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

Human Smoke, Nicholson Baker’s history of the first years of the Second World War, is an unabashedly quixotic book. It is even more quixotic than Double Fold, a noble plea for the preservation of old newspapers, which won Baker the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2001. At first glance, Human Smoke does not appear to be a plea for anything; it takes the form of a series of vignettes, which begin in 1892, with Alfred Nobel’s well-known and utterly mistaken hope that his explosives would promote peace, and end with the despairing reflections of a Romanian Jewish playwright on the last night of 1941.

In between, Baker takes us to just about every country affected by the war and presents well-known figures alongside many who are now nearly forgotten: Jeanette Rankin, congresswoman from Montana, the only United States Representative to vote against the First World War and later the only one to vote against the Second; Harry Emerson Fosdick, a pro-war preacher turned pacifist; Theodore Kaufman, a Brooklyn ticket seller who wrote a tract calling for the forced sterilization of the German nation. And so on. The headlong rush from person to person and place to place is exhilarating; like Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, to which it bears a formal resemblance, Human Smoke is hard to put down.

Baker does not make an argument, at least not explicitly. He presents you with data and leaves you to draw your own conclusions; yet he does have a point, and it’s one that hasn’t often been made about the Second World War. Human Smoke is dedicated to the American and British pacifists who opposed the war (the dedication comes at the end of the book, so as not to tip Baker’s hand at the outset). “They’ve never really gotten their due,” Baker writes. “They tried to save Jewish refugees, feed Europe, reconcile the United States and Japan, and stop the war from happening. They failed, but they were right; Winston Churchill, I’m sorry to say, was wrong.” In Baker’s analysis, the “good war” fought by the “greatest generation” dissolves, and what appears is a bloody, avoidable struggle among nations, none of which possessed the moral high ground, although they all claimed it.

On the whole, Baker’s denunciation of the warmakers is more compelling than his vindication of the pacifists. The Roosevelts do not come across well in his account: when we meet Eleanor, she is complaining about a party to which “mostly Jews” have been invited; a few pages later Franklin is lobbying for a stricter quota on Jews at Harvard. The Roosevelt administration’s intransigence toward European refugees is well documented here, and its foreknowledge of the Pearl Harbor attack is strongly suggested: “The question,” Baker quotes Roosevelt as saying in November 1941, “was how we should maneuver them into the position of firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves.” This is a case that has been made before, but the human scale of Human Smoke gives it emotional force. On the afternoon of the Pearl Harbor attack, we learn that Roosevelt’s son looked into his father’s office and found the president going through his stamp collection.

Baker takes an even dimmer view of Winston Churchill. Drawing on accounts by people who knew Churchill or served under him, he portrays the prime minister as a bloody-minded child eager for action of any kind, a sensation seeker who, after his famous “blood, toil, tears and sweat” speech to the House of Commons, turned to an aide and said, “That got the sods, didn’t it?” More tellingly, Baker notes that at Churchill’s instigation, Britain was bombing German targets, first in the Ruhr Valley, then all over, at least three months before Germany began to bomb Britain. Although the British bombs were nominally aimed at military and industrial areas, they more often landed on civilians, sometimes in the wrong city or even in the wrong country. The Germans retaliated in kind.

A strange picture appears in Human Smoke, of an aggressive Churchill pressuring a reluctant Hitler to attack England, on the assumption that fighting in (or over) Britain would draw America into the war. The assumption proved not quite correct, and so the Battle of Britain came to pass, then the Blitz. The RAF began night raids on German cities; the Germans bombed British cities at night. (If Human Smoke makes anything clear, it’s that bombing is a poor way to get your enemy to change his mind: Churchill’s hopes for the “pedagogical” bombing of Germany and Italy were just as mistaken as Goering’s prediction that Britain could be “brought on its knees” by a “hard stroke.”)

Churchill’s eagerness to wage war, Baker suggests, may have had still more tragic consequences. Madman that he was, Hitler seems to have contemplated expelling the Jews from Europe before he settled upon their extermination; in the summer of 1940 he considered a plan to relocate the Jews to Madagascar. “It was all contingent,” Baker writes, “on peace with Churchill” and the lifting of the British naval blockade. Which, as everyone knows, did not happen; so the Madagascar plan was scrapped, and Hitler turned his mind toward other ways of dealing with the Jews.

Here, however, it’s not as clear as Baker makes it seem that peace would have been preferable to war. The Madagascar plan was never fully endorsed by the German government (no one consulted the Vichy French, who still held Madagascar, about it); and it seems as though Hitler wanted to defeat the British as much or more than he wanted to make peace with them. He had, after all, issued the directive for a westward invasion before France and Britain turned an earlier peace offer down; he had also signed a nonaggression pact with Stalin, which did not prevent him from invading the Soviet Union a year later. Even assuming that such a thing was possible, what would peace between Hitler and Churchill have looked like? Would the Jews have been sent to Madagascar, and if so, would they have lived there in safety? The questions are at best unanswerable; and the danger of Baker’s suggestive method is that it can make them seem already answered.

To be fair, though, Human Smoke presents an equivocal picture of the benefits of nonviolence. Baker notes that Neville Chamberlain’s capitulation at Munich put an early end to a coup d’?tat planned by Hitler’s general staff (although it can’t be known whether it would have succeeded any better than Claus von Stauffenberg’s assassination attempt six years later). Gandhi, a recurring figure in these pages, speaks eloquently, but his declaration that “if I were a Jew and were born in Germany and earned my livelihood there, I would claim Germany as my home even as the tallest gentile German may, and challenge him to shoot me or cast me in the dungeon” — written, admittedly, in 1938 — cannot be taken to heart when accompanied, as it is here, with scenes of Polish Jews lying down peacefully in lime-filled pits, waiting for the SS to blow them up with hand grenades.

To imagine such scenes is to wish that everyone were a pacifist; but the mere wish for peace is not really what Human Smoke offers the reader. The steady progression of events and days in Baker’s history reminds the reader that the Second World War did not happen all at once: as Christopher Isherwood wrote in 1939, “One looks ahead to a war and imagines it as a single, final, absolute event. It is nothing of the kind. War is a condition, like peace, with good days and bad days, moods of optimism and despair.” War is a series of contingent events — which is to say that there are any number of opportunities to prevent it, or even to stop it once it has begun.

A less quixotic historian than Baker would tell you that, in the case of the Second World War, these opportunities were mere illusion: the Second World War was inevitable given the First, and the First was inevitable given the massing of men and arms in Europe at the end of the 19th century, and that massing was inevitable given the improvements in agriculture, transportation, and public hygiene. But if the moments when it looked like peace had a chance were only illusions, they might have been useful ones. Wars have been started on the strength of illusions, and it is at least theoretically possible that they can be prevented on that basis as well.