Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker

hum1416567844.01._SX140_SY225_SCLZZZZZZZ_ Human Smoke:The Beginnings of World War II, The End of Civilization

By Nicholson Baker

Simon & Schuster, New York, 2008

Nicholson Baker has compiled an outstanding collection of texts from many sources.  His attention to detail is infinite. Using newspapers, speeches, diaries, memos, public proclamations, and memoirs, as well as secondary sources he has created a record of events and decisions leading up to the Second World War.

Laid out in one or two blocks to a page the text draws you in.  I felt compelled to keep reading even though I grew more and more disturbed and angry.  I learned about the history of carpet bombing and chemical warfare and of Winston Churchill’s idea of “air control”.  This policy would police the British empire, including the tribes in Iraq and Sudan, from above , thereby saving the cost of group troops.

“I think we should certainly proceed with the experimental work on gas bombs, especially mustard gas, which would inflict punishment on recalcitrant natives without inflicting grave injury on them.” Churchill wrote Trenchard [ the head of the Royal Air Force].  Churchill was an expert on the effects of mustard gas–he knew it could blind and kill, especially children and infants.

I read many quotes of the speeches by Goring, Goebbels, and Hitler and many news articles proclaiming the danger of National Socialism as early as 1930.  But England and the United States continued to deal with Germany for purely financial gain right up to the start of the war.

I also learned of the refusal by the United States and England to expand their quota system which would have allowed Jewish refugees to cross their borders.  Nicholson also quotes from the diaries and memoirs of clergy and other peace activists as they tried to bring the attention of their governments and the world at large onto the driving force that was building towards the atrocities that happened in Europe and Asia during World War II.  They tried to find safe havens for refugees and offered to house and feed people all over Europe.

This is a fascinating addition to World War II history that acknowledges the American and British pacifists who tried to save Jewish refugees, feed Europe, reconcile Japan and the United States and stop the war from happening.  As Nicholson says, “They failed, but they were right.”


Filed under WWII challange 2009

10 responses to “Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker

  1. Every war has a dark prelude, a history of people turning a blind eye to its cause until the cause turns up on their doorstep. I read a few accounts of World War II and all of them were similarly critical about the role of the British in feeding Hitler’s megalomania.

    • Hazra – Thanks for your comments. I knew little of the “dark prelude” to WW II before reading Human Smoke. I guess that comes from very ‘pro-American” high school education and a lack of 20th century history follow-through in college.

  2. Hazra is right, there is always a time when society just doesn’t want to know, or if they do, they don’t feel they have the power to stop it. There is a tendency for humans to gravitate towards the loud charasmatic ones, despite questionable ethics. They want to be associated with power. Which now, horrifies us. I love WWII books that look at the back side of things, the unsung heroes. Great review!

  3. This sounds incredible – I think documentary evidence like this is fascinating. And there definitely is a tendency in a lot of the WWII books I’ve read to give the Allied countries a pass. Thanks for this review!

    • Jenny – I’m learning a lot about WW II by being part of the War Through the Generations challenge. Thanks for your comment.

  4. This sounds really good. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. Between the challenge and the history channel, I’ve learned tons about WWII. I’m glad you’re finding the challenge valuable. Sorry that there’s a backlog, but I’ll get your review posted on the challenge blog soon.


  5. Pingback: The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker | Page247

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