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

    Nicholson Baker
    Simon & Schuster, New York, 2008
    ISBN 978-1-4165-6784-4

Bestselling author Nicholson Baker, recognized as one of the most dexterous and talented writers in America today, has created a compelling work of nonfiction bound to provoke discussion and controversy—a wide-ranging, astonishingly fresh perspective on the political and social landscape that gave rise to World War II.

Human Smoke delivers a closely textured, deeply moving indictment of the treasured myths that have romanticized much of the 1930s and '40s. Incorporating meticulous research and well-documented sources—including newspaper and magazine articles, radio speeches, memoirs, and diaries—the book juxtaposes hundreds of interrelated moments of decision, brutality, suffering, and mercy. Vivid glimpses of political leaders and their dissenters illuminate and examine the gradual, horrifying advance toward overt global war and Holocaust.

Praised by critics and readers alike for his exquisitely observant eye and deft, inimitable prose, Baker has assembled a narrative within Human Smoke that unfolds gracefully, tragically, and persuasively. This is an unforgettable book that makes a profound impact on our perceptions of historical events and mourns the unthinkable loss humanity has borne at its own hand.

Praise for Nicholson Baker and Human Smoke

"Absolutely fascinating, engrossing. I can't imagine anyone, no matter how knowledgeable about the period, who won't be astonished and moved while reading Human Smoke."
—DANIEL ELLSBERG, author of Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers

"This quite extraordinary book—impossible to put down, impossible to forget—may be the most compelling argument for peace ever assembled. Nicholson Baker displays in astonishing, fascinating detail mankind's unstoppable descent into the madness of war—slowed only occasionally, but then invariably most movingly, by the still, small voices of the sane and the wise."
—SIMON WINCHESTER, author of The Man Who Loved China and The Professor and the Madman

"In Human Smoke, Nicholson Baker turns his unrivaled literary talents to pacifism. His portraits of Churchill's imperial arrogance, Franklin Roosevelt's anti-Semitism, the machinations of the arms merchants, the Germans' death wish, and the efforts of pacifists are unforgettable. Baker's book is truly original."
—CHALMERS JOHNSON, president and cofounder of the Japan Policy Research Institute and author of Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic

"Nicholson Baker movingly pierces the lies, hopes, fears, and myths we so easily imbibe on the road to war—painful reminders that what has happened in the past can happen again and again and again until we shake loose and react."
—GAR ALPEROVITZ, Lionel R. Bauman Professor of Political Economy, University of Maryland, and author of The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb


This book ends on December 31, 1941. Most of the people who died in the Second World War were at that moment still alive.

Was it a "good war"? Did waging it help anyone who needed help? Those were the basic questions that I hoped to answer when I began writing. I've relied on newspaper articles, diaries, memos, memoirs, and public proclamations, each tied as much as possible to a particular date, because they helped me understand the grain of events better than secondary sources did. But I've used many secondary sources as well. All the texts are published and publicly available, one way or another, and all are in English.

The New York Times is probably the single richest resource for the history and prehistory of the war years—more so than British newspapers, which operated under heavy censorship. Radio speeches, official press statements, the texts of air-dropped leaflets, translated foreign news, and snippets of unedited congressional testimony are all to be found in The New York Times, as well as good reporting. The New York Herald Tribune is another fount of specificity; indeed, my interest in World War II began when, some years ago, I first opened bound volumes of the Herald Tribune and read headlines for the bombing of Berlin and Tokyo and wondered how  we got there. Martin Gilbert's many books—especially his fascinating, impeccable Churchill War Papers—were also useful in preparing this work.

I'm grateful to the librarians at the University of New Hampshire Library, who retrieved things for me from distant places. My editors—Sarah Hochman, David Rosenthal, and Timothy Mennel—and my agent, Melanie Jackson, all made apt queries and suggestions. My dear wife shaped and edited the book; my dear children and parents offered advice, hope, and helpful improvements.

The title comes from Franz Haider, one of Hitler's restive but compliant generals. General Haider told an interrogator that when he was imprisoned in Auschwitz late in the war he saw flakes of smoke blow into his cell. Human smoke, he called it.

I dedicate this book to the memory of Clarence Pickett and other American and British pacifists. They've never really gotten their due. They tried to save Jewish refugees, feed Europe, reconcile the United States and Japan, and stop the war from happening. They failed, but they were right.

Description in Wikipedia

Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization (2008) is a history of World War II that questions the commonly held belief that the Allies wanted to avoid the war at all costs but were forced into action by Hitler's unforgiving crusade. It consists largely of official government transcripts and other documents from the time. In form it is similar to Sven Lindqvist's A History of Bombing (New York: New Press, 2001), which Baker includes in the book's copious list of references. Baker cites documents that suggest that the leaders of the United States and the United Kingdom were provoking Germany into war (showing, for example, that Britain bombed Germany before Germany bombed Britain) and that the leaders of those two nations had ulterior motives for wanting to participate. In the epilogue to the book he suggests that the pacifists (who are often vilified by WWII historians) had it right all along, stating: “They failed, but they were right.” Some reviewers were dismissive of Human Smoke, the historian Noel Malcolm describing it as a "strangely childish book" and William Grimes as a "self-important, hand-wringing, moral mess of a book".Conservative political commentator R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. awarded his J. Gordon Coogler Award for Worst Book of 2008 to Human Smoke. Other reviewers praised Baker's use of documentary research and the intricate construction of the text. Colm Toibin wrote in his New York Times review that "the issues Baker wishes to raise, and the stark system he has used to dramatize his point, make his book a serious and conscientious contribution to the debate about pacifism," and Mark Kurlansky wrote for the Los Angeles Times that "People are going to get really angry at Baker for criticizing their favorite war. But he hasn't fashioned his tale from gossip. It is documented, with copious notes and attributions. The grace of these well-ordered snapshots is that there is no diatribe; you are left to put things together yourself. [Human Smoke] may be one of the most important books you will ever read." 

NICHOLSON BAKER was born in 1957 and attended the Eastman School of Music and Haverford College. He is the author of seven novels, including Vox and The Mezzanine, and three previous works of nonfiction, including Double Fold, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award in 2001. He lives in Maine with his family.