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HUMAN SMOKE by Nicholson Baker

HUMAN SMOKE

The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization

By Nicholson Baker

Pub Date: March 1st, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-4165-6784-4
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

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.