Vivid glimpses of political leaders and their dissenters illuminate and examine the gradual, horrifying advance toward overt global war and Holocaust.
Praised by critics and readers alike for his exquisitely observant eye and deft, inimitable prose, Baker has assembled a narrative within Human Smoke that unfolds gracefully, tragically, and persuasively. This is an unforgettable book that makes a profound impact on our perceptions of historical events and mourns the unthinkable loss humanity has borne at its own hand. The world is seeking a way out, and I flatter myself with the belief that perhaps it will be the privilege of the ancient land of India to show the way out to the hungering world.
Non-violence implies voluntary submission to the penalty for non-cooperation with evil. The disgraceful refusal of the United States to open its doors to European Jews, even when reports of the cattle cars sending them to Poland and the death camps were available, perhaps reached its culmination in June Hitler rejoiced to find that while Western countries might oppose him, his anti-Semitism appeared to have wide appeal.
Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization
After the fact, it seemed to many that the purpose of the Allied effort in the Second World War had been to stop the Holocaust of the Jews. Before and during the war, it was not so. As these facts, all taken from Baker, demonstrate, his method is not entirely pointillistic.
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Many, though by no means all, of the vignettes are threaded like beads, in specific sequences determined by persistent themes. This was done. It was the Nazis who inaugurated the practice of smashing cities from the air, at Guernica, during the civil war in Spain. But once the Second World War broke out, it was England, not Germany, that first practiced the strategic bombing of cities per se, though soon enough, of course, the Nazis responded in kind. Yet Britain and, eventually, the United States not only continued the practice but increased it throughout the war. The true reason may have been revealed in a comment made by the British general Raymond Lee in November Until November , when Britain and the United States landed in Africa, the British Army had not fought any substantial action on the ground against the Germans.
But Baker covers fresh ground by connecting the logic governing these well-known events with other, lesser-known state-sponsored assaults on civilians, such as the British blockade of Europe, meant to starve the German people.
It was based on the similar blockade during the First World War and for a while there-after, which did indeed cause widespread starvation. As Baker notes, the starvation was complementary to the killing through strategic bombing—in both cases, the goal was to inspire a revolt of the German people against their government.
It never happened. For example, he implicitly endorses the view that the Roosevelt administration consistently pursued a series of actions aimed at provoking war with Japan. The cumulative effect is to suggest that the United States was chiefly responsible for starting the Pacific war.
The charge is an old one, dating at least as far back as similar accusations by the historian Charles A. Beard more than half a century ago, and can hardly be settled by a few anecdotes, no matter how damning they seem in isolation.
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Only a full account of the actions and counteractions of both sides could possibly settle the question. The alleged provocation of Japan is one of the graver indictments Baker lays at the feet of Roosevelt and Churchill, alongside the failure to save Jews when some still could be saved—that is, before the six million had actually been murdered—and the horrendous cost of the strategic bombing campaign and the blockade.
What should the victims of the Nazis have done, then? Gandhi was the only person with a full program for both avoiding the war and resisting the Nazis. After all, the mass loss of life, including Jewish life, was scarcely avoided by the war, although the killing was eventually brought to an end by the Allied victory. In this light, it seems rather more than justified to extend thought and spirit out to the limits of the possible in the search for something that might have been better.
Human Smoke - The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization
What if the tens of million, instead of going to their deaths in the many slaughters that the war brought by air, sea, and land, had practiced determined, mass nonviolent resistance? But is the question therefore without value? I do not think so. Baker cannot answer the question, but he puts it squarely on the table.