4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Elizabeth A. Root
- Published on Amazon.com
I have given this book three stars because I think that it mixes the excellent with the awful. When I think of the worst essay, which I will discuss at length at the end of the review, I am tempted to cut back the stars a bit, like to zero, if that were possible. [added later: In the end, I suppose that defending libraries and scholarship in the present is more important than defending the Allies in World War II.]
Nicholson Baker is a hero to some librarians, such as myself, for his challenging of Ken Dowlin, who wantonly destroyed San Francisco Public Library's research collection, and his rescue, with his wife, of what is apparently the last set of Pulitzer's World newspapers. Having lost the fight for the International Trade Commission's research collection, I feel the same pain intensely. I was gripped by these essays. I recently read an article in the Washington Post maintaining that even young people who grown up in the digital age and make great use of the computer often prefer to read books in hardcopy, so they may be around longer than some futurists think.
I also greatly enjoyed his essay "Coins," I loved the description of how the coins piled up upon one another; as well as his essay on Daniel Defoe, Flash Papers, and a few others. Others I found too dull, too idiosyncratic, or too fragmentary to enjoy. One thing that I dislike about Baker's writing is his tendency to include way too much detail, which interrupts the flow of some of even his best essays.
Here begins the diatribe, mine in response to his: "Why I am a Pacifist." Quite a few things are mixed in here, so let me cut the subject down. Unlike Kathe Pollitt, whose excellent review of Baker's The Human Smoke (Nation, April 3, 2008) could also apply to this essay, I have not come to despise pacifists. I don't approve of unnecessary violence, like terror bombings including wartime bombing of targets with no military value; I don't approve of the ill-conceived military adventures that have occupied so much of our recent history, like Dubya's invasion of Iraq.
This was the first essay in the book that I read, and I almost put it down, nay, hurled it across the room, I was so angry. I forced myself to read it twice more so that I could consider it more calmly. Part of the issue is that people defend proposed military actions by harkening back to World War II, so instead of arguing that such reasonings may be faulty, Baker wants to discredit "the good war." I will not accept the argument that he is "providing balance" by presenting a biased and dishonest analysis, nor am I interested in the unnecessary task of pointing out that WWII was not a simple contest between Good and Evil (see the Pollitt quote, below.) We can't know what would have happened, but I think Baker has poor grounds for his assumptions. Baker deals only with the US and GB and not with the Union of Socialist Republics (USSR) or the Eastern front, as well, as the Pacific war with Japan, which makes his analyses incomplete. An end to fighting with GB and the US might simply have given Hitler more resources to attack the USSR, while keeping open the option of renewing hostilities with GB and the US later.
There are two main issues that remain: first, was the idea of a lasting negotiated peace with Germany feasible? I don't think so. Baker completely ignores Hitler's history of breaking international agreements, most famously the Munich Agreement in which he agreed to make no further territorial demands; and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact which he broke as soon as it was convenient to invade the USSR. Prior to Kaufman's speech which Baker so admires, Germany had overrun much of Europe, including a number of neutral nations. I suspect that any cessation of hostilities would have merely allowed Germany to consolidate its empire before continuing its warfare. The stakes were very high, either way: continuing the war insured casualties and costs, but a resumption of war after a broken pact might mean refighting battles that had already caused a loss of life and resources, resulting in an even greater loss. Baker also argues that we could have stopped the war and simply waited for Hitler to die, with no concern about what he might have done in his remaining years. Apparently he doesn't believe that any other Nazi leader would have arisen in his place. No-one can know for sure what never happened, but Baker doesn't convince me that the pacifistic hopes were realistic.
Pollitt comments in her review that: "If you are naive enough to believe that the United States went to war to save the Jews, Human Smoke will disabuse you. But the reader who is surprised to learn that neither Roosevelt or Churchill did a thing to prevent the Holocaust is unlikely to know enough to question Baker's slanted version of other events."
Speaking of negotiations, we come to the second issue: did Great Britain and the United States provoke the Final Solution, and could they have saved the victims by a timely armistice? Baker concedes that Hitler was planning the Final Solution long before the US entered the war, but also claims that Hitler was using the Jews [and others] as hostages to prevent the US from entering the war, and when they did so, the minorities lost their value as hostages and he killed them. Imagine that you are the manager in charge of a bank, or a gas station or a convenience store. An armed robber comes in, steals money, and drags off someone as a hostage, yelling that if you call the police, he or she will be killed. You call the police as soon as they are out of the door. Now imagine that the thief is caught, and the hostage is dead. I can imagine Baker, strong in his sense of moral righteousness, taking the stand for the defense, and arguing that the wrong person is charged with murder. After all, the shooter warned you not to call the police, so obviously you are the murderer since you disobeyed.
When I try to figure out who knew what, when, with regard to the Holocaust, it seems to be a snarl. Nonetheless, that the minorities were in a very difficult situation was clear in the 1930s, and I agree with Baker that the US was morally derelict in not admitting more of them. One entire shipload of Jews managed to leave Europe, but had to return when no-one in the Americas would admit them.
Baker argues that the US and GB could have negotiated at least a cease-fire that would have allowed them to take the minorities to safety. He seems to feel that their failure to do this is more morally culpable than Hitler's decision to oppress and kill them in the first place. Baker's reading of the situation makes it sound so simple! If Hitler was open to such a plan, I am surprised that he didn't suggest it. I have read that there were some 12 million Jews in Europe before the war. So let us suppose that Hitler gave the US and GB one year to take some 10-12 million refugees, Jews and other minorities, probably with only the clothes on their backs, and integrate them into societies ravaged by the Great Depression and, in GB's case, the Battle of Britain. What a bonanza it would have been for him! Time to digest his empire, concentrate on defeating the USSR, and/or repair his forces, and his opponents struggling with such an enormous social burden. Hitler could also restart the fight with GB and the US at his leisure.
It would of course, have also deprived Hitler of the hostages that he claimed he needed against the aggression of GB and the US, as well as adding to those societies more of those clever, controlling Jews who would no doubt have pushed for war against Germany. I have read people who blame American Jews for getting us into WWII. This is assuming that he would have been satisfied having the minorities elsewhere rather than having them dead. Baker also ignores the harsh fact that the idea would probably have been enormously unpopular in the US and GB. Even in countries that routinely accept immigrants, people don't generally like huge influxes of foreigners, especially all from one place or if they are somewhat exotic; and they like them even less during times of economic crisis; and when they were Jews, Gypsies (Rom), homosexuals, and communists, they were likely to be even more unpopular. Not a flattering assessment of the allies, but Baker has already demonized them. The moral imperative of trying to save the minorities doesn't negate the practical difficulties that Baker ignores.
Baker also argues, with no evidence, that peace would have caused the German people to rise up in revolt against Hitler. Actually, such a diplomatic triumph might have reinforced his popularity That also leaves the tiny issue of abandoning the other European nations and their suffering people.