Human Smoke – Nicholson Baker

Human Smoke – Nicholson Baker

Book Review of Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker

Human Smoke attracted a great deal of interest when it was published earlier this year, with controversy in abundance.  

In essence, the book is seen by many as pacifist, and appears to present both sides in the Second World War as having a moral equivalence, holding equal disdain for the human cost of the terrible conflict they provoked.

The book consists of a compilation of hundreds of first-hand quotations, extracts from papers and articles, accounts of conversations, diary extracts and numerous other detailed sources.  These all appear in sequential order and provide a day by day account of the development of the war from the perspective of various world nations.  

These appear at first to be largely unedited, in “raw” form, but of course, the selection was made by Nicholson Baker, and we read nothing in the book about his selection criteria.

However, it soon becomes apparent that one of his objectives is to show the huge resistance to joining in the conflict, particularly in America, and how this resistance was eventually suppressed.  Baker shows that there was a huge concern for European Jewry and the starving people of Europe, with Americans digging deep into their pockets to support relief operations.  

However, there was strong governmental and labour movement resistance to changing immigration quotas to allow more Jews to escape to America from German persecution.  Baker quotes the example of one family who eventually managed to enter America after travelling from Berlin via Moscow, Japan, Costa Rica, Panama and Chile.  

They were the lucky ones, others of their ilk being deported from Germany to entirely infeasible destinations where they were to perish as stateless persons.

America had a strong anti-war and anti-draft  movement which was eventually suppressed by legal measures, with many supporters serving prison terms because of their opposition to American involvement in the war.  

Pacifist bravery was considerable, and anyone reading the book cannot but be impressed by Quaker peace and relief efforts which went right to the heart of governments on both sides of the Atlantic.  

However, the national governments of the Allies were equally determined to avoid war and Baker shows strenuous British efforts to avoid war finally collapsing and Winston Churchill being appointed as Prime Minister to lead the country through the terrible times ahead of them.

The British generally believe that America was slow to enter the war, but Baker shows the arguments on both sides and the eventual development of the conviction that American interests were so threatened by non-involvement that action had to be taken.  

I had not realised the extent to which  America had allied with China against Japan before the war, and Baker shows how Japan felt greatly threatened by American military supplied to China in order to equip them against the Japanese.  This provides useful context in understanding the eventual bombing of Pearl Harbour.

Baker pays much attention to the bombing campaigns of both Germany and Britain.  At the start of the war an opinion poll in Britain showed almost even numbers for and against bombing civilian populations in Germany.  

Churchill and his government clearly saw bombing as an attempt to bring about the collapse of the Nazi regime as the population rose up against the horrors brought upon them by German expansion.  However, early bombing raids were not as effective as they had hoped, and when their effects were also minimised by German propaganda reports, the uprising did not occur.

The Germans retaliated with severe bombing raids on London and Coventry, and within no time, both sides were locked into an escalation of the bombing campaign which wreaked terrible death and destruction on all sides.  

However, these were the weapons of the time, and opting out on the part of one side, would surely have only led to the other side destroying their opposition without challenge.  I personally find it easy to go along with Winston Churchill who on observing the blitz of London, declared, “they have sown the wind, they shall reap the whirl-wind”.

So many questions are left hanging.  In taking a neutral position between the two sides, has Baker really taken account of the awesomely horrific findings in the concentration camps, the mega-numbers of Jews, Slavs and minorities slaughtered by the Nazi regime?  

In the light of what we now know, would the annihilation of the Jewish race from all Nazi-won territories including Great Britain have been an acceptable trade for peace in the USA?

On the plus side, this book is a fascinating read, providing much insight into the thinking of the times.  In quoting Churchill so extensively, I get the impression that Baker seeks to show his flaws and to suggest personality shortcomings in his aggressive determination to annihilate Germany.  

Many readers will however see it as little short of miraculous in these days of political expediency that one man was able to steel the nation at a time when Britain stood alone before Hitler and defeat seemed such a strong probability.

Nicholson Baker presents this huge amount of material with little editorial comment of his own, other than a final afterword or a mere two pages, in which he declares that the American pacifists were right to resist American involvement in the war.  

But his arguments are not developed beyond this simple statement and his readers are left floundering as to the reasons for his stance. I get the impression that Nicholson Baker feels that his hundreds of quotations are polemic enough to justify taking the American’s taking a pacifist position towards the war, but this reader at least, on reading these countless personal accounts, gave thanks for the steely determination of the Allies to prevail over their enemies.  

The book would have been greatly enhanced by some contributions to the debate from the German side, where many brave people tried to stop the Nazi machine and suffered terribly as a result.

Nevertheless this is an immensely valuable book which provides a vast amount of excellent reference material for pacifists and reluctant supporters of war.