Human Smoke, by Nicholson Baker

A novel view of history

Reviewed,David Cesarani
Friday 25 April 2008 00:00 BST

In Britain, we have become used to books debunking Winston Churchill and questioning whether it was such a good idea to fight a war with Nazi Germany that cost our empire. But evidence of Churchill's belligerence, capricious behaviour and penchant for late-night sessions over brandy and cigars seems to have come as a surprise to the American novelist Nicholson Baker. Until now, Baker has been best known for slim novels extrapolating a life from a brief incident, and entertaining pieces of erotica. His writing has been distinguished by wit and erudition. So his self-confessed ignorance of history is something of a surprise.

His efforts to remedy this deficiency led to Human Smoke. Unfortunately, it is the kind of book you would expect from an autodidact. Superficially it is rigorous and objective: an almost day-by-day account of the period up to Pearl Harbour in 1941, illustrated by anecdotes extracted from reportage, published documents, diaries, letters and memoirs. The bibliography attests to Baker's energy as a researcher.

But is it history? Baker's selection of material is driven by a personal quest, and shaped by his assumptions and prejudices. While his novels are full of navel-gazing and self-examination, this is not the same as the critical thinking which historians put into practice when handling sources.

On the strength of his ruminations and some basic, if voluminous, research, Baker has decided that he knows why the Second World War happened. He has then selected the most powerful, emotive and, yes, entertaining bits of history and pasted them into a sort of scrapbook that pretends to be a narrative. In fact, it presents only one interpretation. The reader is trapped in Baker's paranoid view of history.

He starts more or less with the First World War, implying that its outcome led inexorably to the Second. Baker is a pacifist and believes that wars only cause more wars; there is no contingency in his world-view. It also allows him to introduce such hateful features of modern warfare as aerial bombardment and blockades, as well as some of his dramatis personae.

Churchill is portrayed as a Hun-bashing, Jew-hating, pro-fascist, drink-sodden imperialist spoiling for a fight with Germany. He is also credited with starting the Great Depression which helped bring Hitler to power. According to Baker, Churchill was in the pocket of British industrialists, notably ICI, who always wanted a good war as a reason for flogging arms and poison gas. Baker lavishes much attention on the production of chemical weapons in Britain; he fails to tell the reader that they were never used.

It is correct that Britain used airpower as a cut-price method of maintaining its rule over restive colonies and mandates between the wars. Baker implies some kind of connection between this policy and the air war against Germany from 1939. The opposite was the case. It was precisely because the RAF was heavily geared to colonial policing that it was woefully ill-equipped for a real war.

Baker's depiction of the RAF's offensive during the first two years of the war is so far from the truth, it is grimly hilarious. If only the RAF had been as fearsome as he suggests, it might have succeeded not only in irritating Hitler into launching revenge attacks, but ending the war. Baker transforms the RAF's ineffectual raids into a devastating assault because he believes the Nazis, who said the bombing justified not only the Blitz on London, but the punishment of Germany's Jewish population. You see, it was all Churchill's fault. Spurning Hitler's "peace overtures" in 1939 and 1940, and insisting on bombing the Reich to show that we would not give in, prolonged the war and doomed the Jews.

Franklin D Roosevelt does not emerge much better. Vignettes show him as cynical, anti-Semitic and interested mainly in promoting wars that will supply markets for arms manufacturers. Baker follows the well-worn track of US conspiracy theorists who maintain that Roosevelt provoked the Japanese to war and left the way open for them to attack Pearl Harbour in order to stampede a peace-loving US public into war against Germany. But hold on a minute: why Germany?

Nothing in this cut-and-paste narrative gives the reader any sense that Roosevelt hated Nazism on principle and feared for democracy in Europe. Indeed, if Roosevelt disliked Jewish refugees as much as Baker suggests, how come he wasn't hand-in-glove with Hitler? Why didn't he take the advice of Charles Lindbergh, whom Baker quotes: "If only the US could be on the right side of an intelligent war."

Lindbergh is one of Baker's dissenting voices, along with a constellation of Quaker pacifists, deluded Stalinists, feminists, and dreamers who opposed the war. Some of them were truly honourable people who, Baker lets us know, succoured refugees from Nazism when the US administration was most stony-hearted. But some of them were idiots, and a few managed to be both at the same time.

Baker approvingly quotes Congresswoman Jeanette Rankin, who stated "You cannot have war and democracy" as if conscription or the internment of "enemy aliens" amounted to totalitarianism. He cites Gandhi, but never mentions what Jews thought about this advice on how they should respond to Hitler: "I would refuse to be expelled or to submit to discriminating treatment." All the way the Buchenwald, no doubt. When the German army stood poised to invade Britain, Gandhi encouraged the natives with the immortal words, "I want you to fight Nazism, without arms."

Baker's picture of Churchill as a warmonger rejecting Hitler's sincere peace offers can only work by excising great chunks of preceding history. You will not find any mention of the Hossbach Memorandum that recorded Hitler's plans for war as early as November 1937. Nor is there any sense of what peace on Hitler's terms would have meant in 1940, especially for those under Nazi occupation.

I suspect that Baker is really writing about Iraq. What we have here is 1933 viewed through the lens of 2003. However, while there is credible evidence that Britain and America were misled into the Iraq war by a conspiracy of unscrupulous politicians and greedy industrialists, to find the same explanation for the Second World War requires the talents of, well, a novelist. But history is too serious a thing to be left to novelists.

David Cesarani's 'Eichmann: his life and crimes' is published by Vintage

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