Human Smoke

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 April, 2008, 12:00am

Human Smoke

by Nicholson Baker

Simon & Schuster, HK$350

This piece of revisionist history posing as a pacifist tract veers between the bizarre and the risible. Among some of the implications - and they are only implications, because the author refuses to take a stand behind any of them - are that America was responsible for the Holocaust, the world would have been better off if Britain had negotiated with Hitler rather than fight Nazism and that China was the aggressor in the anti-Japanese war, not Japan.

In his afterword, author Nicholson Baker says he wrote the book to answer the question: did waging [the second world war] help anyone who needed help? Baker would seem to think not. In his view, appeasing the Nazis would have been the right thing to do.

Human Smoke, a reference to the human detritus found in concentration camps (above), provoked some controversy when news of its US publication seeped out. Now the book has actually been read, the controversy has subsided.

It's just too eccentric and ill researched to form a basis for debate. It has an odd structure for a supposed work of history: Baker simply prints edited versions of newspaper articles he waded through in his Maine home. The extracts dwell on the ferocity of England's bombing campaign over Germany, or report anti-Semitic statements attributed to US president Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The author offers no context for his barrage of soundbites and makes no effort to shape them into a cohesive historical narrative. He hopes his choice of quotations will prove that, although the Nazis weren't pleasant people, they were forced to go to war by those nasty British and American leaders.

Pacifism is nothing to be sneered at, of course. Soldiers and civilians die in wars, which are best avoided. The main trouble with Nicholson's cowardly refusal to argue a firm position is that he gives no alternative to going to war with Nazi Germany. He spends a lot of time dwelling on the fact Britain dropped more bombs on Germany at the start of the war and infers this escalated the conflict.

He also infers the Jews might not have been killed by the Nazis if Britain and America had not taken up the cudgels and that they might have just been deported. (Somehow, Baker feels this is vaguely acceptable.) However, he never tackles exactly how the allies could have brokered a peace with the Nazis and how this would have worked out in a geopolitical context.

Baker's history is flawed too. His selections infer Hitler manipulated the German population by control of the media. Germans themselves weren't anti-Semitic, he suggests, and not particularly interested in empire - they were hoodwinked into it. Well, not all Germans were anti-Semitic, but anyone who has read William L. Shirer's classic The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich will know that organised anti-Semitic movements in Germany dated back to at least 1880. He also fails to analyse how the Germans and the Japanese were capable of committing such horrific crimes against humanity. Baker tries to put the blame entirely on Hitler and his cronies, but that doesn't wash with the greater body of reported fact about the complicity of the German and Japanese populaces.

Finally, Baker's methodology is at fault. He says he used mainly old newspapers to research the war, which, he claims, he knew nothing about until he wrote this book. In Baker's eccentric world, newspapers reveal more truth than works of history, which aren't to be trusted.

It's true newspaper reporters in the field often have a better grasp of what's going on than academics back home. But their jobs are different: the newspaper journalist reports what he sees, the historian puts it into a greater context with more information, and the benefit of hindsight. Newspaper reports from the field are often wrong and Baker's method seems horribly defective.

Baker's question - did waging the war help anyone who needed help? - is plainly ridiculous. Those liberated from the Nazi death camps would say that it did. Wars may be too terrible to be called just, but sometimes, as with the second world war, they are necessary.