The Not-So-Good War

Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization BY Nicholson Baker. Simon & Schuster. Hardcover, 576 pages. $30.

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

In form, Human Smoke is unique. Nicholson Baker seeks to tell the story of the origins of World War II through a chronological sequence of several hundred vignettes, as if one were to screen Gone with the Wind through a series of uncaptioned snapshots. Yet however impressionistic Baker’s technique may seem, he is pursuing an ambitious and sweeping reinterpretation of his subject: He evidently regards the “good war” as bad, a colossal mistake. In other words, Baker is tilting against the most deeply settled and ardently embraced piece of conventional wisdom in the current armory of American myth. His prime targets are Prime Minister Winston Churchill, perhaps the most highly touted figure of the past century, and, to a lesser extent, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, though Baker has not forgotten to provide a portrait of Hitler as incomparably worse than either. His heroes are Mohandas K. Gandhi and an assortment of American Quakers and other pacifists who opposed the war—people of whom most readers will be hearing for the first time.

This material plainly doesn’t lend itself to the low-key, quotidian high spirits that bubble up in many of Baker’s fictional works, such as Vox (1992), a protracted account of a man and a woman having phone sex, and The Fermata (1994), whose protagonist uses an occult power to freeze time for the purpose of disrobing and ogling women at his leisure. (Thematically, it is closer to Checkpoint, the 2004 novel consisting largely of a narrator trying to talk a friend out of plans to assassinate George W. Bush.) Baker also suppresses his usual stylistic divagations and flourishes. What remains is his characteristic attention to minutiae. His method is to present highly particularized factual snippets, at a rate of one or two per page, of life and policy making in the years leading up to the war. These are drawn from both primary and secondary sources. They are chosen with a novelist’s eye and set down with simplicity, through which indignation sometimes palpably burns—a style that makes for compulsive reading. (Within each vignette, a date is pronounced—“It was January 30, 1939”—in a kind of drumbeat, or countdown, to the war’s outbreak.) The result is like an epic canvas meant to contain ten thousand brushstrokes, of which only a few hundred have actually been applied. It’s clear that the canvas, if ever completed by someone or other, would differ hugely from the conventionally accepted, finished and overfinished portrait of these pored-over events, but this work is left to readers, or perhaps to historians who might pick up the gauntlet that Baker has thrown down.

The technique works best when the vi­gnettes capture in microcosm a much larger reality. For example, we learn that in 1918, when Eleanor Roosevelt and her husband, Franklin, then assistant secretary of the navy, were invited to a party to honor Bernard Baruch, the prominent Jewish financier and adviser to presidents, she writes her mother-in-law that she’d “rather be hung” than attend, adding, “Mostly Jews.” As for Franklin, we find him in the ’20s acting as a member of the Harvard Board of Overseers to reduce the “number of Jews” “one or two per cent a year until it was down to 15%.” The two reports are quite enough to evoke the complacent country-club anti-Semitism of prominent white Anglo-Saxon Protestants of the day. Such sentiments were of course a universe apart from the berserk, criminally insane anti-Semitism of the Nazis, yet they were pronounced enough to play a role, as Baker shows, in the unfolding of the tragedy of the European Jews.

Indeed, as the book’s title suggests, the events leading to Hitler’s Final Solution included many failures of the Allied powers to register and respond to the stupendous cataclysm taking shape before their eyes. Human Smoke places special thematic stress on the early attempts by the Nazis to expel, instead of murder, German and other Jews, as well as on the steady refusal of Western countries, including the United States, to accept them. Sending Jews to Madagascar was one scheme under consideration, and not only by the Nazis. Another, proposed by Baruch, was to send them to Tanganyika. (Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter was incensed by the proposal as an insult to Jews.) After the Nazis’ premeditated assault on German Jews in the episode known as Kristallnacht, Roosevelt managed to condemn the event without uttering the word Jew.

The disgraceful refusal of the United States to open its doors to European Jews, even when reports of the cattle cars sending them to Poland and the death camps were available, perhaps reached its culmination in June 1941. That was when the United States, having failed to increase its quotas for European refugees, actually reversed its policy of permitting family members of refu­­­gees already in the country to enter. Hitler rejoiced to find that while Western countries might oppose him, his anti-Semitism appeared to have wide appeal. After the fact, it seemed to many that the purpose of the Allied effort in the Second World War had been to stop the Holocaust of the Jews. Before and during the war, it was not so.

As these facts, all taken from Baker, demonstrate, his method is not entirely pointillistic. Many, though by no means all, of the vignettes are threaded like beads, in specific sequences determined by persistent themes. If Western anti-Semitism is one theme, the West’s—and especially Churchill’s—predilection for bombing civilians is another. That barbarous practice long predated World War II—though that is when it became most extensive, thanks in large measure to the Anglo-American “strategic” bombing of cities (that is, the deliberate bombing of the civilian populations of those cities), which brought the annihilation of Dresden and Hamburg, among other atrocities, and culminated in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As Baker shows, however, the tradition goes back at least as far as 1920, when Churchill, faced with a local rebellion against imperial British dictate in Iraq, declared, “I am strongly in favor of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes,” and dropped the gas from the air. This was done. Thus did the most lionized Western leader of the last century initiate the use, later repeated by the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, of a “weapon of mass de­struction” against Iraqi civilians.

It was the Nazis who inaugurated the practice of smashing cities from the air, at Guernica, during the civil war in Spain. But once the Second World War broke out, it was England, not Germany, that first practiced the strategic bombing of cities per se, though soon enough, of course, the Nazis responded in kind. Before long, it was apparent, even to the policy makers, that the bombing’s goal—breaking the morale of the German people—was not coming to pass. Yet Britain and, eventually, the United States not only continued the practice but increased it throughout the war. The true reason may have been revealed in a comment made by the British general Raymond Lee in November 1941. Until November 1942, when Britain and the United States landed in Africa, the British Army had not fought any substantial action on the ground against the Germans. Lee said, “The morale of the British people requires that the Germans be attacked in some way . . . and if the bombing stopped, their spirit would immediately suffer.” The intent of the bombing, in other words, was as much to buck up British morale as to destroy German morale.

The history of strategic bombing has al­ready been told elsewhere. But Baker covers fresh ground by connecting the logic governing these well-known events with other, lesser-known state-sponsored assaults on civilians, such as the British blockade of Europe, meant to starve the German people. It was based on the similar blockade during the First World War and for a while there-after, which did indeed cause widespread starvation. As Baker notes, the starvation was complementary to the killing through strategic bombing—in both cases, the goal was to inspire a revolt of the German people against their government. “The object was to break them,” Lord “Boom” Trenchard explained in May 1941. It never happened.

Baker’s technique works less well when context is essential for judgment. It’s a method that is excellent for puncturing received opinion (perhaps his main aim) but unable to provide a solid alternative interpretation. For example, he implicitly endorses the view that the Roosevelt administration consistently pursued a series of actions aimed at provoking war with Japan. The cumulative effect is to suggest that the United States was chiefly responsible for starting the Pacific war. The charge is an old one, dating at least as far back as similar accusations by the historian Charles A. Beard more than half a century ago, and can hardly be settled by a few anecdotes, no matter how damning they seem in isolation. Only a full account of the actions and counteractions of both sides could possibly settle the question. Likewise, we cannot decide whether, as Baker sometimes seems to suggest, Churchill should have explored Hitler’s various peace offerings without panoptic information on the state of the war, diplomacy, etc., at that time.

The alleged provocation of Japan is one of the graver indictments Baker lays at the feet of Roosevelt and Churchill, alongside the failure to save Jews when some still could be saved—that is, before the six million had actually been murdered—and the horrendous cost of the strategic bombing campaign and the blockade. Baker’s heroes Gandhi and the Western pacifists disagreed with Western officialdom on every one of these points and believed, on these grounds and others, that the Allies should never have fought the war.

What should the victims of the Nazis have done, then? Gandhi was the only person with a full program for both avoiding the war and resisting the Nazis. It was his idea that the peoples under Nazi rule should resist it en masse without violence, through acts of non­cooperation, sacrificing their lives if necessary. When it was pointed out to him in 1939 that a person who did this in Hitler’s Germany would immediately be shot (and Baker is honest enough to give us the example of German pacifist Dr. Hermann Stöhr, who met with exactly that fate), Gandhi re­plied simply: “That will not disprove my case. I can conceive the necessity of the im­molation of hundreds, if not thousands, to appease the hunger of dictators.” It is the sort of advice likely to be answered with a brisk “Thanks for nothing!”—until, perhaps, one recalls that the cost of the alternative, the war that actually came, cost not hundreds or thousands but tens of millions of lives, including six million Jews. After all, the mass loss of life, including Jewish life, was scarcely avoided by the war, although the killing was eventually brought to an end by the Allied victory. In this light, it seems rather more than justified to extend thought and spirit out to the limits of the possible in the search for something that might have been better. What if the tens of million, instead of going to their deaths in the many slaughters that the war brought by air, sea, and land, had practiced determined, mass nonviolent resistance? Such a “counter­factual” exercise requires countering so many facts—so many seemingly irreversible givens of that historical situation—that it teeters on the edge of sheer fantasy, and the mind balks. But is the question therefore without value? I do not think so. (The non­violent end of the Soviet Union, to cite just one example, has shown that immense, brutal totalitarian structures can fall to pressures from within.) Baker cannot answer the question, but he puts it squarely on the table.

One cardinal virtue of Gandhi and the Western pacifists was their early, unflinching recognition of exactly what Hitler was doing within his country before the war and to whom. Their vision was sharp, their gaze un­wavering. They did not shy away from naming the Jews as the victims. If seeing things as they are, sometimes called “realism,” is a quality desired in politics, then these “idealists” had it in spades. And they acted promptly and effectively, within the limits of their powers, to remedy the evil. In faraway India, Gandhi saw what was happening and spoke up against it in a way that the Allied leaders failed to. In November 1938, he wrote, “My sympathies are all with the Jews. If ever there could be a justifiable war in the name of and for humanity, a war against Germany, to prevent the wanton persecution of a whole race, would be completely justified.”

But he was against all war. As early as 1934, Clarence Pickett, the executive secretary of the Quaker American Friends Service Committee, met in Berlin with Rabbi Leo Baeck “to explore whether we could do anything to help prevent the barbaric treatment of Jews.” In 1938, a Quaker delegation led by the Haverford professor Rufus Jones met with Nazi leaders. “It is the settled purpose of the German government to drive out Jews,” bringing “further outrages” and “greater suffering and injustice,” he reported. The Quaker Center in Berlin was able to expedite the exit of a limited number of Jewish families. When the delegates returned, they met with State Department officials, proposing that Quakers could help staff consulates in Europe in order to deal with backlogs in immigration. These services were refused. The Quakers’ persistent lobbying to expand American immigration quotas in order to admit persecuted Jews into the United States likewise failed.

The pacifists were equally clear-eyed about strategic bombing, though they could exert very little direct pressure to halt the practice. They also bore witness to what even today is historically obscure—the impact of the blockade of Europe—and, again, acted as they could to counteract its effects. It is striking—and quite out of keeping with the mythology of the “good war”—to learn that former president Herbert Hoover, by no means a pacifist (though he was a Quaker), lobbied tirelessly to find loopholes in the British blockade in order to feed starving people in Poland and other German-invaded powers. “Is the Allied cause any further advanced today as a consequence of this starvation of children?” he demanded to know in October 1941. “Are Hitler’s armies any less victorious than if these children had been saved?” In 1940, the Quakers were feeding thirty thousand children, many of them in concentration camps, in France. It seems there was something about being against the war, whether that position was right or wrong in the larger scheme of things, that enabled these pacifists to see and foresee the suffering the war would bring more clearly than almost any other observers were able to. Baker’s engrossing, bravely contrarian book is dedicated to Pickett’s memory—and to that of his allies in the American and British pacifist cause.

Jonathan Schell is the Harold Willens Peace Fellow at the Nation Institute.