Human Smoke

An account of the build-up to World War 2, told through a series of brief vignettes and anecdotes (mostly taken from contemporary news reports, diaries and letters, and from later memoirs and biographies). Novelist Nicholson Baker says he wrote this in an attempt to answer for himself such questions as 'Why did it happen? Did it need to? Was it a good war? Did it help anyone who needed help?'

Human Smoke has been getting terrible reviews from historians, but IMHO, that misses the point. Human Smoke is not really a work of historiography; it's simply Baker's latest book: a kind of non-fiction novel or long epic prose poem, exploring a historical theme with an eye to resonant images and moments. One reviewer criticised the book for failing to present a coherent argument. But surely that was deliberate? As Baker said in an interview with the NY Times: "Sometimes I think historians are a little like sauté chefs: they cook everything up and soften the edges." In contrast, for Baker, "the satisfaction is winding up with something a little messier and less pat than what you thought.”

Baker rediscovers many fascinating, largely forgotten stories (especially those of the Quakers and other peace activists whose courageous efforts to help Jews escape Nazi persecution during the 1930s were often undermined by American and British official disinterest or outright hostility), while also managing to build a palpable sense of dread as the horror of the war and the Holocaust looms ever closer. The book ends on December 31st, 1941, when, as Baker points out, most of those who would die in the war were still alive – leaving the reader abandoned on the brink of a dark and terrible catastrophe, haunted by what we already know will happen next.

By that date, of course, it was too late: the catastrophe was already upon us. But what makes Human Smoke so valuable is that it gives us a chance to experience the build-up to the war as something other than a fait accompli. In Humanity: a Moral History of the Twentieth Century, Jonathan Glover describes war as a trap into which nations and governments often stumble, step by lurching step. By comparing Europe's slide into the First World War with the narrow escape of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Glover seeks to draw lessons on how the trap of war closes about us – and how we can sometimes step free. It's significant, I think, that Glover does not use the Second World War as an example here, in keeping with the received wisdom that it was essentially an unavoidable – or even 'necessary' – war. As Baker noted (again, to the NY Times):

I’ve always had pacifist leanings, and so one of the things I wanted to learn was how do you react to the Second World War if you’re a pacifist. That war is always held up as the great counterexample, the one that was justified. And I got hungrier and hungrier to answer the question: Did the Allies’ response to Hitler really help anyone who needed help? One of the things I discovered, for example, was that the most impressive opponents of the war were also the people most actively arguing that we had to help the refugees. There was a complete overlap.

The importance of Human Smoke is precisely that, by poking around in unfamiliar fringes of the all-too-familiar story of WW2, Baker has uncovered signs of the very same trap Glover describes . And he has the courage to wonder whether, maybe, we could have stepped aside…?

This is not a simple book; it's neither history nor polemic. Instead, it is an attempt to make our picture of WW2 "a little messier and less pat." It challenges us to replace simplistic myths and easy answers with something altogether more complex, powerful and profound. Baker again:

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.

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