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

Baker, Nicholson Author

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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.

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About the Author:

Nicholson Baker is the author of nine novels and four works of nonfiction, including Double Fold, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award, and House of Holes, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His work has appeared in  The New Yorker, Harper’s, and The New York Review of Books. He lives in Maine with his family.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Alfred Nobel, the manufacturer of explosives, was talking to his friend the Baroness Bertha von Suttner, author of Lay Down Your Arms. Von Suttner, a founder of the European antiwar movement, had just attended the fourth World's Peace Conference in Bern. It was August 1892.

"Perhaps my factories will put an end to war even sooner than your congresses," Alfred Nobel said. "On the day when two army corps may mutually annihilate each other in a second, probably all civilized nations will recoil with horror and disband their troops."

Stefan Zweig, a young writer from Vienna, sat in the audience at a movie theater in Tours, France, watching a newsreel. It was spring 1914.

An image of Wilhelm II, the Emperor of Germany, came on screen for a moment. At once the theater was in an uproar. "Everybody yelled and whistled, men, women, and children, as if they had been personally insulted," Zweig wrote. "The good-natured people of Tours, who knew no more about the world and politics than what they had read in their newspapers, had gone mad for an instant."

Zweig was frightened. "It had only been a second, but one that showed me how easily people anywhere could be aroused in a time of a crisis, despite all attempts at understanding."

Winston Churchill, England's first lord of the admiralty, instituted a naval blockade of Germany. "The British blockade," Churchill later wrote, "treated the whole of Germany as if it were a beleaguered fortress, and avowedly sought to starve the whole population -- men, women, and children, old and young, wounded and sound -- into submission." It was 1914.

Stefan Zweig was at the eastern front, gathering Russian war proclamations for the Austrian archives. It was the spring of 1915.

Zweig boarded a freight car on a hospital train. "One crude stretcher stood next to the other," he wrote, "and all were occupied by moaning, sweating, deathly pale men, who were gasping for breath in the thick atmosphere of excrement and iodoform." There were several dead among the living. The doctor, in despair, asked Zweig to get water. He had no morphine and no clean bandages, and they were still twenty hours from Budapest.

When Zweig got back to Vienna, he began a pacifist play, Jeremiah. "I had recognized," Zweig wrote, "the foe I was to fight -- false heroism that prefers to send others to suffering and death, the cheap optimism of the conscienceless prophets, both political and military who, boldly promising victory, prolong the war, and behind them the hired chorus, the 'word makers of war' as Werfel has pilloried them in his beautiful poem."

Jeannette Rankin of Montana, the first woman to be elected to the House of Representatives, voted against declaring war on Germany. It was April 6, 1917.

"I leaned over the gallery rail and watched her," said her friend Harriet Laidlaw, of the Woman Suffrage Party. "She was undergoing the most terrible strain." Almost all of her fellow suffrage leaders, including Laidlaw, wanted her to vote yes.

There was a silence when her name was called. "I want to stand by my country," Rankin said. "But I cannot vote for war. I vote no." Fifty other members of the House voted no with her; 374 voted yes. "I felt," she said later, "that the first time the first woman had a chance to say no to war she should say it."

One of her home-state papers, the Helena Independent, called her "a dupe of the Kaiser, a member of the Hun army in the United States, and a crying schoolgirl."

A young pro-war preacher, Harry Emerson Fosdick, wrote a short book, published by the Young Men's Christian Association.

War was not gallantry and parades anymore, Reverend Fosdick said. "War is now dropping bombs from aeroplanes and killing women and children in their beds; it is shooting by telephonic orders, at an unseen place miles away and slaughtering invisible men." War, he said, is "men with jaws gone, eyes gone, limbs gone, minds gone."

Fosdick ended his book with a call for enlistment: "Your country needs you," he said. It was November 1917.

Meyer London, a socialist in the House of Representatives, voted no to President Wilson's second declaration of war, against Austria-Hungary. It was December 7, 1917.

"In matters of war I am a teetotaler," said London, in a fifteen-minute speech. "I refuse to take the first intoxicating drink."

Representative Walter Chandler walked over to where London sat and stood in front of him as he delivered his rebuttal.

"It has been said that if you will analyze the blood of a Jew under the microscope, you will find the Talmud and the Old Bible floating around in some particles," Congressman Chandler said. "If you analyze the blood of a representative German or Teuton you will find machine guns and particles of shells and bombs floating around in the blood."

There was only one thing to do with the Teutons, according to Chandler: "Fight them until you destroy the whole bunch."

Eleanor Roosevelt and her husband, Franklin D., the assistant secretary of the navy, were invited to a party in honor of Bernard Baruch, the financier. "I've got to go to the Harris party which I'd rather be hung than seen at," Eleanor wrote her mother-in-law. "Mostly Jews." It was January 14, 1918.

A captured German officer was talking to a reporter for The New York Times. It was November 3, 1918, and the German government had asked for an armistice.

The German officer claimed that his army was not defeated and should have continued the war. "The Emperor is surrounded by people who feel and talk defeat," the offi cer said. He mentioned men like Philipp Scheidemann, the leader of the socialists.

New tanks were coming, the captured officer observed, and war was expected between the United States and Japan. "Japan and the United States would surely clash some day," he said, "and we would then furnish both sides with enormous quantities of material and munitions." The ceding of Poland and Alsace-Lorraine, the officer believed, meant social upheaval, the ruin of German industry, and the impoverishment of the working class. "Our enemies will have what they have desired -- the complete annihilation of Germany. That would be a peace due to Scheidemann."

Winston Churchill, now England's secretary of state for war and air, rose in Parliament to talk about the success of the naval blockade. It was March 3, 1919, four months after the signing of the armistice that ended the Great War.

"We are enforcing the blockade with rigour," Churchill said. "It is repugnant to the British nation to use this weapon of starvation, which falls mainly on the women and children, upon the old and the weak and the poor, after all the fi ghting has stopped, one moment longer than is necessary to secure the just terms for which we have fought." Hunger and malnutrition, the secretary of war and air observed, had brought German national life to a state of near collapse. "Now is therefore the time to settle," he said.

Winston Churchill published a newspaper article. It was February 8, 1920. Churchill had a different enemy now. Now his enemy wasn't Germany, it was the "sinister confederacy" of international Jewry.

"This movement among the Jews is not new," Churchill said. It was a "world-wide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilisation and for the reconstitution of society on the basis of arrested development, of envious malevolence, and impossible equality." He listed Marx, Trotsky, Béla Kun, Rosa Luxemburg, and Emma Goldman as some of the malefactors. The conspiracy had been, he said, the "mainspring of every subversive movement during the Nineteenth Century." It had played a recognizable part in the French Revolution. All loyal Jews, he advised, must "vindicate the honour of the Jewish name" by rejecting international bolshevism.

Aylmer Haldane, the commander of British forces in Iraq, telegraphed Winston Churchill for more troops and airplanes. It was August 26, 1920.

"Jihad was being preached with frenzied fervour by the numerous emissaries from the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala," Haldane wrote. Churchill, secretary of state for war and air, sent him an encouraging note: "The Cabinet have decided that the rebellion must be quelled effectually, and I shall endeavour to meet all your requirements."

Several days later, Churchill wrote Hugh "Boom" Trenchard, the head of the Royal Air Force, a memo. Churchill and Trenchard were developing the notion of policing the British empire from above, thereby saving the cost of ground troops -- a policy that became known as "air control."

"I think you should certainly proceed with the experimental work on gas bombs, especially mustard gas, which would inflict punishment on recalcitrant natives without inflicting grave injury on them," Churchill wrote Trenchard. Churchill was an expert on the effects of mustard gas -- he knew that it could blind and kill, especially children and infants. Gas spreads a "lively terror," he pointed out in an earlier memo; he didn't understand the prevailing squeamishness about its use: "I am strongly in favor of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes." Most of those gassed wouldn't have "serious permanent effects," he said.

Haldane's men bombed and strafed rebellious tribes, fired on them with gas-filled shells, burned villages, and repaired the railway. The official death toll on the British side was forty-seven English officers and troops and 250 Indian Gurkhas. "It is impossible to give the Arab casualties with any approach to exactitude," Haldane wrote, "but they have been estimated at 8450 killed and wounded." Haldane offered his thoughts on how to deal punitively with a village. "Separate parties should be detailed for firing the houses, digging up and burning the grain and bhoosa, looting, &c.," he advised. "Burning a village properly takes a long time, an hour or more according to size from the time the burning parties enter."

Churchill wrote Haldane a congratulatory telegram: "During these diffi cult months your patience and steadfastness have been of great value, and I congratulate you upon the distinct improvement in the situation which has been effected by you." It was October 18, 19...

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