Someone else who has problems with World War II…

Ted Grimsrud—April 20, 2012

As I have been working on my research and writing project that I am now calling, “The ‘Good War’ That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters,” I have drawn a great deal of inspiration from a book from several years ago that also expresses deep skepticism about the moral legitimacy of this war. I posted the following reflections on this book almost four years ago when I first started my site. I think it’s worth a revisit as I put the finishing touches on my book.

As could be expected, Nicholson Baker’s  Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization (Simon & Schuster, 2008) has received mostly hostile reviews both in the mainstream media and among academic historians. I think it is a terrific book, though. It was one of the most absorbing 400+ page books I have ever read.

Describing the lead up to World War II

The book is made up of hundreds, probably close to 1,000, short vignettes that trace the events leading up to World War II and its prosecution until the end of 1941 (which, for the U.S., marked our country’s entry into the War).

These vignettes are mostly simple, descriptive statements; only rarely is Baker’s voice apparent. An example of an editorial comment, though, may be found on page 452: A December 10, 1941, Gallup poll had shown that two-thirds of the American population would support the U.S. firebombing Japanese cities in retaliation for Pearl Harbor. “Ten percent—representing twelve million citizens—were wholly opposed. Twelve million people still held to Franklin Roosevelt’s basic principle of civilization: that no man should be punished for the deeds of another. Franklin D. Roosevelt was not one of them.”

As should be obvious (and reviewers have all taken pains to note), the reader should not mistake the objective tone of Baker’s reportage for a merely descriptive intent on his part. Baker clearly has an agenda—though precisely what that agenda is remains for us to discern from the book’s contents. It has no introduction or commentary beyond a very brief “Afterword.” However, by what he includes and excludes, Baker tells a story filtered through his own lenses and reflecting his own concerns.

The final paragraph of the afterword is telling: “I dedicate this book to the memory of Clarence 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.” (474)

Opposition to the Nazis could still be morally problematic

These two quotes I have cited do, I think, give us a sense of what Baker is up to. Though he is far from a Nazi apologist (some of his vignettes about Nazi actions evoke visceral outrage), Baker makes clear that opposition to Nazism in itself did not settle the question of what the best response to their actions would be.

The response of British and American leaders horrify Baker. He makes it clear that neither country did even close to what could have been done to save Jewish and other refugees nor to provide aid to starving children and others in Europe (he has a number of telling quotes from former President Herbert Hoover who was deeply frustrated in his efforts to take aid to needy people in Europe). That is, to allude to Baker’s subtitle, he presents this war as anything but a war to save civilization and support humane values.

As a pacifist myself, I exulted as I read this book. I did this not because Baker provides anything close to a set of clear answers to the big questions pacifists face in response to World War II—he does nothing of the kind. However, he uncovers a voice, a perspective, a record of action that is completely ignored in most discussions of World War II.

Baker makes a strong case for acknowledging two crucial points. (1) There were pacifists, such as Quaker leaders Clarence Pickett and Rufus Jones, who faced head on the unspeakable evils and sought to bring healing to the brokenness. Theirs was far from an ethic of withdrawal, passivity, or parasitism. (2) And, the responses of the leaders of the “Free World” only compounded the evils set loose by the Nazis and Japanese militarists.

Only adding to the “criminal spirit”

This is what I especially drew from the book: When faced with extraordinary crimes against humanity, the defenders of Western civilization with little resistance succumbed to the same criminal spirit. We learn just how bloodthirsty Winston Churchill and other British war leaders were—insisting on horrific violence against German civilians in face of clear evidence that such violence was ineffective, even counter-productive. Churchill had the asinine belief that if the British starved and traumatized the German people enough, they would rebel. Of course, the opposite happened—the Allied actions only strengthened the Nazis hold on the people’s loyalty (which, of course is precisely what happened in Britain in face of German air strikes). This reality is clear already by the end of 1941—Baker’s book stops long before Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki.

By taking Pickett and similar pacifists seriously, Baker shows that there were alternative approaches. This is not to say that he is even hinting that “Hitler could have been stopped” by the pacifists (he makes this clear with a number of somewhat jarring quotes from Gandhi that convey a pretty strong sense of naiveté). I think his point (or at least my point) would be rather that simply responding to evil with evil not only is profoundly immoral and destructive of the core values that the Nazis’ opponents sought to defend, it also does not work very well. Surely a more humane and moral approach by the Allies to resisting the Nazis would have saved untold lives on all sides and greatly heightened possibilities of internal resistance to Nazi governance.

The enormous challenge humanity faces if it is to have a future is how we might, to quote Walter Wink, “oppose evil without becoming evil ourselves” (the opening words to his wonderful book Engaging the Powers).

The issue that arises from the book for me is its challenge to the easy (and extraordinarily corrupting) assumptions that World War II in some sense was a “good war” that in some sense successfully defended the core values of western humanism. In fact, it seems clear that the true winner of the War was the spirit of violence. A good book for confirming this point for the United States is James Carroll’s House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power.

A response to Baker from the political “left”

I have found it quite instructive to read a few responses to Baker’s book from supposedly politically progressive reviewers. The one I will focus on is a column by The Nation’s Katha Pollitt [April 21, 2008]. Pollitt states that she finished the book feeling, for the first time in her life, “fury at pacifists.” As a pacifist, when I read this comment at the beginning of the column, I naturally perked up, looking for reasons for this fury. Strangely, though, she never really explains why she is mad at pacifists—except, I guess because she thinks they are naïve. But “fury”?

Pollitt’s only reference to actual pacifists is to quote “the good kind Rufus Jones” (Clarence Pickett’s close colleague) when he sought to convince some Nazi leaders to allow the Quakers to aid needy people in Germany: “We noted a softening effect on their faces” (108-09)

She gives a very misleading impression with this quote, however. First, the “softening effect” on the Gestapo agents’ faces followed Jones’ recital of the work Quakers had done during and following World War I in Germany, feeding more than one million children a day at the program’s peak. That is, they were not simply making naïve appeals to the goodness of the hearts of the Nazis (Jones himself characterized these agents as “hard-faced, iron-natured men”), but seeking to remind the Germans of the work the Quakers had already done. More importantly, the appeal in this case actually was successful. After deliberating, the Gestapo agent gave this response: “I shall telegraph tonight to every police station in Germany that the Quakers are given full permission to investigate the sufferings of Jews and to bring such relief as they see necessary.”

Now, this was November 1938, many months yet before the war in Europe began. Jones concluded from this encounter, “It is the settled purpose of the German government to drive out Jews….Until a plan of rapid emigration…is established, the authorities consider the problem unsolved, and further outrages are likely to occur, bringing greater suffering and injustice.”

Pollitt concludes, Jones “didn’t grasp what he was up against. Say what you will about Churchill and Roosevelt, at least they got that right.” This seems to me to be extraordinary unfair—and inaccurate. It depends on what one especially cares about, I guess. Jones seems clearly to have known what he was up against, which is why he and his colleagues sought to move heaven and earth to help the threatened people in Nazi-dominated territories to escape. Roosevelt refused to support even extraordinarily small-scale efforts to provide refuge for Jews in the U.S (59, 101, 103, 125). And six million were killed. If the goal was to save lives, Jones seemed much more prescient and realistic than Churchill or Roosevelt.

These seem to be Pollitt’s assumptions: War can be good. Violence can be necessary. Violence can be redemptive. World War II proves this. It was the only way Hitler could be stopped. Pacifism is utterly irrelevant. She surely shares these assumptions with a large majority of liberals and progressives in this country—not to mention, of course, those further to the right.

The power of Nicholson Baker’s book is that it puts the possibility that these assumptions might be mistaken on the table. Maybe that is why Pollitt is furious. For myself, I am very grateful for Baker’s challenge.

P.S.  While most of the reviews I have read of Human Smoke have been pretty negative, here is a positive one from theL.A. Times.

16 thoughts on “Someone else who has problems with World War II…

  1. I am fascinated by this post. My dad fought for the Nazis you see. My feeling is that passive resistance would have been ineffectual. The Nazi idealism was a love of an upholding of violence and it considered passivity was cowardly and despicable. The best argument for passivism it seems to me, is that even at the pain of death it would do no harm to another being and it wishes to be an antidote to violence in the world…say that, live that, but don’t pretend that passivism would have stopped Hitler. I do believe the active wartime resistance to Hitler was necessary…

    but… the other reason I think this post is worthwhile is that it addresses the ridiculous notion that this was a defense of human values. I hate the revisionist rubbish of how the allies were toward the Jews saving them form destruction ( the latest Upstairs Downstairs a case in point ). One could argue if not for facing the natural consequence of world wide antisemitism in the spectres of the Holocaust we would still be living in a largely antisemitic society. World wide guilt changed our attitude to the Jewish people. The war was fought because It was in fact a world very afraid of Hitler, but not for the sake for the Jews ( the world turning it;s back on the Jewish people via the Council of Evian should be enough to shut that lie up ) .

    And afraid it ought to have been, that sort of homogenous idealism really is not a good thing for humanity. However the head of the Nazi Hydra simply shed it’s teeth deep into the ground and look what we have now with the rise of Fundamentalism and Corporate Conservationism.

  2. Thanks for your challenging comments. As an American, I struggle with the “what about Hitler?” question in several ways. There is the general question of how could that Nazis have been stopped and then the more specific question of what the United States should have done. And the even more specific question of what moral people as non-state agents should have done.

    I think we need to remember that it in retrospect seems inevitable that the Nazis and Soviets were headed to a death-struggle no matter what else happened. And it was the Soviet Union that by and large defeated the Nazis—not the Americans and British (about 80% of German war dead came on the Eastern Front). So, it wasn’t like a pacifist (not “passivist”) attempt to stop Hitler was in any way remotely in the cards. I can grant that in the actual historical setting in which the Nazis arose, it was inevitable that they would be defeated by violence.

    However, I don’t that that means that they could not have been stopped by widespread, organized nonviolent resistance. There were scattered instances where nonviolence was effective (e.g., in Denmark in saving almost all the Danish Jews). I can imagine ending the Nazi dominance nonviolently (this is largely how the Soviet hegemony over Central Europe was ended). But that is quite a speculative imagining and would require much, much greater commitment to nonviolence than what was possible back then.

    The big problem, as you allude to, is that by using such problematic means to combat that Nazis, the U.S. did not really defeat the spirit of Nazism. I like your image of the teeth of the head of the Nazi Hydra….The kind of argument I want to work on is challenging the idea that the U.S. had no choice but to sell out to violence. We were not under direct threat from the Nazis, we did not intervene because we were committed to defeating tyranny, and most definitely we did not intervene in order to save the Jews. And if our efforts were not all that important in actually defeating the Nazis (again, the centrality of the Soviet role), then the pacifist critique of the late 1930s of America jumping into this war was not all that off the mark—nor were their warnings of what such a war would do to America and its democracy.

    1. Yes, sorry for the misspelling I realised afterward…but perhaps it betrays my bias!! 😉 Many have pointed out that being a pacifist does not mean passivity and that true Pacifism takes courage.

      And eventually I suppose that system such an Nazism would find the end of itself… however I am not so optimistic about a good end to pacifist or passive resistance. I think of Russia of course and the state that country is still in. East Germany . isn’t it doing well because of it’s reunification with it’s other half?

      It does strike me as a bit disingenuous to say , well America should have just let Russia do the dirty work of killing off Germany…are we anti violence or just anti violent for ‘us’?

      To be fair, America was begged by Britain which was doing a lion’s share of holding on for all of Western Europe. And really how much of Danish resistance was put on the back burner to address ‘later’ couldn’t be bothered now, let them have their little victory…

      But not to worry, I think we are united in our concern of the revival of the Hydra, and that seems to be something many cannot recognise because we do not understand that the threat of Nazi Germany had little to do with evil and more to do with the fears and prejudices of ordinary people. And in America at the moment those are being too well encouraged.

      1. sorry I have been quite aware today as to how unrefined my last reply was…..thanks you do much for your considered response to my original comment……

  3. Mr. Grimsrud, I’m afraid I have some strong objections, especially to the last part of your piece. You seem to be suggesting that Roosevelt could have saved the Jews by bringing them to America. This is completely unhistorical. In the 1930s, only a small fraction of Europe’s Jews were trying to go overseas. They didn’t know what was going to happen. Once the Nazis conquered countries, they wouldn’t let the Jews leave. The Danish transportation of Jews to Sweden wouldn’t have helped if not for the war, because Himmler intended to conquer Sweden too.
    I do not believe that fighting the Axis merely “compounded the criminality”. For all the moral ambiguity of the war, the defeat of the Axis was much better than the alternative. That the liberation of Eastern Europe in 1989 was mostly nonviolent isn’t reason to think the Nazis could have been defeated nonviolently. The two situations were very different. There was a reformist government in Moscow that never even attempted to put down the revolts in Eastern Europe. The Soviets didn’t have a program for extermination in 1989. The recent events in Syria and Libya indicate that nonviolent resistance can’t be sustained in the face of severe repression(and the severity of Assad and Khadafy is pretty minor compared to that of Hitler.

    Before you think I am one of the people who thoughtlessly bash pacifists without listening to their arguments, I will say that I am impressed with the pacifist plan of trying to prevent conflicts before they happen, instead of dealing with each crisis on an ad hoc basis. It is an innovative, outside the box scheme, and it may well work–in the long run. But it wouldn’t have helped anyone in 1939.

    1. I appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts here, Aaron. I’m not quite sure what you are responding to, though, when you say I “seem to be suggesting that Roosevelt could have saved the Jews by bringing them to America.” What I wrote was way more modest: “Roosevelt refused to support even extraordinarily small-scale efforts to provide refuge for Jews in the U.S. And six million were killed.”

      If I indeed claimed that FDR could have saved all the Jews, that would indeed be “completely unhistorical.” I do believe that it is a historically accurate statement to say that FDR refused to do much if anything to save Jews he could have helped save. And there were many who were seeking to leave certainly by 1938—that is why Rufus Jones and the other Quakers went to Germany to talk with the Nazi leaders. (I have written more about that here).

      I don’t think it was “once the Nazis conquered countries that they wouldn’t let the Jews leave”—it was when the Allies started their “total war” against the Germans. Perhaps that was justifiable due to Nazi aggression, et al, but the fact is (I believe) that it was the Allies’ decision to go to war that sealed the Jews’ fate. So we can’t say the war in any way was fought to “save the Jews.” It was fought to defeat the Nazis. The Allies, in their prosecution of the war, were mainly indifferent to what was happening to the Jews. The stated policy was to win the war first, then see to the “Jewish problem.” And when the war ended, the Allies were almost completely unprepared to help the Jews who remained alive.

      My main argument about World War II is not about how pacifism would have been better in any clearly imaginable way (though I reflect on that theme here.) so much as that World War II as it was prosecuted was a moral disaster, especially when we also consider its aftermath. In the words of the Australian journalist John Pilger, that war “provides a bottomless ethical bath in which the west’s ‘peacetime’ conquests are cleansed.” So what we should learn from World War II is not that war is okay but that we need to do everything we can to, as you say, “prevent conflicts before they happen.”

      1. I haven’t yet read Human Smoke, but in his Harper’s article Baker didn’t provide persuasive evidence for his thesis that Allied resistance to the Nazis was what caused the exterminations. There is a question as to how many Jews could have gotten out between the invasion of Poland and the Nazi order banning Jewish emigration(in October, 1941) if the Allies had been more helpful. Some, I suppose, but emigration can’t be seen as an alternative way of preventing the Holocaust. Millions of Jews couldn’t have emigrated in those two years, and Jews in France, the Low Countries, Yugoslavia, Greece, and the Soviet Union didn’t see a need to emigrate before those countries were invaded. There was also Himmler’s plan to kill thirty million Slavs–clearly the Slav population couldn’t have emigrated.
        A number of things that happened in World War II and its aftermath were disastrous, but I stand by the contention that the war was morally better than the alternative.

      2. I don’t think it is Baker’s thesis “that Allied resistance was what caused the exterminations.” Rather, he means more simply to complexify our assumptions that the war was fought for the sake of the Jews. The war made things worse, not better.

        Doris Bergen is a highly respected historian of the Holocaust, a professor–I believe–at the University of Toronto. She wrote, in her one-volume history of the Holocaust, that if there had been no war there would have been no Holocaust. That’s not the same thing as saying the Allied resistance caused the Holocaust. She certainly believes that was all on the Nazis. But the war was the exact opposite of a policy that would have saved Jewish lives.

        Perhaps the war “was morally better than the alternative” all things considered—at least for those who survived (though I don’t believe that), but I don’t think one can show that it was better for Europe’s Jews. For them, the war was an utter failure.

      3. I’ll read Bergen’s book if I can find it (what’s the title?) I think it is very wrong to say that there would have been no exterminations if the Nazis had not been resisted. Baker quotes a Polish Jew(Ringlebaum) as saying “the Germans are losing the war, so they take their revenge on the Jews”. So he is saying–in the Harper’s article–that fighting the Nazis caused the Holocaust. Of course, the extermination of the Jews began before the Germans were losing the war. A third of the European Jews survived the Holocaust; without the war they would all have all been killed, along with all the Gypsies and about six million more Slavs.

  4. Okay, probably everything but the first, third and fourth sentences was redundant, as I already said it before. But I’ll read Bergen’s book.

    1. Doris Bergen. War and Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust. 2nd edition. Roman & Littlefield, 2009.

      We simply disagree about the impact of the war on the extermination of the Jews. I would hope, though, that you would acknowledge that saving Jewish lives was not a major war aim of the Allies.

    2. Bergen says several times that there couldn’t have been a Holocaust without the war. She doesn’t cite any primary or secondary source that says this, so it is basically an unsupported opinion. Her argument that the Nazis couldn’t have brought themselves to do it unless there was a military threat to serve as a rationalization strikes me as naive. Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and the Rwandan Hutus didn’t need a war to carry out their program.

    1. If historians don’t provide any data to support their assertions, we should not assume they are right. They have to show us that they are right.

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