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

IssueMay 2009
Review by Virginia Moffatt

In popular myth, the Second World War has been cast as the last just war. Since Hitler was an evil tyrant who murdered millions of Jewish people, Britain and America had no option but to fight him. Churchill and Roosevelt were towering heroes, who did everything they could to minimise the effects of war on civilians, in order to rescue Europe from oppression.

Human Smoke is a welcome debunking of this legend. In it, Nicholson Baker has put together an impressive account of the origins of the Second World War, tracing events from 1892 to 1941 via newspaper articles, radio speeches, memoirs and diaries. By using the words and actions of major and minor characters in this way, he reveals a very different story.

A common held view of Hitler is that his anti-semitism set him apart. But as the early sections of this book show, such abhorrent opinions were far from unusual at the time. In 1920, Churchill suggested that there was a world-wide conspiracy of Jewish people to overthrow civilisation on the basis of their “arrested development” and “envious malevolence”. In 1922, Roosevelt was active in reducing the quotas of Jewish students at Harvard.

When the Nazis began to persecute Jewish populations, neither Britain nor America would increase their immigration quotas. It could even be argued that this refusal to help contributed to Germany becoming more desperate to get rid of Jewish people, leading indirectly to the horrors of the Holocaust.

It is also often suggested that Germany was a keen advocate of war throughout the thirties. But in the inter-war years, every major power was involved in developing and using ever-more lethal weapons.

The British bombed Iraq, possibly using mustard gas; the Italians bombed Ethiopia; the Chinese bombed the Japanese; the Japanese bombed the Chinese (probably with biological weapons). None of these countries come off with any credit during this period, and it is possible to interpret German aggression as an attempt to muscle in on the world stage, and shake off the humiliating defeat of the First World War.

Crucially, these accounts also demonstrate that Hitler did not always strike the initial blow. It was the British who were the first to target civilians by introducing a hunger blockade of Germany which led to starvation of children in the ghettos.

It was Churchill who invaded Yugoslavia, losing it to the Germans and provoking a more aggressive response from Hitler in return. Even the Blitz could be seen as a reaction to the British bombing of German cities.

Roosevelt, was no better – playing war games in the Pacific from the mid 30s, arming the Chinese against Japan, leaving the majority of the US fleet at Pearl Harbor – possibly provoking the Japanese bombing that brought America into the war as a result.

Though some critics have suggested that Nicholson Baker has been over-selective in his sources, I found his arguments very persuasive.

Time and time again, I discovered things I’d not known before such as the British decision to stockpile cakes of anthrax to use against civilian populations in Germany if necessary. Churchill condemns himself by his own words - even his wife described him as “bloodthirsty”.

And, whilst this book makes a strong case for pacifism, it also points out there are problems with nonviolence. Gandhi is quoted as suggesting that it would be better for thousands of Jewish people to die than be corrupted by using violence. Since we know millions of Jewish people died in the gas-chambers, such a stark message is quite hard to take.

Human Smoke is a relentless read, the kind of book that constantly has you expressing your horror out loud. But, there are moments of hope. In the midst of the callous carnage, there were people who tried to stop terrible things from happening. .

It is heartening to know that if state-sponsored violence hasn’t changed that much in the last 70 years, neither has the resistance to it.

This is a challenging, frightening and sometimes inspiring book – a very useful tool for us to deconstruct the mythology surrounding the Second World War and its apparent heroes. Gandhi suggested that the difference between Hitler and Churchill was one of degree. After this book, I tend to agree, and am left wondering – if Britain had lost, would Germans now revere Hitler and revile Churchill?

Topics: War and peace
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