jones that it was futile for him and his group of Quakers to beg Nazis to let them relieve the suffering of refugees and Jews--"We noted a softening effect on their faces," he wrote later of the unspeakable gangsters who read their request. But that doesn't mean there was ever a chance that he might have succeeded. It just means he didn't grasp what he was up against. Say what you will about Churchill and Roosevelt, at least they got that right.

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