Novelist Nicholson Baker has written an important and provocative book, Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, The End of Civilization.
The author is a meticulous craftsman. Rather than offer a conventional history with an explicit point of view he wishes to advance, Baker presents the situation almost as a reader of newspapers at the time might experience it. The quotidian approach makes the reader feel very much present. It gently lifts away numerous subsequent, customary interpretations, enabling readers to consider various, apparently long-settled questions anew. It is constructed much like a script for a documentary; without the distraction of film, its underlying design and material is more transparent.
His perspective is highly admiring of Quakers and other pacifists, though the book holds interest for anyone seeking to understand the period. This reader found the book gripping, while not finding Baker’s implied equivalence of the various nations’ quandaries (or at least those of their leaders) consistently convincing.
Where one might well challenge Baker is his depiction of Winston Churchill. Any biographical rendering is defined by the necessity of choice of emphasis. Such choices unavoidably reflect a writer’s views, even in the most “objective” presentation. Churchill, with his titanic influence, requires much more evidence and argument than Baker provides to be convincingly brought down to earth as little more than another flawed national leader of the period.
Baker stacks the deck by presenting relatively little about the opportunities—missed by most leaders other than Churchill—to strangle Nazism in its cradle in the early and mid-1930s. Churchill may at times have exhibited an unsettling enthusiasm for war. Yet it’s also beyond doubt that his approach to using violence, if necessary, against Hitler’s early adventurism, could well have prevented the deadliest, most tragic conflict in human history. Surely on a matter as consequential as war and peace, measurable results should weigh more heavily in the balance than speculation about motivation.
A useful counterpoint—or one should say, supplement—is Geoffrey Best’s one-volume, Churchill: A Study in Greatness. For a focused study of Churchill’s philosophy and statesmanship on war, see Best’s Churchill and War.
Nicholson Baker | Human Smoke