30 April 2008

Nicholson Baker's World Wars - Part 2

To understand Baker's own mentality in writing this book, one could do a lot worse than look at the interview he gave to the Barnes & Noble Review. It is long, and his interlocutor sympathetic - thus successfully teases out what was going on in Baker's head. (A shorter, but almost as effective alternative is here.)We find that, as I suggested yesterday, he does indeed attempt to present the story of the Second World War up to December 31, 1941, as one individual might have perceived it at the time. He even names the person - Christopher Isherwood, a peripatetic English man of letters who emigrated to the United States in January 1939.

However, the interview also makes clear his fundamental ignorance of the details of the Second World War before he began researching this book. He did not know that Britain began a strategic bombing campaign against Germany as early as 1939 which inevitably resulted in damage to civilian housing. He did not know about British preparations for chemical and biological warfare they thankfully never implemented. He doesn't even seem to be aware of the casual prejudices of pre-1939 European and American society which afflicted Jews, but in different ways many others (e.g., Catholics in the U.S. and Britain) as well.

Now, these are all things that someone who has read more deeply into the war than Baker had (before he started this book) would have known readily. But wipe that smirk off your face. Most people's knowledge of the war is pretty much just the way that Baker describes early in the interview:
I certainly felt I had an idea of World War II, and it's probably the idea that many people share: there was this insane aggressor, and there was really only one way to proceed in resisting him.

No mention there of the remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936, the rape of Nanking in 1938, the French offensive into Germany in 1939, the Winter War of 1939-40, the Italian declaration of war in 1940, or the coup in Yugoslavia in 1941.

Nor is there any reason for ordinary people to take an interest in these arcane sectors of world history 1936-41. Unless, of course, one wants history to do something other than just be an account of events and experiences that occurred a long time ago. And here is where I think historians ought to be a little more understanding of Baker's personal experience.

One could argue that his book is a long indictment of the British political class. Their failure to back the enforcement of the Versailles treaty conditions during the 1930s, particularly in the Anglo-German Naval Agreement of 1935 and the Rhineland crisis of 1936, were large steps on the road to war. However, as Baker's book indicates, it's always very difficult to step outside one's own world and decision-makers face the same problem. There were no British politicians like Herr Hitler (working-class, uneducated, ex-private-soldier-and-criminal), and if there had been he would have been very much under the thumb of his backroom sponsors. It would be very easy for someone to believe what they wanted - Hitler would be controlled by generals and industrialists if he went too far.

Baker is better suited to dealing with the climate of appeasement than some polemicist roused to fury at what the world could have been spared if only our leaders had backbone. Baker recognizes that doubt exists, that we always have alternatives to wrestle with. From his interviews, it is clear that Baker is trying to re-open an old debate in the United States, that he is in an American tradition that is not at all forgotten, but which is often disrespected and disregarded by the Atlanticist historiography triumphant in the British and American media. And this explains a lot of the fury that its representatives have directed toward Baker's book.

Without doubt, when history appears on the American stage, it is generally deployed for a didactic purpose. Hitler's role is to serve as a moral lesson, usually one of the importance of standing up to bullies before they get too powerful. The whole edifice of American historical culture, as experienced by the non-historian, resembles J H Plumb's concept of "the Past" - a combination of fact and myth used to justify actions in the present. For an intelligent reader like Baker, the discovery that certain facts have been occluded create the emotional conditions for an overreaction.

How much does Baker's Human Smoke represent a foolhardy pacifism, and how much a genuinely American response to a foreign crisis?

(to be continued)

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