Looking at the roots of WWII in Human Smoke, Nicholson Baker concludes that the pacifists were right and Churchill was wrong. He explains why.
What prompted you to look at the origins of WWII?
I was in the middle of writing another book that was partly about WWII, and I realized I didn't understand how it all began. So I started a very straightforward effort of self-education, and then it grew into something else, which I guess is an attempt to suffer through how something so horrible can happen.
Did you begin the project with a clear point of view?
I must say that I have always had a tendency toward pacifism. But the great counterexample that everyone uses is the Second World War. So I asked the question, was it in fact a necessary war? I'm an amateur historian, so I didn't want to presume to have some grand theory, [but] there are so many horrifying moments of violence that to some degree it confirmed what tendencies I had.
You seem to have carefully selected the moments you include, and I found myself wanting to argue with some of the implications, such as that Churchill loved war.
One of the most troubling things to me was to realize that this brilliant writer who took the English language seriously was a deeply troubled man. The book doesn't necessarily lead to this conclusion, but the conclusion that I drew was that the man was to some degree addicted to war and the emotion of mayhem.
I also sensed an implication that if Britain had accepted Hitler's October 1939 “peace offensive” or if Roosevelt hadn't goaded the Japanese into bombing Pearl Harbor, the Holocaust wouldn't have happened.
I certainly wouldn't presume to imply something so huge. I do think it's worth saying that it couldn't have worked out any worse than it did, that the Holocaust is the clearest example of systemic violence in history and you have to ask how it happened. And it happened in the most methodical way beginning in 1942. You have to look to 1941 and lay out the alternatives and the possible ways it could have been avoided. Were the moments, the junctures where some sort of attempt to negotiate would have led to a state of affairs where German politics would have moved from a wartime mode to a peacetime mode, in which case there would be more likelihood that the true fanatics would have been deposed by a more moderate faction? I felt that Churchill and Roosevelt both would much rather build bombers and fight a war than actually accept Jewish refugees into their own countries.