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Baker Human Smoke

Updated on November 28, 2011

Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke: The beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization is not a traditional narrative history of events leading up to the war. It is more like a demonic scrapbook of illustrative vignettes taken from newspaper articles, radio speeches, diaries, and memoirs tracking pacifism and militarism in juxtaposition.

Some reviewers refer to Baker's structure as a narrative, but this is not a book following the narrative history style. It is a scrapbook of decisive and illustrative moments, juxtaposed in a series that points to the worldwide problem of militarism and presence of pacifism. These vignettes range from the well-known to the long-forgotten through the twenties to New Years' Day 1942.

What does this distinctive style of presentation give the reader? It is an antidote to hero-creation. Churchill was a charismatic war leader, but he was not free of vices, and some of those vices, such as anti-Semitism, were shared by a wide public. Japanese and German militarism did not exist in a vacuum; Britain and the United States were also moving in that direction, though more hesitantly and with less singular support than that possible in less pluralistic cultures. The fear of Bolshevism, recognized as one of the motors of Nazi popularity, was certainly widespread throughout Europe and the United States, and the Nazis were not the only party to wed 'Jew' and Bolshevist together into an international conspiracy. The elements that in Nazi Germany formed an ideological whole were shared in shards with the European world as a whole.

As the Baby Boomer generation aged, it came to form an apologia to its parents. In that apologia it returned to World War II, the Good War, and delivered paeans to the fathers who fought in that war. The World War II generation became the Greatest Generation, became as a whole population an object of veneration. There were heroes in that generation, of course, as there are heroes in all generations, in both prominent and unlikely locations. However, making a generation heroic removes all meaning from the designation. A soldier doing his job is not heroic, for the hero surpasses others. A hero does more than is required, knowing what he risks. A hero stakes his death and, sometimes, to his surprise, receives life instead. Heroes do not follow orders, or at least the following of orders does not form the substance of their heroism. Covering an entire generation in the mantle of heroism removes from our view the cowards, the complacent, the complicit, and the apathetic. A generation of heroes is a lie.

The greatest contribution of this style of presentation, however, lies in the manner in which it reveals the control over material traditional narrative and theory possess. History is written after the events under scrutiny are finished. As the past is not subject to change, it becomes easy to view the series of events as they unfolded to be the only way in which events could have unfolded. The result, enshrined and made inescapable, becomes a fate, a destiny, a thing that could have been no other way. However, history is not destiny, not in a simple, linear formula. It does not, despite the currency of popular quotation, repeat itself in a cycle of recurrence. Every historical event forms from a confluence of discreet decisions, repercussions, influences, and conflicts, every one of which was subject at their time of occurrence to differing solutions and interpretations than the one settled upon. It is the very complexity of historical possibilities, probabilities, and perceptions that allows for history to be written. History analyzes the past, but it also argues with it, seeking to answer the question "Why?" In a why question, alternatives are implicit; there were other answers, other solutions, other perceptions that went unheeded or were rejected.

Baker is especially good at pointing to the role of the arms industry, especially in the United States, in the creation of the possibility of global war. The web of interests, the global movement of interested parties, and the chicanery arms dealers resorted to in order to get orders filed and filled are here. The imperative of profit over all other considerations, wilfully neglecting the certain suffering and breaches of peace those profits involved, is well illustrated in the actions of Lockheed, Boeing, and Vickers in England. The United States, England, and France sold the arms to be aimed at them when the time came. It is the nature of the arms industry that, permitted to sell where it wills, some of its sales will arm those who intend its home country harm.

There are a few problems with this style of presentation. Interjections from the historian's own voice, as when he quotes another historian on the brutalization of the staff involved in euthanasia operations at Hartheim, seem out of place. The style rejects such editorializing and makes this break in structure stand out. Here, the text seems to say, I, the author, step in. Rather than quote what a historian said about this, I think it would have been more in keeping with Baker's chosen style to incorporate testimony from the euthanasia trials following the war, contemporary diaries, or testimony from witnesses and participants illustrating the brutalized behavior of the staff. It was not necessary for Baker to step in. His goal could have been achieved and his style kept whole.

Another difficulty lies in the scrapbook nature of the presentation itself. While this presentation does allow discreet events from a wide range of sources and covering the global geography to face each other in concordance or discordance in the text, it weights those events to the vignettes that would appeal to the journalistic need for the sensational and picturesque. Thus, Goering's costumes are detailed while his more muted exchanges in private scenes and the combats of the powerful outside the public eye are not. The prominence of journalism as a source increases this tendency.

There is also a limit to the utility of scrapbooking history. The historian presenting material in this manner does not explain. He creates a document of disparate elements held together only by his interest in them. Without a narrative structure to connect the elements, to show where their differences lie and suggest a relative importance to them in a broader construction of the period, every instance acquires equal weight or must be weighed by the reader's own idiosyncratic methods. The misidentification of dissimilar things as similar is eased, as little attention is paid to the fine gradations of meaning possible in the use of general terms like 'pacifism' and 'militarism', and a global context elides local differences in use and context.

Baker's book is an interesting one. It can be a revealing one. But it is a book to use with caution. Certainly, it should not be utilized as an introductory text to the period or the war. Other books are better for that purpose. However, it can contribute significantly to discussions of the questions introductory texts bring to the fore: Why was the world so hesitant to help Jewish refugees? What purpose did the bombing of civilian populations serve? What did a world limping to war look like, think like? Where were the "good people" of the world when the fascists took over Europe?


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