Sunday, March 23, 2008

All hell on the eastern front

The New York Times is giving Nicholson Baker's book, Human Smoke, the star treatment. Two reviews -- one very negative, one very positive, the latter by Irish writer Colm Toibin. A profile of the author. A free excerpt of the book. The headline on Toibin's review, Their Vilest Hour, accurately captures the deeply anti-Churchill message of the book. And of course, there's plenty to be against. For example, the bits of Churchill that Jonah Goldberg glossed over when looking for evidence of 1920s Liberal Fascism --

Winston Churchill visited Rome. "I could not help being charmed by Signor Mussolini's gentle and simple bearing, and by his calm, detached poise in spite of so many burdens and dangers," Churchill said in a press statement. Italian fascism, he said, had demonstrated that there was a way to combat subversive forces; it had provided the "necessary antidote to the Russian virus."

"If I had been an Italian I am sure I should have been entirely with you from the beginning to the end of your victorious struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism," Churchill told the Romans. It was January 20, 1927.

But anyway, the main business of the book is as Toibin says --

an eloquent and passionate assault on the idea that the deliberate targeting of civilians can ever be justified

and in particular the effectiveness of the bombing of cities. Baker says it didn't even achieve its stated purpose, let alone meet any moral standard:

the bombing served to kill and maim the civilian population, yet the survivors did not blame the Nazi leaders, who used the bombing as a further excuse to inflict suffering on the Jewish population, claiming, for example, that evictions of Jews were “justified on the grounds that Aryans whose houses were destroyed by bombing needed a place to live.”

But one could turn that around and note the implied pathology of the wartime German population -- that just about any event could be used to rationalize the Holocaust.

And there's another issue. Before there was the large scale allied bombing of German cities, there was the war in the east with the invasions of Poland and then the USSR. Battles in which the Nazis initially had little opposition. And still they set about killing everybody. Jewish people first of course, but Slavs didn't rank highly for Nazi Germany either. Hitler's Germany was evil. The Allies were not, at least not intrinsically. The pacifists had no answer for how to save the non-German eastern European population.

UPDATE: A conversation with the author on the website of Haverford College.

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