Blackadder’s Lair

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Human Smoke: Review

Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke: The Beginnings of WWII and the End of Civilization is a haunting and sometimes horrifying revisionist look at the lead up to and early years of the Second World War. The book is composed entirely of small vignettes (ranging in length from a paragraph to a few pages) drawn from newspaper accounts, diaries, memoirs, official documents, and other largely contemporary sources. While this style leaves little room for direct argumentation, the main theses of the book are fairly clear and may be summarized as follows:

1. The Allies during WWII (particularly Britain) engaged in numerous atrocities, violations of civil liberties, etc. during the war, and in some cases did so before the Germans.

2. The leaders of the Allied powers (particularly FDR and Churchill) wanted war, and in the case of FDR did everything in his power to provoke an attack.

3. That the Allied powers didn’t particularly care about the Jews, and that the Holocaust could have been averted had the United States and Britain allowed Jews to immigrate as refugees (something which was considered but rejected).

4. That Hitler was a madman in the literal sense of the term.

The last claim undercuts any claim that WWII could have been avoided through negotiation or compromise, but the first three do a lot to knock the shine off of the so-called good war.

There are no heroes in this book. Baker is himself a pacifist, and writes with some sympathy about some of the pacifist leaders, but he is forced to admit that the great majority of the anti-war movement at the time were not acting out of noble motives, but were either Soviet sympathizers (prior to the German invasion of Russia), or antisemitic isolationists.

I can’t say I enjoyed this book (it’s not that kind of book). But it was quite informative and has changed my perspective on things somewhat.


April 19, 2009 - Posted by | History, War and Peace

1 Comment »

  1. good review of the book.

    Number 2 is complete rubbish and number 3 reflects a complete misunderstanding of the Holocaust. The vast majority of the victims were poor Eastern European Jews who came under Hitler’s control as a result of wartime conquests. Hitler was not going to allow them to emigrate anywhere except into the next life. As for number 1, excluding the Soviet Union, the sins of the Allies should not be glossed over, but neither should they be magnified out of the context of a total war where the Allies, if they had lost, would have seen the death of freedom in their lands and things being perpretrated in their countries that I am glad Americans and Brits view today only in documentaries. David Pryce-Jones sums up my view of this book in the conclusion of his review in commentary: “Civilization did not come to an end but instead fought to live, and thereby lived to fight another day. The place of Churchill and Roosevelt in history is secure. The same will never be said about this mendacious book or its author.”

    Comment by Donald R. McClarey | May 6, 2009 | Reply

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