|ISSUE 57 SUMMER 2008
Human Smoke. Nicholson Baker. Simon & Schuster.
A book dedicated to the memory of American and British pacifists, is unusual, and one suspect that it is probably this more than anything else, which got up the nose of commentators and reviewers. The title Human Smoke comes from a comment by Franz Halder – Nazi General who nevertheless ended up in a concentration camp. There when the wind blew in a certain direction smoke from the crematorium drifted his way – human smoke is what he called it.
There is little new in this book as critics have been at pains to say but it’s the books sub text which perhaps enrages them most since there is no quarrel with the fcts. The view, despite all, that World War Two was a ‘good war’ is hard to shelve.
The book ends on December 31 1941. ‘Most of the people who died in the Second World War were at that moment still alive,’ writes Baker. The next day Churchill and Roosevelt finalized the United Nations Declaration and 20 days later Heydrich outlined the ‘final solution’ at Wansee. Here is the clue to the books interest as it moved to the ‘end of civilization’ the subtitle of book.
Throughout the book there is a feeling of a growing momentum to something awful but all the way there are moments when, maybe, things could have been different. Some resistance, reluctant armies, voices counselling reason. The leaders' pronouncements, in contrast, are designed to inflame.
In January 1940 Harold Nicolson notes that there was a faction in the war cabinet that was in negotiation with former German chancellor. The aim was to make peace with the German high command on condition that they ‘eliminate’ Hitler. ‘We discussed the means by which this intrigue can be countered,’ Nicolson wrote.
In June when six members of the Peace Pledge Union were arrested and tried for publishing a poster ‘War will cease when men refuse to fight. What are YOU going to do about it?’ in Germany Dr Hermann Stöhr, secretary of the German Fellowship of reconciliation, refused to join the army. He was shot.
December 10 1940, House of Commons ‘The security of the State comes before anything else’ said Herbert Morrison, the minister of home security in reply to criticism by Peace Pledge Union member and MP Richard Stokes. Stokes was asking why several hundred British fascists were held in prison without trial or representation. Sounds familiar?