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

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



The Pequod Review:

Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke is a collection of historical anecdotes and vignettes from the 1930s and 1940s, primarily related to World War II. They are drawn from newspaper accounts, memoirs, political speeches and certain first-hand sources, and Baker presents them chronologically in a discrete and unconnected form. Here are a couple examples:

Gandhi wrote about Hitler again in Harijan. It was January 7, 1939.

Even the hardest metal melts under sufficient heat, Gandhi observed; the hardest heart must melt before the heat of nonviolence. "Herr Hitler is but one man enjoying no more than the average span of life," he continued. Without the German people, he was nothing, and the German people would in the end be touched by nonviolence.

"I must refuse to believe that the Germans as a nation have no heart or markedly less than the other nations of the earth. They will some day rebel against their own adored hero, even if he does not wake up betimes," he said. 


Lindberg read the headline in the Paris Herald Tribune: "Lindbergh Reported Providing U.S. with Data on Reich Air Force." Lindbergh was troubled — would this news upset the Germans? He'd been passing on the alarmingly high airplane levels that the Germans gave him — inflated figures, as it later turned out.

"If we must arm, we should arm for the purpose of our own strength, just as a man trains his body to keep fit and for the purpose of health," Lindbergh wrote. "The thing that bothers me most of all is that our own northern peoples are now snarling at and arming against each other."

It was January 7, 1939. 

These are occasionally interesting (especially if you are already somewhat well-informed about the specifics of the war), but for the most part this scattered approach winds up providing little explanatory value and Baker's apparently dovish views of the war are not well-supported.