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4.0 out of 5 stars Powerful content, questionable method
This book's power rests in its ability to give a voice to some of the millions of individuals who experienced indescribable suffering during World War II. It is a plea for--and by--humanity. For this, honor is due the man who compiled and edited it, Nicholson Baker.

The book consists of a series of such statements by individuals which are contrasted with the...
Published 24 months ago by Scott Krieger

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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Make of it what you will
Baker is an American novelist who previously specialised in deliciously filthy books like "Vox" and "The Fermata", but here turns his hand to non-fiction, with a history of the 1930s and early 40s, showing the apparently inexorable drift towards totalitarianism and world war. It's a very easy read, eschewing the usual narrative in favour of two or three "soundbites" per...
Published on 1 May 2009 by Amazon Customer


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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Make of it what you will, 1 May 2009
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Baker is an American novelist who previously specialised in deliciously filthy books like "Vox" and "The Fermata", but here turns his hand to non-fiction, with a history of the 1930s and early 40s, showing the apparently inexorable drift towards totalitarianism and world war. It's a very easy read, eschewing the usual narrative in favour of two or three "soundbites" per page, each with a sort of "countdown clock" - "It was January 30th, 1933", "It was September 1st, 1939", and so on (to be honest, this device begins to get irritating after a while; a simple dateline would have sufficed).

He does make a number of irritating errors of detail (you can tell he's not a professional historian), and the events chosen are - by their very nature - selective. This tends to give a somewhat distorted view of events, and if you're not already familiar with the period you might find yourself thinking "Hang on - how did THAT suddenly happen?"

Perhaps we are supposed to be shocked to learn that Winston Churchill was a belligerent pragmatist, or that Roosevelt deliberately provoked the Japanese in order to assure America's entry into the war. To anyone who has studied this period at all this is hardly news.

As to Mr Baker's avowal that the American pacificts and anti-interventionists "were right", you must make up your own mind.

Despite these reservations, the book still has a "page turner" effect, with much food for thought for the international realpolitik of the present day.

Worth reading, but not the full picture, not by a long way.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Powerful content, questionable method, 3 April 2013
By 
Scott Krieger (Peacedale, RI United States) - See all my reviews
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This book's power rests in its ability to give a voice to some of the millions of individuals who experienced indescribable suffering during World War II. It is a plea for--and by--humanity. For this, honor is due the man who compiled and edited it, Nicholson Baker.

The book consists of a series of such statements by individuals which are contrasted with the statements and bloodthirsty wishes of those who planned and implemented the mass murder of people, whether through the gassing, shooting and bombing of millions by the German Nazis and their confederates or through the criminal and militarily pointless fire-bombing of numerous civilian cities by the Allies.

Unfortunately, by not telling at least part of the fuller life story of any of the dozens of people it quotes, this book at times feels voyeuristic in its descriptions of human suffering and of human evil. Particularly of human suffering.

Nicholson Baker, as well, is somewhat disingenuous in that he never addresses the question of how Nazi Germany could have been stopped in its destructive and genocidal course once it had begun to invade other countries (after already having commenced its enslavement and killing of Jewish people and others within its own borders).

While most people now would hopefully agree that it is a war crime to bomb and kill civilians (would they?), there was clearly no alternative course of action in the 1940s apart from either fighting the Nazi German regime militarily or accepting its genocidal occupation and rule over Europe, a rule which might well have lasted for generations and whose murderous goals would have been fully achieved within ten years.

These are real possibilities which humanity just barely averted, and which cause horror when contemplated by any individual in the present day(and by most people of that time, the time of our parents and grandparents, many of whom were not allowed to survive).

There was simply no other choice available except military force that would have had any impact on the actions or power of the Nazis. (And saying this is a far cry from justifying the decision by Churchill and Roosevelt to carry out the war by slaughtering hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of civilians by bombing them in their homes.)

Finally, and most critically, by not addressing whether the fighting against Nazi Germany was a necessary war, Nicholson Baker seeks to avoid this central question of utmost significance. It is one which cannot be ignored, and by seeking to do so Mr. Baker renders dubious the guided moral questioning of which significant portions of his book consist. Not least its last words, in which he dedicates the book to American and British pacifists of the 1930s and '40s, concluding with "they failed, but they were right", words which sound in the end like nothing but sophistry.

This book's greatest value is in allowing the voices of people who lived and suffered during this time--a time not so long ago--to be heard again. It is this--the voice of humanity that comes alive within it--which makes it a rare and precious book.
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4.0 out of 5 stars One thing to make clear, this isn't prose as ..., 12 Nov. 2014
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Alan Phelan "Sexypebble" (Hampshire) - See all my reviews
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One thing to make clear, this isn't prose as I first thought. This is a huge collection of quotes that tells a story from 1919 up to the main fighting of WW2. It provides very interesting points, provoking internal debates on different perspectives of the war. While I disagree with Baker on the expressed opinion, I cannot be sure how much of the disagreement is because of how revolutionary his ideas are. Worth a read.
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13 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating read but ultimately unsatisfying, 8 Sept. 2008
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Thomas Cunliffe "Committed to reading" (Sussex, England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization (Hardcover)
Human Smoke attracted a great deal of interest when it was published earlier this year, with controversy in abundance. In essence, the book is seen by many as pacifist, and appears to present both sides in the Second World War as having a moral equivalence, holding equal disdain for the human cost of the terrible conflict they provoked.

The book consists of a compilation of hundreds of first-hand quotations, extracts from papers and articles, accounts of conversations, diary extracts and numerous other detailed sources. These all appear in sequential order and provide a day by day account of the development of the war from the perspective of various world nations. These appear at first to be largely unedited, in "raw" form, but of course, the selection was made by Nicholson Baker, and we read nothing in the book about his selection criteria.

However, it soon becomes apparent that one of his objectives is to show the huge resistance to joining in the conflict, particularly in America, and how this resistance was eventually suppressed. Baker shows that there was a huge concern for European Jewry and the starving people of Europe, with Americans digging deep into their pockets to support relief operations. However, there was strong governmental and labour movement resistance to changing immigration quotas to allow more Jews to escape to America from German persecution. Baker quotes the example of one family who eventually managed to enter America after travelling from Berlin via Moscow, Japan, Costa Rica, Panama and Chile. They were the lucky ones, others of their ilk being deported from Germany to entirely infeasible destinations where they were to perish as stateless persons.

America had a strong anti-war and anti-draft movement which was eventually suppressed by legal measures, with many supporters serving prison terms because of their opposition to American involvement in the war. Pacifist bravery was considerable, and anyone reading the book cannot but be impressed by Quaker peace and relief efforts which went right to the heart of governments on both sides of the Atlantic. However, the national governments of the Allies were equally determined to avoid war and Baker shows strenuous British efforts to avoid war finally collapsing and Winston Churchill being appointed as Prime Minister to lead the country through the terrible times ahead of them.

The British generally believe that America was slow to enter the war, but Baker shows the arguments on both sides and the eventual development of the conviction that American interests were so threatened by non-involvement that action had to be taken. I had not realised the extent to which America had allied with China against Japan before the war, and Baker shows how Japan felt greatly threatened by American military supplied to China in order to equip them against the Japanese. This provides useful context in understanding the eventual bombing of Pearl Harbour.

Baker pays much attention to the bombing campaigns of both Germany and Britain. At the start of the war an opinion poll in Britain showed almost even numbers for and against bombing civilian populations in Germany. Churchill and his government clearly saw bombing as an attempt to bring about the collapse of the Nazi regime as the population rose up against the horrors brought upon them by German expansion. However, early bombing raids were not as effective as they had hoped, and when their effects were also minimised by German propaganda reports, the uprising did not occur.

The Germans retaliated with severe bombing raids on London and Coventry, and within no time, both sides were locked into an escalation of the bombing campaign which wreaked terrible death and destruction on all sides. However, these were the weapons of the time, and opting out on the part of one side, would surely have only led to the other side destroying their opposition without challenge. I personally find it easy to go along with Winston Churchill who on observing the blitz of London, declared, "they have sown the wind, they shall reap the whirl-wind".

So many questions are left hanging. In taking a neutral position between the two sides, has Baker really taken account of the awesomely horrific findings in the concentration camps, the mega-numbers of Jews, Slavs and minorities slaughtered by the Nazi regime? In the light of what we now know, would the annihilation of the Jewish race from all Nazi-won territories including Great Britain have been an acceptable trade for peace in the USA?

On the plus side, this book is a fascinating read, providing much insight into the thinking of the times. In quoting Churchill so extensively, I get the impression that Baker seeks to show his flaws and to suggest personality shortcomings in his aggressive determination to annihilate Germany. Many readers will however see it as little short of miraculous in these days of political expediency that one man was able to steel the nation at a time when Britain stood alone before Hitler and defeat seemed such a strong probability.

Nicholson Baker presents this huge amount of material with little editorial comment of his own, other than a final afterword or a mere two pages, in which he declares that the American pacifists were right to resist American involvement in the war. But his arguments are not developed beyond this simple statement and his readers are left floundering as to the reasons for his stance. I get the impression that Nicholson Baker feels that his hundreds of quotations are polemic enough to justify taking a pacifist position on the war, but this reader at least, on reading these countless personal accounts, gave thanks for the steely determination of the Allies to prevail over their enemies.
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21 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The winners write the history books, 23 Aug. 2008
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hfffoman (Kent) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization (Hardcover)
I found this book fascinating and was disappointed at the shrill criticisms it received. This review will concentrate on why the book has been so poorly received and why I found the criticisms unjustified. If you want an introduction to what the book is about, it would be better to start with the other reviews.

It is easy to underestimate how much postwar circumstances influence the verdict on a war. In different circumstances America's leaders could have been prosecuted as war criminals for their actions in Vietnam, just like Milosevic and Karadic. That may sound unbelievable but it is a quote from Robert Macnamara (Secretary of State at the time) talking about himself.

We won WWII, we wrote the history books, and we all like to believe it was a conflict of moral simplicity. We need books like this that challenge our complacency. I believe it is because our views are so deeply ingrained that some people are attacking this book.

I agree with one of the criticisms. If you want Nicholson to argue his case in the usual way, you will be disappointed. He doesn't argue at all. Most of the book comprises quotations and reports of quotations. He only writes in his own voice for a few sentences at the very end. As has been pointed out, this isn't historical analysis and can never prove anything. But it does have an advantage. He lets the evidence speak for itself. This means anyone open-minded can find the book interesting regardless of their viewpoint.

A good example is the quotes of Gandhi's comments. Some people will read these as virtuous and uplifting. Others will see them as proof that Gandhi was a fool and the pacifits were mad. Nicholson makes no comment, he merely gives us the quotes.

If you aren't satisfied with this, and prefer a book that debates the subject using historical analysis, Buchanan's "Churchill, Hitler and the unnecessary war" is a good choice.

I wish the book's detractors had said, "That's interesting, there is a lot I didn't know in this book, it highlighted some things that aren't usually admitted, and showed that the picture is murkier than most of us appreciate. But I disagree with his conclusion. I still think Churchill was mostly justified and I won't change my view." Sadly, that's not what the reviewers have said.

One reviewer accuses Nicholson of selective commentary. But the total amount of commentary in the entire book is very close to zero. The criticisms of Churchill are quotes from people who knew him. Nicolson is perfectly entitled to gather such quotations. There are already plenty of books praising Churchill. We rarely hear the negative comments and we should hear them. It is healthy to see the darker side of the man we recently voted the greatest Briton of all time. In any case the book does contain a lot of praise for Churchill.

One reviewer, while plugging his own book on the war, gives this attack: "from the heights of superior morality" Nicholson argues for moral equivalence between the allies and the nazis. The implication is clear: I know better; I know that we were angels and the enemy were devils.

Excuse me, who is being morally superior, Nicholson or the reviewer?

In any case the criticism is based on a misreading. The book suggests that the picture is murkier than people often think. Nowhere does it assert moral equivalence.
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Think you know what happened in the run up to and the first three years of World War II?, 15 Aug. 2010
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Think you know what happened in the run up to and the first three years of World War II? Nicholson Baker will make you think again. Baker has trawled through newspapers, books, diaries and other accounts from the time, revealing that during the war, many people thought very differently to what was going on than is common today.

The book has been widely criticised for being selective in its use of source material, but the exclusion of what Baker brings to the table by the vast majority of other accounts exposes the rest of the literature as no better.

Churchill and Roosevelt come across as war mongers on a par with Hitler, using war to further their own careers - and even personal enjoyment at times. Baker finds many contemporary voices against war from Jewish, Quaker and secular communities. The war itself is not heroic, and not the simple good vs evil battle that we so often comfort ourselves that it was. It was "The End of Civilization" that Baker subtitles the book.

As ever Baker's writing is of a light touch, but filled with his own passion for what he is writing about. Don't expect an "objective" read. It isn't fiction, but it is not journalism either. I hope this isn't Baker's last foray into historical material.

An excellent account.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Not bad, 14 Mar. 2014
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As an historical revisionist I would say that this book is important to garnish opinion before the war so as an objective opinion could be made for the causes of it.
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44 of 64 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Bafflingly incoherent and disappointing, 6 May 2008
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lexo1941 (Edinburgh, Scotland) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization (Hardcover)
I am a huge Nicholson Baker fan, and sharing some of his political outlook I was greatly amused when he wrote a novel about a man plotting to assassinate George W. Bush. I saw this book in a special paperback edition in a bookshop and bought it eagerly, hoping to find out what interesting perspective he might have to bring to the Second World War.

I was surprised to discover, first of all, that Baker seems to be basically in agreement with many of the pacifists of the period, in particular those who believed that bad as the Third Reich was, it was immoral and wrong to put up any kind of fight against it. I find this position difficult to sympathise with or even to comprehend, but what's worse is that some demon in Baker's psyche has prevented him from offering any sort of sustained argument in its favour.

This book doesn't present any argument at all. Nor is it a 'sweeping narrative history'. It's in fact a highly selective annal of the period, in which Baker has chosen incidents that reflect what he seems to think was something very close to a moral equivalence between the Allies and the Axis. He reinforces this impression by using weasel words - for example, when he presents a historical figure whom he finds sympathetic, he records their words without comment, but when it's someone he dislikes or despises he throws in a few eptithets to make them seem more malevolent. So Churchill's scientific advisor Frederick Lindemann is gratuitously described as 'dour and querulous', whereas Victor Klemperer - who on the evidence of his diary was equally dour and querulous, albeit with more reason to be so - is not described as anything. With Churchill himself, we are informed that he owned thousands of toy soldiers and was a physically reckless little boy. Big deal. There is also a rather disingenuous attempt to portray Churchill as an anti-Semite; even if Churchill shared the casual, low-level anti-Semitism of many people of his class and era, it was nothing compared to Hitler's. There seems to be no overall shape to the book, other than mere chronological order of event.

The lack of frame and structure (apart from Baker's mere opinions peeking through here and there) mean that the book reads more like the research material for a book Baker couldn't or didn't want to write. Comments made by politicians in public speeches are presented as if they were statements of sincere private principle, as opposed to political expediency. Newspaper accounts (especially from the New York Times) are accepted without reservation. Self-evidently bad arguments by pacifists are never questioned for a second. They can't be, because Baker's whole method is not about him putting forward an argument: he just presents this evidence as if the conclusion is inescapable. Which it isn't.

I just don't understand how a writer as intelligent and meticulous as Nicholson Baker can have written such a shoddy, sloppy, stupid book. I will keep reading his stuff, but this is an embarrassing blot in a remarkable career.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars American pacifist perspective, 27 July 2012
By 
G. J. Weeks (London) - See all my reviews
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It is not until the last page that one is sure of the author's perspective. He thinks the pacifists who opposed America joining WW2 were right. How, on the evidence he cites as to Nazi evil, he can come to this conclusion is beyond me. It has to be in the true sense, a prejudicial view. The perspective of the book is American. There is little about pacifist resistance in the UK. The horrors of the treatment of the Jews are well related as is the resistance of the UK and USA to take in Jewish refugees. Bombing of civilian targets was initiated by the British. The Battle of Britain is ignored. Much id made of the British blockade of Germany. Nothing is said of the U-Boat blockade. The US support for China and provocation of Japan were news to me. War is horrible, but unlike the author, I think sometimes it is a necessary evil.
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Human Smoke, 30 April 2009
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I found this book very enlightening as to the causes and build up to the Second World War and also the Holocaust. It was interesting to realize the extent of anti-Jewish sentiment among both the USA and British war leaders. Many millions of Jews could have been saved from the Holocaust if the USA Britain and France would not have blocked their entry into their countries or even into Palestine or Madagascar. The book is a collection of newspaper, diary, and other reports written at the time and show the mind set which led to the killing of millions of civilians across Europe. The book ends in 1941, so it deals with the period of build up towards the war. A very powerful book which does show that the war enabled the holocaust to happen, and that civilians were the main target of the military on all sides. It has certainly changed my view about this period in history. Well worth reading.
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