Top Leaderboard, Site wide
September 2, 2014
Truthdig: Drilling Beneath the Headlines
Help us grow by sharing
and liking Truthdig:
Sign up for Truthdig's Email NewsletterLike Truthdig on FacebookFollow Truthdig on TwitterSubscribe to Truthdig's RSS Feed

Newsletter

sign up to get updates








Truthdig Bazaar more items

 
Arts and Culture

John Lukacs on Nicholson Baker’s ‘Human Smoke’

Email this item Email    Print this item Print    Share this item... Share

Posted on Apr 18, 2008
book cover

By John Lukacs

(Page 2)

  I have often quoted the old Irish biddy whom her neighbors had asked if the gossip about the young widow at the end of the street was true. And she said: “It is not true; but it is true enough.” I have also said that historians ought to face the opposite problem: that this or that may be true; but also not true enough.

  That war is awful is true. It is also true that Churchill and Roosevelt wanted—more: they chose—war to destroy Hitler. Especially Churchill thought that Hitler’s winning the war—more precisely: his ruling all of Europe—would mean something like the end of Western civilization. He was not very wrong.

  It is true that Hitler did not want to conquer the British Empire. It is true that he did not want—he couldn’t—to invade the United States and the Western Hemisphere. What he wanted (and he said this often) was for Britain and the United States to accept his domination of Europe, including his conquest of most of Central and Eastern Europe. But what did that mean? After conquering Poland, he would have gone into Soviet Russia, defeated it, establishing German, and National Socialist, rule over most of Eurasia. And what would have happened then? Not only to the strategic interests but to the British and American peoples’ state of mind?

  It is true that in 1940 Churchill chose to fight Hitler’s Germany with every possible means at his disposal (and those few and ineffective bombing raids were the only means at his disposal then). It is also true that Roosevelt wanted to get into the war against Hitler—if necessary, through the back door of inducing Japan to attack America. But, beneath and beyond all of this: Hitler had to be resisted. Resistance, truly, is a conservative word. It also means: if necessary, fighting.

  A fair amount of Baker’s snippets deal with the Germans’ humiliation and persecution and eventual murdering of Jews. I do not for a moment think—this belongs to the why question—that Baker did this to cover himself. His concern with what happened to the Jews of Europe seems authentic and honest. Now: It is true that Jews hoped for Churchill and Roosevelt to go to war against Hitler. But in 1939 and 1940, Churchill and Roosevelt decided to fight Hitler not because of the Jews. It is true that until about August-September 1941, the policy of the Germans was to force the Jews to emigrate: It was expulsion, not yet mass extermination. But thereafter this was no longer possible. It is also true that this final decision to proceed to extermination occurred only after—and, in some ways, perhaps even because of—the full coming of the war between the United States and Germany. But Baker never asks the questions: How much have Jews contributed to the British and American decision to war against Germany? And: Had Churchill and Roosevelt not gone to war, what would have happened to the millions of European and Russian Jews? The Jews did not cause the war; and the war did not go on because of the Jews. True, millions of Jews perished because of the war; but it was a war Hitler started, wishing that he would not have to fight Britain and the United States.

  He did and he lost. And Western civilization survived—even with a portion of Europe falling under Soviet domination for a while. Millions died in the war; other millions survived. What now matters, in the long run, is what we know of that war. We live forward; but we can only think backward, Kierkegaard once said. Knowledge, all knowledge, depends on memory; and history is the memory of mankind. All kinds of comfortable, and uncomfortable, truths—and half-truths—are latent within history, potential arguments for all kind of purposes; but they are seldom enough. What happened and what could have happened are not separable in our memories, in our minds. And why and how are not separable either.

  John Lukacs is the author of more than 20 books on topics in European history, including “Five Days in London: May 1940,” “The Hitler of History,” and “The Last European War.” Currently professor of history emeritus at Chestnut Hill College, he has also taught at Columbia University, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Budapest. His new book, “Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat: The Dire Warning—Churchill’s First Speech as Prime Minister,” will be published by Basic Books in May.


New and Improved Comments

If you have trouble leaving a comment, review this help page. Still having problems? Let us know. If you find yourself moderated, take a moment to review our comment policy.

By RottenAcorns, September 16, 2009 at 12:05 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Think people!
One need only read these comments to see the obvious flaw in Baker’s book. The truth of history is ALWAYS tainted by the beliefs of those reporting on it.
There are numerous inaccuracies and illogical conclusions reached concerning current events in the comments posted here. All of us has our perception of things swayed by those we choose to follow and believe in, no matter which side of the political fence we stand on. I’m sure it has been that way throughout history.
As Mr. Lukacs pointed out, the New York Times, and news papers in general are often far from accurate in their reporting, and are just as often likely to distort the facts to fit the editors beliefs and prejudices. If you dig deep into history you will find conflicting perceptions throughout. This is especially true in free thinking societies where independent thinking is protected to some degree.
Do any of us know what quotations Mr. Baker chose to leave out of his book because they were counter to the picture he was trying to paint? Do any of us know how truthful and accurate the quotations he chose to use are? Then, just as now, people had their own perspective of events of the day skewered by their personal beliefs and political indoctrination.
Had Mr. Baker set out to write a book that supported the popularly accepted belief that the U.S. and Britain fought a moral war in WW2 to stop three power crazed dictators. He could have no doubt found an equally convincing collection of quotes, (true and false), to support his theories!

Report this

By software development london, August 14, 2009 at 3:30 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

There is a wy to boost the sell of a bad book, just write about it as the bad book and idiot like me want to read it and see why is it the worse:D

Report this

By Allen Wood, May 1, 2008 at 3:03 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Your post is excellent, and right on the money. Thanks for the re-enforcement of history that may have failed to grasp. Many people don’t realise that Henry Ford supposedly kept a signed photo of Adolf Hitler on his desk…....................Allen

Report this

By sam, April 22, 2008 at 9:40 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

while historians might reasonably call “human smoke” a “bad” book, i was fascinated by what these exerpts of published materials created, from a psychological viewpoint. from my reading of history, i had not realized what emotionalists all 3 of the main actors were—hitler, roosevelt and churchill. the effect was very disturbing, and has implications for our current engagement(s) in war. i have to use the word “evil” to describe churchill now. any comments?

Report this

By cyrena, April 20, 2008 at 5:42 pm Link to this comment

Thanks for this Shepard. I agree that no matter who the totalitarian is, the effects and consequences are the same.

In fact, I can see little difference between the operations of the Nazis or the Stalinists, or the current neo-cons. I think some of the tactics have minor differences, but that would be all.

So, my own ‘project’ at this point, has just been the comparison of the totalitarian movement in place HERE, in the US, since The Coup of 2000. Most of the same ‘ingredients’ are already in place, at least those practiced by Hitler, Stalin, and the more decades that produced the same totalitarian takeovers in Chile, Peru, Argentina, Columbia, Uruguay, and others.

The one ‘argument’ so to speak, has been the consideration of whether or not the US can or will ever become a COMPLETELY closed society, like most of those others did. Some would argue that isn’t probable or possible, and while that may be so, it would only be due to the huge size of the US, as compared to the single states that have become totally enveloped in other instances. Even then, say in places like Peru, or Guatamala, there was still the ‘appearance’ of an ‘open society’ in certain places, with the ‘elite’ being totally unaware of what was happening to the masses.

So, in that respect, it’s fair to assume that the US would never become as totally closed as what most of the earlier totalitarian states became.

Still, as far as I’m concerned, we’re close enough already. Even the ‘camps’ have been set up, and I’m not a ‘conspiracy’ theorist, so I’m not just blowing smoke about those, even though they are less obvious than all of the other ‘signs’. And, even with the most obvious of those ‘sign’, there are still a whole bunch of Americans that are oblivious to it.

Report this

By Paracelsus, April 20, 2008 at 3:02 pm Link to this comment

i encourage readers of this thread to look up Alan Watt as he puts up a good explanation for the matrix of control that has been tightening ever since the beginning of the 20th century. Look up Alan Watt and Cutting Through the Matrix on the web.

Report this

By Eso, April 20, 2008 at 12:03 am Link to this comment

The first tool ever used was the stick that the chimp put into the termites nest, which he then withdrew to eat the ants. The next step in evolution was to use the stick to kill a ground hog, and the step after that was to use it to kill a man to get his goods, and the step after that was a quantum jump to explosives.

A similar phenomenon is behind the current “drang nach Osten”, which did not begin with Hitler, but much further back in time, perhaps to the 10th or 11th centuries. There were many after effects to the Crusades, which, again, were wars traveling from West to East and not the other way around—inspite of the invention of the Golden Horde, the Turks, and the Arabs to argue to the contrary. Hitler, whatever his expedients, was simply continuing a war that the West never quite managed to finish (Napoleon anyone?). Bush is flying his jet plane in the tailwinds of his predecessors’ arrows and bullets and inventing expedients as he goes. By his current curtsy to the Pope, he implicitly advocates a historical point of view anchored in Latin Rome rather than in a planet denuded of its forests, which process began with the West axing trees for battle ship masts, to build ever larger ships, and wasting wood by burning down cities built of wood.

I have not read Nicholson Baker’s and John Lukacs’ disputations. It appears they are reading tea leaves, whereas the matter is in the poison that turned a stick that went fishing for ants and fish into a tool of enslavement of thought. That enslavement of thought has elevated militarists as the intellectuals of our day, which orientation is reflected in the current notions we have about history.

Report this

By Sepharad, April 19, 2008 at 10:42 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Hi Cyrena—Back in the days of trying to push the Freedom of Information Act through, we used to take breaks sitting around trying to keep our spirits up in the face of the endless bureaucratic/congressional jockeying we were mired in. Nothing cheered us more than comparing the difficult to the impossible, i.e. discussing systems where anything resembling the FoI Act would be hopelessly unattainable. One thing sticks in my mind: there is really not a linear continuum with radical right totalitarianism at one end and radical left totalitarianism at the other. What there is is a circle on which Stalinists and Hitlerists meet, and pure democracy with protection of minorities lying 180 degrees away. A Hungarian linguistics professor and friend said he had escaped his country and avoided catastrophe twice: under the Nazis, when the soldier guarding him said he was himself a Jew, took off his uniform and handed it to our friend who made his escape. After the war he returned, but soon was also on the bad side of the Communists. That time he escaped the country hanging on to the underside of a train, to which his fingers froze so that when he dropped off he left much of the skin on his hand. No matter who the totalitarian is, the effects and consequences are similar.

Report this

By Paracelsus, April 19, 2008 at 3:10 pm Link to this comment

Are you sure it was neglect that caused all those slaves in the Soviet gulags to die?

Report this

By cyrena, April 19, 2008 at 2:04 pm Link to this comment

Thanks for this Jaded Prole. It’s an addition to a perspective that I’m still working up.

I’m still not clearly convinced that Hitler’s fascism was ONLY the destruction of socialism, though I agree that he did have that difference in ideology with Stalin.

Still, from what I’ve been grappling with, just in terms of trying to establish the base of the Nazi ideology that made it a global goal, it seems to come back to the ideology of what was the ‘perfect’ person. At it’s root, that’s what made Nazism a totalitarian type of fascism, since it was envisioned as a ‘global movement’ based on the ideology of racism, yet including anybody that was not ‘the perfect’ Aryan.

So, while the destruction of Socialism in the USSR may have been A goal, I still wonder how to put that in perspective with the primacy of the more ideological goal of a ‘perfect race’.

I think that for Stalin, the primary goal was the global primacy of communism, which made his ‘targets’ (anything or anyone capitalist) different than Hitler’s. who targeted anyone ‘not perfect’. Even their operations of the gulags and concentration camps where slightly different, in that for the Russian gulags, it was more a matter of neglect that so many perished, rather than with Hitler, who specifically exterminated all that were not perfect.

So, I think the ideologies were basically different, even if the methods were the same.

Like I said..that’s just a thought. It’s complex when the ideologies are considered, because they make no logical sense. Communism made more practical sense than Hitler’s Nazism.

Report this

By Eso, April 18, 2008 at 10:12 pm Link to this comment

History did not begin with Hitler or Roosevelt or Stalin. According to A. Fomenko, a Russian mathematician and historian, it began with the Council of Trent (1545-1564), which created and set in motion the chronology of history as we know it today. Our history completely ignores or falsifies most everything that occured before the 16th century, a major event in the pre-Trent times being the destruction of the Byzantine Empire by a secular form of Christianity arriving by way of Paris and London, its major hubs, and seats of aggressive militarism by way of Viking inheritance.

Hitler’s war for “Lebensraum” was a continuation of the war between the West and East of the pre-Trent times, now on a more localized level, what with the West expending its energies in colonizing India, China, Africa, South America, etc. Today the West has renewed its war against the East by targeting Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and, indirectly, Russia and China, because the area not only contains great reserves of natural resources, but intends to be a consumer of the same.

It is hard to say, what the outcome of WW2 would have been if the U.S. had not stepped in. Perhaps Hitler would have won and the West would have been an even greater military power (with a somewhat different configuration of nations) than today. But Russia would not have been eliminated as Poland was and would have remained a power to be recconed with even if Hitler won. Thus, the basic historical pattern of West to East conflict would have continued until flood, fire, and desertification got the better of both sides.

Nicholson Baker’s and John Lukacs’ disputations are not so much a scenario from Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” as it is taking fictitious history seriously. It’s a bore.

Report this

By Guy Montag, April 18, 2008 at 8:07 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Just finished the book today.  I was reminded of the poet Robinson Jeffer’s book “The Double-Axe.”

Published in 1948, this book is full of short poems about WWII. Many of Jeffer’s anti-war poems were censored by his publisher (appeared in the 1978 re-reprint). Especially those poems harshly critical of FDR and Churchill (one poem suggested that besides hanging Guy Fawkes in effigy on the 5th of November, they ought to string up those two as well).

“Human Smoke” was based largely on newspaper accounts.  I remember that Jeffers mentioned that his views were also largely based on closely following the news. 

How much of what we “know” about WWII is just BS that we absorbed as schoolchildren?  About as much as the conventional wisdom of our Iraq war?

I’ll agree that “Human Smoke” has an awkward style.  But I don’t agree with John Lukcas that all that carnage was necessary to “save Western civilization.”

Report this

By heavyrunner, April 18, 2008 at 7:15 pm Link to this comment

The current President’s grandfather, Prescott Bush bankrolled Krupp Steel and IG Farben among other companies of Nazi Germany.

Report this

By Gregorio, April 18, 2008 at 5:05 pm Link to this comment

The idea that Churchill and Roosevelt needed to resist Hitler or else otherwise he would dominate Europe and civilization would end, is preposterous.  It was the Soviet Army that crushed Germany, and it would have done so without Anglo-American assistance on the Western front.  The alleged fears of Churchill and Roosevelt could not have survived long after Hitler invaded Poland and then went for the Soviets.  The Hitler-Stalin pact, when it was terminated by the Germans, meant the Germans were doomed.  Economic embargos on the Fatherland would have ended everything for them once the Russian steamroller started rolling.  That’s why the US stayed in Europe after the war.  But war industrialists like Henry Ford and the Bush family, would benefit greatly if the slug-fest was joined by the Americans.  Ford was already selling to both sides [see Trading with the Enemy], as were most oil companies.  IBM provided the machines to keep track of German slave labor.  Strategic bombing, a clear failure to change matters on the battlefield, was so profitable that it was combined with nuclear explosive devices so that aircraft manufacturers could be guaranteed incomes after the war, with the Soviets as the new bogeyman who, if he was not resisted, would end civilization.

Report this

By Jaded Prole, April 18, 2008 at 7:00 am Link to this comment

Most of what has occurred would have occurred even in the absence of war. It is the nature of capitalism to move toward monopoly and it is the nature of the working class and the oppressed to resist. Capitalism employs nationalism in its competition for resources.

War was made necessary by the aggression of Hitler and Japan but unfortunately Dulles and others adopted fascism even while defeating Germany and brought over Wansee division SS officers to the US before the war actually ended for use in the inevitable fight between capitalism and even a flawed socialism.

Even in the absence of the USSR, the main threat to global domination of a corporate dictatorship remains the treat of socialism. It can be no other way and that is why NATO still exists and is struggling to expand. That is why Chavez, Morales, Castro and others continue to be demonized in the corporate press. Given the Hitler fascism’s primary goal was the destruction of socialism and the USSR, it is one of the amazing facts of history that the US fought it as an ally of the USSR against the wishes of Delles, Ford and others.

If civilization is indeed in it’s dying throes it is because of the unbridled expansion of capitalism which breaks down all walls of culture and consumes everything in its path. Resistance is not futile and the essential struggle that shaped WWII continues.

Report this

By Paracelsus, April 18, 2008 at 4:13 am Link to this comment

During the 30’s there were many delusive ideas about the European political systems. The Soviet Union was thought as some noble experiment in the early 30’s despite leaks of massacres in the steppes of the caucus. Eleanor Roosevelt marveled at work crews of men dressed in uniforms working at public works. These scenes gave her ideas that later gave birth to the WPA. The Dulles brothers were busy at Cromwell and Sullivan packaging Nazi industrial bonds. The royal family of the UK whiled away time entertaining prominent Nazi personalities. Eugenics was all the rage in universities from the USA to the UK and Germany. The phrase “three generations of idiots is enough” became oft quoted by middle brows from a public health movie.
The Kulture Kampf in Germany was busy rollbacking the excesses of the Weimar Republic through suppression of the inidividual, rather than relying on the self reliance of the individual. Meanwhile there were intellectuals who spoke of the underperformance of the last war in reducing the population. Bertrand Russell wrote a seminal work on scientific dictatorship, “The Scientific Outlook”. This induced Aldous Huxley to write “Brave New World”. Bernays’ works on propaganda were used as instruction manuals by the Nazi leadership. It seems that elites were priming the pump for another war.

Report this

By Paracelsus, April 18, 2008 at 3:54 am Link to this comment

What I recall about America’s entry into WWII is colored by Stinnet’s Day of Deceit. I do believe that FDR’s maneuvers and “let it happen” operation unnecessarily and unethically forced the U.S. into war, And I do believe that civilization in a fashion ended. WWII ushered in war against civil populations on a mass scale. In fighting WWII, the United States was sent a path of evolution where it would take up the worst despotic practices of its enemies with the birth of the CIA and the national security state. The mentality of WWII turned the USA into a military state and then later a police state. WWII changed the civil culture. Never again would business grow big without the help of the war system. The secrecy of the Manhattan Project set in motion the unhealthy secrecy of government as general policy. WWII changed the business structure from a competitive capitalism toward a system of monopoly capitalism. The number of car companies were reduced severely by the military procurement system of WWII. This trend was followed in other industries. People got use dto the idea of government dictating prices, and regimenting society. In fighting fascism, the United States became more fascist. I reminded of H.G. Welles in his book New World Order marveling over the marvelous regimentation of British society by the war economy by how cooperative business and labor became. Also marvelous was the cooperation of the press and BBC in broadcasting a unified message.

Report this
 
Right 1, Site wide - BlogAds Premium
 
Right 2, Site wide - Blogads
 
Join the Liberal Blog Advertising Network
 
 
 
Right Skyscraper, Site Wide
 
Join the Liberal Blog Advertising Network
 

A Progressive Journal of News and Opinion   Publisher, Zuade Kaufman   Editor, Robert Scheer
© 2014 Truthdig, LLC. All rights reserved.