Just give peace a chance?

The Second World War was wrong and avoidable, argues Nicholson Baker, and through the criminal belli

Human Smoke, Nicholson Baker, Simon & Schuster, 566pp, £20

The very title of this book, Human Smoke, is either very courageous or very tasteless (or conceivably both), and Nicholson Baker waits until his very last page to give us the origin of it. It is taken from the postwar interrogation of General Franz Halder, a mutinous German officer who was incarcerated in Dachau late in the war and "saw flakes of smoke blow into his cell. Human smoke, he called it." To use the ashes of Nazism's victims as the name of a polemic that says that the Second World War was not worth fighting takes a certain kind of nerve.

But of course if there had been no war it is at least thinkable that there would have been no Final Solution. It's not as if the treatment of European Jewry was in any sense part of the original casus belli, or even formed any part of the propaganda for the war while it was actually being fought. Instead, the opening of the camps has furnished a retrospective justification for the war: a conflict the outcome of which is probably one of the few elements of consensus still left to us.

Follow Baker's logic just a little further, and it becomes possible to imply that the war might actually have helped facilitate the Holocaust. This in turn would help make all participants in the Second World War into morally equivalent forces. And that in fact is Baker's view, as is the view, not just that all wars are essentially the same, but that they are also all essentially part of the same war. What we call the Second World War was only an extension of the long struggle for mastery between the various European powers, all of which were all the time also wreaking indiscriminate cruelty on colonial peoples.

That there is some truth to all this is what gives pacifism its enduring appeal. Baker's narrative method is one that approximates collage. He builds up a heap of contemporary newspaper clippings, reports and speeches, taking us at a brisk pace through the "First" World War and the volatile Twenties and Thirties and then slowing down as the great confrontation begins to unfold. He concludes the book on 31 December 1941, when the conflict has become truly global with Pearl Harbor, and when, as he rather tellingly puts it, "most of the people who died in the Second World War were at that moment still alive".

The ones who were to die at the hands of British and American bomber pilots are the ones who receive the greater part of Baker's compassion. If there is a villain in this book, it is certainly the Royal Air Force. Hardly a page goes by without Baker selecting a report of the British bombing of Iraq, or India, or Sudan in some colonial punitive expedition. And this, it becomes clear, is a curtain-raiser for the concept of "area bombing" and Hamburg and Dresden, with all restraint on the inflicting of civilian casualties thrown to the wind.

Some reviewers have expressed shock or even disbelief at evidence that Baker has adduced, from Winston Churchill's early anti-Semitism to the internment of anti-Nazi Jewish and German refugees in camps in Britain; from the cold decision to massacre German workers by concentrating bombs on their more closely packed housing to the open proclamation of imperialist British war aims. I myself, however, grew increasingly impatient with Baker's assumption of his own daring transgressiveness. I have mentioned all those above points in print myself, and attacked the Churchill cult from many angles, and defended the right of David Irving to publish his own revisionist screeds, but I still detect something smug and vacant in the superior attitudes struck by the peace-lover. By all means let us stipulate or concede (say) that Churchill was just as ruthless as Hitler about violating the neutrality of small European states and nations. The deformities of the anti-war faction are nonetheless threefold: they underestimate and understate the radical evil of Nazism and fascism, they forget that many "peace-loving" forces did the same at the time, and they are absolutist in their ahistoricism. A war is a war is a war, in their moral universe, and anyone engaging in one is as bad as anyone else.

Taking my above criticisms in reverse order, this would mean that if the warmonger Churchill had been in a position to intervene to save the Spanish Republic in 1936, perhaps exaggerating the threat of Franco to British interests in order to persuade parliament and the press to endorse the use of force (as he would have had to do), he would be just as culpable. That in turn would involve regarding the old left slogan "Fascism Means War" as meaningless, either in the sense that fascism necessitated war or in the sense that fascism both desired and intended it. So I do hope that some current "anti-war" types don't find themselves tempted by Baker to abandon one of the left's finer traditions.

To the second point, Baker can't seem to get enough of the wisdom of Gandhi and cites at length an open letter he wrote to the British people on 3 July 1940. "Your soldiers are doing the same work of destruction as the Germans," wrote the Mahatma. "I want you to fight Nazism without arms." He went on to say: "Let them take possession of your beautiful island, with your many beautiful buildings. You will give all these, but neither your souls, nor your minds. If these gentlemen choose to occupy your homes, you will vacate them. If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourself, man, woman and child, to be slaughtered, but you will refuse to owe allegiance to them."

I must say that everything in me declines to be addressed in that tone of voice, but Baker contentedly adds the additional heart-warming observation that this very "method" of resistance, according to Gandhi, "had had considerable success in India". This is not the book's only reminder of how fatuous the pacifist position can sound, or indeed can be.

Finally one must mention the most damaging criticism of the peace-at-any-price view, which was the one noticed at the time by George Orwell. Behind all the "war never pays" rhetoric could often be detected the insinuation that the Nazis and fascists weren't really as bad as all that. On two pages to which I call your attention - pages 204 and 233 - Nicholson Baker leaves the distinct impression that Hitler would have been content to ship all Europe's Jews to somewhere like Madagascar and would have done so were it not for Churchill's awful belligerence. You are perfectly free to believe this yourself, should you choose. As the book proceeds, the emollient and slightly sinister tone becomes more and more evident. A New York Times report of an Anglo-Soviet air raid on Berlin in late 1941, for example, is followed by Baker's comment: "These bombings immediately followed the endorsement of the peace-loving language of the Atlantic Charter." Oooh, the irony! But the Atlantic Charter - in many ways the founding document of the United Nations - was explicitly predicated on the idea that totalitarian fascism must first be destroyed.

Indeed, the little matter of democracy is entirely ignored by the self-satisfied Baker analysis. Not only are Britain and America discussed as if they were little if any better than the dictatorships of the time, but we are never even faced with the question of how much force would ever be justifiable in a war to the finish between the pluralist and the absolutist principle (in which the absolutist principle was, lest we forget, rather convincingly vanquished). In much the same way, London and Washington are reprobated for missing chances for negotiation before 1940 but Berlin doesn't draw the same standard of criticism for its decision to fight on (and to intensify genocide in the east as well as to prolong the misery of Germany) when all was obviously lost. Nor is Japanese imperialism pictured as anything much more than an island regime goaded into war by the exorbitant demands of Franklin Roosevelt. This will not do.

Baker and I share an admiration for the extraordinary courage of the German anti-war movement both civil and military, but he either doesn't know or completely forgets something that one is not entitled to overlook. When the envoys of the anti-Nazi officer corps visited London at the eleventh hour, they came to tell Chamberlain and Halifax that they could overthrow and imprison their demented Führer, as long as Britain could be counted on to say, and to mean, that it could and would fight for Prague. If you want to avoid a very big and very bad war later, be prepared to fight a small and principled war now. Who would not rather have removed Saddam Hussein from power in 1991, before the ruinous sanctions and during his genocide, and while he was red-handed with WMDs? Baker's book should have a contradictory effect on readers of leftist and/or anti-militarist bent: in hindsight it makes the white flag appear very dirty and the red flag look relatively clean.

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was an author and journalist. He joined the New Statesman in 1973.

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Secret Israel