Nicholson Baker. Human Smoke

Nicholson Baker. 567pp. Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008.

To put it mildly, in Human Smoke, Nicholson Baker has produced an amazing book. It was one of the most absorbing 400+ page books I have ever read.

The book is made up of hundreds, probably close to 1,000, short vignettes that trace the events leading up to World War II and its prosecution until the end of 1941 (which, for the U.S., marked our country’s entry into the War).

These vignettes are mostly simple, descriptive statements; only rarely is Baker’s voice apparent. An example of an editorial comment, though, may be found on page 452: A December 10, 1941, Gallup poll had shown that two-thirds of the American population would support the U.S. firebombing Japanese cities in retaliation for Pearl Harbor. “Ten percent—representing twelve million citizens—were wholly opposed. Twelve million people still held to Franklin Roosevelt’s basic principle of civilization: that no man should be punished for the deeds of another. Franklin D. Roosevelt was not one of them.”

As should be obvious (and reviewers have all taken pains to note), the reader should not mistake the objective tone of Baker’s reportage for a merely descriptive intent on his part. Baker clearly has an agenda—though precisely what that agenda is remains for us to discern from the book’s contents. It has no introduction or commentary beyond a very brief “Afterword.” However, by what he includes and excludes, Baker tells a story filtered through his own lenses and reflecting his own concerns.

The final paragraph of the afterword is telling: “I dedicate this book to the memory of Clarence 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.” (474)

These two quotes I have cited do, I think, give us a sense of what Baker is up to. Though he is far from a Nazi apologist (some of his vignettes about Nazi actions evoke visceral outrage), Baker makes clear that opposition to Nazism in itself did not settle the question of what the best response to their actions would be.

The response of British and American leaders horrify Baker. He makes it clear that neither country did even close to what could have been done to save Jewish and other refugees nor to provide aid to starving children and others in Europe (he has a number of telling quotes from former President Herbert Hoover who was deeply frustrated in his efforts to take aid to needy people in Europe). That is, to allude to Baker’s subtitle, he presents this war as anything but a war to save civilization and support humane values.

As a pacifist myself, I exulted as I read this book. I did this not because Baker provides anything close to a set of clear answers to the big questions pacifists face in response to World War II—he does nothing of the kind. However, he uncovers a voice, a perspective, a record of action that is completely ignored in most discussions of World War II.

Baker makes a strong case for acknowledging two crucial points. (1) There were pacifists, such as Quaker leaders Clarence Pickett and Rufus Jones, who faced head on the unspeakable evils and sought to bring healing to the brokenness. Theirs was far from an ethic of withdrawal, passivity, or parasitism. (2) And, the responses of the leaders of the “Free World” only compounded the evils set loose by the Nazis and Japanese militarists.

This is what I especially drew from the book: When faced with extraordinary crimes against humanity, the defenders of Western civilization with little resistance succumbed to the same criminal spirit. We learn just how bloodthirsty Winston Churchill and other British war leaders were—insisting on horrific violence against German civilians in face of clear evidence that such violence was ineffective, even counter-productive. Churchill had the asinine belief that if the British starved and traumatized the German people enough, they would rebel. Of course, the opposite happened—the Allied actions only strengthened the Nazis hold on the people’s loyalty (which, of course is precisely what happened in Britain in face of German air strikes). This reality is clear already by the end of 1941—Baker’s book stops long before Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki.

By taking Pickett and similar pacifists seriously, Baker shows that there were alternative approaches. This is not to say that he is even hinting that “Hitler could have been stopped” by the pacifists (he makes this clear with a number of somewhat jarring quotes from Gandhi that convey a pretty strong sense of naiveté). I think his point (or at least my point) would be rather that simply responding to evil with evil not only is profoundly immoral and destructive of the core values that the Nazis’ opponents sought to defend, it also does not work very well. Surely a more humane and moral approach by the Allies to resisting the Nazis would have saved untold lives on all sides and greatly heightened possibilities of internal resistance to Nazi governance.

The enormous challenge humanity faces if it is to have a future is how we might, to quote Walter Wink, “oppose evil without becoming evil ourselves” (the opening words to his wonderful book Engaging the Powers).

The issue that arises from the book for me is its challenge to the easy (and extraordinarily corrupting) assumptions that World War II in some sense was a “good war” that in some sense successfully defended the core values of western humanism. In fact, it seems clear that the true winner of the War was the spirit of violence. A good book for confirming this point for the United States is James Carroll’s House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power

I have found it quite instructive to read a few responses to Baker’s book from supposedly politically progressive reviewers. The one I will focus on is a column by The Nation’s Katha Pollitt [April 21, 2008]. Pollitt states that she finished the book feeling, for the first time in her life, “fury at pacifists.” As a pacifist, when I read this comment at the beginning of the column, I naturally perked up, looking for reasons for this fury. Strangely, though, she never really explains why she is mad at pacifists—except, I guess because she thinks they are naïve. But “fury”?

Pollitt’s only reference to actual pacifists is to quote “the good kind Rufus Jones” (Clarence Pickett’s close colleague) when he sought to convince some Nazi leaders to allow the Quakers to aid needy people in Germany: “We noted a softening effect on their faces” (108-09)

She gives a very misleading impression with this quote, however. First, the “softening effect” on the Gestapo agents’ faces followed Jones’ recital of the work Quakers had done during and following World War I in Germany, feeding more than one million children a day at the program’s peak. That is, they were not simply making naïve appeals to the goodness of the hearts of the Nazis (Jones himself characterized these agents as “hard-faced, iron-natured men”), but seeking to remind the Germans of the work the Quakers had already done. More importantly, the appeal in this case actually was successful. After deliberating, the Gestapo agent gave this response: “I shall telegraph tonight to every police station in Germany that the Quakers are given full permission to investigate the sufferings of Jews and to bring such relief as they see necessary.”

Now, this was November 1938, many months yet before the war in Europe began. Jones concluded from this encounter, “It is the settled purpose of the German government to drive out Jews….Until a plan of rapid emigration…is established, the authorities consider the problem unsolved, and further outrages are likely to occur, bringing greater suffering and injustice.”

Pollitt concludes, Jones “didn’t grasp what he was up against. Say what you will about Churchill and Roosevelt, at least they got that right.” This seems to me to be extraordinary unfair—and inaccurate. It depends on what one especially cares about, I guess. Jones seems clearly to have known what he was up against, which is why he and his colleagues sought to move heaven and earth to help the threatened people in Nazi-dominated territories to escape. Roosevelt refused to support even extraordinarily small-scale efforts to provide refuge for Jews in the U.S (59, 101, 103, 125). And six million were killed. If the goal was to save lives, Jones seemed much more prescient and realistic than Churchill or Roosevelt.

These seem to be Pollitt’s assumptions: War can be good. Violence can be necessary. Violence can be redemptive. World War II proves this. It was the only way Hitler could be stopped. Pacifism is utterly irrelevant. She surely shares these assumptions with a large majority of liberals and progressives in this country—not to mention, of course, those further to the right.

The power of Nicholson Baker’s book is that it puts the possibility that these assumptions might be mistaken on the table. Maybe that is why Pollitt is furious. For myself, I am very grateful for Baker’s challenge.

P.S.  While most of the reviews I have read of Human Smoke have been pretty negative, here is a positive one from the L.A. Times.


Peace Theology Book Review Index

8 thoughts on “Nicholson Baker. Human Smoke

  1. Lamar Freed

    The reminder that neither Roosevelt or Churchhill did anything of substance to help the Jews in Germany simply reminds me of my long standing observation that anti-semitism was a world wide phenomenon before during and after the war, and that the western powers only appear to be friends of the Jews to the degree that their enemies were even less friendly. The reduction of anti-semitism in the West (notice I don’t say eradication) has come about because of the terrible ‘logical conclusion’ of racism that Hitler demonstrated.

    It is also interesting to note that the American’s of the 40’s were just as likely to support a violent response to attack as the Americans of the new century. A pacifists work is never done.


  2. Earl Martin

    I really haven’t read all that much about World War II, but the tenor of your review of Baker’s book rings true with what I’ve seen of the U.S. government’s public rationale for the war in Vietnam and what I witnessed during five years of living in Vietnam through the war.

    I am now especially curious about the Oxford Student UNion debates of 1933. I remember how disappointed I was in hearing Scott Simon (NPR Weekend Edition) arguing in October 2001 that “Even Pacifists Must Support This War.”

    Simon, who says he was converted to Quakerism as a teenager, wrote about the Oxford Students, to wit:

    “In 1933 the Oxford Student Union conducted a famous debate over whether it
    was moral for Britons to fight for king and country. The exquisite
    intellects of that leading university reviewed the many ways in which
    British colonialism exploited and oppressed the world. They cited the ways
    in which vengeful demands made of Germany in the wake of World War I had
    helped to kindle nationalism and fascism. They saw no moral difference
    between Western colonialism and world fascism. The Oxford Union ended that
    debate with this famous proclamation: “Resolved, that we will in no
    circumstances fight for king and country.”

    Von Ribbentrop sent back the good news to Germany’s new chancellor, Hitler:
    The West will not fight for its own survival. Its finest minds will justify
    a silent surrender.

    In short, the best educated young people of their time could not tell the
    difference between the deficiencies of their own nation, in which liberty
    and democracy were cornerstones, and a dictatorship founded on racism,
    tyranny and fear.”

    Is anyone more familiar with those debates than I?

    I find this discussion so important, Ted, because as we all know, WWII is always thrown up to pacifists as being the “good war.”

    Baker’s book sounds like an important work.


  3. Ted Grimsrud Post author

    Thanks for the Scott Simon quote, Earl. I remember when he made these comments–that was about the time I quit listening to NPR. Baker’s book does not tell us much about that Oxford debate directly, but it does definitely complexify Simon’s use of it.

    One of Baker’s great accomplishments, I think, is to show both that the Allies actions were morally highly problematic (and at least to some extent, many of the immoral actions were unnecessary and counterproductive) and that there were other alternatives to responding to the Nazis besides capitulation and mimicking Nazi violence.

    Baker presents the Quaker leaders Clarence Pickett and Rufus Jones as genuine heroes.

  4. John Stephens

    Thank you for sharing this. I’ve read accounts of the Jones/Pcikett meeting with the Gestapo before, and this review provokes me to revisit that book, which treats some of the same problems, if I can recall the title.

    One thing I remember is that when the Gestapo agent left the office to consider the matter, the Quaker delegation decided to settle into silent worship rather than discuss their anxieties. When the Gestapo agent returned, he told them that the office was bugged– their choice to worship saved them from further inquisition and suspicions of conspiracy.

  5. Ted Grimsrud Post author

    John, the book Baker cites in relation to the story of Pickett, et al, meeting with the Gestapo is Clarence Pickett’s autobiography, For More than Bread.

  6. Vic Thiessen

    Many thanks for your review, Ted. Not having read the book (though I now intend to), I would still agree with your comments.

    Here in England, I have had the opportunity to give a number of lectures, sermons and presentations on Christian pacifist responses to war. Inevitably someone asks “What about Hitler?” I respond by pointing out the long-term results of the Allied victory in terms of global politics since 1945 (see Jack Nelson Pallmeyer’s “Saving Christianity From Empire”)as well as successes and failures of nonviolent responses during WWII and all the failures prior to WWII (of the church, etc.). Baker’s book adds another piece which I hope to use (and have so far neglected) but I think it is time that someone (a Mennonite?) wrote a book providing a comprehensive response to the “What About Hitler” question. Robert Brimlow wrote a good book with that title a couple of years ago, but it did not provide the kind of comprehensive response I was looking for.

  7. Daniel Hertzler

    Katha Pollit is a reminder that liberalism is a better political strategy than others, but we cannot depend on it. Even Chris Hedges in War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning could not bring himself to completely renounce it. In the meantime the viciousness of war has been documented over and over as in Farley Mowat’s And No Bird Sang )Little Brown, 1979). There is a poignant anecdote at the end of a program on WWII CPS men sdone by PBS some years ago. One of them remarks that the fluttering of a butterfly is reported to make a difference and so he anticipates that their resistance to war will in the long run make a ndifference.

  8. Gene Stoltzfus

    Well done, Thank you for surfacing this book of stories. They hold up the light in a very dark time. Wherever I speak except in well behaved pacisfist circles I am asked about Hitler. The real answer is complex and has to do with the flow of civilization and our confidence in violence to make things come out right. Violence has been at the core of the ideology of state and culture for 1000s of years. Climbing out of this trap before there is no one left to climb requires the firm and tender hand of as many colleagues as we can find along the way.


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