Tis the season when prestigious institutions give their annual awards, and with no further ceremony allow us to announce that the J. Gordon Coogler Committee has conferred its Worst Book of the Year Award on Nicholson Baker for Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization (Simon & Schuster). The book’s title serves as an appetizer for the stupidity that the book disgorges. As even professors of American history know, World War II saved civilization, but the brute stupidity of this book suggests what writing might decline into après civilization. Our present civilization has advanced, in part, because its leading minds were disciplined by fact, rational analysis, and good sense. The brute mind that perpetrated this book is void of 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 aroused by the lewd thought that Winston Churchill was as murderous as Hitler; though Baker is troubled that Churchill, unlike Hitler, was a heavy drinker, a smoker, and a wit.
Baker is undone by 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 is lamenting the paucity of Germans and enemies and longing for still more lively RAF targets. Elsewhere Baker’s humorless monomania against Churchill ensnares this year’s Coogler Laureate in obvious 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 parliamentary debate was over whether to bomb German population centers. Churchill was against it. His Tory opponent was for it. Baker’s friend, Hitler, was engaged in it—in bombing Londoners, that is, who from September 7, 1940, suffered 57 straight nights of Nazi bombs. Still, in October Churchill opposed bombing civilians.
I have been told by civilized professors of the humanities, who still brave the deconstructionist wilds of academe, that adherence to fact is considered old-fashioned, perhaps sexist, possibly racist, and maybe even homophobic by many profs. Facts are a bourgeois contrivance. Thus writers such as this year’s Coogler Laureate can just make facts up as they advance their balderdash. 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 then 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 to 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 not speaking of lethal gas but of what Churchill calls “lachrymatory gas”—or, as we say today, tear gas.
There are plenty of other facts that are juggled, tortured, and simply invented in this preposterous book. But then what else would one expect from a book whose thesis is so implausible? Baker even disinters the old anti-Churchill charge that the prime minister knew from intelligence decrypts 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 their 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 code word for Coventry. Baker also claims that “Churchill wanted to starve them [German Jews] until they revolted against their oppressors.” 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, not Auschwitz—stick with telephone sex and masturbation, but enjoy your Coogler.
BAKER’S ACCOMPLICE in this idiotic book is the New York Times, which he oafishly describes as “the single richest resource for the history and prehistory of the war years.” Baker is apparently ignorant of revelations about the Times‘s infamous Moscow correspondent Walter Duranty. Duranty is the 1932 Pulitzer Prize winner who has been exposed as Stalin’s apologist for the brutal collectivization of the kulaks. He also, of course, covered up the ghastly famine in the Ukraine, though his Pulitzer remains secure. Interestingly, Baker is equally ignorant of the Times‘s discredited treatment of Nazi atrocities. I am grateful to the historian Andrew Roberts, a Coogler Committee adviser of long standing, who has found that Baker’s favorite World War II resource “made sure reports of the Holocaust were insanely brief and buried deep inside the paper.”
On June 27, 1942, the Times devoted a mere two inches to its report that 700,000 Jews had been slain in Poland. A week later its report that 1,000 Jews were perishing daily in gas chambers made it to page six, though actually the grisly figure was much higher. On November 25, 1942, the Times‘s report that 90 percent of the inhabitants of the Warsaw ghetto had been arrested and many murdered was consigned to page ten. Several days later, on December 9, the paper buried on page 20 its report that two million Jews had been exterminated, with five million more facing the same fate. As the years went on and the casualties reached colossal numbers, the paper remained calm. The news that 400,000 Hungarian Jews had been sent to death camps with 350,000 more awaiting a similar trip received but four column inches on page 12 of the July 2, 1944, Times. Its front page featured a report on New Yorkers’ difficulties with holiday travel. In sum, Roberts finds that during the entire war the Holocaust never became a leading story in the Times, nor has the paper “ever properly acknowledged its failings in this matter.”
In fact, the New York Times Book Review‘s reviewer of Human Smoke esteemed the book “riveting and fascinating.” I can understand the fascination. There is a type of reader who yearns for rare and seductive knowledge beyond the grasp of the hoi polloi. Usually the reason that the hoi polloi do not grasp it is that it is false knowledge easily dismissed as nonsense. Those who yearn for this nonsense are dopes. Whether knowingly or not, Nicholson Baker is a classic dopefetcher. I would not be surprised if he accepts his Coogler with great solemnity. It is at least the equal of Duranty’s Pulitzer.