Over My Shoulder #48: from Nicholson Baker, “Human Smoke”

You know the rules. Here’s the quote. This is from Human Smoke, Nicholson Baker’s sparely-written, chapterless skein of documentary vignettes retelling the events that led up to World War II.

Cyril Joad, a philosopher who was writing a book called Journey Through the War Mind, had a talk with his pacifist friend D. Joad asked D. whether D. thought Chamberlain should have negotiated with Hitler after Hitler’s peace offer. Yes, of course, said D.: Wars should never be begun, and as soon as they were begun, they should be stopped. D. then listed off many war evils: the physical and moral mutilation, the intolerance, the public lying, the enthronement of the mob. He quoted from the text of Chamberlain’s refusal—that by discussing peace with Hitler, Britain would forfeit her honor and abandon her claim that international disputes should be settled by discussion and not by force. Our claim is, you see, D. told Joad, that international disputes are not to be settled by force, and this claim we propose to make good by settling an international dispute by force. We are fighting to show that you cannot, or at least must not, impose your will upon other people by violence. Which made no sense.

Once a war has started, D. said, the only thing to do is to get it stopped as soon as possible. Consequently I should negotiate with Hitler.

Joad said: Ah, but you couldn’t negotiate with Hitler because you couldn’t trust him—Hitler would break any agreement as soon as it benefited him to do so.

Suppose you were right, D. said—suppose that Hitler violated the peace agreement and England had to go back to war. What had they lost? If the worst comes to the worst, we can always begin the killing again. Even a day of peace was a day of peace. Joad found he had no ready answer to that.


Cyril Joad talked about the war with another acquaintance, Mrs. C., a vigorous Tory. War was natural and unavoidable, said Mrs. C. The Germans weren’t human—they were brute blond perverted morons.

Joad asked C. what she would do with Germany, and a light came into her eyes.

I would make a real Carthaginian peace, she told Joad. Raze their cities to the ground, plough up the land and sow it afterwards with salt; and I would kill off one out of every five German women, so that they stopped breeding so many little Huns.

Mrs. C.’s ideas were shared by others, Joad had noticed; he’d recently read a letter to the editor about Germany in London’s News Chronicle: Quite frankly, said the letter, I would annihilate every living thing, man, woman, and child, beast, bird and insect; in fact, I would not leave a blade of grass growing even; Germany should be laid more desolate than the Sahara desert, if I could have my way.

The longer the war lasted, Joad believed, the more this kind of viciousness would multiply: Already Joad wrote, Mr. Churchill was reviving the appellation Huns.

— Nicholson Baker (2008), Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization. ISBN 1-4165-7246-5. 154–155

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