Last year Americans were transfixed by Ken Burns' mega-documentary The War which told the story of World War II from the perspective of ordinary American soldiers. We were told that this was a Necessary War, and the heroic sacrifice of everyday Americans saved civilization. This is the narrative that we all find familiar and comforting. But what if World War II was not necessary, and what if it really ushered in the end of civilization? That is the perspective of Nicholson Baker's astonishing book Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization.
Baker is a fellow Mainer, and lives just a few towns over from me. He has made a name for himself as a literary minimalist with unusual novels such as The Mezzanine and A Box of Matches. But he is also a passionate collector of old print newspapers, including the New York TImes, the vanished New York Herald Tribune, and 6,000 volumes of bound newspapers from the British Library. The thing is, Baker didn't just collect these old newspapers, he also started to read them. And in the process of reading old newspapers from 1920 on, he discovered that a different narrative for the origins of world war is possible - a narrative that often goes against the grain of everything we thought we knew.
Baker is not a historian, and Human Smoke is not a book of history - or, at least not the kind of history to which we are accustomed. In fact, the book has enraged many historians. Baker has taken newspaper clippings, excerpts from memoirs and diaries, snippets from official documents - in short, a collage of historical facts - and arranged them in meticulous chronological order. The author has retreated behind the facts, and surfaces only at the very end, in the Afterword. Human Smoke ends on December 31, 1941, before the climax of the Final Solution, the firebombing of Dresden and the atomic bomb, but the forces that led to this total destruction have been set in motion.
Through his pointillistic technique, Baker creates an alternative narrative comprised of inconvenient facts. We see the mild anti-Semitism of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and the virulent anti-Semitism of Churchill. Churchill, in particular, emerges here as the consummate warmonger, eager to firebomb German civilians, willing to starve all of Europe with a naval blockade while suspending civil liberties at home. Meanwhile, Roosevelt is pushing America to war with Japan through deliberate provocation: the "surprise" attack at Pearl Harbor does not in retrospect seem to have been a surprise at all. Anecdotes featuring Churchill, Roosevelt and Hitler are juxtaposed with speeches and letters of Gandhi, as well as articles about peace activists and conscientious objectors. The heroes of Bakers alternate narrative are the forgotten pacifists, humanists such as Herbert Hoover, who railed against the food embargo, and survivor/witnesses such as Victor Klemperer. Baker acknowledges these unsung heroes in his Afterword:
“I dedicate this book to the memory of Clarence Pickett and other American and British pacifists. They've never really gotten their due. 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. (Nicholson Baker, Human Smoke).
Baker has been eviscerated in the press for his book. Adam Kirsch (whose poetry criticism I greatly admire) attacks Human Smoke in the right-wing New York Sun as "stupid" and "scary". But Kirsch is dishonest when he asserts that Baker shares Goebbel's opinion of Churchill (he doesn't) And neoconservative author and columnist Anne Applebaum becomes apoplectic with rage when contemplating Baker in The New Republic. Baker is an easy target for historians. But what Applebaum fails to realize is that what Baker has created with Human Smoke is not history, but rather agit-prop. The alternative narrative he has woven with his collage of inconvenient facts sticks in the mind, and our black and white "understanding" of WWII begins to fade to gray.