:: Article

Smoke and Mirrors

By Max Dunbar.


All in all it is difficult not to feel that pacifism, as it appears among a section of the intelligentsia, is secretly inspired by an admiration for power and successful cruelty. The mistake was made of pinning this emotion to Hitler, but it could easily be retransfered.

– George Orwell, ‘Notes on Nationalism’

The difficulty with Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke is that so much has already been said. His series of fragments and anecdotes centred around the beginning of World War Two has been attacked by professional historians. Adam Kirsch: ‘Mr. Baker is trying to convince his reader that false is true, and at times even that good is evil’; Anne Applebaum: ‘You cannot fault his scholarship, because aside from the process of accumulating a set of anecdotes, no scholarship has been conducted’; William Grimes: ‘World War II was a deeply unfortunate conflict in which many lives were lost. Mr. Baker is right about that, but not about much else in this self-important, hand-wringing, moral mess of a book.’

Consult these writers for a dissection of Baker’s junk history. But is history the point? Sam Anderson, via Richard Crary, argues otherwise:

To dismiss Baker’s project as a failed work based on the traditional criteria of history writing, however, is to misunderstand its actual purpose and power—and also to underestimate the good sense of the average reader. No one is likely to mistake Human Smoke for a comprehensive scholarly history of the war. It’s an auto-didact’s record of his own obsessive, subjective research. It devotes generous airtime to characters who tend to get excluded from popular history (secretaries, pacifist students, journalists), excavates great lost quotes (‘What is the difference between throwing 500 babies into a fire and throwing fire from aeroplanes on 500 babies? There is none’), and powerfully questions canonical events based on carefully identified sources… Its texture is deeply convincing, and a much stronger message of peace than mere argument could ever muster.

This is a good point. Baker does not pretend to be a historian. But Anderson appears to be trying to ringfence Baker’s work from criticism – he’s not a historian so we can’t judge him by the standards of historical scholarship. Yet Human Smoke is an argument, as Baker makes clear in the book’s afterword: ‘I dedicate this book to the memory of Clarence Pickett and other American and British pacifists. They’ve never really gotten their due… They failed, but they were right.’

Baker’s style has infuriated reviewers. He uses hundred-word paragraphs consisting mainly of quotations, like a blogger contextalising a few links. When this technique works, it works well – there’s that ‘defamiliarizing’ effect that Anderson identifies, and the concentration on trivial and individual stories reminded me of Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman’s observation that history is not a series of big events but millions of tiny ones.

Minimalism allows Baker to highlight features of the conflict that tend to be ignored – America and Britain’s lockdown on Jewish immigration, which condemned millions of people to suffering and death; the lack of precision in Allied air bombing (‘[W]e just dropped the bombs at an estimated position and hoped for the best,’ one pilot explained, ‘I very much doubt if we ever hit a specific target’); the internment of non-combatants; the food blockade intended to starve Europeans into overthrowing their fascist governments. Clearly there is a dark side to the Greatest Generation that is well worth mentioning.

But here is why Anderson’s defence does not work. Baker doesn’t just let the fragments speak for themselves. He manipulates the sources. He abuses them. Juxtaposition becomes a technique for lazy moral equivalence: a paragraph on Eleanor Roosevelt’s drawing-room antisemitism is followed a few pages later by Nazi book-burning; a self-published American pamphlet on how to ‘breed out’ the German race is followed by reports on actual and applied Nazi eugenics. There are clunky parallels with today’s terror war. It becomes irritating and, at times, chilling. Axis propaganda is repeated with no additional comment. Human Smoke reads like history, but it is the history of an alternate reality. Baker creates a big lie from tiny components of truth.

Churchill gets a kicking. Baker’s charges range from the serious – the gassing of Iraqis, the initial support for Mussolini – to the comical: Churchill is really old! He drinks too much! He goes to bed late! The pacifists quoted in Human Smoke remain unexamined. Ghandi, Bernard Shaw and the Peace Pledge Union feature regularly, and uncritically. But how honourable were the war’s opponents?

George Bernard Shaw was a fan of eugenics: ‘[W]e must exterminate the people who do not fit in.’ Vera Brittain dismissed evidence of the ‘Final Solution’. The Peace Pledge Union’s Stuart Morris teamed up with a UK Hitlerite organisation, and declared that: ‘I don’t think Mr Chamberlain has really started yet on any serious appeasement.’ Another PPU candidate, Dr Maude Royden, was a supporter of H. St John Philby, a 1939 byelection candidate for the fascist British People’s Party. You will find no mention of this in the pages of Human Smoke. I recommend Nick Cohen’s What’s Left? for readers interested in the scripture omitted from Baker’s sermon.

Ghandi is worth coming back to.  He was a committed racist, even to the point of participation in a colonial war. His solution to the fascist menace was that the Jews ‘ought to commit collective suicide, which ‘would have aroused the world and the people of Germany to Hitler’s violence.’ As George Orwell said: ‘Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent’.

In ‘Reflections on Ghandi’ Orwell considered the efficacy of Ghandi’s anti-imperialism. As an ex-Imperial Police officer, he concluded that:

Strictly speaking, as a Nationalist, he was an enemy, but since in every crisis he would exert himself to prevent violence – which, from the British point of view, meant preventing any effective action whatever – he could be regarded as ‘our man.’ In private this was sometimes cynically admitted. The attitude of the Indian millionaires was similar. Gandhi called upon them to repent, and naturally they preferred him to the Socialists and Communists who, given the chance, would actually have taken their money away. How reliable such calculations are in the long run is doubtful; as Gandhi himself says, ‘in the end deceivers deceive only themselves’; but at any rate the gentleness with which he was nearly always handled was due partly to the feeling that he was useful.

That is it. Oppressors don’t fear pacifism. They fear aggression. Baker quotes a demonstrator’s placard: ‘WAR MEANS FASCISM’. The truth is the exact reverse.


Max Dunbar
was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals including Open Wide, Straight from the Fridge and Lamport Court. He also writes articles on politics and religion for Butterflies and Wheels. He is Manchester’s regional editor of Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry. He is a co-editor of 3:AM and blogs here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, April 18th, 2009.