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     Volume 7 Issue 15 | April 11, 2008 |


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Book Review

Human Smoke

Neil Steinberg

Americans periodically shake their heads over how Japan skews the history of World War II, how Japanese textbooks ignore the atrocities that nation committed. Yet we seldom look in the mirror and wonder how our own perceptions of the war might be distorted. Instead, we generally prefer to entertain ourselves with tales of heroism starring the brave Allies against the evil Germans, the cruel Japanese and the comic Italians.

Seeking to correct this, Nicholson Baker has written an unusual and unsettling history of the road to the Second World War and its first two years. Human Smoke turns our expectations inside out -- Winston Churchill is the true villain, a "killer of men," bent on bombing and starving Europe into submission. Adolf Hitler, meanwhile, if not quite a hero, is compassionate in comparison, rejoicing that Paris was spared, struggling to find someplace willing to accept his surplus Jews.

The Holocaust, in Baker's hands, is less a monstrous crime perpetrated solely by the Nazis than a pas de deux between them and the West, with each step the Germans take toward mass murder paired with a retreat on our part.

Baker makes his argument through a steady, chronological procession of short factual vignettes, using newspaper accounts, diary entries and letters:

"Vera Brittain sent out a peace newsletter describing Hitler's bursts of fanatical rage. Psychiatrists had some experience with his variety of mental illness, Brittain observed. 'Of the many methods of dealing with it which have been evolved,' she said, 'reciprocal violence is usually regarded as the least successful.' It was November 23, 1939."

Pacifists play a major role in the book. Mahatma Gandhi provides a running commentary, stating Baker's central theme that "Hitlerism and Churchillism are in fact the same thing. The difference is only one of degree."

Coming from a lesser writer, this argument could be dismissed as the sort of silly, everything-bad-is-our-fault self-loathing common among the left wing. But Baker is one of the most skilled writers at work today, following his lapidary debut novel, The Mezzanine, with 10 intriguing books displaying talent and daring, from the delightfully dirty adventure in stopping time, The Fermata to Double Fold, a solemn cri de coeur to save the bound beauty of the world's collected newspaper heritage from destruction at the hands of myopic, microfilm-addicted librarians.

His biggest misstep was "Checkpoint," a brief reflection on the desirability of murdering George W. Bush that struck some critics as ideological, perhaps even unhinged.

That same charge could be leveled against Human Smoke. While he uses its factual form to press the case that the barbarity we all too easily ascribe to the Germans was invented by the British in India, he seems naive and partisan in places, automatically dismissing the possibility of higher British motives while credulously parroting German propaganda as if it represents historical truth.

The book is also repetitive. We see too many draft resisters go to jail. World War II was many things, but a testament to the importance of pacifism it was not. The savvy reader quickly grasps that Churchill is evil itself -- he has no redeeming qualities, apparently -- and yet Baker keeps laying on the lash. We get it.

The book's biggest flaw is to draw moral equivalency between the Nazis and the West. Refusing to admit refugee children into your country is heartless, maybe even vile. But it is on a different scale of sin altogether than conceiving and creating the machinery to murder them. No matter how ineffectual or cruel Churchill's bombing campaign was, he was still reacting to Hitler's conquest of Europe.

Baker takes the standard lesson of World War II -- that the West failed at Munich by backing down and allowing Hitler to unleash destruction -- and inverts it. Forget about confronting Hitler sooner, we shouldn't have fought him at all. Or the Japanese for that matter. The pacifists were right, Baker claims, suggesting -- somewhat idiotically -- that Europe's Jews might have all ended up safe and happy on Madagascar had the Allies not made things tough for the Nazis. We made him do it.

Yes, handing the world over to Hitler with a Gandhian blessing would have spared us from the depravity of bombing innocents. But what then would our world look like? Baker never pauses to wonder.

Still, as much as I found myself disagreeing with Human Smoke, even despising it in parts, I'm glad I stuck with this odd moral shell game of a book. Parts of it read like history as it would have been written by the Nazis had they won the war. But it also takes a nightmare that we are too familiar with, all too comfortable with, and retells it afresh, poking and prodding us, challenging our self-assigned sense of goodness, and ultimately keening at the charnel house that Europe became for six horrible years in the middle of the 20th century.

This review first appeared in The Chicago Sun-Times.


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