Novelist turned historian claims Churchill should have negotiated with Hitler

Historians in the News

Nicholson Baker's history of the early stages of the Second World War will surprise and even shock many readers.

Baker, a best-selling novelist, takes a radically different narrative approach from most historians for his non-fiction tale, "Human Smoke" (Simon & Schuster): He knits his story together out of hundreds of small vignettes or scenes, most of which aren't longer than three paragraphs, and, like a documentary filmmaker, he doesn't insert his own voice.

Yet it's clear that Baker thinks Allied leaders, particularly Winston Churchill, were misguided -- or worse -- in attempting to stop Adolf Hitler by starving much of Europe and by bombing many German cities.

Negotiations with the Nazis, even after they gained control of the continent, should have been attempted, Baker said in a recent interview from his home in Maine.

Here's an edited transcript:

Q: Churchill is normally portrayed as a hero. You show how he was ordering the bombings of civilians extensively, even when there were indications it wasn't doing a whole lot of good.

A: Some of the things he said, and especially some of the things he did, the way he reveled in the war, surprised me. The biggest surprise, for me, was his fascination with the weapon of starvation, because I think that had the greatest consequences early in the war.

Q: If you don't do what Churchill and the other leaders did, what should you do?

A: Some of the pacifists, I thought, were right on when they said that the people who needed help -- which were, at that early stage of the war, Poles and Jews -- had more of a chance in a situation of negotiation than they did in a state of war. An ongoing war just gradually brutalizes everyone.

There's at least some merit to raising the question whether negotiating with Germany early in the war would have saved millions of lives. I think someone who was a pacifist at the time would say: "Look, Hitler is a middle-aged, crazy, sick man who is known to have these tremendous bursts of irrationality. Only a state of war will keep someone like that in power for decades."...

Read entire article at Patrick T. Reardon in the Chicago Tribune

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