May 13, 2009


Mr. Roberts is an historian whose most recent book is A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900 (FH 134). This article is derived by the author from reviews in The New Criterion and The Evening Standard .

Human SmokeHuman Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization, by Nicholson Baker. Simon & Schuster, 576 pages, $25.

Was Sir Winston Churchill an oafish, bloodthirsty, sadistic, hypocritical, anti-Semitic alcoholic? The American novelist Nicholson Baker—whose previous works have been about phone-sex and masturbation—certainly seems to think so, but he uses the technique of juxtaposing bald quotations, ripped out of context, to try to place Churchill on the same moral plane as Adolf Hitler.

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The first trick is one of which Dr. Goebbels himself was proud: the Big Lie. By quoting a couple of sentences from an article Churchill wrote in The Illustrated Sunday Herald on 8 February 1920 about Jews being involved in a “sinister” and “worldwide conspiracy,” Baker implies that Churchill was an anti-Semite. Yet if one goes back to the original article, it is immediately clear that Churchill was only referring those Russian Jews who had embraced Bolshevism. “We owe to the Jews,” he wrote in that same article (not quoted by Baker), “a system of ethics which, even if it were entirely separated from the supernatural, would be incomparably the most precious possession of mankind, worth in fact the fruits of all wisdom and learning put together.”

Similarly, Baker rips two sentences from a letter from Churchill to the head of the RAF, Hugh Trenchard, to imply that WSC wanted deadly gas used to kill Britain’s enemies in Iraq in 1920. Finest Hour dealt this particular lie ago. Briefly, anyone who can’t tell the difference between tear gas and Zyklon B should not be writing history.

Of Europe’s Jews in November 1940, Baker writes that “Hitler didn’t want them,” preferring them to live in Madagascar,* whereas “Churchill wanted to starve them until they revolted against their oppressors.” The truth was that Hitler wanted the Jews dead, and Churchill never wanted to starve them at all. To pretend otherwise is ludicrous, but then, as Baker explains in an interview on “I used Wikipedia during the writing of the book, especially to check facts.”

*One of Hitler’s passing fancies, rejected early. See the chapter entitled, “Hitler’s Decision to Commit Genocide” in Ian Kershaw, Fateful Choices (Penguin, 2007, reviewed FH 136)

Further on, Baker argues that Churchill was “the chief obstacle” to feeding the starving peoples of Holland, Belgium, Poland and Norway, ignoring the fact that all food distribution was in the Nazi hands in those countries, and donations from abroad would have fed Germans, not their victims. Churchill himself is amply on record as saying that the responsibility for the populace of occupied countries is with their occupiers.

The book is dedicated to prewar and wartime “American and British pacifists” who, Baker claims, “failed, but they were right.” In fact it was they who bore much of the responsibility for allowing Hitler to believe that the West would not fight, thus actually helping to bring on precisely the war they feared.

The greatest hero is Mahatma Gandhi, who is treated entirely on his own terms as a saintly swami. It was Gandhi who, during the London Blitz, advised Londoners: to “Invite Hitler and Mussolini to take what they want of the countries you call your possessions. Let them take possession of your beautiful island with its many beautiful buildings. You will give all this, but neither your minds nor your souls.”

Most of Baker’s quotations come from The New York Times, which he absurdly describes as “the single richest resource for the history and prehistory of the war years.” In facts that paper consistently underplayed Nazi atrocities, burying appallingly brief reports of the Holocaust deep inside the paper. On 27 June 1942, for example, the Times devoted just two inches to the news that “700,000 Jews were reported slain in Poland.” On 25 November, it reported the roundups, gassings and disappearance of 90 percent of Warsaw’s ghetto population on page 10. The following month, Baker’s journal of record divulged that two million Jews had been killed and five million more faced death on page 20. On 2 July 1944, the Times reported that 400,000 Hungarian Jews had been deported to their deaths, and 350,000 more faced the same fate—four column inches on page 12. (The front page carried an analysis of the problem of New York holiday crowds on the move.) The shameful truth is that during the Second World War, no article about the Jews’ plight ever qualified as the Times’ leading story of the day, nor has the Times ever properly acknowledged its failings in this matter. Yet this is the paper that Mr. Baker uses as his central resource.

Baker regularly chooses to take Churchill’s jokes seriously, out of a lack of humour or on purpose. Thus when in 1922 Churchill told the Commons that Berlin would have been bombed if the Great War had continued much longer, and only survived “owing to our having run short of Germans and enemies before the experiments were completed,” Baker chooses to ignore the obvious gag. In October 1940, when a Conservative MP demanded the unrestricted bombing of German population centres, Churchill replied: “You and others may desire to kill women and children,” but the Government would restrict itself to military objectives, because: “My motto is ‘Business before pleasure.’” It was a joke, presented by Baker as if Churchill was a murderous sadist.

The above anecdote is also capable of another interpretation, one that undermines Baker’s accusations that the British Government did indeed deliberately target civilian populations rather than military and industrial installations. So keen is he to heap ordure on Churchill that he thus contradicts his own assertions.

Baker also contradicts himself when quoting a letter from Churchill to his Information Minister, Alfred Duff Cooper, from June 1940, saying that the press and broadcast media “should be asked to handle air raids in a cool way and on a diminishing tone of public interest. Pray try to impress this upon the newspaper authorities and persuade them to help.” If the British media was under heavy censorship, as Baker states, would the Prime Minister be asking the Information Minister to “persuade” the press barons “to help,” or ordering them?

Churchill—without Baker giving any proof whatsoever—is also effectively accused of being complicit in the notorious forgery known as the Zinoviev Letter, which led to the downfall of Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour government in the 1924 general election. Speculation upon insinuation, which is all Baker produces, does not amount to evidence in a work of non-fiction.

A statement like “Everyone agreed that Churchill was a maladroit administrator and a capricious military strategist,” needs to be qualified by the fact that Churchill enjoyed popularity ratings—in 1940 as today—far higher than any other British prime minister since opinion polling began. Who is “Everyone”?

Small mistakes, such as the size of the War Cabinet—five, not sixteen—or the colours of Churchill siren suits (not just blue), or the correct spelling of Ditchley Park, are inevitable if Baker prefers Internet search engines to first-hand archival research. But if he is to make Churchill out to be malevolent and dishonest at every turn, the author ought to have produced better source references than, and intellectually discredited spook-writers like John Costello. These do not constitute a scholarly apparatus.

The mass arrest of ethnic Germans—including Jews—in Britain during the invasion scare of 1940 is equated to the contemporaneous mass roundups of Jews on the Continent, without the rather central difference being pointed out that 50,000 were released by the end of the year in Britain, whereas in Europe the Jews’ fate was very different. Hitler’s invasion of Yugoslavia is blamed on King Peter II’s coup there, which was “encouraged and funded by the British Special Operations Executive,” without mentioning how popular it was with ordinary Yugoslavs. As so often, Baker shows the Führer merely responding to provocations and aggressions by the inveterate warmonger Churchill. (Needless to say there are also historically irrelevant references to Fallujah and Basra—both obscure backwaters during the World War II—in order to make modern-day political points.)

Sharing the villainy with Churchill is the Royal Air Force. Bald, stand-alone paragraphs state, “The RAF dropped more than 150 tons of bombs on India. It was 1925.” This is meant to imply that the British were terrorizing their Indian subjects. In fact, Wing Commander R.C.M. Pink’s 5th, 27th and 60th squadrons were bombing the Mahsud raiders in Waziristan in order to protect peaceful agrarian Indians of the plains below the North-West Frontier. Between 9 August and 18 November 1919, Mahsud and Wazir raiders committed 182 outrages in Zhob, Derajat and the Punjab during which they killed a total of 225 people, wounded and kidnapped 400 more, and carried off large numbers of animals and a wealth of movable property.

Today the 1925 aerial campaign is taught as a textbook example of how to pacify one of the most difficult regions of the world, where Osama bin Laden is thought to be hiding out. Of
course if Baker’s insinuation was true, and the RAF were trying to terrorize 300 million Indians, 150 tons of bombs would not have done it. The huge majority of Indians supported the punishment of the Waziri tribes for their incursions. You would never guess this from Mr. Baker.

Baker seems to have read all the books that criticize the aerial bombing of Germany, but none of those explaining and defending it feature in his (generally insubstantial) bibliography. Nor is mention made of the testimony from Joseph Goebbels and Albert Speer, that Allied bombing significantly weakened the Third Reich’s ability to continue fighting.

Instead Baker ludicrously states that “Bombing was, to Churchill, a way of enlightening city dwellers as to the hellishness of remote battlefields by killing them.” Every time the RAF hit a girl’s school rather than a railway marshalling yard it is recorded, as though the kind of precision bombing available today was present in the aerial armoury seven decades ago. At one point Baker even writes of how “The British leaders were now in place for the pan-Germanic firestorms of 1942, 1943, 1944 and 1945.”

Churchill is even tangentally blamed for the Holocaust; Baker quotes approvingly the view that “as soon as England made its peace with Germany and stopped blockading ocean traffic—the Jews would go away [to Madagascar] after being stripped of whatever wealth they might have. It was all contingent, though, on peace with Churchill.” The fact that an offer of an unimpeded passage of Jews was never made does not prevent Baker from insinuating that the idea was scuppered by Churchill’s obsession with blockade. When others in the drama (including Hitler) “say” things, Baker has Churchill “booming” or “haranguing.” There is even a reference to the Führer’s “conscience”! Winston Churchill, of course, has none.

“Churchill was, as they say of generals, a killer of men,” writes Baker. It is almost impossible to mention a national leader in history—democratic or non-democratic—whose decisions have not led to the deaths of men. To govern is to choose; to lead a nation is either to sanction killing or surrender. Having recently returned from a trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau, which was only half the size the Nazis planned to make it before it was liberated, I find the prospect of a Nazi-dominated Europe just as abhorrent as pacifists find “the obscenity of war.” When the alternative is Hitlerism, the choice of non-resistance is obscene.     

A curious torpor overcomes the reader half way through this book, due to the sheer, inexorable bias. If it had been more nuanced, better researched or more intelligent, interest might have been sustained. But sometimes the sheer ignorance of some of Baker’s statements reignites interest, such as: “If Hitler moved East, England would have no war to fight.” The author believes that Britain should have accepted Hitler’s offer of peace in August 1940, not realising that it was designed to facilitate his long-desired invasion of the USSR, for which he was contemporaneously ordering the Wehrmacht to plan.

It is impossible to escape the conclusion that Nicholson Baker would have done better to stick to phone-sex and masturbation. The book ends in December 1941, after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. (Of course Baker concentrates as much on the “dozens” of Honolulu civilians who fell victim to “misfiring American anti-aircraft shells” than on the thousands of servicemen killed by the Japanese.) 

The title of the book refers to a phrase that the author claims was made by the former German Chief of Staff, Franz Halder when imprisoned in Auschwitz late in the war: he saw “flakes of human smoke” blow into his cell (474). It’s a powerful image. Sadly, Halder never in fact set foot in Auschwitz. He was held in Dachau and Flossenburg after the July 1944 assassination plot against Hitler.

It is fitting that Baker should have even misattributed the very title of his book. Perhaps he should have checked Wikipedia.

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