Human Smoke — Part Three

(This is the third of a five-part roundtable discussion on Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke. For additional installments: Part One, Part Two, Part Four, Part Five.)

Colleen Mondor writes:

Levi – all of your points are fascinating and quite thought provoking. I didn’t mention this before but Hitler was very much a product of WWI as well – there is some thought that he wanted a heroic moment he did not have; perhaps that partly led to his desire for power.

hsmoke3.jpgIn regards to Perry and Japan – yes, I agree that the clash of West and East in Asia in the late 19th century had a huge impact on the rise of militarism in the Japanese government. The development of colonies in China affected Japanese concerns about Asian independence (for those of you wondering about the Vietnam War, it all starts with France moving into Vietnam during this period of rampant colonization.) But I don’t like to shed blame on America for Japan’s actions or Britain for Germany’s actions – I think in a lot of ways what we saw in WWII was an immense clash of titans…it is almost like the conflicting demands for power on the part of multiple countries around the world (what was Italy’s grab for Ethiopia except a desire to have a colony of its own?) forced an armed conflict. The only thing that could have stopped this (in my opinion) is a viable, reasonable treaty in 1919 and a strong and meaningful League of Nations. The world was not ready for that however, and we missed our chance.

It seemed to me that Baker wants to point the finger at someone or someplace – or reverse the typical finger pointing at Japan and Germany. Perhaps WWII is just still too close; we are still knee jerking to blame someone for a huge event that was the blame of everyone…(or a lot of people anyway).

I still resist the thought that a peace agreement with Hitler in 1939, 1940 or later would have been a viable option because I believe he (and his leadership) had too much invested in total victory…I point to the Russian invasion of how unreasonable Hitler could be. As to the Jewish question of what an earlier peace might have meant, I can’t help but think of Jo Walton’s marvelous alternate history novels, “Farthing” and “Ha’ Penny” which explore that very idea. What would life have been like without the Holocaust? We assume it would have been better but that is not necessarily true.

The first camps actually opened in 1933 (Dachau was one of them). They were not death camps as such but punishment or work camps and they were hell. Mauthausen opened after the invasion of Austria in 1938 – the slogan was “extermination by work.”

Sarah Weinman writes:

Colleen – you’ve definitely brought up some good points, but I there’s one you’re suggesting that I’ll have to disagree with. The impression I’m getting is that you posit that Human Smoke suggests peace with Hitler was a viable option. On the contrary, I think Baker makes the point – a very good one – that the warmongering, take-over-the-world attitude and brutal, pointless march towards war on the part of Hitler, Goebbels etc. was an even deeper, far more entrenched problem than Roosevelt and Churchill’s attitudes. We’re focused on the American and UK side because those are the sources Baker primarily pulls from. But those aren’t the *only* sources he references. Mary Berg’s story in the ghetto seemed a clear product of the Nazis, not a by-product of the Allied front, for example.

Perhaps if Baker had beefed up the early sections, concentrating more on the post WWI times and the sociocultural changes going on (another thing to think about: there’s hardly any mention of the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover’s rise to power. What effect, if at all, did he have on the eventual American presence in the war? Probably not much, but I’m curious…) then the message that the roots of war on both sides stemmed so far back that pacifism as a viable movement had little chance to stop the steamroll would have been clearer.

Colleen Mondor writes:

This is where my confusion with Baker comes into play Sarah. Everytime I read a part that seemed included to make it clear that the war was going to happen regardless (like the one you mention) then something would be thrown out that seemed to hint at an alternative (like the comments suggesting if only Churchill would agree to peace all would be well or the same thing if only FDR would stop pushing the Japanese). So I circle back to that suggestion. That’s how I read it.

My complaint goes back to the choices made in putting the book together. I think it is an outstanding idea but I’m not sure that Baker had the focus (whatever he chose that focus to be) needed to pull it off.

Nick Antosca writes:

Hello everyone; I’ve met some of you in person and only know others by reputation, but it’s a pleasure to be involved in this conversation. I’m recovering from the near-delirium of bad cold and have just caught up on the discussion points so far.

I was particularly interested in Eric’s remarks about Churchill. I think we can all agree that Baker’s portrayal of Churchill is one of the most incendiary (so to speak!) elements of Human Smoke. It is clear that the man was willing to sacrifice human life in great quantities and it’s also clear that Baker has a visceral dislike for him (when he characterizes Churchill’s ideology with sardonic contempt, he can start to sound a little like Martin Amis: “Bombing was, to Churchill, a form of pedagogy–a way of enlightening city dwellers as to the hellishness of remote battlefields by killing them”). But I found Churchill also the most fascinating figure in the book, both in a historical context and, well, as a character. His motives were all wrong, he seems to have been congenitally deaf to human suffering, and his ideology was fed by notions of racial superiority–but in May 1940, his stubbornness and bellicosity were better bulwarks against Hitler than the relative levelheadedness of Chamberlain.

It’s one of the larger ironies of this story: Chamberlain seems to have been a reasonable, intelligent man who wanted peace, and Churchill something of a loudmouth war fetishist. But Churchill was the better man to stand up against Hitler–who was, as Levi said, “a frustrated politician, a failed leader, [and] a military flash in the pan,” but also an obsessive, irrational person with the resources of mass murder at his disposal. Diplomacy wouldn’t have worked. I don’t think it’s a bad thing that Churchill was intent on destroying his regime.

What I do think is plainly awful is the attitude expressed and displayed by both Churchill and Roosevelt toward civilian casualties. Is mass murder ever justified? (Is it morally defensible to kill 1,000 people if it will save the lives of 1,001?) Is there any difference at all between the bombing of civilian targets by the RAF and the bombing of civilian targets by the Luftwaffe. I don’t think so. Equally reprehensible is the indifference displayed toward refugees. (I was particularly struck by the small, ugly anecdote about Roosevelt’s joke to reporters regarding Hitler and “one of the few prominent Jews left in Germany” [417].) It’s not like any student of history wasn’t already aware of this, but still it’s a shameful episode to think about. What would have happened if America and Great Britain had actively welcomed those fleeing the Nazi regime? Would the Holocaust as we know have been prevented or radically diminished in scale?

And then there’s that persistent question that most of the preceding responses have in some way alluded to–was WWII a “good war”? What I took from Human Smoke was that it was half a good war. War with Hitler was necessary–although some indefensible tactics were used. War with Japan was not necessary–the attack on Pearl Harbor unquestionably required a military response, but the American escalation and provocation that preceded the attack were the actions of a nation that wanted war.

On another note, I wish the book had ended on Dec. 31, 1945 rather than 1941. I’d have been fascinated to read Baker’s account of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Levi Asher writes:

Sarah and Colleen, I agree that, to whatever extent Human Smoke has an actual point of view, it contradicts that point of view. I came to the conclusion that Baker (who loves to play with form, of course) was doing this intentionally, that he was constructing the book as a sort of “pointillism of facts” where the facts don’t have to necessarily
agree with each other or have any relation to each other.

So, for instance, the interpretation or “argument” I’ve been describing and engaging with is actually my own construction, though I think it’s a construction Baker laid out for readers to pick up. The only time Baker betrays a direct point of view is in the book’s very last sentence, when he says of various pacifists: “They failed, but they were right.”

I do think, though, that Baker’s point of view shows up here — I gather that he is a committed pacifist in the general tradition of Mahatma Gandhi. Which I think is about as good a stance as stances get, and this is probably why I like the book so much.

(Also, in response to Colleen, I also don’t want to slip into “blaming America”. That would miss the point. Nobody is saying Roosevelt and Churchill were worse than Hitler, by a longshot. But did they do as well as they could have done? It has to be asked.)

Okay, I better stop this rambling discourse …

Edward Champion writes:

There are many thoughtful points that Colleen brings up. So I’ll try to respond to a handful here.

Colleen complains about Human Smoke not possessing “an adequate discussion on the Treaty of Versailles.” In fact, the Treaty of Versailles is mentioned four places in the book. Baker’s most stirring citation is Hitler denouncing the Treaty of Versailles as “utterly intolerable” on p. 135. And if one wishes to dig up the standards here, Hitler’s antipathy to the Treaty of Versailles is also quite evident in William Shirer’s account. Thus, Hitler’s rise to power has very little to do with the Treaty’s specific conditions or the concomitant developments concerning its parties. The whole point here is that global ideology failed to consider and, in some cases, outright ignored pacificism. Regardless of the idealistic points set into stone by Woodrow Wilson and company (and we all know what happened with the League of Nations), Hitler was determined to posture in whatever manner possible to encourage an attack, painting England as the enemy and Germany as the victim. This is very much the “repetition” that Levi alludes to and something you will find in nearly any World War II historical volume. What Baker brings to the table here is how readily Hitler’s wartime bluster was eerily mirrored by Churchill. I don’t think it’s fair to suggest that, because Billy Mitchell’s 1924 prediction came before John Haynes Holmes’s antiwar play (presented in 1935), Baker is therefore wrong or does not know about Mitchell. But if we must split hairs, in 1924, the Nazi Party wasn’t around. Hitler wasn’t yet in a significant position of power. (Hell, the beer hall putsch had only just happened.) Baker’s point is that, despite Holmes’s play receiving considerable notice in both The Nation and The Times, most people chose to ignore it. This was not a matter of Mitchell being a historical soothsayer. It was a matter of arts and activism offering a reflective prism of what was happening during this particular time, and nobody paying attention (or perhaps enough attention) to a pivotal piece of culture that suggested what was happening across the pond. Not unlike Checkpoint, strangely enough.

I must also address Colleen’s “confusion” about the Madagascar section she cites on p. 204. It is abundantly clear that the latter Madagascar scenario involved Jews being transported to an island-based concentration camp, itself a whole-heartedly horrible scenario, and troubling given the unsuccessful negotiations with the French government in 1937 (see p. 67) to work something out for Polish Jews, which did not involve a concentration camp. I agree with Colleen that shipping Polish Jews from their homeland is an entirely terrible idea. But I think Baker’s references to Madagascar demonstrate that sweeping ideology causes a safer idea, however fey or insalubrious, to be taken to a deadly level. That had someone stopped this ideology from escalating into insanity and taken up this admittedly insane offer, a few Polish Jews might have been saved.
I suppose all this is why I see this book, to a large degree, as a very interesting preservationist polemic. We willfully ignore the ravings and rantings of the perceived wackos. But it may very well be that failing to listen to this sort involves something more pernicious.

More later.

Colleen Mondor writes:

Well I’ve been officially pounced on. A brief reply:

I wasn’t suggesting that Baker needed to know every little thing and I didn’t bring up Billy Mitchell thinking Baker should have known it. I brought it up the same way Sarah (and others) have brought up other names – there is a lot out there in other words, and it is always selective what you include or leave out. (I also used Mitchell only to agree with another email that the Americans had considered Japan a potential enemy decades before – I don’t recall suggesting at all that he needed to be in the book.)

As to the Treaty of Versailles, I didn’t mean that it wasn’t mentioned in the book but that it is big and there is a lot to it – a lot has little to do with Germany even. (It has much to do with Japan’s rise to power and China’s descent actually.) WWII came from that treaty – you write about the war then you need to write a lot about the treaty. I respectfully agree to disagree with you about Hitler’s rise to power being directly related to the condiitons set forth in the Treaty of Versailles. I think it was.

My confusion over Baker’s mention of Madagascar is not over what it was about, whether it would be successful or whether it was good or bad. I found the way that Baker would insert it occasionally into the text to be odd. Was he suggesting that the Jews would have been saved if Churchill agreed to peace after the invasion of Poland? And was he suggesting that this would be a real thing? I don’t know. If he only mentioned it once it would be just one more aspect of the history he wanted to share. By coming back to it several times he seems to want to make a point. Forgive me for not seeing it.

I’m done.

Robert Birnbaum writes:

I started to read the various opinions and profferings and found myself distracted by the cacophonous erudition on display—though I think it is neat that Gmail has assigned everyone’s name a different color.

So forgive me if I repeat or revisit some part of this polylogue but I am not reading the nearly 20 pages of commentary until I have fixed on some firm ideas of my own. Plus I am reading Jack O Connell’s The Resurrectionist and Alan Furst’s new opus — so many books, so little time. Thus my own meager contributions to this literary cosa nostra will be sporadic and fragmented

I am struck by my preference for Nick Baker’s essays and book Double Fold (and now (Human Smoke) — my dabbles into his fiction left me unsatisfied and—uh, let’s leave it at unsatisfied. This particular work, which caused me to recall Voltaire’s assessment of history (“the lies we agree upon”) and Eduardo Galaeno’s magnum opus Memory of Fire — a three volume fragmentary (that’s fragments of larger stories that can stand alone) history of the western hemisphere, drawn from all manner of sources, provokes from the outset by referring to the “end of civilization.” Civilization ended in late 1941 folks? Oh my.

This is not your father’s history or your grandfather’s. So some of the nitpicking I noted as I scanned the current accumulation conjures some unfortunate images (best left unsaid or I will certainly quickly assume the mantle of the rat in the cathedral. )Baker ‘s book ought not be faulted for not including this tidbit or failing to emphasize that event or person or document. What is an open and interesting issue for me is whether one could construct an alternate view of the same time frame with 500 or 600 other paragraphs.

Also, the dramatis personae in Human Smoke are sufficiently diverse to deflect any complaints that this is history as made and seen only by great men and women (and I commend Baker for going beyond Eleanor Roosevelt to represent activist women). Especially in his choice of non governmental voices— Gandhi, Isherwood, Klemperer, Mann, Einstein—and refraining from trotting out activist artists “tainted” by various Stalinist affiliations.

Isn’t it amusing to see how transparently fraudulent FDR was in any claims (in the 1940 re election campaign and after) to peaceful intentions— its not like George Bush invented misleading Americans. And for all of Churchill’s oratory and clever rhetoric and Bartlett’s filling quipping, his admiration for Hitler and Mussolini don’t put him in flattering light—not to mention his seeming indifference to human suffering

Is this a work of history? A literary pastiche? A hybrid codex of the pre WW II world? While I am not anathema to categorization and naming I think when we come across an stirringly original work assigning it a niche in our catalogue is the least of our tasks— assuming there is a hierarchy of interpretation.

One more thing (for now) how lacking in imagination the war -mongerers and generals were in the last global conflagration that they were not able to come up with neat phrases like “collateral damage” Part of the argument that Holocaust deniers throw down is that carpet bombing of Dresden and Hamburg and Tokyo were in every way as criminal and genocidal as anything the Nazis might have done. Try to convince any Americans (who haven’t read Slaughterhouse Five) of that. Actually, I’m curious were any Allied forces or leaders ever formally accuse of war crimes or atrocities (perhaps along the lines of the Soviet Katyn Forest slaughter)?

More TK.


  1. Not to add to Colleen’s sense that she’s being targeted, but she seems to be hung up on the idea that Baker has more of an ax to grind than he does. I think the point of his bare presentation of selected facts is to suggest rather than prove.

    Was Hitler a monster? No question, and even if Baker hadn’t included any negative details about him, readers would still know that. Was Churchill a bad guy? Now that’s not been much discussed, and it takes a bit more evidence to indicate that he might have been, hence the emphasis on the darker moments of the Allied side.

    In the end, there’s nothing in the book that says Churchill and FDR were wrong and that the war was the result of their saber rattling. It just suggests that the often-prescient pacifists probably deserved a better hearing then, and that they should have one now, too.

  2. Micro-point, on a near-tangent: no one writing about all this, with a genuine drive to unearth root causes and conditions on the German side, should do so without living in Germany for at least a few years.

    Speak the language, learn the slang, go to parties, make friends and interact with the populace. There are a few striking aspects of German culture; the so-called “cult of the Father” (ie, susceptibility to authority figures which, in Germany, are most often mere bureaucrats) is only the most well-known of them.

    There’s a phrase: “Deine eigene schuld” (your own fault) and I’ve seen, time and time again, how anyone who gets in any kind of trouble here, minor or major, preventable or not, gets hit (and isolated) with that. The attitude being that you’re either a fool, a bad-luck bird or out of favor with the Gods to be in such a bad way, so a crowd watching an Ausländer being harrassed by soccer fans on the S-Bahn feels no need to cross the line into the territory of the victim’s bad luck by helping. What this involves is a total absence of empathy that puts me in mind of a mild autism.

    Many Germans, even today, while wanting nothing to do with the tacky taint of skinhead politics, feel that the Jews “had it coming”, in a way. That they precipitated the conditions of their own destruction.

    Germany is an amazingly liberal society, these days, as a reaction to the horrors of before, obviously. But, every day, in a thousand little ways, that Cultural Autism asserts itself. America is a melting pot/salad bowl and, therefore, crazy in a thousand different, very protean, ways. Germany is rather more homogenous and crazy in just a few ways that are *much* easier to discover a pattern for.

    Once you’ve lived here long enough, the events of the recent past start losing their incomprehensibility. I once had an old woman’s mid-sized dog start barking, *ferociously*, at me, from across the street, causing quite a commotion. The result being that everyone else on the sidewalk, after the dog had been quieted, stared at *me*, not the dog. That’s very German.

  3. I applaud your discussion of World War II, but folks, I just gotta ask – saw this young whipper-snapper on Fox (Sheepdog Smith or something) he says “I’ve read about the Vietnam War.” Yeah Shep ole buddy, lotta folks did a lot more’n read about it, you punk-ass dipshit.

    So I’m driving through Austria back in the day, stop fer coffee, and there’s this old old guy having a spot a grappa. You know he fought in the war. My general store guy, Bruno, back in Italy, says “yeah…we fought against the Americans, but then we fought alongside them.”

    The point being, is nice to have opinions, but why not ask somebody who was there?

  4. Colleen Mondor writes:
    The first camps actually opened in 1933 (Dachau was one of them). They were not death camps as such but punishment or work camps and they were hell. Mauthausen opened after the invasion of Austria in 1938 – the slogan was “extermination by work.”

    I searched the web and found many examples of the phrase “extermination by work” but none that verified that this phrase was an official “slogan” of Mathausen.

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