Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Nicholson Baker's "Human Smoke": Book Review

Without a preface, as if a dramatically told and chronologically arranged series of note cards, he spends nearly 500 pages laying out historical cards, from WWI to the end of 1941. They reveal a hard-hearted Hitler and many Nazi minions, naturally. Baker hears Kristallnacht applied "because the word 'crystal' simultaneously distracted from, and raised a toast to, the ferociousness of the rioting," as well as echoing Edward Bernays' Crystallizing Public Opinion, a favorite book for Goebbels' propaganda model. They also attest to a childish, conniving Churchill (no surprise to any who knowing the fate of the Irish sent over to deal with Winston as part of the British diplomatic team outwitting the republican raw recruits given the task of hashing out the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921-22) and a firm FDR opposed to doing much to allow many Jewish refugees in or out.

Rabbi Stephen Wise is quoted as preferring that Jews meet their fate in Germany rather than be resettled in Tanganyika, so tainted is that former German colony; pacifist Gandhi opposes Zionism as counter-productive to Arab interests and as sustaining poorly implemented British colonial aims; American Quakers travel in vain to Goebbels to try to talk him out of intransigence; Huxley insists: "An evil act always produces further evil acts." (61) In the context of mass aerial bombardments carried out in Yemen by Britain and Italy in Ethiopia, his Peace Pledge Union rejects "collective security" to threaten dictators with violence. He opposes war totally. Yet, presciently, Huxley confronts the logical difficulty of dealing rationally with a mad dictator, or one so Machiavellian that total war looks a better gamble than submission to foreign governments. Milton Mayer muses that Hitler menaces America in 1939 "not because he won the last war, but because he lost it." (150)

While one may argue Baker arranges his notes to advance only his side of the argument, he does take pains to include outrages from both sides. This itself, for those of us used to a tilt given our own national involvement, can be unsettling and may not convince those who may rightly claim the Axis and fascism is far more culpable. But, I read this presentation as determined to address the Allied rush to war and its refusal to negotiate, unpalatable or uneven as this direction may be for today's audiences. Baker advances the cause of retribution as the fault of all involved, who get caught up in hate, revenge, and the lust for profit.

One advantage of this study is that Baker, as he says on its final page, reminds us of the Quaker pacifists and others opposed to war: "They failed, but they were right." An unpopular stance, as Jeannette Rankin, Montana representative and the first woman elected to Congress, demonstrated. Along with fifty colleagues she voted against the U.S. entry into WWI; alone, she did the same the day after "the day of infamy" nearly twenty-five years later.

Courageous opponents such as Himmler's Finnish masseur Felix Kersten, the German dean in Berlin the Rev. Bernhard Lichtenberg, and the Union Theological Seminary's Eight who were jailed a year and a day for refusing the call-up to the military merit mention. What Vera Brittain decried as the worst possible way to deal with Hitler, "reciprocal violence," rules as the British scrap for another fight, whether with France or with Germany, from Versailles on. The "merchants of death" fuel bombers dropping munitions on civilians. The Nazis blame the Jews for this.

Hitler's belligerence finds its match with Churchill's petulance. He shuts off food relief to Poland, enforces a blockade against supplies to the lands Hitler has conquered, and he pushes RAF attacks on cities, vowing to terrorize a term he revives, the Huns. He laments to DeGaulle the delay in the German attacks against Canterbury, Oxford, and Coventry, hoping they will draw the U.S. into the war. When Coventry is about to be bombed, English intelligence intercepts the Nazi transmission. Yet, hours ahead, no warnings are called in to the city. "Winston Churchill asked for heavy publicity to be given to the Coventry raid. He did not visit." (254)

The steady slide into patriotic cant, falsehoods phrased as truths by ministries and politicians,  conscription by the U.S. for the first time other than when at war, jailing of draft resisters follows. Baker cites Hitler on January 30, 1941, vowing to fulfill his "prewar threat: If international Jewry pushed Germany into a world war, the Jews would be finished in Europe." (283) Roosevelt, eager for any "incident" justifying entry to back Britain, is revealed as an impatient ally itching for a scrap. Churchill, as seen by Australian P.M. Robert Menzies, falls victim to his knack for the "glittering phrase" that compels Churchill to believe his boasts.

Baker shows how the RAF, soon under "Bomber Harris" would continue its remorseless retaliation as retribution (these three terms appear over and over in his sources by late summer of 1941). "The bombing offensive fed Hitler's wrath, in direct connection with his concept of the 'Jew's war' against him, and helped unite his nation behind him and justify further Nazi atrocities against the remaining Jews." (qtd. 391) Historian Schlomo Aronson's assertion supports Baker's cause and effect. Churchill's bellicosity and his courting of FDR's lend-lease of weaponry to Britain implies that the Allies were partially responsible for the mayhem and backlash of the Shoah. This view inspired Baker's Harper's May 2011 essay "Why I Am a Pacifist," which continued the story after the end of 1941, and predictably sparked a firestorm of controversy. (Amazon US 3-25-13)

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