WASHINGTON -- 'Tis the season when prestigious institutions give their annual awards, and with no further ceremony allow me to announce that the J. Gordon Coogler Committee has conferred its Worst Book of the Year Award for 2008 on Nicholson Baker for Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization (Simon & Schuster, $30). Actually, World War II saved civilization, but the brute stupidity of this book suggests what a book might be like at the end of civilization. Our present civilization has advanced, in part, because of its great minds' attention to fact, to rational analysis, and to good sense. The brute mind that perpetrated this book opposes all three. Baker is himself "the end of civilization." His earlier books are fictional works dealing with telephone sex and masturbation. This book is 576 pages of masturbation roused by the idea that Winston Churchill was as murderous as Hitler; though, unlike Hitler, Churchill was a heavy drinker, a smoker, and a wit.
Baker does not comprehend wit. Consequently, time and again he takes a Churchill joke as a serious statement. Thus in 1922 when Churchill on the floor of Parliament explains Britain's cessation of its World War I aerial assaults on Berlin as "owing to our having run short of Germans and enemies…." Baker seems to think Churchill wanted to continue the killing and never to end the war. Elsewhere Baker's humorless monomania against Churchill ensnares the author in contradictions. "You and others may desire to kill women and children," Baker quotes Churchill as saying to a Conservative MP in an October 1940 debate, but "My motto is 'Business before pleasure.'" The debate was over whether to bomb German population centers. Churchill was against it. His Tory opponent was for it. At the time, Hitler was bombing London.
I have been told by professors of the humanities that adherence to fact is considered old-fashioned among the profs these days. Facts are in the eye of the beholder. Thus writers such as this year's Coogler Laureate can just make things up as they advance their argument. Most historians know that Churchill was in his day pro-Jewish, a Zionist, and eventually a supporter of Israel. Baker implies that Churchill was an anti-Semite who in a February 8, 1920 article in the Illustrated Sunday Herald accused Jews of being in a "sinister" "worldwide conspiracy." Actually in that article Churchill was speaking of Russian Jews who were active in Bolshevism, which was indeed a sinister worldwide conspiracy. At another point in the article Churchill writes that "We owe to the Jews a system of ethics which, even if it were entirely separated from the supernatural, would be incomparably the most precious possession of mankind, worth in fact the fruits of all wisdom and learning put together." Elsewhere Baker quotes Churchill as writing the head of the RAF in 1920 that "I am strongly in favor of using poisoned gas" against opponents in what is today Iraq. Read in its entirety, the letter is clearly speaking of "lachrymatory gas" -- or, as we say today, tear gas.
There are plenty of other facts that are juggled, cosmeticized, and simply invented in this preposterous book. But then what else would one expect from a book whose thesis is so implausible? Baker claims that through intelligence decrypts Churchill knew the British industrial city of Coventry was about to be bombed but let it happen rather than tip off the Nazis that his cryptographers had broken the Nazi code. Historians such as Sir Martin Gilbert disproved this bunk years ago, showing that despite the cryptographers' brilliance they had failed to crack the Nazi codeword for Coventry. Baker also claims that "Churchill wanted to starve them [German Jews] until they revolted against their oppressors." Of course Baker is referring to the British blockade of the continent, which he presents as a war crime rather than the reprise of a strategy that had enabled Britain to subdue Napoleon in the 19th century and the Kaiser in the 20th.
Yet my favorite misappropriated fact in this book comes in the author's explanation of his macabre title, Human Smoke. Baker attributes the words to former German Chief of Staff, Franz Halder, who "when he was imprisoned in Auschwitz late in the war, [claimed] he saw flakes of human smoke blow into his cell." Baker, you nincompoop, Halder was imprisoned in Dachau and Flossenburg -- stick with telephone sex and masturbation, but enjoy your Coogler!