what if the worlds/were a series of steps/what if the steps/joined back at the margin

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Light Summer Reading: Human Smoke: The Beginnings of WWII, the End of Civilization

I like to read heavy, thick books that get me lost. Human Smoke: The Beginnings of WWII, the End of Civilization is a comprehensive document of the lead up and beginning of World War Two using first hand documents as its base. The story is recounted in third person by the people who lived it through interpretation of their diaries and other documents the author, Nicholson Baker, compiled. Baker created a riveting story through which a modern audience can imagine how such a massive catastrophe such as world war could start and take off full speed. It is a saddening book, one that chronicles many deaths and political sweeps that seek to harm certain populations while benefiting other populations.

Stefan Zweig was a German writer from Vienna who is mentioned often in the book. His work was burned in Germany along with those of “Thomas Mann, Albert Einstein, brecht, Lenin, Marx, Engels, Zinoviev, Hein, Emil Ludwig, Helen Keller, Upton Sinclair, and Jack London” (38). He wrote a pacifist play called Jeremiah and wrote eloquently about the mounting worldly tensions. He observed the beginnings of  the conflict and when it threatened to go to the Pacific as well, he and his wife took poison despite living away from Germany in Brazil. People did not take this conflict lightly and the scope of the trauma it caused affected those who had lived it even thousands of miles away from the epicenter.

The book chronicles Churchill’s rise to power and his erratic nature. He was not a mild person by any means, and said of Hitler in 1940 “This wicked man, the repository and embodiment of many forms of soul-destroying hatreds, this monstrous product of former wrongs and shame, has now resolved to break our famous Island race by a process of indiscriminate slaughter and destruction”. When Hitler took to the skies to burn England, Churchill strategically planned counter-attacks on Germany through the skies and with the help of the United States. Many speculate that Churchill’s erratic style could have been the reason why he was able to strategically counter Hitler successfully; he was nearly as crazy as Hitler, in layman’s terms. Defending England was by no means an easy task and his bravado confidence directed toward the English people to “keep calm and carry on” points to his political mindset of don’t give in and don’t give up. Certainly without that attitude the war could not have been won.

The United States for much of the book is on the side-lines waiting for Europe’s near complete destruction to step in. However, it does provide back-door military support for England such as assembling aircrafts used in the German raids. Roosevelt knew that there was massive turmoil happening in Europe, and even “wanted to draft people into the U.S. Army even though the United States was not fighting a war” (208). For much of the book, the United States gives military support to the allies in silence while a larger and larger conflict brews. On December 8th, 1941, the United States declared war on Japan thus triggering war with the countries aligned with Japan, Germany and Italy. It was an awkward way for the United States to enter the war since it had vested interests in Europe not becoming fascist.

There are relatively obscure facts in the book, such as laying out Hitler’s plan to sent the Jews to Madagascar, a French colony. This was before the implementation of the “final solution” of committing genocide against the Jews when “the Jewish Problem” could have a solution that wasn’t completely large scale death. It also tells the tales of individuals who otherwise are glossed over in history, such as Reverend Bernhard Lichtenberg who was detained by the Gestapo after it was found out he was praying daily for the Jews. “Under interrogation, Reverend Lichtenberg said he was opposed to Mein Kampf, opposed to the persecution and deportation of he Jews. He was asked whether he had prayed for the Bolsheviks. No, the Reverend said, he hadn’t prayed for the Bolsheviks, but he would have no objection to including a daily prayer for them, too, ‘to heal their madness'” (416). The Reverend died on his way to Dachau concentration camp two years later.

One thing the book makes very, very clear is that there was a massive peace movement before the declaration of World War Two that opposed any and all military intervention in Europe. This was not limited to America but included Europeans as well. It was not only regular citizens who did not want to see a repeat of World War One but also politicians and other high-ranking members of society and governments. It was on the German side as well, “Ulrich von Hassell, the former German ambassador to Italy, wrote ‘So as far as I’m concerned, the one vital thing is to avoid a world war.’ Hitler and Foreign Minister Ribbentrop had reached, as von Hassell thought, a state of ‘criminal recklessness'” (132). While Hitler was elected democratically it is important to remember that the entirety of Germany was not necessarily pro-Nazi. Many people who were registered as Nazis did so for protection while lacking the belief structure, and some with pro-Nazi opinions never registered with the party.

The book also makes clear that war involves a lot of decisions that have many questions with no right answers. Some of Churchill’s decisions were successful and others not, such as purchasing a fleet of aircraft that did not work well. It is unclear what impact the United States could have had on the war if Roosevelt had made the decision to go to war earlier, if it would have saved Europe sooner or caused a ruckus from the American people who would not have had an ironclad reason to go to war without the Japanese attack. What is clear from the book is that the worst of the worst is brought out in war as is the more shining examples of human action. When people are put into war situations they often go above and beyond the necessary for their fellow man.