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July 01, 2008

The fact that a book as bad as Human Smoke can get as much attention as it has tells us what is wrong with publishing today, argues Jeremy Black: Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II and the End of Civilization - Nicholson Baker

Posted by Jeremy Black

Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II and the End of Civilization
by Nicholson Baker
Pp. 576. London: Simon and Schuster, 2008
Hardback, £20

This deeply-flawed work is important because of what it tells us about a capacity for self-deception and wish-fulfilment that is deeply entrenched among Western left-wingers, and also as it raises an interesting question about why particular books attract particular attention. William D. Rubinstein, in his review in History Today (July 2008), (which has apparently angered Bruce Kent), suggests that it is difficult to understand why Human Smoke has been widely noted in the press.

Actually, the reason is all-too-obvious. Big publishers have a lock on much of the reviewing, not least due to advertising sweetheart buy-through-the-paper/journal deals, and bookshop placements are purchased. Publishers pay often substantial advances to works they have contracted with agents, and the review process is frequently perfunctory.

It would be instructive to read the reports, if any, Simon and Schuster commissioned on Holy Smoke. Nor are they alone. One Penguin author told me he was surprised by the system. We thus get questionable books such as those valuably discussed by Damian Thompson in his Counterknowledge.

Self-deception. Well, Baker could have cited (he didn't), George Lansbury, the pacifist former leader of the Labour Party, who told the House of Commons on 3rd September 1939:

The cause that I and a handful of friends represent is this morning apparently going down to ruin, but I think we ought to take heart and courage from the fact that after 2,000 years of war and strife, at least, even those who enter upon this colossal struggle have to admit that in the end force has not settled, and cannot and will not settle anything. I hope that out of this terrible calamity there will arise a real spirit, a spirit that will compel people to give up reliance on force, and that perhaps this time humanity will learn the lesson and refuse in the future to put its trust in poison gas, in the massacre of little children and universal slaughter.
This accords with Baker's pacifist theme, and his continually reiterated criticism of Britain alongside Germany. Thus British bombing in 1939-41 also comes in for criticism, as if it was equivalent to German action, and there is much effort directed against both Churchill and Britain's treatment of Jews.

This, however, misses the vital point of context. There was a potent difference between the two sides, and Lansbury ironically captured this:

Put its trust in poison gas, in the massacre of little children and universal slaughter.
Those of course were Nazi remedies and goals, and not those of Britain. Indeed, Churchill, on 3rd September 1939, told the Commons:
This is not a question of fighting for Danzig or fighting for Poland. We are fighting to save the whole world from the pestilence of Nazi tyranny and in defence of all that is most sacred to man. This is no war for domination or imperial aggrandisement or material gain, no war to shut any country out of its sunlight and means of progress. It is a war, viewed in its inherent quality, to establish on impregnable rocks, the rights of the individual, and it is a war to establish and revive the stature of man.
That was scarcely true of our eventual ally, Stalin, but Baker is writing about the earlier part of the war. His lack of context enables him to undermine any notion of a "good war", but, looked at objectively, and with an understanding of context, it is clear that Lansbury was wrong. War did end the Nazi and Imperial Japanese regimes. Pacifism did not and could not have done so.

Historians, of course, do not own the interpretation of the past, a point I have recently probed in The Curse of History (2008). That point does not mean that all approaches are of equal value, but it does leave unclear how historians should respond. A sympathy for pluralism in approach, and indeed for freedom of expression, should not, however, extend to such sympathy for a lack of academic rigour and judgement.

Baker's book, complemented by David Aaronovitch's instructive interview of the novelist author in The Times on 7th June 2008, suggests that Baker is more than confused. He also has some strange views. What is disturbing is that they have been given such prominence.

Looked at differently, this book exposes the shallowness of pacifism as an approach to international relations and warfare. It also raises questions about the practices and ethos of trade publishing.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. He is the author - amongst much else - of The Slave Trade (2007), A Short History of Britain (2007), The Holocaust (2008), and The Curse of History (2008).


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Like the nations of the past, modern Britain has its heroisms and its heroes — Trafalgar, Waterloo and the Battle of Britain on the one hand, Nelson, Well­ington and Churchill on the other. Of the latter, none is so present, or impregnable, as Churchill, who has survived, and will continue to survive, both the uncritical attentions of Mr. Martin Gilbert and the deflations of reputation which have been attempted by revisionist history.

Whatever revisionist historians may say, the public sees Churchill, and will continue to see him, as the enemy of ap­peasement and embodiment of the spirit which won the Sec­ond World War, while Chamberlain will continue to be seen as “the appeaser” who had to be removed before the Second World War could be waged.

So far as Churchill is concerned, the public is mainly wrong. Churchill did urge resistance to Hitler, but the policies he advocated in opposition, and would probably have pursued in office, were not very different from Chamberlain’s; they might well have kept Stalin at arm’s length, while convincing Hitler that British intervention in Eastern and South-Eastern Europe must be neutralised by alliance with the Soviet Union.

Chamberlain and Churchill combined anti-socialist and anti-Marxist opinions with the social radicalism they had in­herited from Joseph Chamberlain and Lord Randolph Chur­chill. Both believed in the British Empire, which Chamberlain, by declaring war, and Churchill, by joining Chamberlain’s Cabinet on the outbreak of war, made a major contribution to destroying.

They did not, of course, know on September 3, 1939 that that was what they were doing. They were not sure that Hitler would attack in the West, they did not expect France to fall if he did, and they expected the Russo-German pact to alienate Spain, Italy and Japan. What they were doing, nevertheless — and what became plain when France fell in June 1940 — was to put themselves into the hands of the Labour Party and the trade unions and to make it likely that socialism would be established and the Empire disestab­lished.

Conservatives therefore, have solemn reasons for reflec­tion as the anniversary is remembered. Reflection should lead them to the questions: Was the war a war in pursuit of British interests? Or was it a war of moral indignation, entered into without the resources to fight it, as a result of guarantees — to Greece and Romania as well as to Poland —which it had never been possible to honour?

In The Impact of Hitler I argued that until July 1938 Chamberlain had a perfectly sensible foreign policy consisting of rearmament, avoidance of new military commitments, and “appease­ment”, ie, the rather vague wish to make Germany into a contented member of the European system, which took him to Germany three times in a situation of high tension in September 1938. He was then blown off course when Halifax (Foreign Secretary) and the Cabinet responded to two sorts of public pressure. The first was from Conservatives who believed that the Empire had to be defended by resisting Hitler in Europe. The second was from the Labour Party and the liberal-Left which claimed that there was a moral duty to resist Hitler by alliance with the Soviet Union, whether resistance was in Britain’s interest and within her capability or not, and whether the Soviet Union was likely to cooperate or not.

The implication of my argument is that Chamberlain should probably have left Hitler and the Czechs to deal with the Sudeten question; that he should probably not have paid his visits to Hitler, since these merely convinced Hitler that appeasement would involve British interference in his backyard; and that he should not have made a radical depar­ture in British policy after the German occupation of Prague by giving military guarantees against German expansion in Eastern and South Eastern Europe, since expansion would certainly have had the beneficial effect of entangling Hitler with the Russians.

It is wrong to assume that a dominant Germany would have been more intolerable to Britain than the Soviet Union was to become, or that British statesmen had a duty to risk British lives to prevent Hitler behaving intolerably to Germans and others. We do not know that Hitler wanted war against Bri­tain; we know only that he wanted war against the Soviet Union, and found himself at war with Britain and France when British indignation turned Chamberlain’s political in­terference at Munich into a military commitment against him.

Chamberlain has often been accused of wanting to set Hitler on to Stalin, when what he really wanted was a con­tented Germany within a stable Europe. The real charge should be that, by treating Eastern and South-Eastern Europe as spheres of British influence, he drove Hitler into Stalin’s arms.

In making their judgments Conservatives will admire the epic precariousness of Churchill’s achievement between Dunkirk and Pearl Harbour. But they should also agree that the war had consequences as damaging as the bombing of British cities and the fall of Singapore; that, indeed, nothing did more damage in Britain than the complacency and self-congratulation induced by the Russo-American victory of 1945, which the Cold War seemed almost to increase, and which it took the Suez crisis of 1956, the immigration crisis of the 1960s, and the Irish and economic crises of the 1970s to remove.

These are harsh judgments which will be offensive to per­sons of goodwill who believe, and will doubtless continue to believe, that the war dead died in a particular righteous cause. They will be especially offensive to people of good­will who were young in the 1930s, and whose conventional wisdom will have a great deal to say in contradiction.

Conventional wisdom will say that Hitler was evil, that, in willing his destruction, Britain was doing her duty, and that it was a providential blessing that the Empire had to be con­verted into the Commonwealth from 1947 onwards. It will also say that the war lanced social abscesses, broke down class bathers, and made Britain a better place to live in.

For at least three decades these opinions had the status of national truths. Yet they were merely reflections of the fact that there had been a student revolution in the 1930s (like the student revolution of the 1960s), and that the Com­monwealth and United Nations sentiments into which its anti-imperialism was converted internationally after the war were matched domestically by the conversion of its virtually Marxist collectivism into post-war Keynesian collectivism.

In the light of Powellism and Thatcherism it is easy to see that the equality of sacrifice and state-mobilisation of resources necessary for conducting the war lent patriotic respectability to punitive taxation and state economic con­trol. It is even easier to see that the war was debilitating politically and intellectually, and that it took the British a very long time to recover from it.

A thinking Conservative may draw two sets of conclu­sions. First, that moral indignation in virtuous causes was a dangerous luxury for a precarious Empire and that patience and prudence could hardly have been less successful than moral indignation. Though the balance is a fine one, Russian (and American) domination of Europe after a long war, the destruction of Germany and the emasculation of the British Empire, were probably worse for Britain than German domination of Europe might have been if that had been ef­fected without war or the emasculation of the Empire. Is it inconceivable, moreover, that patience with Nazi Germany might have been rewarded in the long run by military takeover, economic breakdown or a Gorbachev coming to power there?

The second conclusion a thinking Conservative may come to is that British politics since 1939 divide themselves into two phases — up to the mid-1960s, when collectivism and socialism came to be in the ascendant, and since the mid-1960s, when they have come to be in recession — and that Mrs. Thatcher’s achievement was a necessary and pain­ful reversal of almost every domestic assumption that the Churchill-Attlee coalition stood for.

In matters like this, dogmatism is demeaning. It is equally demeaning, [after] the decade of Thatcherite realism, to present defeat as victory long after it has become clear that it was defeat.

Posted by: The Ghost of Maurice Cowling at July 10, 2008 06:12 AM
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