Winston Churchill
A painting of Winston Churchill in his famous boiler suit
A library edition of his six-volume history of World War II


By Charles McGrath
New York Times, March 4, 2008

Edited by Andy Ross

Human Smoke
The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization
By Nicholson Baker
Simon & Schuster, 576 pages

Human Smoke is an unusual book even for Nicholson Baker, now 51, whose career has unspooled in a way as unpredictable as one of his fastidiously meandering sentences. For a while he was known as a sort of Proustian miniaturist, an elegist of the quotidian.

But Human Smoke is like his other books only in its attempt to slow down time and look at things carefully. Mr. Baker himself and his Nabokovian style are largely absent. The book is a collage of sorts, a series of short, documentarylike moments from August 1892 to December 31, 1941.

Mr. Baker began reading the newspapers of the 1930s and early '40s, just as someone living through those events would have, and the papers in turn led him to books, and to contemporary letters and diaries especially.

"Over and over again I would take out the five most important books on X subject, and then I'd go back to The New York Times, and by God, the story that was written the day after was by far the best source. Those reporters were writing with everything in the right perspective."

"What people actually said was far more interesting than anything I could address, so I ended up being a juxtaposer, an arranger, an editor more than a writer. The satisfaction is winding up with something a little messier and less pat than what you thought."

Human Smoke deliberately has no argument, but Churchill appears as more of a warmonger than he is usually portrayed, and there is far more than in most textbooks about pacifist opposition to the war in the United States and Britain and to Britain's pre-Blitz bombing campaign of German cities.

"I came to the Second World War with a typically inadequate American education." Mr. Baker said, "and I was surprised to discover that Churchill had this crazy, late-night side. He was obviously thrilled to be in the midst of this escalating war."

Mr. Baker paused to rub his eyes, and then he went on: "What are you going to do when Europe is threatened by Hitler, this paranoid, dangerous person? My feelings about the war change every day. But I also feel that there is a way of looking at the war and the Holocaust that is truer and sadder and stranger than the received version."

Just War

By Mark Kurlansky
Los Angeles Times, March 9, 2008

Edited by Andy Ross

Human Smoke
The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization
By Nicholson Baker
Simon & Schuster, 576 pages

All wars have to be sold, but World War II, within the memory of the pointless carnage that then became known as World War I, was a particularly hard sell. Roosevelt and Churchill did it well, and their lies have been with us ever since.

Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke is a meticulously researched and well-constructed book demonstrating that World War II was one of the biggest, most carefully plotted lies in modern history.

Because Baker is primarily a novelist, it might be expected that, having taken on this weighty subject, he would write about it with great flare and drama. Readers may initially be disappointed, yet one of this book's great strengths is that it avoids flourishes in favor of the kind of lean prose employed by journalists.

The facts are powerful. Baker shows, step by step, how an alliance dominated by leaders who were bigoted, far more opposed to communism than to fascism, obsessed with arms sales and itching for a fight coerced the world into war.

Of Franklin Roosevelt, Baker notes that in 1922, when he was a New York attorney, he "noticed that Jews made up one-third of the freshman class at Harvard" and used his influence to establish a Jewish quota there. For years he obstructed help for European Jewry. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain said in 1939 of German treatment of Jews that "no doubt Jews aren't a lovable people. I don't care about them myself." Once the war began, Winston Churchill wanted to imprison German Jewish refugees because they were Germans.

Churchill is a dominant figure in Human Smoke, depicted as a bloodthirsty warmonger. Churchill repeatedly praised Mussolini for his "gentle and simple bearing." In 1927, he told a Roman audience, "If I had been an Italian, I am sure that I should have been entirely with you from the beginning to the end of your victorious struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism." Churchill considered fascism "a necessary antidote to the Russian virus," Baker writes.

As Baker's book makes clear, between the two World Wars communism, not fascism, was the enemy. David Lloyd George, who had been Britain's prime minister during World War I, cautioned in 1933, the year Hitler came to power, that if the Allies managed to overthrow Nazism, "what would take its place? Extreme communism. Surely that cannot be our objective."

In the 1930s, U.S. industry was free to sell the Germans and the Japanese whatever they'd buy, including weapons. Not to lose out, the British and French sold tanks and bombers to Hitler. Calls by Joseph Tenenbaum of the American Jewish Congress to boycott Germany were ignored.

Baker shows that the Japanese, as early as 1934, were complaining that Roosevelt was deliberately provoking them. In January 1941, Japan protested the U.S. military buildup in Hawaii. Yet according to World War II mythology, America was blissfully sleeping, unprepared for war, when caught by surprise by the dastardly "sneak attack." A year earlier, Baker shows, Roosevelt began planning the bombing of Japan which had invaded China from Chinese air bases with American planes and pilots.

Roosevelt evinced no desire to negotiate. In fact, Baker writes, in October he "began leaking the news of his new war plan," with $100 billion earmarked for airplanes alone. Finally, the night before the Japanese attack, Roosevelt sent a message to Emperor Hirohito calling for talks. He read it to the Chinese ambassador, remarking that he thought the message would "be fine for the record."

People are going to get really angry at Baker for criticizing their favorite war. Human Smoke could help the world to understand that there is no Just War, there is just war.

A Bad Book

By Adam Kirsch
New York Sun, March 12, 2008

Edited by Andy Ross

Human Smoke
The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization
By Nicholson Baker
Simon & Schuster, 576 pages

Even a book as bad as Nicholson Baker's perverse tract about the origins of World War II helps to confirm the continuing centrality of that war in our moral lives. Myths call forth debunkers, and the myth of "the good war" has provoked Mr. Baker to remind us of some of the ways in which World War II was not good.

The problem with Mr. Baker's book is that he is not interested in ambiguity, but in countering the received myth of the good war with his own myth of the bad war. Mr. Baker's ignorance, however, is much more disgraceful than the ignorance he seeks to combat.

Mr. Baker's book is designed to convince the reader that America should not have fought Germany or Japan; that Franklin Roosevelt connived to get us into the war at the behest of the arms manufacturers; that Winston Churchill was a bloodthirsty buffoon and a protofascist; that in Japan's invasion of China, China was the aggressor; that after the fall of France, Churchill was culpable in vowing to fight on; that the Holocaust was, at least in part, Hitler's response to British aggression; and that the only people who demonstrated true wisdom in the run-up to the war were American and British pacifists.

Mr. Baker seeks to rehabilitate the interpretation of World War II advanced by isolationists and appeasers in the 1930s. That interpretation was refuted by history itself. If it was necessary for the survival of civilization to stop Nazi Germany from dominating Europe from replacing freedom with tyranny, suffocating culture and thought, inculcating racism and cruelty in future generations, depopulating Eastern Europe and turning it into German lebensraum, enslaving tens of millions of Poles and Russians, and exterminating European Jewry then it was necessary to fight the war.

These conclusions are so plain that no one who spent even a little time reading and thinking seriously about World War II could avoid them. But Mr. Baker confessedly knew little about the subject before he began Human Smoke.

Nor does Mr. Baker have any experience with writing about large historical and moral questions. On the contrary, he is known as a writer obsessed with trivia, and his novels are stunts designed to discover how narrow a writer's compass can become before it vanishes entirely.

When such a writer turns to history, it is only to be expected that he will be hopelessly at a loss. Mr. Baker, in fact, does not even attempt to make a consecutive argument based on knowledge of all the relevant sources. Instead, he designed Human Smoke as a collage or montage a series of short paragraphs, each of which presents a single incident or observation from the years up to and including 1941.

With a novelist's preference for the dramatic and immediate, Mr. Baker takes most of his examples from published newspaper stories, or else from diaries and correspondence. But since when is a reporter more knowledgeable than a historian, or foresight more accurate than hindsight?

Using omission and juxtaposition in place of narrative allows him to distort the real sequence of events as when he allows the reader to imagine that America sold weapons to China for aggressive purposes, rather than to assist China in resisting Japanese invasion; or when he implies that, if Britain had made peace with Hitler in 1941, Nazi aggression would have ceased.

This technique is never more delusive than when Mr. Baker seems to take Nazi propaganda at face value. In September 1941, when the mayor of Hanover deported the city's Jews "to the East" code for extermination he gave as an excuse the shortage of housing caused by British bombing. "In order to relieve the distressed situation caused by the war," the mayor announced, "I see myself compelled immediately to narrow down the space available to Jews in the city." By reproducing Nazi language uncritically, Mr. Baker effectively endorses it.

This is never more shocking than when he quotes Joseph Goebbels's description of Churchill: "His face is devoid of one single kindly feature. This man walks over dead bodies to satisfy his blind and presumptuous personal ambition." This is so close to Mr. Baker's own vision of Churchill that he seems to be citing Goebbels as a trustworthy source.

A book that can adduce Goebbels as an authority in order to vilify Churchill has clearly lost touch with all moral and intellectual bearings. No one who knows about World War II will take Human Smoke at all seriously.