Thursday, February 28, 2008

Perpetuating a myth

I am predisposed to dislike a revisionist history of World War 2 written by novelist using a non-analytical framework, but there is one element of Nicholson Baker's upcoming Human Smoke that I find particularly grating.

Like the celebrators of the Good War, Baker, from all I can tell, makes the Anglo-American-centric error. The Western Allies did not win the war, they contributed to the victory of the Red Army. Removing the Western Allies from the war would have just allowed the Germans to attack the Russians more quickly.

The vast majority of killing and dying happened in the East. Combined, the total deaths for the UK and the USA totaled less than a million while Poland lost five million, Germany over seven and Russia over twenty. Had the US and the UK sat out, it still would have been the worst war ever. This puts aside the problem that the UK most likely faced the choice of conquest or vassalization regardless of whether Churchill led the government.

In this, admittedly brief, interview, Baker connects the Holocaust to the events of 1941. His apparent thesis is that Roosevelt and Churchill were war-mongers and if we just sat out the war, things would have been better.

The Holocaust is connected to 1941, but certainly not due to Pearl Harbor. World War 2, even more than World War 1, is centered on the German-Russian conflict. Once the German Army was able to commence its race war in Russia, the real killing began. While the death camps didn't kick into gear until after the 1942 Wannsee Conference, the Einsatzgruppen began their reign of murder well before the United States entered the war.

If you want a provocative argument for pacifism by Britain, take a look at Niall Ferguson's Pity of War, which argues that the world would have been better off if Germany quickly won World War One, without Britain joining.


Brack said...

In his previous works (see, e.g., The Mezzanine, Room Temperature, U & I), Baker reveals a fondness for - over the course of many pages and in excrutiating detail -attempting to extract from the detritus of his characters' daily lives some profound metaphysical statement. Some people call it art, others call it Ambien. Regardless, I liked it better when it was called The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock.

P.S. With regard to Baker's putative foray into the world of nonfiction, the reader of Human Smoke should keep in mind that correlation does not necessarily imply causation, and "post hoc" does not necessarily imply "propter hoc." A half-assed historian is far more dangerous, in my view, than any de Sade, Burroughs, or other subversive-novelist-of-the-week.


Anonymous said...

This is a very, very interesting review--thank you. Can't say I'll read the Baker (or that I'm much of a fan of alternative histories, fiction or non) but the Niall Ferguson looks interesting.

Tripp said...

Great comments thanks. Keep in mind I am judging Baker's comments, not the book, as I haven't read it.


The correlation v. causation element is crucial and all too often overlooked. And as you say, it is worrisome as I suspect this will be the first history of the war that some pick up.


Ferguson is a wonderful writer whose specialty is finance, so watch out for some numbers. He is also an imperialist, which can lead to some jarring statements.