Authors stir up the dust of the past

Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- Here are some highlights from a new history of World War II that won’t be hawked on PBS any time soon: Winston Churchill was a conniving, arrogant bigot who relished the mass murder of German citizens. Franklin D. Roosevelt was an anti-Semitic warmonger who goaded the Japanese into the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor. The strongest and most heartfelt calls for rescuing Jews from the Holocaust came from pacifists -- who were ignored.

“I don’t think I’ll be winning any popularity contests,” said Nicholson Baker, whose book “Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization” has sparked a critical firestorm on both sides of the Atlantic. “But that really wasn’t the point of it all. There are some uncomfortable facts about World War II that we can’t allow ourselves to forget.”

For those who view historians as arcane academics, Baker is a bracing antidote: He’s a novelist turned historical provocateur whose new book -- flawed as it may be -- skewers the conventional wisdom that World War II was America’s finest moment. He fits into a long tradition of “revisionist” writers who tweak prevailing beliefs in pursuit of a contrarian view. Their work may be unpopular, but it shows the crucial role that feisty history books can play.


“Revisionism is part of our tradition, because history is a continuing argument over the past,” said Gordon S. Wood, a preeminent U.S. historian and author of “The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History.” “These kinds of books shake people up. And in America, with its limited historical sensibility, that’s an important role for historians.”

Baker’s book boils down the origins and initial years of World War II into a series of bite-sized anecdotes drawn from journalism, speeches, diaries and other materials. He paints an unrelentingly negative portrait of figures like Churchill and Roosevelt: Instead of war without end, the author suggests, they could have taken a “peaceable” approach to end hostilities with a negotiated settlement. Even though it would have frozen Hitler’s gains in place, anything was preferable to the carnage that followed in a war “where everything went wrong.”

“It’s a disservice to present great people from the past as if they’re intelligent children who think their way consistently through everything and never have moments of doubt or petty anger,” said Baker. “I wanted to convey some reality, some appreciation for these leaders as people, and I think that in the end, Churchill and Roosevelt will survive my 500 pages.”

Although some critics have praised Baker’s book, others have mocked it. In a scathing review, New York Times critic William Grimes dismissed “Human Smoke” as a “moral mess of a book,” blasting the notion that the war didn’t “help” anyone who needed help: “The prisoners of Belsen, Dachau and Buchenwald come to mind, as well as untold millions of Russians, Danes, Belgians, Czechs and Poles. Nowhere and at no point does Mr. Baker ever suggest, in any serious way, how their liberation might have been effected other than by force of arms.”

Battles over revisionist history are not limited to World War II. Another newly published history book offers a similarly provocative view of World War I. But “Rehearsals: The German Army in Belgium, August 1914" by Jeff Lipkes is the mirror opposite of Baker’s work: The author critiques the revisionist belief that all of the participants had blood on their hands, blundering into an unnecessary war. When it was over, the argument goes, the victors imposed a punitive peace on the Germans, setting the stage for Hitler’s later rise to power.

“I take issue with all these ideas,” said Lipkes, who provides evidence that German troops massacred nearly 6,000 civilians in Belgium as the war began in 1914. These atrocities, which some observers have either denied outright or downplayed, were a chilling “rehearsal” for the larger slaughter that Nazis carried out two decades later, the author contends. He also suggests that there may have been a disturbing cultural trait or “continuity” in the German experience that led soldiers to commit such crimes.

There was ample reason for the allies to fight in World War I, he concludes, because they were responding to military aggression.

“People screamed, cried and groaned,” said Felix Bourdon, survivor of a mass execution in a Belgian town, in a eyewitness account quoted in the book. “Above the tumult I could distinguish the voices of small children. All this time, the soldiers were singing. . . . Sometime after the first salvo, there was another round of fire and, once again, I was not hit. After this I heard fewer cries, save from time to time a small child calling its mother.”

Why hasn’t popular opinion -- in essays, TV documentaries and the like -- fully embraced these views? A key factor, Lipkes writes, has been “the seductive appeal of revisionism. The fact that thousands of innocent civilians had been butchered during one week by an invading army violating international law and treaty obligations was simply not compatible with the appealing myth of collective guilt in 1914 and Allied vindictiveness in 1919.”

War and memory is just one reason for Americans to pay more attention to the past, said Wood, whose new book of collected essays analyzes how, why and for whom history should be written. In some societies, too much historical introspection can lead to social paralysis, a depressing sense that human behavior is doomed to repeat cycles of futility and suffering.

“But that’s not really a problem in America, where we spend far too little time thinking about the past and what it means to us now,” the historian added. “When you study history, you learn that nothing is ever black and white, and there are limitations to what people can achieve. Yet this always runs against the American grain of being a can-do society.”

If we had a greater sense of history, Wood suggested, “I think we might have been more hesitant about going into Iraq so blindly. I’m not saying we shouldn’t act. But we could have been more careful. There was another side to consider. That’s what history offers us.”