The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization
By Nicholson Baker
566 pages. Simon & Schuster. $30.
In 1939 the editor of a Zionist newspaper in New York sent a letter to Mahatma Gandhi pointing out that in Nazi Germany “a Jewish Gandhi would last about five minutes before he was executed.” Gandhi stuck fast to his nonviolent principles. “I can conceive the necessity of the immolation of hundreds, if not thousands, to appease the hunger of dictators,” he replied.
Presented as a chronology, with events large and small retold in snippets as brief as a sentence or two, the book begins in 1892, with Alfred Nobel making the prediction that his explosives might very well put an end to all war. It ends in December 1941, shortly after the entry of the United States into the war. In between Mr. Baker arranges his brief dispatches to develop, in contrapuntal fashion, several grand themes: British and American racism and blood lust, Jewish suffering under the Nazi regime, and the brave but futile protests of pacifists and other antiwar activists.
Events and incidents are presented out of context, with no authorial commentary and separated by lots of white space. Often an entry ends with a date, flatly and portentously intoned. “Mary Taylor, a woman from Liverpool, walked to London, holding a banner,” Mr. Baker writes in a characteristic entry. “The banner said: ‘For the sake of children everywhere, I appeal to men to stop this war.’ It was September 1939.”
Muddled and often infuriating, “Human Smoke” sounds its single, solemn note incessantly, like a mallet striking a kettle drum over and over. War is bad. Churchill was bad. Roosevelt was bad. Hitler was bad too, but maybe, in the end, no worse than Roosevelt and Churchill. Jeannette Rankin, a Republican congresswoman from Montana, was good, because she cast the lone vote opposing a declaration of war against Japan. It was Dec. 8, 1941.
Mr. Baker’s title, a grim reference to the crematoriums at Auschwitz, effectively demolishes the edifice he tries to construct. 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.
Almost unbelievably, he includes multiple instances in which Churchill and Roosevelt rejected the idea of negotiating with Hitler. Although he offers no commentary on the matter, the reader is forced to draw the conclusion that negotiation was a sensible idea cavalierly tossed aside by leaders who preferred war to peace.
On Nov. 10, 1941, Churchill delivered a ringing speech declaring that Britain would never negotiate with Hitler or with “any party in Germany which represents the Nazi regime.” Mr. Baker, in a rare departure from his affectless delivery, writes, “There would, in other words, be no negotiation with anybody in Germany who was actually in a position to order an end to the fighting.”
Mr. Baker recounts a meeting in Berlin in late 1938 between a delegation of American Quakers and two Gestapo officers. The Quakers read a statement of support for suffering Jews. “We noted a softening effect on their faces,” one of the Quakers later said. Workers at the American Friends Center in Berlin reported that for a short time, after the meeting, they had an easier time making legal and financial arrangements to get Jews out of the country.
Missions of mercy, Mr. Baker implies, might have worked better than threats and bombs. At the same time he dutifully records Hitler’s remark to a Croatian leader that Europe must be purged of every last Jew. Even one surviving Jewish family would constitute “a source of bacilli touching off new infection.”
Writers are free to take on any subject they please. But Mr. Baker’s decision to tackle World War II seems curious. By talent and temperament, on brilliant display in novels like “The Mezzanine” and “Vox,” he is an obsessive miniaturist, a painter wielding a brush with a single hair. In turning to nonfiction, it was completely in character for him to delve into the intricacies of library card catalogs and newspaper archives, the subject of “Double Fold.” War and peace are something else entirely.
He attacks it in little bits and pieces, an approach that allows him a few Bakeresque touches. He notes that a roundup of Italians in Britain netted, on one occasion, “the manager of the Piccadilly Hotel, the head chef of the Cafe Royal and two clowns in the Bertram Mills circus.”
Elsewhere, mordant humor fails him. The sneering identification of an Allied bomber pilot as “a former Australian sheep farmer” seems pointless. Is it absurd, or more reprehensible, if a sheep farmer rather than a dentist or a welder drops the bombs? Outrage sends Mr. Baker racing off in all directions simultaneously. The right emotional tone eludes him.
World War II was a deeply unfortunate conflict in which many lives were lost. Mr. Baker is right about that, but not about much else in this self-important, hand-wringing, moral mess of a book. In dedicating it to the memory of American and British pacifists, Mr. Baker writes, “They failed, but they were right.” Millions of ghosts say otherwise.