Il vous faut abandonner les armes que vous avez car elles n’ont aucune utilité pour vous sauver vous ou l’humanité. Vous inviterez Herr Hitler et signor Mussolini à prendre ce qu’ils veulent des pays que vous appelez vos possessions…. Si ces messieurs choisissent d’occuper vos maisons, vous les évacuerez. S’ils ne vous laissent pas partir librement, vous vous laisserez abattre, hommes, femmes et enfants, mais vous leur refuserez toute allégeance. Gandhi (conseil aux Britanniques, 1940)
Vous pouvez laisser les Nazis dominer le monde, ce qui est mal; ou vous pouvez les renverser par la guerre, ce qui est également mal. Il n’y a pas d’autre choix devant vous… George Orwell (1941)
L’objectivité parfaite, c’est cinq minutes pour les juifs, cinq minutes pour Hitler. Jean-Luc Godard
C’est les Français qui avaient raison pour l’Irak. Bill Steigerwald
Lorsqu’on est en désaccord profond avec quelqu’un, il faut lui parler directement. Barack Obama
Toutes les guerres doivent être vendues, mais la Deuxième guerre mondiale, avec la mémoire du carnage injustifié qui devint alors la Première Guerre Mondiale, n’était pas une guerre facile à vendre. Roosevelt et Churchill s’en sont remarquablement tirés et nous devons depuis lors vivre avec leurs mensonges. (…) La Deuxième guerre mondiale est l’un des mensonges les plus grands et les plus soigneusement élaborés de l’histoire moderne (…) Human smoke (…) pourrait aider le monde à comprendre qu’il n’y a aucune guerre juste, il y a juste la guerre – et que les guerres ne sont pas provoquées par les isolationnistes et les peaceniks mais par les bellicistes et les marchands de canons. Mark Kurlansky (LA Times)
Comme pour l’Irak et comme d’habitude, c’est les Français qui avaient raison.
Nouvelle confirmation de la singulière perspicacité de nos concitoyens, notamment nos Daladier et Pétain, par le dernier grand succès des ventes outre-Atlantique, « Human Smoke » du romancier à succès Nicholson Baker dont le dernier titre de gloire était jusqu’à présent un roman envisageant, « pour le bien de l’humanité », l’assassinat du président Bush.
Et surtout véritable petit joyau d’équivalence morale où l’on découvre que Roosevelt et Churchill étaient de fieffés antisémites et donc pas meilleurs qu’Hitler et que c’est en fait leur bellicisme qui, contre les vaillants efforts de nos valeureux pacifistes, a poussé les nazis et les militaristes japonais à la guerre et à la fumée humaine des cheminées d’Auschwitz.
Qui tombe naturellement à pic pour une certaine gauche et ses relais médiatiques comme le LA Times (mais il est vrai pas le NYT) ce que Murawiec appelait « l’union sacrée de John Lennon et de Neville Chamberlain » pour confirmer l’actuelle mise au pilori de l’équipe Bush et la candidature de leur nouvelle coqueluche Obambi.
Quitte à retomber, comme le rappelle l’excellente critique du NY Sun, dans les pires travers (via une très tendance et tendancieuse juxtaposition chronologique de coupures de presse de 1892 à 1941) de l’objectivité journalistique qui, selon le bon mot de Godard donne « cinq minutes pour les juifs, cinq minutes pour Hitler » …
Review of: Human Smoke
The NY Sun
March 12, 2008
Even a book as bad as « Human Smoke » (Simon and Schuster, 576 pages, $30), Nicholson Baker’s perverse tract about the origins of World War II, helps to confirm the continuing centrality of that war in our moral lives. Myths call forth debunkers, and the myth of « the good war » — that complacent phrase that camouflages the most deadly conflict in human history — has provoked Mr. Baker to remind us of some of the ways in which World War II was not good. There is nothing to object to in this: On the contrary, no one is more alert than the historians to the true ambiguities of the war. In particular, the terrible facts of the Allied bombing campaign — which inflicted unspeakable civilian casualties on Germany, without appreciably shortening the war — have been studied and debated more openly in the last few years than ever before.
The problem with Mr. Baker’s book is that he is not interested in ambiguity, but in countering the received myth of the good war with his own myth of the bad war. Mr. Baker’s ignorance, however, is much more disgraceful than the ignorance he seeks to combat — first, because he presents it as knowledge, and second, because World War II was, in fact, if not simply a good war, then an absolutely necessary one. In arguing the contrary, Mr. Baker is trying to convince his reader that false is true, and at times even that good is evil.
To take its theses one by one, Mr. Baker’s book is designed to convince the reader that America should not have fought Germany or Japan; that Franklin Roosevelt connived to get us into the war at the behest of the arms manufacturers, and probably knew about the bombing of Pearl Harbor in advance; that Winston Churchill was a bloodthirsty buffoon and a protofascist; that in Japan’s invasion of China, China was the aggressor; that after the fall of France, Churchill was culpable in vowing to fight on, and not acceding to Hitler’s « peace » terms; that the Holocaust was, at least in part, Hitler’s response to British aggression, and that the only people who demonstrated true wisdom in the run-up to the war were American and British pacifists, who refused to take up arms no matter how pressing the need.
« Was the war necessary? » Mr. Baker asks in his author’s note. « Was it a ‘good war’? Did waging it help anyone who needed help? These were the basic questions that I hoped to answer when I began writing. » Though he does not explicitly say so here, the whole tendency of « Human Smoke » is to answer all three questions with a negative. In other words, Mr. Baker seeks to rehabilitate the most decisively refuted interpretation of World War II, the interpretation advanced by isolationists and appeasers in the 1930s. That interpretation was refuted, not by historians with an axe to grind or by Allied propagandists, but by history itself. By 1945 at the latest, it was easy to answer all of Mr. Baker’s questions in the affirmative, and for far-sighted observers — such as Churchill, the villain of « Human Smoke » — the answers were clear even in 1935. If it was necessary for the survival of civilization to stop Nazi Germany from dominating Europe — which is to say, from replacing freedom with tyranny, suffocating culture and thought; inculcating racism and cruelty in future generations; depopulating Eastern Europe and turning it into German lebensraum; enslaving tens of millions of Poles and Russians, and exterminating European Jewry — then it was necessary to fight the war. If it was good that, after 1945, the United States was the dominant power in the Western world and not Nazi Germany, then World War II was a good war — even though war itself is always a tragedy. If the Allied victory spared Europeans from France to Greece the fate of Nazi occupation and slavery, then waging the war helped people who needed help.
These conclusions are so plain that no one who spent even a little time reading and thinking seriously about World War II could avoid them. But Mr. Baker confessedly knew little about the subject before he began « Human Smoke. » « My interest in World War II, » he writes in an author’s note, « began when, some years ago, I first opened bound volumes of the Herald Tribune and read headlines for the bombing of Berlin and Tokyo and wondered how we got there. »
Nor does Mr. Baker have any experience with writing about large historical and moral questions. On the contrary, he is known as a writer obsessed with trivia, and his novels are stunts designed to discover how narrow a writer’s compass can become before it vanishes entirely. « The Mezzanine » is an interior monologue that takes place entirely during an escalator ride, as the narrator contemplates buying shoelaces; « Vox » is a transcript of a conversation between strangers on a phone-sex line. Mr. Baker’s last book, « Checkpoint, » was something of a departure: It was a dialogue about whether it would be morally acceptable to assassinate President Bush.
When such a writer turns to history, it is only to be expected that he will be hopelessly at a loss. Mr. Baker, in fact, does not even attempt to make a consecutive argument based on knowledge of all the relevant sources, the sine qua non of historical writing. Instead, he designed « Human Smoke » as a collage or montage — a series of short paragraphs, each of which presents a single incident or observation from the years up to and including 1941. (Each one is tagged with a portentous announcement of the date — « It was May 31, 1941, » and so on — as though to give the impression of a newsreel or a rocket-launch countdown.)
With a novelist’s preference for the dramatic and immediate, Mr. Baker takes most of his examples from published newspaper stories, or else from diaries and correspondence. In fact, it was his much-publicized devotion to newspapers — he created a personal archive to save old issues that libraries threw away — that led Mr. Baker to write the book in the first place. As he told a New York Times reporter recently, « Over and over again I would take out the five most important books on X subject, and then I’d go back to the New York Times, and by God, the story that was written the day after was by far the best source. Those reporters were writing with everything in the right perspective. »
But how does Mr. Baker know what the right perspective was? Since when is a reporter more knowledgeable than a historian, or foresight more accurate than hindsight? What Mr. Baker really means, one suspects, is that old newspapers offer a sense of contingency, of different possible futures, that histories do not. But read without a historian’s judgment and knowledge, old clippings simply reproduce old errors.
Mr. Baker is especially fond, for instance, of stories about heroic pacifists who made dire prophecies about what would happen if America went to war. He quotes Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin, the only member of Congress to vote against American participation in both world wars, speaking at a rally at Town Hall in Manhattan in April 1941: « You cannot have war and democracy; you cannot have war and liberty. » Mr. Baker admires Rankin, and clearly wants this message to echo resonantly. But if we take a moment to think about it, it is obvious that Rankin was exactly wrong. America had war, and still had democracy and liberty. What’s more, if America had not entered the war, there would have been far less liberty in the world than there was after Germany’s defeat.
It does not take much thought to puncture Rankin’s slogan; but thought is just what Mr. Baker’s montage-method discourages. He gives us disconnected factoids, portentous with implications, but does not give us the means to decide whether the implications are correct. Using omission and juxtaposition in place of narrative allows him to distort the real sequence of events — as when he allows the reader to imagine that America sold weapons to China for aggressive purposes, rather than to assist China in resisting Japanese invasion; or when he implies that, if Britain had made peace with Hitler in 1941, Nazi aggression would have ceased.
This technique is never more delusive than when Mr. Baker seems to take Nazi propaganda at face value. In September 1941, when the mayor of Hanover deported the city’s Jews « to the East » — code for extermination — he gave as an excuse the shortage of housing caused by British bombing. « In order to relieve the distressed situation caused by the war, » the mayor announced, « I see myself compelled immediately to narrow down the space available to Jews in the city. » That this was a transparent and shameless lie, of a piece with all the Nazi « justifications » for their persecution of Jews — that by September 1941 the genocide of the Jews was already well advanced, and the « final solution » a matter of implicit if not yet explicit Nazi policy — cannot emerge in Mr. Baker’s uncritical account. Indeed, by reproducing Nazi language uncritically, Mr. Baker effectively endorses it.
This is never more shocking than when he quotes Joseph Goebbels’s description of Churchill: « His face is devoid of one single kindly feature. This man walks over dead bodies to satisfy his blind and presumptuous personal ambition. » This is so close to Mr. Baker’s own vision of Churchill that he seems to be citing Goebbels as a trustworthy source — an impression reinforced when Mr. Baker writes that this little rhapsody of hatred was composed after Goebbels took « a moment to look searchingly at a photograph of the prime minister. »
A book that can adduce Goebbels as an authority in order to vilify Churchill has clearly lost touch with all moral and intellectual bearings. No one who knows about World War II will take « Human Smoke » at all seriously. The problem is that people who don’t know enough, and who enjoy the spectacle of a writer of apparent authority turning the myth of « the good war » upside down, will think « Human Smoke » is a brave book. Already a reviewer in the Los Angeles Times has praised it for « demonstrating that World War II was one of the biggest, most carefully plotted lies in modern history. » That people who think this way about the past will apply the same self-righteous ignorance to the politics of the present and future makes « Human Smoke » not just a stupid book, but a scary one.
‘Human Smoke’ by Nicholson Baker
An inside look at the inexorable march of Britain and the United States toward World War II.
March 9, 2008
The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization
Simon & Schuster: 576 pp., $30
Not long ago, because there is no winter baseball in this country, I was channel surfing in search of amusement and ended up watching a debate of Republican presidential candidates. Sen. John McCain was attacking Rep. Ron Paul for opposing the Iraq war. He called Paul an « isolationist » and said it was that kind of thinking that had caused World War II. How old, I asked myself, is John McCain, that he is keeping alive this ancient World War II canard? Is it going to pass down to subsequent generations? All wars have to be sold, but World War II, within the memory of the pointless carnage that then became known as World War I, was a particularly hard sell. Roosevelt and Churchill did it well, and their lies have been with us ever since.
Nicholson Baker’s « Human Smoke » is a meticulously researched and well-constructed book demonstrating that World War II was one of the biggest, most carefully plotted lies in modern history. According to the myth, British and American statesmen naively thought they could reason with such brutal fascists as Germany’s Hitler and Japan’s Tojo. Faced with this weakness, Hitler and Tojo tried to take over the world, and the United States and Britain were forced to use military might to stop them.
Because Baker is primarily a novelist, it might be expected that, having taken on this weighty subject, he would write about it with great flare and drama. Readers may initially be disappointed, yet one of this book’s great strengths is that it avoids flourishes in favor of the kind of lean prose employed by journalists. « Human Smoke » is a series of well-written, brilliantly ordered snapshots, the length of news dispatches. Baker states that he wanted to raise these questions about World War II: « Was it a ‘good war’? Did waging it help anyone who needed help? » His very effective style is to offer the facts and leave readers to draw their own conclusions.
The facts are powerful. Baker shows, step by step, how an alliance dominated by leaders who were bigoted, far more opposed to communism than to fascism, obsessed with arms sales and itching for a fight coerced the world into war.
Anti-Semitism was rife among the Allies. Of Franklin Roosevelt, Baker notes that in 1922, when he was a New York attorney, he « noticed that Jews made up one-third of the freshman class at Harvard » and used his influence to establish a Jewish quota there. For years he obstructed help for European Jewry, and as late as 1939 he discouraged passage of the Wagner-Rogers bill, an attempt by Congress to save Jewish children. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain said in 1939 of German treatment of Jews that « no doubt Jews aren’t a lovable people. I don’t care about them myself. » Once the war began, Winston Churchill wanted to imprison German Jewish refugees because they were Germans. What a comfort such leadership must have been to the Nazis, who, according to the New York Times of Dec. 3, 1931, were trying to figure out a way to rid Germany of Jews without « arousing foreign opinion. »
Churchill is a dominant figure in « Human Smoke, » depicted as a bloodthirsty warmonger who, in 1922, was still bemoaning the fact that World War I hadn’t lasted a little longer so that Britain could have had its air force in place to bomb Berlin and « the heart of Germany. » But no, he whined, it had to stop, « owing to our having run short of Germans and enemies. »
Churchill was not driven by anti-fascism. In his 1937 book « Great Contemporaries, » he described Hitler as « a highly competent, cool, well-informed functionary with an agreeable manner. » The same book savagely attacked Leon Trotsky. (What was wrong with Trotsky? « He was still a Jew. Nothing could get over that. ») Churchill repeatedly praised Mussolini for his « gentle and simple bearing. » In 1927, he told a Roman audience, « If I had been an Italian, I am sure that I should have been entirely with you from the beginning to the end of your victorious struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism. » Churchill considered fascism « a necessary antidote to the Russian virus, » Baker writes. In 1938, he remarked to the press that if England were ever defeated in war, he hoped « we should find a Hitler to lead us back to our rightful position among nations. »
As Baker’s book makes clear, between the two World Wars communism, not fascism, was the enemy. David Lloyd George, who had been Britain’s prime minister during World War I, cautioned in 1933, the year Hitler came to power, that if the Allies managed to overthrow Nazism, « what would take its place? Extreme communism. Surely that cannot be our objective. » But even more than the communists, Churchill’s enemy No. 1 in the 1920s and early ’30s was Mohandas Gandhi and his doctrine of nonviolence, which Churchill warned « will, sooner or later, have to be grappled with and finally crushed. »
In the 1930s, U.S. industry was free to sell the Germans and the Japanese whatever they’d buy, including weapons. Not to lose out, the British and French sold tanks and bombers to Hitler. Calls by Joseph Tenenbaum of the American Jewish Congress to boycott Germany were ignored. There was no attempt to contain, isolate, hinder or overthrow Hitler — not because of naiveté but because of commerce. It was the Depression. There were Germans trying to overthrow Hitler, but the U.S. and Britain and their industries were obstructing that effort.
Baker shows that the Japanese, as early as 1934, were complaining that Roosevelt was deliberately provoking them. In January 1941, Japan protested the U.S. military buildup in Hawaii. Joseph Grew, our ambassador to Japan, reported rumors that the Japanese response would be a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Yet according to World War II mythology, America was blissfully sleeping, unprepared for war, when caught by surprise by the dastardly « sneak attack. » (Isn’t it curious that Asians carry out « sneak attacks, » whereas Westerners launch « preemptive strikes »?) A year earlier, Baker shows, Roosevelt began planning the bombing of Japan — which had invaded China, but with which we were not at war — from Chinese air bases with American planes and, when necessary, American pilots. Pearl Harbor was a purely military target, but Roosevelt wanted to bomb Japanese cities with incendiary bombs; he’d been assured that their cities would burn fast, being made largely of wood and paper.
Roosevelt evinced no desire to negotiate. In fact, Baker writes, in October he « began leaking the news of his new war plan, » with $100 billion earmarked for airplanes alone. Grew again warned Roosevelt that he was pushing Japan toward armed conflict with the United States, but the president continued his war preparations. Finally, the night before the Japanese attack, Roosevelt sent a message to Emperor Hirohito calling for talks. He read it to the Chinese ambassador, remarking that he thought the message would « be fine for the record. »
People are going to get really angry at Baker for criticizing their favorite war. But he hasn’t fashioned his tale from gossip. It is documented, with copious notes and attributions. The grace of these well-ordered snapshots is that there is no diatribe; you are left to put things together yourself. Read « Human Smoke. » It may be one of the most important books you will ever read. It could help the world to understand that there is no Just War, there is just war — and that wars are not caused by isolationists and peaceniks but by the promoters of warfare. *
Mark Kurlansky is a journalist and the author, most recently, of « Nonviolence: 25 Lessons From the History of a Dangerous Idea. »
Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke presents a singular portrait of the world’s slide into war, says Piers Brendon
May 3, 2008
by Nicholson Baker
566pp, Simon & Schuster, £20
This book consists of hundreds of vignettes, arranged in chronological order, which provide a composite picture of the world sliding into the abyss of Hitler’s war. One item features Nazi stormtroopers letting off stink bombs in a cinema showing the anti-war film All Quiet on the Western Front in 1930; another cites Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1940 opinion that the bombing of Europe is a blessing since it will enable architects to start again; yet another records how in 1941 Russian aircraft dropped Christmas cards on the invaders depicting fields of crosses topped with German helmets over the caption, « Living space in the East ». Nicholson Baker’s snippets come from a variety of printed sources, including diaries, letters, historical accounts and contemporary newspapers, especially the New York Times. And their singular purpose is, as his afterword confirms, to show that American and British pacifists were right to oppose the war.
Theirs was an unfashionable cause during their own time despite Baker’s assertion that in 1925 « most of the world was pacifist ». This was not so: what gave a fillip to the pacifist movement was the anti-war literature of the late 20s and the prospect of another global conflict during the 30s. Even then, pacifists had only a marginal influence, partly because few of them believed in their own creed. Most wanted international disarmament and collective security, and they were prepared to resist when faced by aggression. As Gandhi said, they espoused their cause « with the mental reservation that when pacifism fails, arms might be used ». Yet the Mahatma himself acknowledged (in 1938) that if there could be a justifiable war it would be fought against Germany to prevent the persecution of the Jews. It was, indeed, the enormity of Hitler’s crimes and the impossibility of stopping him with anything less than brute force that discredited pacifism.
Here Baker becomes especially interesting and provocative, standing this argument on its head and trying to demonstrate that the very horrors of Nazism vindicated the pacifist position. His model is Gandhi, who thought that non-violence was most efficacious when violence was most terrible. And Baker’s case is summed up by Christopher Isherwood, who, on July 8 1940, engaged in a lunchtime dispute with Thomas Mann’s son, Klaus. The latter said that pacifists, by giving the Nazis free rein, would permit civilisation to be annihilated. Isherwood answered with Aldous Huxley’s point: « Civilisation dies anyhow of blood poisoning the moment it takes up its enemies’ weapons and exchanges crime for crime. » Baker’s contention is that when people fight fascism they descend to its moral level. By killing in cold blood as many as possible of their own species who have never offended them, as Swift said, they shed their humanity and become as feral as their foes.
Much of Baker’s book seems designed to expose the ethical equivalence between the democracies and the dictatorships. The former condemned Nazi antisemitism but, at the international conference at Evian in July 1938, refused to accept its victims as refugees, prompting a German newspaper headline: « Jews for sale: Who wants them? No one. » Franklin Roosevelt’s pleas that the innocent should not suffer for the deeds of the guilty appear as consummate hypocrisy when set beside his implacable prosecution of hostilities after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, which Baker represents as the outrage that the president had long sought to provoke in order to enter the war. Winston Churchill earns opprobrium as an admirer of Mussolini and a militant imperialist who advocated the use of poison gas on « recalcitrant natives » and « uncivilised tribes ».
Churchill, almost as much as Hitler, is the villain of Baker’s book because he championed « an absolutely devastating, exterminating attack by very heavy bombers on the Nazi homeland ». Here Baker is on more familiar ground. At the time, Bishop Bell of Chichester and others bravely denounced the immorality of airborne attacks on civilians, an indictment that grew more telling as Allied bombing became increasingly accurate and destructive later in the war. Yet after Dunkirk Churchill had no other means of retaliating against Hitler, even though, as emerged in 1941, the RAF could only hit military targets with one bomb in a hundred – one bomber group based in Yorkshire mistook the Thames for the Rhine and dropped its bombs near Cambridge. Moreover Churchill, though ruthless, was not heartless. Watching a film about air raids on Germany, he exclaimed: « Are we beasts? Are we taking this too far? »
Baker prefers to note Goebbels’s comment on a photograph of Churchill: « This man walks over dead bodies to satisfy his blind and presumptuous personal ambition. » Baker also includes cameos which suggest, incorrectly, that Churchill was antisemitic. For example, he quotes from an essay in Churchill’s 1937 book Great Contemporaries which identified the malign Trotsky by his race: « ‘He was a Jew,’ wrote Churchill with finality. ‘He was still a Jew. Nothing could get over that.' » But Baker omits the context. Churchill was explaining that Trotsky’s Jewishness was an obstacle to his becoming autocrat of Communist Russia, and he criticised « so narrow-minded a reason ».
Other bits of Baker’s collage are misleading. Details are wrong, and there is a muddle over when in 1939 Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty. An uninformed reader would infer from two items that Hitler was responsible for the burning of the Reichstag. Mass Observation is said to be the government’s public opinion sampling service, whereas it was a private quasi-anthropological enterprise which the authorities deemed leftwing and subversive. Of course, Baker is an American novelist, not a British historian. But unfortunately this is also reflected in his mode of writing, which is not joined up. He presents us with a disparate sequence of epiphanies, some very striking, rather than a coherent thesis. His book is a diversified mosaic, a tessellated pavement without cement.
The reason for this, perhaps, is that fragments of idealism carry more conviction than a systematic justification of pacifism in the age of the dictators. Thus Baker makes much of a fable enshrined in John Haynes Holmes’s play If This Be Treason (1935). It tells how a pacifist American president ignores cries of vengeance after a surprise Japanese attack on the US fleet and flies unarmed to seek peace, whereupon the Japanese people revolt non-violently against their militaristic leaders and restore amity. But Baker fails to admit that pacifists could only survive in a liberal society, secured by what Kipling called the « uniforms that guard you while you sleep ». He does not say how the Nazis would have dealt with the Indian Congress: Hitler told Lord Halifax that he would shoot Gandhi first and then his supporters in batches.
Finally, Baker refuses to acknowledge that submitting to violence is in itself a form of wickedness because it assists the triumph of tyranny. As George Orwell said in 1941, his contemporaries had to choose between two evils: « You can let the Nazis rule the world; that is evil; or you can overthrow them by war, which is also evil. » The lesser evil was to fight. Paradoxically, though, there is no denying the moral courage and noble purpose of many conscientious objectors. Baker represents them well in this high-minded, wrong-headed book.
· Piers Brendon’s The Decline and Fall of the British Empire is published by Cape
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