Assessing Blame

Human Smoke
The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization
Nicholson Baker
Simon & Schuster, $16, 576 pp.

Refugees and Rescue
The Diaries and Papers of James G. McDonald (1935-1945)
Edited by Richard Breitman, Barbara McDonald Stewart, and Severin Hochberg
Indiana University Press (published in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum), $29.95, 376 pp.

Despite reams of scholarship and reportage, we remain at a loss to understand how, and why, the world went so badly off-kilter in the 1930s. Can we lay it at the feet of the Great Depression? There's some—but, to my mind, less than overwhelming—evidence for that. If not economic turmoil, then perhaps we are better advised to delve into other realms such as arms races, diplomatic history, mass psychology, or political biography—the last of which just happens to be my choice.

Award-winning author Nicholson Baker's controversial Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization falls within this camp. The main protagonists in this high drama are Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and to no one's surprise, Adolf Hitler. If Baker had asked me, I would have added Joseph Stalin to the list, but his absence does not materially detract from the overarching argument that it was...

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About the Author

John Starrels is a nonresident senior fellow at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University.