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Human Smoke, The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization – Nicholson Baker

published by Simon & Schuster, London and New York 2008

This is a unique book, the author has collected a collection of contemporary articles and news items, starting with one 1892 quotation by Alfred Nobel, the explosives manufacturer, but otherwise using articles which start in 1914; it ends with two quotations from 31 December 1941.  In the process of building our understanding of how the terror of global conflict developed Baker enlightens even those of us who thought that we knew everything about the causes of World War II.

In the entire manuscript the author only actually writes an afterword at the end of the book, a page and a half in a manuscript which nearly 600 pages long, if the index and notes are included.

Some of the material deals with the peace-makers and those opposed to war in principle, an aspect of the conflict which is normally over-looked, as you would expect the slow build-up of German oppression of the Jews is chronicled, but Baker is even-handed in his selections and it is obvious that the British policy of the mass bombing of German civilians was formulated early in the war, not something that developed in 1942 and 1943, he also reports on the less attractive aspects of Churchill’s aggression.  He gives a number of examples of the general British refusal to allow Red Cross food ships to take supplies to children in occupied Europe, although Churchill agreed in January 1941 to allow one ship to dock carrying dried milk and vitamins, as the result of America pressure.

The first part of the book deals with the events which lead to the conflict, and the remainder the period from September 1939 to the end of 1941.  On the 1st April 1933 Hitler’s friend Ernst Hansfstaengel told the Chairman of the Foreign Policy Association of the U.S., James G McDonald, that “we have arranged to wipe out the entire Jewish population in the Reich.”

The author notes a report, for example, on the German bombing of the Spanish town of Guernica on the 28th April 1937, the subject of Picasso’s masterpiece. Goering said, “we had nowhere else to try out our machines”.

Churchill’s commanders referred to his mercurial nature and it is remarkable that Churchill seems to have avoided the blame for errors during the Norwegian campaign of 1940 and Balkan and Greek campaigns of 1941.  In August 1941 the British director of military operations wrote that Churchill’s decision to allocate half of all British industrial capacity to make bombs and bombers was “dangerously wrong”.

On the 27th May 1941 George Bell, Bishop of Chichester, spoke to the other Anglian bishops and pointed out that RAF night raids on German soil had preceded German raids on England.

On the 4th October 1940 a Japanese aircraft dropped fleas and grain on the Chinese city of Chuhsien, people began dying of bubonic plague, the city of Ningpo was also attacked and a 100 people died of plague there. On the 18th  On the 12th December he wrote that, “The world war is here, and the annihilation of the Jews must be the necessary consequence.” March 1941 Goebbels noted in his diary that “Vienna will soon be entirely Jew-Free.”

Before Pearl Harbor Roosevelt had drafted the Victory Program which called for a war against Germany and Japan, it was leaked to the press on the 4th December 1941. On the 7th December 1941 Japan attacked the US fleet at Pearl Harbor.

The reports interweave the various elements of the war and the build-up to the conflict, the increasing pressure on German Jews is recorded, step by step. On the 27 September 1941 Elena Efimovna Borodyanska-Knysh and her daughter were lead to Babi Yar, outside Kiev in the Ukraine, where thousands of people were being shot by the Germans, she jumped in the pit of dead bodies with her daughter and was later able to escape.

This unusual book is definitely in the category of books which you cannot put down, I strongly recommend it, not only for students of history, but for all who are interested in the role of human folly and in the way in which events are driven by hatred and recklessness. It is obvious that far too many were planning for war long before the conflict started and it can be argued that there were numerous occasions when peace-making could have been attempted. Baker does not deny the hatred created by the Nazis and the horrors of Japan’s conflict in China, but it would be fair to say the world stood far too long on the sidelines while the Nazis established their state without seriously attempting to stop the march of Fascism, had action been taken earlier by a combination of nations it is unlikely that Hitler would have developed his aggression to the same levels.  But, following the Munich Agreement of 1938 the Nazis were lead to believe that there would not be effective international opposition to their policies.

Why study the early 20th century, the reason is that the world is now in another global crisis and we need to learn from the mistakes of the past, to repeat them would be folly indeed.

About Andrew Palmer (275 Articles)
Book by Andrew Palmer explores today's fundamental & systemic problems of the world. Proposes a framework for understanding the forces that are driving change.

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