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Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization

3.98  ·  Rating Details  ·  1,219 Ratings  ·  229 Reviews

Bestselling author Nicholson Baker, recognized as one of the most dexterous and talented writers in America today, has created a compelling work of nonfiction bound to provoke discussion and controversy -- a wide-ranging, astonishingly fresh perspective on the political and social landscape that gave rise to World War II.

Human Smoke delivers a closely textured, deeply movi

Hardcover, 576 pages
Published March 11th 2008 by Simon & Schuster (first published 2008)
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 2,959)
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Human Smoke is many things, I think.

Nicholson Baker himself intended it as a memorial to “Charles Pickett and other American and British pacifists. They’ve never really gotten their due. They tried to save Jewish refugees, feed Europe, reconcile the United States and Japan, and stop the war from happening. They failed, but they were right,” and to some extent he intended it as an argument for peace –- more likely peace as pacifism.

It is a chronicle of the worst war criminals that we’ve ever see
David Gross
Jun 11, 2008 David Gross rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
A collection of vignettes — some only a paragraph long, few longer than a page — of episodes from the years leading up to the second World War, and then from the years of the war itself up through 1941. Baker mostly leaves his own voice out of it, except for a few paragraphs of “afterword” at the end.

The book generated a lot of heat when it was released a few months ago because it challenges the idea that World War II was a “good” war, something that is today an article of faith for all decent c
May 01, 2008 Chris rated it did not like it
In a 1942 essay called "Pacifism and the War," Orwell wrote a review of this new book:

"1. The Fascizing processes occurring in Britain as a result of war are systematically exaggerated.
2. The actual record of Fascism, especially its pre-war history, is ignored or pooh-poohed as ‘propaganda’. Discussion of what the world would actually be like if the Axis dominated it is evaded.
3. Those who want to struggle against Fascism are accused of being wholehearted defenders of capitalist ‘democracy’. T
Mar 25, 2008 Ed rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: everybody
Shelves: wwii
An earth shattering book. Baker takes everything you know about the run up to World War II and stands it all on its head. I haven't had a book haunt me like this in a long time. Everything I know is wrong.

Roosevelt knew about the Japanese navy moving toward Pearl Harbor.

Winston Churchill did all he could to antagonize Germany into a war of attrition through the air.

Britain bombed German cities before the London Blitz started.

Jews suffered more due to the English blockade of Germany than anyone e
Clif Hostetler
Jan 02, 2016 Clif Hostetler rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
This book consists of numerous and varied bits of trivial and unconnected stories from the time prior to and into the beginning of World War II. The stories appear in the book in strict chronological order. The author provides no discussion of context or connecting commentary. The stories speak for themselves. The book starts with August 1892, jumps to 1914, and then proceeds more slowly through the 1920s and 1930s. The book ends on December 31, 1941.

A reader needs to have enough knowledge of hi
Apr 27, 2008 David rated it it was amazing
The brilliance of this book lies in its restraint. Baker is not an academic historian, nor is he writing a work of conventional history. Thus, he has the good sense to make his historical argument--inasmuch as this book has an argument that you can pin down in the text--as obliquely as possible. Baker does not, as some critics would have it, say that World War II was a Bad War. Nor does he claim, as those same critics would have it, that Roosevelt and Churchill were morally no better than Hitler ...more
Jan 02, 2011 Donna rated it really liked it
Shelves: e-read
I found Nicholson Baker's unflinching presentation of the events leading up to America's entry into WWII a moving reminder that getting the facts is a slippery matter at the best of times; in war it is impossible. This makes me think that since we're always either leading up to war or in war, we can never hold onto the facts or apprehend the truth which seems to live forever on a metal table dying of multiple stab-wounds.
There were many moments in this book where I realized everything I knew wa
Books Ring Mah Bell
Nov 09, 2009 Books Ring Mah Bell rated it it was ok
Shelves: history-politics
This book begins in 1892, with Alfred Nobel saying, "Perhaps my factories will put an end to war even sooner than your congresses [re: World's Peace Conference]. On the day when two army corp may mutually annihilate each other in a second, probably all civilized nations will recoil in horror and disband their troops."

Perhaps not, Nobel! That prediction was a big fat FAIL!

The author then takes us into brief passages in time, quick mention of WW1 and onto the start of WW2. This turns out to be the
May 27, 2008 Fred rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: anyone
Human Smoke: The Beginnings of WWII, the End of Civilization was a life-changing book for me.

Using an all factual anecdote approach, Baker completely revised my thoughts on how WWII started, especially casting Churchill into a very gray figure and Roosevelt into a much more gray light than had ever been aware of.

He enumerates the many people who opposed the war and sought to minimize the violence and deprivation wreaked on innocent people. This in itself reminded me of how out-of-favor and margi
Mar 24, 2011 Bennet rated it it was amazing
A chronicle of obscure but important incidents leading up to World War II "incorporating meticulous research and well-documented sources, including newspaper and magazine articles, radio speeches, memoirs, and diaries, the book juxtaposes hundreds of related moments of decision, brutality, suffering and mercy." The point being, according to Baker, that the pacifists failed, but they were right and the war was wrong. It's a bold contention, considering how resoundingly that war has been ruled goo ...more
Matt Briggs
Sep 02, 2013 Matt Briggs rated it liked it
Filled with unusual quotes regarding the principle actors up to the US Declaration of War in late 1941. Churchill's portrait is particularly zany, deadly, an ebullient megalomaniac. Hitler comes across as a sad megalomaniac. Gandhi as as a slightly unhinged and naive self-obsessive. Throughout, I wondered how Baker would prove pacifism against World War II which essentially defines the idea of a war that "had to be fought." By the end the accretion of destruction and the willful worship of the m ...more
Jun 24, 2008 Sam rated it liked it
Recommends it for: World War II enthusiasts, pacificists
Minimalist writer, pacifist, and print news enthusiast, Nicholson Baker, allegedly started out to write a novel set in World War II, but soon realized he didn't really know how the war got started. His research is presented to the reader in "Human Smoke," gleaned largely from newspapers and radio transcripts of the times, which Baker felt had a "rawer" view of events compared with the distillation of professional historians. It is an interesting approach to a subject that has become a publishing ...more
Andrew Skretvedt
Oct 10, 2010 Andrew Skretvedt marked it as considered-and-discarded
No rating, because I've not read it. I'll rate it if I do.

I was prompted to investigate this book after watching two Penn Point episodes on the author, who is a favorite of Jillette.

The author being unknown to me, I elected to collect some reviews on the book. I was also motivated to find a review which addressed the allegations that Baker makes numerous factual errors in presenting his historical treatise (Penn also mentioned he was aware of these allega
A. Jesse
Sep 11, 2010 A. Jesse rated it did not like it
At least as an audio book, this latest from Nicholson Baker is a total bust. Baker turns his detail-obsessed myopic little eyes to a very interesting question: Was pacifism a reasonable response to WWII, and were there any pacifists speaking up at the time? This are very difficult questions. A mature author, experienced in history and rhetoric, writing in a straightforward and persuasive manner, would have a very hard time addressing this topic. Alas, Baker has three problems:

1) His book is a se
Dec 26, 2010 Ilya rated it did not like it
Shelves: world-war-ii
About 500 pages of one-to-three-paragraph-long notes about the beginning of World War II and the Holocaust, each about a particular event on a single day, ending on December 31, 1941: summarized diary entries, newspaper articles, letters and so on; the bibliography lists about 400 books. Almost all the notes are about Germany, Great Britain and the United States; the Soviet Union gets almost nary a mention. Baker seems guilty for the Anglo-American civilization, and hateful of its leaders Roosev ...more
Jun 09, 2008 Cindy rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: I hope this book is translated and printed abroad.
This is a truly memorable book from Nicholson Baker. I've enjoyed his artistic fiction for years, but this nonfiction history is by far his best. As always, Baker writes in extraordinary depth and detail, this a sobering portrait of civilization from 1914-1941 ... if you call it civilized. And you may not when you finish the book. It is not one more story of the holocaust, or of isolated ignorance. It is not the stuff of movies. It is about truth and knowledge of historic events.

Like Baker, I w
Mar 27, 2010 Ruzz rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
an unconventional take on the genesis of world war II. To date, the most persuasive argument of the existence of "war fever", a hard to prove, but well documented part of the human experience.

He redefined Churchill and FDR for me and despite the horrors of the nazi regime made a strong case for Hitler initially trying to contain the scope of war.

Ironically, or not, the injection of the "peace" focused elements of the book from gandhi's ridiculousness on had the opposite effect I think was inte
Maria Mazzenga
Aug 07, 2008 Maria Mazzenga rated it it was ok
I like what Baker is trying to do here: readjust the grand narrative of the Second World War as an epic contest between the "Good" Allies and the "[Big]Bad" Axis. The caricature of the Allies and especially the plentiful US with its Greatest Generation stepping up to the plate is loathsome and dangerous because it sets up the US to do anything it damn well pleases subsequently. Oh, and the Allies were not all that grand either, all members containing ugly pockets of fascists within their borders ...more
Jul 27, 2010 Bluenose rated it it was ok
This is a collection of historical anecdotes, often 2 to a page and mostly contemporaneous, starting in 1892 with a half page about Alfred Nobel’s musings on the possibility that highly destructive weapons would end war and ending on December 31, 1941 with some inappropriate but optimistic thoughts from the pacifist Mihail Sebastian. It is not a steady pace. The focus is World War II so it moves quickly through World War I and the inter war years and begins in earnest in 1938. The author starts ...more
Apr 11, 2008 Max rated it it was amazing
In a series of meticulously researched vignettes ending in December, 1941, Baker sets out to question whether the use of force by the Allies in World War II was actually the best course of action at the time. Accounts of Churchill, Roosevelt, Hitler, and various other prominent parties are occasionally punctuated by mention of pacifists active at the time, from Gandhi to Americans who refused the draft.

Because so many of us unquestioningly accept the heroism of the Allied role in World War II, B
Aug 31, 2009 AnnaMay rated it really liked it
I don't think I've yet read a book (until this one) that takes me up to the 'beginning' of WWII, then doesn't delve into all the concentration camps in detail.

I really felt like this book gave me a better understanding of the history and overall 'feeling' in the world and society when WWI was in the works. It opened my eyes to the cliche 'things aren't always what they seem.' Time and again, I'd think I had my opinion formed and then another quote by someone else would cause me to see the other
Apr 09, 2008 Mark rated it it was amazing
I'm mightily impressed by this so far, 250 pages or so into it. I guess I'm surprised that so many people have been offended by this very notion that war is wrong. Always and always, no exceptions.

And yet, I'm saddened that so many people have been offended by this notion that war is wrong. Always. well, that's where we are right now, as the subtitle of the book indicates.

This is the kind of history book I can deal with, and enjoy reading. Bite size nuggets, glimpses and snapshots. Some appear
Sep 17, 2008 Dave rated it really liked it
Not too long ago I read "The Black Swan" and that author commented that all history books are biased by their author's knowledge of the outcome. Using this logic, the only true histories are contemporary accounts from primary and secondary sources. In "Human Smoke" we read contemporary accounts from diaries, news releases, memoirs, etc. from 1900 through December 31, 1941. What you see is a world complicit in the build up World War II, the genocides in Europe, atrocities in the developing world, ...more
Mar 04, 2009 Brooks rated it it was ok
I gave this book my best. It is a unique narrative. Just snippets of text, a diary entry, or quotation. It covers 1932 through 1941 weaving together a narrative about Jewish persecution, pacifists, Hitler, Churchill, and Roosevelt. While I agree Churchill had some very evil and Machiavellian characteristics and Roosevelt was a racist, I can not place them on the same level as Hitler. I also can not say that the disruption of the democratic rights in the UK and USA at the same level as in German. ...more
Soren Narnia
Jan 06, 2013 Soren Narnia rated it really liked it
Baker took a lot of heat for this book, a compendium of quoted materials that question the motives, logic, and real facts behind the things we assume we know about World War Two. It's a polemic that takes on the golden aura surrounding the era, and it takes shot after shot at the Allied leaders and their apparent thirst for war. The overall effect is to reduce WWII to just another corrupt, dirty conflict that shouldn't be celebrated above any other. Is it, as many claim, not entirely accurate, d ...more
The subtitle for this book is "The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization." I love it when "they" keep subtitles simple, without overstating their case. The first part of the subtitle meant that I wasn't surprised when the book left off at the end of 1941, after World War II had been thoroughly begun, but before things got completely underway in involving the entire world. The second part is a little more problematic, since really it seems that from some of the evidence presented, c ...more
Bob Lamothe
Oct 01, 2015 Bob Lamothe rated it really liked it
Human Smoke tells of the rise of Naziism in Germany in context with the world view. In the early years, the US and Britain felt certain Hitler was a man of his word and a leader who could lead Germany out of the crisis of the Weimar years. Little did they know, but they would learn of the evils hiding behind the mask of a civilized nation. Even after Hitler began his conquest of Europe many in the UK and America believed Hitler would be on the right side of history, but that history would be pav ...more
Oct 14, 2015 kp rated it it was ok
I read this because I was teaching two reviews of it as a way to talk about reviewing and also about how a review can be about so much more than the work in question. It's a gripping collection of vignettes, but I agree with Anne Applebaum that Baker insinuates an argument without explaining his reasoning. It interests me that the book engages the reader with an almost voyeuristic recitation of facts, stories, and testimonials without ever taking on the weightier responsibility of making sense o ...more
Dec 10, 2014 Jon rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
There are so many ways to approach this book that I’m not sure where to begin. Maddening, discouraging, intriguing--Baker’s book is a history of World War II, a collection of historical vignettes, and a careful selection of facts such that the war is viewed in ways that Americans are not used to seeing it in.

On one level, and this is really, I think, Baker’s main task, it is a history of passivism in the face of war. In this sense, it is a unique take on the Good War, since our usual view is on
Michael Tomlinson
Feb 04, 2015 Michael Tomlinson rated it really liked it
This is most unusual book. It presents a series of short cameos or vignettes of particular events or episodes in the lead-up to the US entry into WWII. Baker adopts an essentially descriptive approach, like a novelists, showing a diversity of characters and their contrasting points of view on the developing catastrophe.

My favourite story is about Bernhard Lichtenberg, the dean of the Berlin cathedral who kept offering daily prayers for the Jews. The Gestapo arrested him and threatened to send hi
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Nicholson Baker is a contemporary American writer of fiction and non-fiction. As a novelist, his writings focus on minute inspection of his characters' and narrators' stream of consciousness. His unconventional novels deal with topics such as voyeurism and planned assassination, and they generally de-emphasize narrative in favor of intense character work. Baker's enthusiasts appreciate his ability ...more
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“The Bombay Chronicle asked Mohandas Gandhi what he thought of the fact that the United States was now in the war. It was December 20, 1941.
'I cannot welcome this entry of America,' Gandhi said. 'By her territorial vastness, amazing energy, unrivalled financial status and owing to the composite character of her people she is the one country which could have saved the world from the unthinkable butchery that is going on.' Now, he said, there was no powerful nation left to mediate and bring about the peace that all peoples wanted. 'It is a strange phenomenon,' he said, 'that the human wish is paralysed by the creeping effect of the war fever.'

Churchill wrote a memo to the chiefs of staff on the future conduct of the war. 'The burning of Japanese cities by incendiary bombs will bring home in a most effective way to the people of Japan the dangers of the course to which they have committed themselves,' he wrote. It was December 20, 1941.

Life Magazine published an article on how to tell a Japanese person from a Chinese person. It was December 22, 1941.
Chinese people have finely bridged noses and parchment-yellow skin, and they are relatively tall and slenderly built, the article said. Japanese people, on the other hand, have pug noses and squat builds, betraying their aboriginal ancestry. 'The modern Jap is the descendant of Mongoloids who invaded the Japanese archipelago back in the mists of prehistory, and of the native aborigines who possessed the islands before them, Life explained. The picture next to the article was of the Japanese premier, Hideki Tojo.

In the Lodz ghetto, trucks began taking the Gypsies away. They went to Chelmno, the new death camp, where they were killed with exhaust gases and buried. It was just before Christmas 1941.”
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