Human Smoke — Part Two

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

Colleen Mondor writes:

Hi all – I’ve read the first round of responses from Sarah, Levi and Brian and I’m not sure that I can completely speak to each of the points that everyone has brought up (we are already going off in many directions!) but I do have some thoughts on the book that connect to some of what others have written.

hsmoke2.jpgFirst, I came to Human Smoke with no pro- or anti- Baker pov. I enjoyed Double Fold and that was the last Baker book I read – so I can’t speak to whether or not this is a response to any of his books.

For me personally, I was excited to read the book because I studied and taught this period of history for several years. I had high hopes for the book but was very disappointed.

I don’t think you can jump into the causes of WWII without an adequate discussion on the Treaty of Versailles, something that Baker does not give much attention. It lead directly to Hitler’s rise to power and also contributed (to a lesser extent) to internal difficulties in China which Japan took full advantage of. On that front, Baker does provide a lot of discussion on the sale of arms to China and Japan by the US which is very interesting and important but he fails to explain the backstory of Japanese designs on China, the acquisition of former German colonies in China by Japan as part of the Treaty of Versailles and the impact of Japanese encroachment on China such as the Mukden Incident in 1931. Japan had serious military intentions on all of Asia and most certainly saw the west as a threat. As Brian mentioned, (I think) the US did consider Japan a potential threat far before 1941. In 1924 Billy Mitchell, (Asst Chief of the Army Air Corps at the time) predicted nearly down to the minute how and why he thought Japan would attack Pearl Harbor. He was loudly dismissed, largely because the racist attitude of the day could not see any Asian nation as a threat against the west and because Mitchell himself had a lot of enemies in the military. (He was very outspoken.) But it is not outside the realm of believability to suggest FDR knew what might happen as far as a Japanese attack against America someday. But no one – no one – has ever found the smoking gun proof that he knew it was going to happen for sure. I think we believed Japan was a threat, but did not know an attack was going to happen on December 7th. Baker seems to suggest that FDR goaded Japan into a war they would have avoided otherwise. That seems very hard for me to believe based on what Japan did in China and elsewhere in the years leading up to the Pearl Harbor attack. (I refer to the Japanese government here – I do believe that most of the Japanese people did not want war with the US; but they followed their leadership.) Read Iris Chang and you will see the flip side to Baker’s assertions – what happened in Nanking is the not the act of a country looking for peace.

As for the German aspect of the war, there’s just so much missing here. (I thought Sarah’s point was key on this – everyone will know of something that is missing and perhaps you just can’t write this kind of book without expanding it hugely.) Baker seems to be suggesting again and again that if Churchill would have agreed to peace then Hitler would have stopped after Poland. But why should Churchill have believed him? He promised to stop after Austria, and after being given the Sudetenland portion of Czechoslovakia, and after demanding and receiving all of Czechoslovakia. Plus, he knew that Poland had a treaty with both France and England that demanded an attack on one of those countries would result in a response from the other two. British honor was at stake after the invasion of Poland in terms of the worth of their promises – what would a treaty with Britain mean if Churchill did not respond to the Polish invasion as the treaty demanded? Baker does not mention any of this however, in fact he frames Hitler as a man seeking peace who is forced into war by Churchill. I don’t get it.

Having said that, anyone who has read about Gallipoli would agree that Churchill loved the idea of glorious war. I really think he was a man of his time in that respect – in many ways like Rudyard Kipling. Kipling changed of course after the death of his son but Churchill remained largely untouched in a personal way by war – he could still see it as a glorious thing after WWI. There is a lot about Churchill to draw on in terms of his published writings and articles about him but to me it seemed that Baker cherry picked too much here. His derisive comment about the miracle at Dunkirk is an example (187). He neglects to mention that over 100,000 French soldiers were rescued as well, effectively preserving the French Army to fight for the later formed Free French government. And as for his comments about the destruction of the bulk of the French Navy (205) this was indeed a very dark period in British/French history. But the French Navy had to surrender – the French government was now being led by a puppet government that answered to Hitler – they were the enemy. If the French Navy did not surrender then they would return to France (as they had just been ordered) and thus fall into German hands. There was a lot behind the decision to face the French fleet with force – and none of this was presented by Baker. (Here’s a more thorough view.) He makes it seem almost cavalier – yet the British made several attempts to have the fleet surrender. And surrender of that fleet was imperative as it was the 4th largest in the world and could not fall into German hands.

Honestly, I was confused a lot while reading this book. On the one hand he writes about German atrocities against the Jews but then suggests that if Churchill will agree to peace they will all be sent to Madagascar. (204) It disturbs me enormously to read (more than once) that if only Churchill gave Hilter Poland then the Jews would have been saved. I am no fan of the widely held myths of WWII (Greatest Generation, etc) but any one who believes that Hitler would be satisfied with Poland (after his previous broken promises) is incredibly naive. And pinning the lives of the Jews on Churchill smacks of German propaganda more than anything else. But then in the middle of all that Baker would have something from Victor Klemperer or elsewhere that seemed to suggest that the Jews were damned regardless. It seemed sometimes like the text was going in circles.

I liked the idea of this book and was very impressed by the research that was done to complete it. But it is very subjective – just as subjective as those books celebrating America’s action during the war are. The cynical part of me can not help but think that the book was written this way purely to get a reaction and not because it was the best (or most thorough) way to counter the celebratory myths of the war that have been published elsewhere.

Brian Francis Slattery writes:

Hello all again.

Cannot resist:

[Colleen wrote:] Read Iris Chang and you will see the flip side to Baker’s assertions – what happened in Nanking is the not the act of a country looking for peace… he frames Hitler as a man seeking peace who is forced into war by Churchill. I don’t get it.

These things bothered me as well. I think Baker assumes a good deal of prior knowledge of World War II and its causes in his book; Human Smoke doesn’t get into Versailles or any of the above because (I was assuming as I read it) it has been covered elsewhere. But Colleen’s point is really valid. I found the book an engrossing read because it embroidered and complicated the history I already had some grasp on. For someone with only slight less familiarity and of a certain frame of mind, this book would be a real mind-blower. But for someone who knew little about the period and was hoping to learn more–particularly about Japanese expansion into Asia–this book could be confusing at best and misleading at worse.

[Colleen wrote:] Honestly, I was confused a lot while reading this book. On the one hand he writes about German atrocities against the Jews but then suggests that if Churchill will agree to peace they will all be sent to Madagascar. (204) It disturbs me enormously to read (more than once) that if only Churchill gave Hilter Poland then the Jews would have been saved. I am no fan of the widely held myths of WWII (Greatest Generation, etc) but any one who believes that Hitler would be satisfied with Poland (after his previous broken promises) is incredibly naive. And pinning the lives of the Jews on Churchill smacks of German propaganda more than anything else. But then in the middle of all that Baker would have something from Victor Klemperer or elsewhere that seemed to suggest that the Jews were damned regardless. It seemed sometimes like the text was going in circles.

I think part of what we were seeing there was the book wrestling with the idea of pacifism and whether it could have prevented World War II. Baker writes in the afterword that the pacifists “failed,” which suggests that he thinks that under different circumstances, the pacifists could have succeeded: Perhaps, implemented as state policy
or spurring a mass movement, pacifism could have kept at least a couple of countries out of the war. Perhaps a widespread pacifist movement in Germany could have prevented it from going to war in the first place. Ultimately, of course, we can’t know. But as someone who isn’t a strict pacifist, I side more with Colleen than with Baker. Maybe pacifism could have kept the United States out of the war. But the closer one gets to Germany geographically speaking, the less likely it seems to me, and the more pacifism looks like capitulation. I don’t think vocal pacifism would have saved Belgium or Holland.

Ed Park writes:

A lot of interesting comments, and it’s already hard for me to maneuver (I wanted to say chime in re Ed’s take on objectivity, but Brian’s addressed that point; also re Baker’s take on Japanese aggression, but Colleen’s got that covered).

I. This book didn’t remind me of Markson’s novels (most of which exist in the realm of the notebook, the fragment, the disintegrating/re-formed voice) so much as it did Eliot Weinberger’s “What I Heard About Iraq,” a nonfiction piece I’ve been teaching to my students. I am interested in the technique of the cento, in the strategy of repetition. The voice in “WIHAI” is clear, impassioned but controlled, and relentless; practically every entry (most just a few sentences long) begins “I heard…” Two words, vexed to nightmare.

For Baker, the two words are “It was”: “It was April 6, 1917.” “It was the summer of 1932.” “It was February 9, 1939.” The strict chronology adds to the atmosphere of doom.

I heard it was.

II. We have now reached the point where we can’t say there’s a “typical” Nicholson Baker book, or even style. A Box of Matches tapped into the same well of observations found in his first two novels, but Human Smoke and Checkpoint bear little resemblance to his trademark hyperobservational mode, in which the authorial voice notices something small, seemingly insignificant, and spins that rarity into something universal. Like Perec, he seems to want to write every sort of book that it’s possible to write.

Jason Boog writes:

Dear Friends,

First of all, I’d like to say thanks to Ed for including me on this conversation between some of my favorite writers, both on and off the Internets. It’s a real honor to participate.

I’d also like to say thanks to Ed for asking this question: “what do you folks make of the cast of characters here?” On the surface it sounds like the easy essay question asked on a Literature 101 exam in college, but I think it’s one of the best ways to unpack this sprawling work.

This book is, among other things, about how writers influence the world during wartime. It’s a question that very few writers have picked up during the Iraq War, and I applaud Nicholson Baker for raising this question today. That contemporary, unsettling theme is what differentiates this work of literary non-fiction from the shelves of World War II history books that Levi Asher noticed.

For instance, we see the writer Christopher Isherwood struggling to change the violent course of events at key moments in the book. His heartbreaking response to critics of pacifism (and the literary crowd who mocked him for his stance) really shook me on page 163: “I am afraid I should be reduced to a chattering, enraged monkey, screaming back hate at their hate.” Many contemporary writers and artists have struggled with these bestial energies in the wake of September 11th, and Americans will cope with the twinned emotions of hate and revenge for the next century.

I think Baker picked Joseph Goebbels as the perfect foil to Isherwood’s ultimately unsuccessful character. We meet Goebbels as he is working hard on his novel, but he drops everything to join Hitler’s war machine. The newspaper reports and speeches he wrote as propaganda minister were horrifically effective. Goebbels chose the complete opposite path of Isherwood, and killed millions with the hate his writings generated.

While I agree with previous writers that Baker is writing how the peace movement failed, I think we need to focus on that contrast between a nearly-forgotten pacifist writer and the most famous Nazi propagandist. Isherwood’s unpopular, peaceful ideals seem very fragile when compared to Goebbels’ terrible body of work—but they illustrate the redemptive qualities of Baker’s new book.

The history books will mostly ignore characters like Isherwood, because they could do little to alter the momentum of World War II. Human Smoke does a magnificent job of resurrecting the most powerful pacifist writings of the time—from Mahatma Gandhi’s letters to Isherwood’s prose. Many of these writings would have faded to oblivion without Baker’s curatorial eye, and they have lessons to teach contemporary readers.

Baker’s book reminds writers and thinkers that we have our own set of moral decisions to make as we write about the Iraq War (and the larger question of instability in the Middle East). Do we permanently disengage like Isherwood or to fight to change minds like Thomas Mann’s expatriate messages to his German countrymen? It’s about time somebody started asking these tough questions, because the bloody conflicts of the 21st Century won’t go away.

Eric Rosenfield writes:

Hello all,

Well, I have to say I didn’t expect the round table to get quite so involved quite so quickly–Ed just announced game on at 11 o’clock last night and here we are with the tenth long, involved email.

I want to disagree with Ed’s statement that every narrative requires a “a capable crew of good guys and bad guys”; I think most good narratives are more complicated than that, and real people can’t be divided into good and bad so easily, and I think Baker makes this case quite well. Take, for example, Churchill.

So you understand where I’m coming from, my father saw the film Young Churchill when he was a kid and ever since has practically idolized the man. My childhood was filled with anecdotes about Churchill’s wit and how the man bravely saved us from Hitler (“never have so many owed so much to so few” etc). But then we’re Jewish and it’s very easy for Jews to think highly of anyone who fought Hitler.

Churchill’s portrayal in Human Smoke isn’t particularly flattering and the Churchill who falls over himself to compliment Mussolini, cheers on the bombing of natives in Africa and the Middle East and thinks of the Jews as a bunch of Communists is a far cry from the Churchill I grew up hearing about. But at the same time, he’s portrayed as a brilliant orator, a charismatic and someone willing to make hard decisions for the cause of war. I agree with Colleen that Baker isn’t objective, but he does tell us that Poland and England had a mutual defense treaty, he does tell us that the French navy was ordered to surrender. He does tell us that Churchill, who despised Stalin, did everything he could to help Stalin’s war effort against their common enemy. Churchill is not a cartoon. And I disagree with Colleen that Baker is suggesting that Hitler and Churchill should have made peace after the conquest of Poland; that Hitler wanted the peace is indisputable, but I’m not sure the inclusion of that information is an indictment of Churchill’s decision to keep fighting.

The bigger question here is the question of two war practices used by the British (and then the Americans) over and over again: the food embargo and the bombing of civilian targets. These two realpolitik methods of conducting warfare are still used today; I remember having a heated argument with someone who accused Bill Clinton of being a mass murderer because he helped push through the UN embargo of Iraq, and Clinton’s bombs in Bosnia were killed many civilians. Baker might have been trying to get me to think that these methods are inhuman, and he may be right, but as I read on the main conclusion I came to was this is simply how war is conducted. Indeed killing civilians though siege and embargo and blockade goes back to Roman times and before; not only is it not new, but I don’t there there’s ever been a time in history when these methods were not employed in the cause of warfare.

Which is all to say that the American pacifists in the run up to the war were probably right in calling war mass murder. At the same time we are told about Hitler’s atrocities toward the Jews and Japanese atrocities in the Chinese mainland, and through all the talk of pacifism and Gandhi and civilian casualties all I could think of as I read on was that these people have to be stopped by whatever means necessary. It even occurred to me (and horrified me that it would occur to me) that if, after the war ended, we had turned around and dropped a nuclear bomb on Russia, we might have been able to bring down the Communist government in one fell swoop and stopped Stalin from killing the millions of people that he killed (many of whom were Jews). I think it’s worth peering through our instincts to recoil from the notion to consider whether or not the world would have been better off.

This then, for me, is the primary question posed by Human Smoke. Is mass murder ever justified? And, if so, can we live with ourselves afterward?

Colleen Mondor writes:

I think Brian and Jason raise some interesting questions about the message on pacifists and pacifism that Baker is exploring. As Brian suggests, there was the possibility of a pacifist movement to have an impact – but I think the better time was back in WWI. In that war pacifism would likely have had a much larger impact as there were no real “bad” guys and in many cases no one could explain why the war was being fought. (Even the leaders were largely unable to respond when Woodrow Wilson put forth that direct question.) It would have been interesting to see what connections the pacifists in Baker’s book had to WWI. Vera Brittain is the only one I have any real knowledge of and she lost her brother, fiancee and best friend in the war. She long acknowledged that WWI is what made her a pacifist. (I highly recommend her book on that war, Testament of Youth.) Christopher Isherwood’s father died in WWI; Chips Channon served with the Red Cross during WWI. I think a lot of their thoughts about peace could be very well have been rooted in the realities of war they saw/knew/felt.

I don’t think it is fair to say that the pacifist movement failed in WWII though because it was not the kind of conflict that allowed much discussion for meaningful peace. (Two aggressor nations bent on domination with the military support to back them up.) Also you have to consider that while many Europeans had learned the lesson of war as hell in WWI most Americans had not – our experience in WWI was much less. To some degree Americans still embraced the glorious war idea that Europe had already learned was a lie. So we weren’t so willing to listen to calls for peace. And as far as Germany, their anger over the Treaty of Versailles was too raw among too much of the population – they felt they were owed something in response to how they were wrongfully treated and most of the country’s leaders were unwilling to let that go.

I guess what I’m saying is that you could very well frame an interesting argument around what the pacifists learned in WWI, and what they tried to accomplish in WWII. Baker might have been trying to do this, but I don’t think he tells us enough or perhaps gets distracted by following other threads in his narrative. It’s almost like he tries to be too many things to too many people (or present too many ideas) in this book to keep any coherence. (I think Jason’s comment about comparing Isherwood and Goebbels is interesting and would have made for a great article or book.)

Eric: I based my comment concerning Churchill and peace negotiations following the invasion of Poland on several passages in the book:

Goebbels wrote in his diary. “In any event, it is the English who must decide whether the war is to continue.” p 151

>From Victor Klemperer: “On the other hand, England-France appear to believe in the prospects of a long war, since the peace offer seems to have been rejected.” p 152.
Cyril Joad’s thoughts on p 154

The suggestion on p. 168 that the Germans had no plan to invade Norway until forced by British action in March 1940. That is simply not true – see this for a good overview of the big picture about why the port of Narvik was needed by the German navy and how long the Germans had considered plans to invade Norway.

P 185 – “Hitler’s aim was to ‘make peace with Britain on a basis that she would regard as compatible with her honour to accept.'”

P 204 – “It was contingent, though, on peace with Churchill.”

And on and on and on. Baker seems to characterize Churchill all too often as a warmonger (and I don’t disagree that he did believe in glorious war – I’ve already acknowledged that) who furthered the war rather than ending it as Hitler wanted. And yet we know now (from Hitler’s broken promises before Poland and with Stalin) that Hitler’s promise of peace was never to be trusted. Thus the book reads as unbalanced to me – it is almost as if Baker is trying too hard to remove Churchill (and Roosevelt) from any heroic position that history might still be affording them – at the expense of truth.

Levi Asher writes:

So much to say.

To Colleen, about Japan and the motivations behind the Pacific war and Nanking — well, I just read a rather astonishing book called Breaking Open Japan: Commodore Perry, Lord Abe, and American Imperialism in 1853 by George Feifer (in fact, this book’s
myth-smashing about Japan/USA relations really primed me for the myth-smashing in Baker’s book). According to this book, Commodore Perry’s military humiliation of Japan in 1853 was a deeply traumatic event for the entire nation, and began a century of military/economic dominations that led directly to Pearl Harbor. The USA’s track record
in fair dealings with Japan from 1853 to 1941 is fairly similar to its track record with Native Americans. Nothing can forgive the horrors of Japan’s Korean occupation or Chinese occupation, of course. But it is a notable fact that Japan had lived in relative peace for more than three centuries before Perry arrived in 1853.

Brian, you say that pacifism wouldn’t have saved Belgium or Holland. True, especially because the Nazis were at their peak of success at this time. But what about later, when the British blockade and air raids had been taking their toll, when the Nazis failed to muster the resources to invade England and thus realized that, long term, their prospects were bleak? I like it that Baker doesn’t let us rest with easy answers in this book. Yes, we all agree that appeasement didn’t work in 1938. And it wouldn’t have worked in 1939 and probably not in 1940. But by 1941, the evidence seems to indicate that an armistice could have been established. Would this have been good or not? I don’t know, but we do know that the decision to pursue unconditional surrender came at a great cost. The Holocaust death camps, for instance, did not exist until the end of 1941, well after the peak of Hitler’s strength.

I went back to a bookstore today to look at some more World War II books (and I picked up the classic text, William Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, for a refresher read). One thing that caught my eye was, separate from the World War II military books, a long shelf and a half of books about Adolf Hitler. I thought about our popular image of Hitler as some kind of dark cartoonish uber-evil human monster. Of course he seems to have been exactly that, and with a bad haircut too. But still, I have always felt (and, as an ethnic Jew, this feeling has always possessed me in a strange way) that it runs against my common sense that, in any situation, real or abstract, the Other can be evil without this evil being somehow shared, common.

John Lennon once sang “I don’t believe in Hitler”, and I know exactly what he means. Oh, I know Hitler is real, and I can recognize his face. But one thing I like about Baker’s book is that he shows Hitler as what he also really was — a frustrated politician, a failed
leader, a military flash in the pan who managed to control an impoverished nation and a chaotic small empire for a few years as it all crumbled slowly around him. According to Human Smoke and other sources, Hitler was only in control of his fate before September 1, 1939. From that point on, he was stuck in Churchill’s slow, methodical grind, just as the outclassed Japanese were stuck in America’s slow, methodical grind in the Pacific. So, now, we ask — why did the grind have to be so slow, and why were cease-fires or peace talks never a possibility? I think this is one of the more concrete questions Nicholson Baker asks in this book, and even though I don’t know enough
to know the answer, I do know that the question must be asked.

Finally … I’m glad that Jason brings Iraq and September 11 into this. It may be worth thinking of Human Smoke as a “September 11 book”, partly because increasingly positive imagery of World War II (Ken Burns’ The War, etc.) has seemed more popular than ever since that day. I also think that, like Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (with which Human Smoke shares a lot, including Burton Wheeler), this book may or may not have been written as an indirect commentary on the Bush/Cheney administration, but even if it wasn’t, the shoe sure seems to fit.


  1. There’s nothing more irritating than someone reviewing a book based on what the Author didn’t write, or what they themselves would’ve written about. So go write your own book on the subject, Colleen, and write about Versailles. I mean, what, are you in your first year of Grad School?

  2. Colleen has presented her opinion, which is based on facts. Therefore, it is valid. I don’t entirely agree with it. But if you’re going to pillory her on flimsy pretext, you’re going to have to go through me. (And there is more discussion of Colleen’s thoughtful points in the next few installments.)

  3. I’m always so impressed by commenters who can’t even use their own name. Let me know when you’re ready to engage with the rest of us on a mature level.

  4. “I don’t think you can jump into the causes of WWII without an adequate discussion on the Treaty of Versailles, something that Baker does not give much attention….”
    For a compelling discussion of the Treaty of Versailles and its consequences down to the present day, you may wish to have a look at (and, yes, review!) my wonderful new book “A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today” [] just published by Wiley, and available at and most book stores !
    David A. Andelman

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