Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization

by Nicholson Baker

I remember the first time I heard about Hitler. My father and I were hiking along a creek in Northern Illinois as he told me the basics. I was baffled by the idea that murder, that most basic of all wrongdoing, would ever be encouraged by a world leader. This shows how naive I was at the time; it wasn't long before I would learn of the myriad exceptions to "Thou Shalt Not Kill."

Later, as I continued to fill in the gaps in my knowledge about World War II, I came to accept the idea that, however I might feel about the morality of war in general, this particular war was both necessary and unavoidable. I could doubt the existence of true evil in the world, yet see it clearly in the actions of Hitler and his Nazis. If there was ever a time to step in and destroy evil to preserve goodness, this was it.

Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke asks that we look again. Baker is known for seeing the details most of us miss; this time he's turned his eye on the ephemera of the years leading up to World War II -- journals, diaries, newspaper articles, contemporary interviews, radio speeches -- and put together a chronological mosaic of people and places as they were at the time. The major players are there, as are the citizens and soldiers, but we also hear quite a bit from those who opposed the war, and those who offered alternate paths. More than anything I've read, this book took the inevitability out of the equation, left me wondering not only what would happen but what could happen. What if Roosevelt had loosened our tight quotas on Jewish immigrants, allowing thousands of refugees to escape from Europe? What if Churchill had not insisted on his blockade, which starved not only the Nazis but all those innocents we told ourselves we were saving? Why did Roosevelt find it necessary in 1934 to parade our battleships through Japanese waters? What if Hitler's ridiculous plan to send the Jews to Madagascar had succeeded, instead of his horrific "Plan B"?

By our actions, did we save as many lives as we destroyed? Is war ever truly inevitable?

Whatever conclusions you come to after reading Human Smoke, it's well worth the time. It was one of the most eye-opening and thought-provoking books I've read in a great while.

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