Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A Novelist Writes History

What if there had been talking instead of fighting, suggests Nicholson Baker. The novelist has taken that question and put it to the events surrounding the onset of the Second World War. As one might expect from the perspective of hindsight, the author comes to a surprising conclusion in Human Smoke.

Winston Churchill figures prominently in Mr. Baker's treatise, being cast as a war-monger who had no inclination to sit down at a bargaining table with the Nazis. Mr. Churchill's father wasn't one to sit down at the table with the Irish who were pushing for Home Rule back in the day, so it comes as no surprise. Without His Lordship's machinations, there might not have ever been an Easter Rising in 1916. Like father, like son?

If only the pacifists had been given a chance, the author believes, then the Jews could have come out ahead via a negotiated settlement. Considering Hitler's love of his "final solution", I imagine that the negotiated settlement would have been something along the lines of killing off every Jew in Europe and then there'd be no war. Not everyone would have been happy with that, of course, but what's the lives of millions of Jews against the lives of thousands of soldiers and the preservation of some exquisite architecture?

Revisionist historians are forced to accept the premise that the madmen who ruled Germany were amenable to rational discussion. Winston Churchill was of a mind that they had to be eliminated because there was no reasoning with them. Mr. Baker feels that if the U.S. and other European countries had held talks, there would have been no need for war and therefore the European continent would not have been destroyed and millions of lives lost. A summit convened at the right time would have done it. After all, Hitler had proved his trustworthiness when he promised not to go past the Sudetenland, and he didn't. Or did he?

It makes for a grand plot for a novel, where the reader is willing to suspend disbelief. But for non-fiction? Hard to suspend disbelief in evil and the darkest side of man.

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