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John Lukacs on Nicholson Baker’s ‘Human Smoke’
Posted on Apr 18, 2008
By John Lukacs
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.
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