Human Smoke

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

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At a time when the West seems ever more eager to call on military aggression as a means of securing international peace, Nicholson Baker's provocative narrative exploring the political misjudgements and personal biases that gave birth to the terrifying consequences of the Second World War could not be more pertinent. With original and controversial insights brought about by meticulous research, Human Smoke re-evaluates the political turning points that led up to war and in so doing challenges some of the treasured myths we hold about how war came about and how atrocities like the Holocaust were able to happen. Baker reminds us, for instance, not to forget that it was thanks in great part to Churchill and England that Mussolini ascended to power so quickly, and that, before leading the United States against Nazi Germany, a young FDR spent much of his time lobbying for a restriction in the number of Jews admitted to Harvard.Conversely, Human Smoke also reminds us of those who had the foresight to anticipate the coming bloodshed and the courage to oppose the tide of history, as Gandhi demonstrated when he made his symbolic walk to the ocean -- for which he was immediately imprisoned by the British. Praised by critics and readers alike for his gifted writing and exquisitely observant eye, Baker offers a combination of sweeping narrative history and a series of finely delineated vignettes of the individuals and moments that shaped history that is guaranteed to spark new dialogue on the more

Product details

  • Hardback | 576 pages
  • 153 x 234mm
  • Simon & Schuster Ltd
  • London, United Kingdom
  • 1847372740
  • 9781847372741
  • 518,936

Review Text

A catalog of primary sources creatively fashioned by novelist and National Book Critics Circle Award - winner Baker (Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper, 2001, etc.) tells the grim story of the making of two world wars.Using period sources such as newspaper articles, excerpts from speeches and diaries and congressional testimony, Baker presents an in-the-moment reenactment of 20th-century world events. He begins in 1914 with Austrian writer Stefan Zweig's alarm at observing a French movie crowd's angry reaction to seeing Wilhelm II on the newsreel ("how easily people anywhere could be aroused in a time of a crisis") and ends poignantly with Jewish writer Mihail Sebastian's diary entry from Bucharest at the close of the "dreadful year" 1941: "We are still alive. We can still wait for something." Baker's chronological collage juxtaposes official government maneuvers by Churchill or Roosevelt with antiwar activity such as U.S. Representative Jeannette Rankin's vote against declaring war on Germany in 1917 ("I felt that the first time the first woman had a chance to say no to war she should say it"). Eloquent quotes from Gandhi reflect momentous events in India; bombastic speeches by Hitler and Goebbels chronicle the Nazi seizure of power in Germany; evasive utterances by Roosevelt finesse the issue of raising Jewish immigration quotas on the eve of World War II. The mostly brief, descriptive fragments delineate, for example, Charles Lindbergh's perplexity at Germany's "Jewish problem," while eyewitnesses describe the bombing of Guernica, Shanghai and Coventry. Baker reveals a weighty pacifist presence and moral outcry against oppression of the Jews in Europe, while authorities hurtled toward a military solution. His selections contrast the inhumanity of the powerful with the heart-wrenching testimony of victims and survivors.Similar to but less noisy than John Dos Passos's U.S.A.: Selective, well-chosen fragments add up to a living history. (Kirkus Reviews)show more