[Epub] ➛ Human Smoke: The Beginnings of WWII, the End of Civilization ➜ Nicholson Baker – Saudionline.co.uk

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10 thoughts on “Human Smoke: The Beginnings of WWII, the End of Civilization

  1. says:

    Imagine a history of World War II that dispensed with all the mythical afterglow and self congratulatory propaganda and instead relied on contemporaneous newspaper articles and documents to build a fine grained portrait of leaders and events It s an attempt at objectivity, to be sure, but Baker isn t really interested in being objective because no one ever can be Instead he s a pacifist who s interested in showing how nearly every leader involved was itching for war war and wider war and just killing on a scale unknown beforehand It s a compelling way to write an anti war history, and an eye opening one, where Churchill is a bumbling drunken psychopath than a hero and all leaders are united in their antipathy to the anti war movement Written in short passages largely devoid of commentary, it s quite provocative, occasionally infuriating fury at those involved in the war, not Baker , and at times virtually unput downable.


  2. says:

    Human Smoke is many things, I think.Nicholson Baker himself intended it as a memorial to Charles 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, and to some extent he intended it as an argument for peace likely peace as pacifism It is a chronicle of the worst war criminals that we ve ever seen, specifically Hitler, Churchill and Roosevelt and their lackeys , with cameo appearances by some other nasty criminals like Stalin, Chiang Kai shek, and Tojo It shows how their actions and decisions continue to reverberate into today, and how the positive or negative mythologies that have sprung up around them don t even begin to tell the truth Moreover, we re still fighting the fights they started, and seem doomed to keep fighting them.As I write this the Blue Angels and Snowbirds, those dazzling, acrobatic show offs of American and Canadian aviation military might are streaking over my home to the delight of my militarized neighbours Their delight and my disgust Their delight and my shame.But back to Human Smoke It is an anecdotal history that uncovers the ugliness of us all There are contextual gaps, there are omissions, there is spin, but it is a powerful book and an important one I, in my dilettante historianism, knew most of what Baker was offering already, but he surprised even me at times, and I ve never seen the dirtiness of WWII presented in quite so powerful a way.As I closed the cover, though, I didn t end with a new dedication to pacifism as so many have before me If anything, Baker s moments spent with Gandhi merely underlined the failings of pacifism Gandhi s non violence would have been for nought if England wasn t busy bombing and being bombed by Germany England would have rolled over Gandhi and Nehrou and we d have forgotten all about them and their desire for independence I didn t heed the call to pacifism, nor was I filled with a new dedication to war as an answer either What it did leave me with was a desire to dedicate myself to imagining a new way Militarism doesn t work We know that Pacfism doesn t work, even though it makes those engaged in it feel better about themselves and superior to others But we seem incapable of finding another way What good are our minds if we can t imagine another way I am positive there must be another way I want to find it My gut tells me it has something to do with forgiveness For now I will go with my gut and see where it takes me Thanks for the kick in the ass, Nicholson Baker I hope you do the same for many, many others.


  3. says:

    A collection of vignettes some only a paragraph long, few longer than a page of episodes from the years leading up to the second World War, and then from the years of the war itself up through 1941 Baker mostly leaves his own voice out of it, except for a few paragraphs of afterword at the end.The book generated a lot of heat when it was released a few months ago because it challenges the idea that World War II was a good war, something that is today an article of faith for all decent civilized people.World War II is so revered these days, with all of the greatest generation fooferaw, politicians trying to get themselves compared to Churchill, and the like, that people have come to have a weird nostalgia for the period as if it were the high point of civilization, when in fact it was very much the opposite.The greatest generation gave us the greatest failure of civilization the world has ever seen, resulting in the deaths of millions, the development of the technology of genocide, the normalization of a military policy of barbarity towards civilians, and ending with a gargantuan communist terror state crushing much of Europe and Asia and, along with the United States, threatening the world with nuclear annihilation.The only thing that might have been worse would have been if the Axis powers had won Ay, there s the rub And that sentiment has been the quick and potent retort to anyone who questions the article of faith.Baker isn t satisfied with this 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 The defenders of the received version were quick to respond In the New York Times, a reviewer said Did the war help anyone who needed help Mr Baker asks in a plaintive afterword The prisoners of Belsen, Dachau and Buchenwald come to mind, as well as untold millions of Russians, Danes, Belgians, Czechs and Poles Nowhere and at no point does Mr Baker ever suggest, in any serious way, how their liberation might have been effected other than by force of arms.But in fact, with few exceptions, the prisoners of Belsen, Dachau, and Buchenwald were not liberated by the war they were murdered during the course of it And Baker does suggest, in many places in the book, how many opportunites to aid and rescue Jewish refugees and untold millions of suffering Europeans, were squandered indeed, actively discouraged or forbidden by the Allies in pursuit of their war aims or other policies.Much of the criticism of Baker s book is similarly knee jerk Some borders on paranoid ascribing to Baker opinions and assertions that he never explicitly makes, but finding them implicit in his constellation of vignettes Baker invites this sort of thing by muting his own voice and leaving the interpretation of his examples and his choices of what examples to include to the reader I think Baker probably deliberately chose to suggest controversial things in this way that he felt afraid to or unable to defend explicitly, which is too bad, but his critics see this as a license to invent straw man arguments to attack, which is also too bad Someone called the book a 500 page Rorschach Test, which hits the nail on the head.The callousness to the plight of Jewish refugees is one of the themes of the selections Baker chose Other themes that receive prominent play include the evolution of the policy of attacks on the civilian population, particularly by the Allies largely aerial bombardments, but also chemical biological warfare and starvation blockades that these attacks on the civilian population, sold as a method for demoralizing and weakening the enemy, most frequently did just the opposite, and served mainly to slake a thirst for bloody revenge on the part of the attackers the efforts of various pacifist groups to encourage negotiation, inoculate against war fever, and assist refugees and other war victims the evolution of the final solution as the war escalated, with the implication I think that the Nazis became savage toward their victims the they themselves felt the savagery of the war the surprising to me extent to which the United States was engaging in war against the Axis powers prior to the Pearl Harbor attack and the formal declaration of warThe book is a powerful, captivating, relentless read It has flaws Baker s aforementioned editorial stand offishness an unseemly amount of na vet , particularly when it comes to being shocked and surprised or worse, credulous at politicians hypocritical platitudes or at the commonplace racism of the period and a largely United States centric view of the war Still, it s an eye opener, and a good remedy for anyone who s had a poisonous dose of History Channel.


  4. says:

    A striking anti war book Baker takes the reader through the years leading up to WWII using quotes, speeches, diaries and letters There is much history here we would like to think humans incapable of inflicting on one another and so we want to avert our eyes Yet it is a compelling read horrific in its cold facts and nightmarish history with some shining lights of hope offered by those courageous souls willing to stand against war.


  5. says:

    One of my favorite German words is mitdenken It s one of those beguilingly simple words that s so hard to translate into English can t speak for other languages It literally means to think with or along , which implies that one has to know something about what is being talked about a joke, history, culture in order to really understand the meaning behind what is said or written You have to be able to fill in the blanks of what is implied in order to get it I wrote about this before as it applied to humor In the case of Human Smoke, you need to know something about pre World War II history or, at a minimum, something about the war itself.The book is unlike anything else I ve read It s a chronological collection of snippets from periodicals, memoirs and diaries, and other contemporaneous sources from 1914 through December 31, 1941 Nicholson Baker adds very little analysis, polemicizing, or commentary other than sentences to round out the source materials and serve as a loose rhetorical glue to tie each passage together Some are a sentence or two, few are longer than a page He gives prominence to some obscure, mostly forgotten historical figures and events, especially related to pacifism The result is a mesmerizing, compelling narrative indeed, if you are drawn in, it is hard to put down And since every reference comes from a concurrent source, it is implied mitdenken that people of the time knew about these events This book is meant to counter a certain revisionism and amnesia that has set in around history that seems so familiar to us.We learn some inconvenient truths We learn that Winston Churchill was an anti Semite that he was a marginalized figure because of his early century political and policy failures that he his feelings about colonial subjects of the British empire were by and large paternally racist that he saw military intervention as a policy of first resort, not last that he acted and saw the world according to what he wanted to believe, not based not he pragmatic reality he was faced with and, as his non response in warning the people of Coventry about a bombing he knew was coming, viewed people as chess pieces in a grand game, not as flesh and blood individuals.Bombing was, to Churchill a form of pedagogy a way of enlightening city dwellers as to the hellishness of remote battlefields by killing them.He was not alone in many of these ideas Neville Chamberlain and Franklin Roosevelt were also anti Semites who shared many of Churchill s views We also learn that Roosevelt indeed engaged in many actions that sped up war in Asia and Europe We learn that pacifists like Clarence Pickett to whom Baker dedicates Human Smoke the head of the American Friends Service Committee Quakers , congresswoman Jeanette Rankin the only member of Congress to oppose U.S entry into the war, and Muriel Lester a follower of Gandhi and a Christian relief worker were remarkably foresighted about the consequences of a world war We learn that British bombing of cities in Germany started long before the German bombing of Britain We also learn about unlawful acts of press censorship and intimidation that were practiced regularly by the Roosevelt administration.And while Baker has a point of view that evolves over the book mitdenken , he doesn t shy away from issues that are not clear cut He revisits selections from the diaries of Victor Klemperer He provides example after example how a global anti Semitism hindered attempts resettle Jews around the world, leaving most of them to die in the Holocaust To his credit, Baker does not pass judgment, he just lets facts speak for themselves We learn about common decency and bravery In Antwerp, Jews were compelled to wear Star of David armbands In solidarity, non Jews in the city wore armbands, too It was November 1940.And he also recounts stories of unimaginable brutality, such as the mother, when brought to Babi Yar, who threw her child in a pit of bodies, jumped on top of the child and laid still for hours after dead bodies covered them both, before both emerged to survive the war.In my opinion, Baker s efforts, in the end, did not sway me that pacifism was preferable to what actually happened during the course of the war He refers often to Gandhi, who was fighting against British colonialism and was interned with Nehru and others for part of the war who were jailed for public pacifism which was equated with being Nazi sympathizers As much as many of Churchill s action repelled me, I am not convinced, as Gandhi concluded, that Hitlerism and Churchillism are in fact the same thing or that t he difference is only one of degree Nor does Baker ever convince me that nonviolent opposition to Hitler which might have caused a much greater death toll than the war produced was a viable alternative But this account does raise the stature of pacifists in my mind, especially Pickett, whose organization was shared a Nobel Peace Prize in 1947 He was a consistent voice who fought famine and injustice, opposed war, and did his best to serve refugees regardless of where they came from Human Smoke is a fitting companion to Adam Hochschild s comparative history of British pacifists and the military in Word War I, To End All Wars A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914 1918 Much like that book, I feel I learned so much about a history I thought I understood well And much like that book, I am as confused about what I would have felt and done if I were living through those times Would I have had the intelligence, insight, and character to engage in constructive mitdenken


  6. says:

    An earth shattering book Baker takes everything you know about the run up to World War II and stands it all on its head I haven t had a book haunt me like this in a long time Everything I know is wrong.Roosevelt knew about the Japanese navy moving toward Pearl Harbor.Winston Churchill did all he could to antagonize Germany into a war of attrition through the air.Britain bombed German cities before the London Blitz started.Jews suffered due to the English blockade of Germany than anyone else.Roosevelt purposefully antagonized the Japanese, hoping for a blow so the U.S would willingly go to war.In 1940 and 1941 peace was possible and tens of millions of Europeans, Jews and gentiles alike, could have been saved.An unwillingness to kill does not constitute your support for your nation s chosen enemies.Britain put Germans, mostly Jewish refugees, into internment camps Hitler was a monster but Roosevelt and Churchill chose war over diplomacy and Churchill was having a grand ole time playing at war It sounds cliched to say that a book will change how you look at things Shouldn t any great book Could it be that the true heroes of World War II are those that worked to prevent it


  7. says:

    In a 1942 essay called Pacifism and the War, Orwell wrote a review of this new book 1 The Fascizing processes occurring in Britain as a result of war are systematically exaggerated 2 The actual record of Fascism, especially its pre war history, is ignored or pooh poohed as propaganda Discussion of what the world would actually be like if the Axis dominated it is evaded 3 Those who want to struggle against Fascism are accused of being wholehearted defenders of capitalist democracy The fact that the rich everywhere tend to be pro Fascist and the working class are nearly always anti Fascist is hushed up 4 It is tacitly pretended that the war is only between Britain and Germany Mention of Russia and China, and their fate if Fascism is permitted to win, is avoided You won t find one word about Russia or China in the three letters you sent to me Not all of these criticisms of wartime pacifists can be applied directly to Baker s book, but there is some pretty significant overlap This book is a captivating read, but it should not be treated as a serious work of history at all It s useful in reminding us that all parties in war, even the good guys, committ massive atrocities and in recovering the memories of some truly decent and admirable Quaker peace activists, but it belongs in the fiction section of your local library.


  8. says:

    This book consists of numerous and varied bits of trivial and unconnected stories from the time prior to and into the beginning of World War II The stories appear in the book in strict chronological order The author provides no discussion of context or connecting commentary The stories speak for themselves The book starts with August 1892, jumps to 1914, and then proceeds slowly through the 1920s and 1930s The book ends on December 31, 1941.A reader needs to have enough knowledge of history to provide their own context to understand how the stories in this book are related Consequently, I can see how it might be possible for readers influenced by various world views could arrive at differing conclusions The only overt commentary from the author regarding the meaning of the whole is in the title, the subtitle and the Afterword of the book In the Afterword the author praises the efforts of the pacifists who failed but they were right The stories are interesting However, getting through a long book filled with them can be a bit of a drag I have selected a variety of stories from the book below to provide an idea of what the book is like The comments prior to each quotation are my own Here s something that Churchill in later years probably wished he hadn t said Winston Churchill visited Rome I could not help being charmed by Signor Mussolini s gentle and simple bearing, and by his calm, detached poise in spite of so many burdens and danger, Churchill said in a press statement Italian fascism, he said, had demonstrated that there was a way to combat subversive forces it had provided the necessary antidote to the russian virus If I had been an Italian I am sure 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 told the Romans It was January 20, 1927 The following is an example of some grim humor Milton Mayer, a writer who worked for the president of the University of Chicago, heard a story A Jew is riding a streetcar, reading the Volkischer Beobachter the main Nazi paper A non Jew sits down next to him and says, Why are you reading the Beobachter The Jew says Look, I work in a factory all day, my wife nags me, my kids are sick, and there s no money for food what should I do on my way home, read the Jewish newspaper Pogrom in Romania Jews Murdered in Poland New Laws against Jews No, sir, a half hour a day, on the streetcar, I read the Beobachter Jews the World Capitalists Jews Control Russia Jews Rule in England That s me they re talking about A half hour a day I m somebody approx January 1938 Here s a report with a name to remember Lord Cherwell s personal secretary looked at 650 reconnaissance photographs of places the Royal Air Force had bombed earlier that summer The secretary s conclusions were that, on average, one in five airplanes that took off from England to bomb Germany or the coast of France successfully placed its bombs somewhere within seventy five square miles of its assigned target when there was no moon or heavy flack, the miss rate was even higher.The secretary s name was David Benusson Butt, and this report, dated August 18, 1941, achieved fame as the Butt Report Here s an example of how justice and due process are the first victims in war Muriel Lester, author of Speed the Food Ships, became on of England s political detenus It was August 19, 1941.Lester was on a boat in Trinidad, on her way to the Far East, where she planned to visit Gandhi A British official said to her, I am afraid I shall have to ask you to come ashore Are you arresting me said Lester Oh,no said the official Then, supposing I say I won t come, said Lester What happens I m afraid er we would have to find means to induce you to do so Lester s passport was revoked, and she was held in a barbedwire prison camp for a month and a half, without charges Later, she was transferred to Holloway jail in London and then, after friends made calls to the Home Office, freed I found this quote of interest since it seemed to indicate that some gentile Germans had humane feelings toward the Jews The Stuttgart Courier published an article attacking cases of unsuitable compassion for Jews These cases were not unusual, the newspaper said For instance, women from the Jewish old people s home wearing the star would get on a tram car and passengers would stand to give them their seats Once, according to the newspaper, a German said to a Jew, It really requires courage to wear the star than to go to war It was October 4, 1941.Jeanette Ranken s vote against entering WWII after Pearl Harbor December 8, 1941 When she heard here name in the roll call she stood As a woman I can t go to war, she said, And I refuse to send anyone else Hers was the only no vote, and it was hissed and booed In the cloak room some Army officers shouted abuse at her You ve been drinking, Ranken said, and she took refuge in a phone booth Later she told a colleague that the representatives had pressured her to make the vote unanimous And yet it was that insistence on uniformity, that intolerance of descent, that was just what was wrong with the other side in the war No, Ranken thought, I m going to vote one vote for democracy I have not included the description referred to in the following story, but trust me, it s absurd Life Magazine published an article on how to tell a Japanese person from a Chinese person It was December 22, 1941 The following review is from PageADay s Book Lover s Calendar for 2010 This is how I learned about the book THE GOOD WAR Nicholson Baker has a point to make, but Human Smoke is not a straightforward polemic that argues his case Rather it is a book of vignettes that show the state of the world leading up to World War II The raw material comes from newspapers, radio programs, speeches, diaries, and similar cultural flotsam They are all very artfully put together and presented to us, so that by the end we see the entire tragic picture of a world gone wrong and Mr Baker s argument is driven unfailingly home.HUMAN SMOKE THE BEGINNINGS OF WORLD WAR II, THE END OF CIVILIZATION, by Nicholson Baker Simon Schuster, 2008


  9. says:

    The brilliance of this book lies in its restraint Baker is not an academic historian, nor is he writing a work of conventional history Thus, he has the good sense to make his historical argument inasmuch as this book has an argument that you can pin down in the text as obliquely as possible Baker does not, as some critics would have it, say that World War II was a Bad War Nor does he claim, as those same critics would have it, that Roosevelt and Churchill were morally no better than Hitler He does, however, isolate facts about Roosevelt and Churchill that are consistently thought provoking and occasionally embarrassing And he does give voice to many pacifists who tried in vain to stop the war from coming and tried to stop it sooner once it did come In fact, the goal of Baker s book is rather modest He wants simply to provoke readers into considering truisms about World War II in a new light In this, he has succeeded very well.


  10. says:

    Nicholson Baker, a novelist known for his descriptions of minutia, takes on the events that led up to the 1939 outbreak of hostilities in Europe and the United States subsequent entry in 1941 This non fiction discussion of the pre and early war years is based entirely on published materials mainly newspaper accounts In short, this is not a piece of original research it is not an academic history While the book is rich in detail, the details included are all aimed at one objective presenting a pacifist narrative of the war, in which France did the right thing by not fighting back against the Nazis, in which Churchill s leadership skills and war strategy are called into question, and the United States entry into the war is presented as a mistake Not surprisingly, this book has angered many WWII armchair historians and History Channel watchers, as its pantheon of heroes does not include any Allied combatants Instead its heroes are those who resisted the war For example, he praises the efforts of pacifists such as Clarence Pickett and Rufus Jones, who traveled back and forth from the United States to Europe preaching peace Another figure that appears prominently in his account of the war is Gandhi, who also objected to US entry into war This focus is not without its problems, especially when the narrative turns to the fate of the Jews in Europe under Nazism Baker, relying solely on published contemporary sources, suggests that the Third Reich would have preferred to transport Jews to Madagascar as the final solution than sending over six million European Jews to their death In fact, although he does not shy away from including stories about atrocities inflicted on the Jews, he seems to suggest that American entry into the war forced the hand of the Nazis, so that the only option became mass murder This presentation is problematic for multiple reasons First and foremost, it seems to suggest that the forcible mass deportation of over 4 million Western European Jews from their homes is an acceptable outcome if it will prevent war Second, it fails to take into consideration that Hitler s persecution of Jews started prior to the outbreak of war or the fact that Hitler authorized the killing of the disabled in Germany within one month of his attack on Poland Given the involuntary euthanasia of mentally ill and disabled persons began before Nazi Germany experienced any significant outside resistance, there is no reason to believe that appeasement would have prevented an escalation in the systematic persecution of Jews, the disabled, political dissidents, gypsies, or any other group It is an issue that Baker s pacifist narrative never seriously addresses and consequently at times, his version of pacifism verges on cruel and inhuman.Still, there are elements of this book that are deserving of praise First, unlike many accounts written by nonprofessional historians, Baker s account offers a realistic portrayal of war in all its ugly detail It glorifies neither American motives for getting involved in the war nor this country s actual involvement What emerges is an accurate portrayal of the deep division in this country over if we should become involved in the European conflict and on which side There were in fact many famous Americans, such as the founder of Ford Motor Company and Charles Lindbergh, who supported Nazi Germany and its policy, including its eugenics policy What popular histories of WWII typically fail to mention is that many US states in the 1930s had laws that mirrored German eugenics laws on forced sterilization of the so called feeble minded Thus, in its unflinching portrayal of the ugly side of war, it does succeed in raising many of the what if questions that deserve thoughtful consideration, but which in our contemporary glorification of the greatest generation often get buried.


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