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Clif's Book World

Adventures from reading books captured within short reviews.

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

Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization - Nicholson Baker, Norman Dietz This book consists of numerous and varied bits of trivial and unconnected stories from the time prior to and into the beginning of World War II. The stories appear in the book in strict chronological order. The author provides no discussion of context or connecting commentary. The stories speak for themselves. The book starts with August 1892, jumps to 1914, and then proceeds more slowly through the 1920s and 1930s. The book ends on December 31, 1941.

A reader needs to have enough knowledge of history to provide their own context to understand how the stories in this book are related. Consequently, I can see how it might be possible for readers influenced by various world views could arrive at differing conclusions. The only overt commentary from the author regarding the meaning of the whole is in the title, the subtitle and the Afterword of the book. In the Afterword the author praises the efforts of the pacifists who "failed but they were right."

The stories are interesting. However, getting through a long book filled with them can be a bit of a drag. I have selected a variety of stories from the book below to provide an idea of what the book is like. The comments prior to each quotation are my own.

Here's something that Churchill in later years probably wished he hadn't said:
"Winston Churchill visited Rome. "I could not help being charmed by Signor Mussolini's gentle and simple bearing, and by his calm, detached poise in spite of so many burdens and danger," Churchill said in a press statement. Italian fascism, he said, had demonstrated that there was a way to combat subversive forces; it had provided the "necessary antidote to the russian virus."
"If I had been an Italian I am sure I should have been entirely with you from the beginning to the end of your victorious struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism," Churchill told the Romans. It was January 20, 1927. "

The following is an example of some (grim) humor:
Milton Mayer, a writer who worked for the president of the University of Chicago, heard a story.
" A Jew is riding a streetcar, reading the Volkischer Beobachter the main Nazi paper. A non-Jew sits down next to him and says, "Why are you reading the Beobachter ?" The Jew says: "Look, I work in a factory all day, my wife nags me, my kids are sick, and there's no money for food. what should I do on my way home, read the Jewish newspaper? 'Pogrom in Romania.' 'Jews Murdered in Poland.' 'New Laws against Jews.' No, sir, a half hour a day, on the streetcar, I read the Beobachter. 'Jews the World Capitalists.' 'Jews Control Russia.' 'Jews Rule in England.' That's me they're talking about. A half hour a day I'm somebody." "
(approx. January 1938)

Here's a report with a name to remember:
"Lord Cherwell's personal secretary looked at 650 reconnaissance photographs of places the Royal Air Force had bombed earlier that summer. The secretary's conclusions were that, on average, one in five airplanes that took off from England to bomb Germany or the coast of France successfully placed its bombs somewhere within seventy-five square miles of its assigned target. when there was no moon or heavy flack, the miss rate was even higher.
The secretary's name was David Benusson-Butt, and this report, dated August 18, 1941, achieved fame as the Butt Report."

Here's an example of how justice and due process are the first victims in war:
"Muriel Lester, author of "Speed the Food Ships," became on of England's political detenus. It was August 19, 1941.
Lester was on a boat in Trinidad, on her way to the Far East, where she planned to visit Gandhi. A British official said to her, "I am afraid I shall have to ask you to come ashore."
"Are you arresting me?" said Lester.
"Oh,no!" said the official.
"Then, supposing I say I won't come," said Lester. "What happens?"
I'm afraid--er--we would have to find means to induce you to do so."
Lester's passport was revoked, and she was held in a barbedwire prison camp for a month and a half, without charges. Later, she was transferred to Holloway jail in London and then, after friends made calls to the Home Office, freed. "

I found this quote of interest since it seemed to indicate that some gentile Germans had humane feelings toward the Jews:
"The Stuttgart Courier published an article attacking cases of unsuitable compassion for Jews. These cases were not unusual, the newspaper said. For instance, women from the Jewish old people's home wearing the star would get on a tram car and passengers would stand to give them their seats. Once, according to the newspaper, a German said to a Jew, "It really requires more courage to wear the star than to go to war." It was October 4, 1941.

Jeanette Ranken's vote against entering WWII after Pearl Harbor (December 8, 1941):
"When she heard here name in the roll call she stood. 'As a woman I can't go to war,' she said, 'And I refuse to send anyone else.' Hers was the only no vote, and it was hissed and booed. In the cloak room some Army officers shouted abuse at her. "You've been drinking," Ranken said, and she took refuge in a phone booth. Later she told a colleague that the representatives had pressured her to make the vote unanimous. And yet it was that insistence on uniformity, that intolerance of descent, that was just what was wrong with the other side in the war. No, Ranken thought, I'm going to vote one vote for democracy. "

I have not included the description referred to in the following story, but trust me, it's absurd:
Life Magazine published an article on how to tell a Japanese person from a Chinese person. It was December 22, 1941. ......

The following review is from PageADay's Book Lover's Calendar for 2010. This is how I learned about the book.:
Nicholson Baker has a point to make, but Human Smoke is not a straightforward polemic that argues his case. Rather it is a book of vignettes that show the state of the world leading up to World War II. The raw material comes from newspapers, radio programs, speeches, diaries, and similar cultural flotsam. They are all very artfully put together and presented to us, so that by the end we see the entire tragic picture of a world gone wrong and Mr. Baker’s argument is driven unfailingly home.