Thursday, December 22, 2011

#99: Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker

New York: Simon and Schuster, 2008.  576 pages.

This is not your normal book. It is about the beginning of World War II from the view of a pacifist. It has no chapters. It is arranged chronologically, beginning in 1892 with a statement by Alfred Nobel about the power of explosives. It ends on December 31, 1941, a date "which most of the people who died in World War II were still alive." (473)

If the goal of a book is to make you think and question your assumptions, this book succeeds on every level. No book I have read this year (or possibly in the last 10) made me think and question as much. The knee jerk reaction to this book may be to want to smack the author, yell Hitler was a monster and Churchill was a good guy. This misses the point. Some readers will no doubt be aghast that FDR and Hitler are compared. All readers (including me) will be/were pissed that FDR does not come out looking too good. This is also not the point.

If I could change one thing about this book, it would be the afterward. It was not needed and seemed anti-climactic. This book is about pacifism and the state of Jews during the time before the war, and I do not need to be told that. Most reviewers of this book miss the point. Baker never says that negotiation was thrown out, or that the Holocaust was a direct result of the failure of Britain, the United States and every other fucking country on Earth to accept Jews as refugees from Europe. If a reader wants to draw those conclusions, go ahead. I don't, as I believe the Holocaust would have happened anyway. What escapes most of the critics of the book is the conflation of Jews and Communists in the 1910s and 1920s. Take a look at the Red Scare propaganda in the United States. Or, better yet, try these quotes on for size:

1. He was a Jew, he was still a Jew. Nothing could get over that." -- Winston Churchill in 1937, from a article entitled "Leon Trotsky, Alias Bronstein". (71)

2. "No doubt Jews aren't a lovable people...I don't care about them myself; but that is not sufficient to explain the Pogrom." --Neville Chamberlain (128)

3. "Horrible as it is, some starvation in Europe now, under the British blockade, may be necessary to break the Hitler stranglehold on free men." Milo Perkins, December 1940 (259) This as he argued against any food shipments to occupied Europe, even after the Red Cross and the Friends Assistance Committee agreed to employ mediators to make sure the Nazis took no food. Of course, Milo Perkins was the supervisor of the US Food Stamp program.

The central theme of this book is not about assigning blame for the war, nor is it about equating the deeds of FDR and Hitler. It is the bald truth that no one wanted the Jews from Europe, no one cared about what happened to them. FDR said that "to send Germans back would be against civilized thought" in 1940, but then why was it civilized to deny the entry of Jews from Germany at the same time? When German nationals were rounded up in England in 1939 and 1940, over 75% of them were actually Jews who had escaped Germany. The overwhelming theme of indifference to the suffering of others is a theme here, as is blaming whole peoples for the actions of a few. 

One of the many unspoken arguments in this text is how this blaming leads to the attitude of mass bombing and murder of civilians of any stripe. It is in this sense that the book pisses readers off, especially American and British readers. It holds the cruelties of the past up for inspection. Regardless of the justness of World War II (it is the only conflict in our history, besides perhaps the Civil War, that even begins to remotely rise to the level of just) the baseline of war is death and destruction. This is unquestionable, regardless of who is to blame for the conflict. Who is to blame is often used for justification for further violence and the creation of martyrs (See: The Iraq War, The KKK, the bombing of Dresden, the Blitz, et al.) with no addressing of that baseline fact. That is the real issue this book raises, and why it matters.

No comments:

Post a Comment