[Reader-list] WWII

S. Jabbar sonia.jabbar at gmail.com
Fri Apr 25 10:20:17 IST 2008

History belongs to the victor...until someone starts digging...

>From a review in the Spectator.  I¹d like to get hold of this book.


Were we any better than the Nazis?
Sam Leith
Wednesday, 23rd April 2008

Sam Leith on Nicholson Baker's new account of World War 2

In July 1940, Hitler issued what Nicholson Baker calls Œa final appeal to
reason¹. ŒThe continuation of this war,¹ he said in a speech, Œwill only end
with the complete destruction of one of the two warring parties . . . I see
no reason that should compel us to continue this war.¹

ŒIt¹s too tantalising, since there¹s no shadow of a doubt we will reject any
such suggestion,¹ Frances Partridge wrote in her diary afterwards, adding
the savagely deflating rider: ŒNow I suppose Churchill will again tell the
world that we are going to die on the hills and on the seas, and then we
shall proceed to do so.¹

If this fascinating and upsetting book is the story of anything, it is above
all the story of Winston Churchill telling the world that we are going to
die on the hills and on the seas, and of people then doing so ‹ and dying,
too, in the forests and in the valleys, the ghettos and in the cities, in
the air and in tunnels under the ground.

Human Smoke is not a conventional history. Rather, it is, as Simon
Winchester describes it, Œa meticulously curated catalogue of text¹. Relying
principally on primary sources ‹ diaries, public speeches and documents, and
newspaper reports ‹ Baker has assembled a series of prose snapshots in
chronological order. The first is from 1892, but the bulk deal with the
beginning of the second world war, up to the end of 1941.

ŒWas it a ³good war²? Did waging it help anyone who needed help?¹ Baker asks
in his afterword. ŒThose were the basic questions that I hoped to answer
when I began writing.¹ Many of this book¹s readers will suspect that its
author had a pretty good idea what answer he expected when first he sat

Baker ostentatiously smothers his usual sharp and puckish style in favour of
neutral-sounding reportage: ŒWinston Churchill published a newspaper
article. It was 8 February, 1920.¹ But this book could scarcely be an
angrier or more polemical argument for pacifism. It achieves its effects
pointillistically. The editorialising is there in the selection and
juxtaposition of facts, quotes and stories rather than in the author¹s

Since Winston Churchill is still widely regarded as the man without whose
doughty stand against Nazi Evil we would all be speaking German, he is
Baker¹s biggest target. And, boy, does he go to town. The Churchill
presented here is infantile, capricious, egomaniacal and sybaritic ‹ a
ruthless militarist excited by war, careless of the lives of his own and
enemy civilians alike, and intoxicated by his own rhetoric. ŒHis real tyrant
is the glittering phrase,¹ the Australian Prime Minister noted, Œso
attractive to his mind that awkward facts may have to give way.¹

After the declaration of war in 1939, Churchill enthused disgustingly: ŒThe
glory of Old England . . . instant and fearless at the call of honour,
thrilled my being.¹ Baker quotes Gandhi¹s view that Churchillism and
Hitlerism differ in degree more than they differ in kind.

The standard squawk of protest will be that Baker is indulging the
unforgivable sin of Œmoral equivalence¹. I don¹t think he is ‹ though he
wades in exceptionally deep waters. He is indulging, we can say, in Œmoral
comparison¹. He is interested above all in trying to find a way to step to
one side of the endless rhetorical circles by which ends justify means, and
the means of the other side justify making your means your ends. He is
interested in the self-affirming pathology of violence, and in the ways that
a war, waged by all means deemed necessary by its leaders, became on both
sides a racist war of extermination.

Beyond any doubt, there were crazed symmetries, because both sides believed
that the answer to violence was more violence. Canting references to
Œpeace-loving¹ nations driven to take up arms by intolerable aggression were
belied by the bloodthirsty reality. ŒPeace offensive¹ is a term used with
great pungency here; as is talk of the Œmoral effect¹ on civilians of
indiscriminate bombing. The one common enemy Churchill and Hitler had were
people who didn¹t want to kill at all. Pacifists and humanitarians were
regarded on both sides as a pernicious threat ‹ to be suppressed in print
and interned in person.

The two chief evils Human Smoke addresses in most detail are both things
that the Allies took the lead on: bombardment and blockade. Both were
methods of war aimed at civilians. Both caused incredible suffering. Both
were sold on a series of lies. Both did not work. The response in both cases
was to step them up.

As refugees and civilian populations in Belgium, Poland, Norway and Holland
faced starvation, Churchill refused to let food relief through the blockade.
He told Parliament that fats would be used by the enemy to make bombs,
potatoes used to make fuel, and that ‹ less plausibly ‹ Œthe plastic
materials now so largely used in the construction of aircraft are made of

In October 1941, Herbert Hoover asked:

Is the Allied cause any further advanced today because of this starvation of
children? Are Hitler¹s armies any less victorious than if those children had
been saved? Are Britain¹s children better fed today because these millions
of former allied children have been hungry or died? Can you point to one
benefit that has been gained from this holocaust?

The record of the bombing was similar. In 1941 it was estimated that only
one in five British bombers placed its payload Œwithin 75 square miles of
its assigned target¹. ŒNot more than one per cent¹ of bombs hit their
military targets ‹ so targets were selected in order that the bombs that
missed would hit civilians rather than be Œwasted¹. And what were the
results? By May 1941, there had been Œno collapse of civilian morale, no
revolutionary unrest, no industrial taproot cut¹. What was needed? Why, more
and bigger bombs, more dead civilians.

Was it a war fought to prevent the persecution of Jews? It was not. Jewish
refugees were not welcomed in any great numbers anywhere, and when war
started, the vast majority of those summarily interned were just those
refugees. British propagandists, where they were to show images of
suffering, were instructed to concentrate on Œindisputably innocent people .
. . not with violent political opponents. And not with the Jews.¹

As things got worse for Germany, they got exponentially worse for its Jewish
population. Rations in the ghettos plummeted, furs were expropriated in the
dead of winter and Jewish families evicted from their homes to make way for
Aryans dispossessed by the bombing.

This book asks huge questions, and hints at answers. Did Roosevelt actively
court the attack on Pearl Harbor to bring America into the war? Did
Churchill have a hand in the fact that nobody in Coventry was warned about
the devastating imminent bombardment? The one it moves tentatively towards
is: did the second world war accelerate or even bring about the Final

These are serious questions ‹ but by not engaging with secondary sources,
and not offering a narrative line or a direct argument about causation or
motive, Baker sidesteps a degree of responsibility. He meticulously cites
his sources, but does rather less by way of testing them. And by arranging
the dots so that the reader irresistibly joins them up ‹ there are many deft
touches of tendentious colour ‹ the author is able to have his cake and eat
it. It makes this reader, at least, uneasy.

Narrative history, arguably, imposes an artificial order on a sequence of
chaotic and irrational events. Baker¹s method, therefore, can be seen
enshrining in its formal structure a deliberate challenge to the idea that
the history of the second world war made any sense. But it also runs the
risk of inviting the reader to impose an occult order: it is, to follow the
analogy of painting, a form of historical impressionism. Narrative history
makes its judgments explicit, and thereby leaves them open to challenge.

Baker offers unanswerable evidence, though, that the prosecution of the war
by the Allies was in many details as bestial as that by the Nazis, and
sometimes a good deal worse. We are invited to shake our heads at the
idiotic rhetoric, the exterminatory hatred, the savage and callous
tit-for-tat, the determination at every turn to escalate on the logic that
if violence wasn¹t working you simply needed more of it and nastier.

But by stopping in 1941, Baker avoids arguing about what did bring the war
to an end. And what would have happened if the war had not been fought at
all? Could it have been any worse? Would an even greater holocaust have
taken place ‹ albeit at a more leisurely pace? Or would nonviolence, widely
and determinedly practised, have prevailed?

Baker does not pretend to know. Nor can we. But his book makes a strong
case, and makes it originally and with astonishing attack and verve, that
history having given the fight-fire-with-fire mob their chance, we should
just for once try fighting fire with water.

ŒOur way of passive resistance has never yet been tried out,¹ said the
Labour MP George Lansbury in 1939, Œbut war has been tried through all the
centuries and has absolutely failed.¹ Right on.

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