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

By Nicholson Baker. 576 pp. Simon & Schuster, 2008. $30.

Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War: How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World

By Patrick J. Buchanan. 544 pp. Crown, 2008. $29.95.

Talk about the Odd Couple. With these two books, a pacifist novelist and a bellicose conservative rewrite history to agree that Winston Churchill caused World War II.

Baker first: if it weren’t for Churchill’s overwhelming need to bomb Germany back to Teutonicorum, he argues, Hitler’s expansionism would have been confined to continental Europe. Tens of millions of lives would have been saved and the Jews could have waited out the overthrow of Nazism in balmy Madagascar. On the other front, Franklin Roosevelt provoked Japan into war by arming the Chinese, gradually encircling the Pacific with bases and cutting off oil. The reason? He wanted to try out new incendiary bombs on a city built of wood and paper: Tokyo.

That’s a simplistic synopsis of Baker’s Human Smoke, which portrays the events leading up to the American entry into World War II as an accrual of individual statements, thoughts, and acts clipped out of daily newspapers, diaries, and other contemporary accounts. These aestheticized fragments, with white gaps between shards and the drumbeat of dates, can actually stir a lot of thinking. For one thing, we realize what an alien world the past is. Unfortunately, the reading mind tends to put together complete arguments, particularly when given repeated, obvious cues, so Baker leads us inexorably into his reductionist history. He smugly damns Allied leaders by ignoring contradictory evidence that offers a more nuanced account of the war’s complex history. One example: Hitler’s peace overtures are taken at face value, but his treacheries after Munich and the pact with Stalin are barely mentioned.

Despite being so slanted, Baker’s episodic approach can yield insights. Instead of feeling propelled toward an inevitable conflagration, we endure the weeks of 1939, 1940, and 1941, which drag on in a cloud of dread between blitzkriegs, British bombings, and tentative, mostly unsuccessful Allied actions, with Jews facing increasingly savage treatment all the while. “One of two things will happen,” Victor Klemperer, a Jewish diarist living in restricted limbo in Dresden, predicts, voicing the period’s uncertainty. “Either Hitler will conclude victorious peace in a week—then we shall perish. Or the war only really starts now and lasts for a long time—in that case we shall also perish.”

Baker’s many paragraphs on Britain’s night bombing of German cities before the London blitz also give pause about the campaign’s strategic and moral wisdom. Despite prewar bravado, British Bomber Command was not ready for war and lacked the navigational tools to accurately target military rather than civilian sites. But again, Baker is highly selective: he quotes mainly German sources and overlooks the prior Luftwaffe destruction of Warsaw and Rotterdam, which was aimed at civilians. He does make a strong case that his pacifist heroes, particularly the Quakers, cared much more about European Jewry than Allied leaders, who took advantage of the Jews’ plight to build public support for the war, but didn’t alleviate it: Britain imprisoned hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants as enemy aliens. Baker also dwells on the possibility that the British bombing and blockade of Europe only worsened the situation of Jews and other civilians, and that their mass extermination didn’t begin until all chance of negotiation ended and the United States entered the war.

In Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War, former presidential candidate Buchanan puts much of the blame for World War II on Britain’s guarantee, engineered by Churchill, of Poland’s neutrality. That treaty emboldened the Poles to refrain from negotiating over the status of heavily German Danzig—theirs via the punitive Treaty of Versailles. This doomed them, since England had no army to help Poland, and exacerbated human misery by making war inevitable.

Here too are provocative and useful thoughts. But it is also clear that Buchanan, an isolationist who wants to maintain America’s world dominance, is using the past to attack contemporary neocons who want to dominate the globe more aggressively. His skewed logic can be inadvertently hilarious: he gushes over the “splendid isolation” of the British Empire before it got into the entanglements that led to World War I, leaving us to wonder exactly how a global empire could be considered “isolated.”

And thus, it happens that these two otherwise antithetical types blame Churchill for the Second World War. (Both think of Hitler as a kind of mad schnauzer who would have been content with a smaller piece of meat if approached in the right way.) The cigar-chomping “Greatest Englishman” was obviously no pacifist, but in these portrayals he positively champs at the bit to use new, infinitely more destructive bombardment technologies, letting the terrifying chips fall where they may. In Baker’s telling, Churchill seems almost giddy at the thought of reprisals for bombing Germany: “You see,” he said to Charles de Gaulle, “the bombing of Oxford, Coventry, Canterbury will cause such a wave of indignation in the United States that they’ll have to come into the war!”

Despite these books’ obvious deficiencies, their warnings about bombing as a panacea, targeting civilians, shunning dialogue with evil men, and overextending militaries have contemporary resonance—for Baker and Buchanan also share using World War II as a way to write about Iraq. From that angle, their odd books raise compelling questions.

Originally published in the September 2008 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.