Sam Leith Sam Leith

Were we any better than the Nazis?

Sam Leith on Nicholson Baker's new account of World War 2

In July 1940, Hitler issued what Nicholson Baker calls ‘a final appeal to reason’. ‘The continuation of this war,’ he said in a speech, ‘will only end with the complete destruction of one of the two warring parties . . . I see no reason that should compel us to continue this war.’

‘It’s too tantalising, since there’s no shadow of a doubt we will reject any such suggestion,’ Frances Partridge wrote in her diary afterwards, adding the savagely deflating rider: ‘Now I suppose Churchill will again tell the world that we are going to die on the hills and on the seas, and then we shall proceed to do so.’

If this fascinating and upsetting book is the story of anything, it is above all the story of Winston Churchill telling the world that we are going to die on the hills and on the seas, and of people then doing so — and dying, too, in the forests and in the valleys, the ghettos and in the cities, in the air and in tunnels under the ground.

Human Smoke is not a conventional history. Rather, it is, as Simon Winchester describes it, ‘a meticulously curated catalogue of text’. Relying principally on primary sources — diaries, public speeches and documents, and newspaper reports — Baker has assembled a series of prose snapshots in chronological order. The first is from 1892, but the bulk deal with the beginning of the second world war, up to the end of 1941.

‘Was it a “good war”? Did waging it help anyone who needed help?’ Baker asks in his afterword. ‘Those were the basic questions that I hoped to answer when I began writing.’ Many of this book’s readers will suspect that its author had a pretty good idea what answer he expected when first he sat down.

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