Winston Churchill seldom, if ever, struggled with a lack of self-confidence. When he was in his early thirties he remarked: “We are all worms. But I do believe I am a glowworm.”
So years later when he said, “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it,” I’m sure he believed that his words would be the gold standard by which other writings on his chosen subjects would be judged. And when it came to writing history, his mammoth treatments of the two world wars during the first half of the twentieth century bear witness to his literary ambition and talent.
But as with most supremely confident people, they tend to underestimate peers and those who will come later.
Remember that old Steve Allen show “Meeting of the Minds” – where he’d put random characters from history at a table to talk? Well, I’d love to see something similar, but just one on one, between Sir Winston Spencer Churchill, and a guy named Nicholson Baker.
Baker’s previous claims to literary fame involved novels dealing with such disturbing matters as phone-sex (“VOX”) and, more recently, a book about the merits of assassinating George W. Bush (really – it’s called “CHECKPOINT”). I’m very happy to announce herein that among the accomplishments of my life is the great sense of fulfillment I find in the knowledge that I have never read those books.
But I did find myself reading Mr. Baker’s recent foray into quasi-nonfiction – a book entitled: “HUMAN SMOKE: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization.” I was intrigued by the title for two reasons. First, I enjoy reading anything about that period and those events. And I felt bad that I’ve lived my life thus far clueless about the fact that civilization apparently ended before I was born.
That made me sad and sort of curious. In fact, as I read the book I became, in the words of a young girl named Alice, “curiouser and curiouser.” If important works of history are like mines - rich with detail – then Baker’s book is more like Lewis Carroll’s rabbit hole.
This 576 page journey through the looking glass is actually very readable. It’s a series of approximately one thousand anecdotes drawn from newspapers (Baker is apparently a collector of old newspapers), diaries, letters, and contemporary works from the period leading up to, and into, the Second World War. There’s no commentary from Nicholson Baker – he makes his point via the way he pastes it all together.
Think of a quilt made of old newspapers. A really ugly old quilt – one that smells, has stains on it, and you wouldn’t use it on the coldest night.
You see, it’s the point Mr. Baker makes, or tries to, that’s so very outrageous. In his on-going narrative, the history we have all heard lo these many years is all wrong. Hitler would have been more peaceful if only Churchill hadn’t been so provocative. Japan would have minded their own business if only Franklin Roosevelt hadn’t lusted to see wood and paper structures all over Tokyo become an inferno. And a few anti-Semitic comments by American and British leaders (certainly wrong), rise to a kind of immoral equivalence to Hitler’s murderous racist rabidity.
We were just as bad as the other guys – actually worse. And our chief weapon of evil was aerial bombardment. In Baker’s imagination, the RAF was as big and bad as the Luftwaffe – maybe even bigger. The Germans bombed Britain as a defensive measure because of the overpowering might of the RAF.
I guess Mr. Baker thinks Churchill should have said, famously: “Never in the field human conflict was so much owed by so many to such a gigantic and overwhelming air force.”
I’m not kidding. This is what not-so-saintly Nick seeks to prove. His book is a tribute to the American and British pacifists of the era. Of them he says: “They tried to save Jewish refugees, feed Europe, reconcile the United States and Japan, and stop the war from happening. They failed, but they were right.”
Instead of the United States selling weapons to China in the late 1930’s to help that nation resist Japanese aggression, what we “really” did was to arm China for aggressive purposes. I half expected to read, as I went along, that Pearl Harbor was an offensive act by the United States Navy, opening fire on Japanese aircraft randomly flying overhead.
In this book, the ultimate villain is not Hitler – it’s Churchill. Winnie is devious, manipulative, cunning, ruthless, and warmongering, while Hitler is reasonable and is being backed into a corner by the Allies.
The problem with getting our history from newspapers and subjective contemporary diaries alone is that there’s no room for post-game analysis. And there’s no place for evidence revealed after the fact.
One example (and it’s hard to figure out where to start on this) is found in something called the Hossbach Memorandum. This was used during the Nuremburg Trials (Baker’s narrative conveniently ends on December 31, 1941). It’s the summary of a meeting that took place in late 1937 between Hitler and some of his key military cronies (the document named after the man who took the minutes). It is, in effect, the record of a secret plan for war – in 1937!
Hitler had talked in “Mein Kampf” about Lebensraum (“living space”) and this conference at the Reich Chancellery discussed plans for acquiring such extra room at the expense of other nations in Europe. Hitler is quoted as saying: “Germany’s problem could only be solved by means of force.”
This was before Munich, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and all the rest. And during that conference he specifically talked about Germany’s “two hate-filled antagonists, Britain and France.”
But Nicholson Baker seems to be convinced that if Britain would have sued for peace in 1940 or 1941 (and, admittedly, there were some in Churchill’s cabinet who leaned that way), Hitler would have stopped his aggression and the world would have lived happily ever after, instead of ending, as it apparently did (who knew?) in 1941.
Nicholson Baker has gone beyond mere revisionism in this book. He has crossed over to the even darker side of “perversion-ism” (sadly appropriate considering some of his other literary expressions). I guess I, for one, will have to find solace in something else Winston Churchill said: “The truth is incontrovertible, malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end; there it is.”