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Hold Your Peace

Nicholson Baker concludes his engaging essay on pacifism by stating that “[w]ar never works,” an argument I cannot consider well-­defended since Baker’s discussion of World War II almost entirely avoids the subject of the Eastern Front [“Why I’m a Pacifist,” May]. 

The clear objectives of Hitler’s campaign in the east were the subjugation and depopulation of much of the Soviet Union. My own hometown of Leningrad was, on his orders, encircled, bombarded, and, finally, razed, its three and a half million inhabitants intended to be reduced to perhaps several hundred thousand prospective slaves. Hitler initiated this campaign not merely because of ethnic animosity but also to acquire a vast reserve of natural resources for the benefit of Germany’s economy. Imagine the enthusiasm the German citizenry and corporations must have had for such a conquest. 

But what would Baker’s approach have had the two sides on the Eastern Front do? Should the Germans have given up their dreams of militarized expansion—as glorified by the artifices of Dr. Goebbels—voluntarily? Should the Russians, the Ukrainians, and myriad others have simply submitted? Fled? Should the millions of Jews in Ukraine have waited until someone provided them visas for transit across all of occupied Europe and, at last, into the free world? And in that case, what of the Slavs left behind? Should the belligerents have stopped fighting in 1942, when half of the European USSR was still under German control, and promptly settled their differences diplomatically? What would an “absolute pacifist” on either side of these battle lines have done?

Baker’s arguments are acceptable when examined in the context of voluntary or limited wars. The U.S. intervention in Europe during World War II, which he discusses at length, is one such conflict, as the United States was not realistically threatened with invasion and devastation—only with the curtailment of its sphere of influence. However, a war of conquest or survival, in which at least one population is fighting for its very existence, has no room for pacifism.

Gene Ostrovsky
New York City

I have long been an “all-but-­Hitler” pacifist. I desperately wanted Nicholson Baker to convince me that even the Good War was not so good, but some of his assumptions are unwarranted. He begins with too narrow a view of what should have motivated American involvement in the war. “Who was in trouble in Europe?” he asks. “Jews were, of course.” Clearly they were. But consider that any compromise with Hitler prior to the Normandy landings would surely have surrendered most of the continent to the Third Reich. Even assuming that such a settlement could have occurred peacefully and that the European Jews could have been successfully evacuated, it is hard to imagine that Hitler’s ambitions would have ended at those contractual borders; the word “appeasement” does not appear in Baker’s article. It is even harder to imagine that Hitler would suddenly have developed a loving attitude toward the millions of homosexuals, Roma, disabled people, Communists, and untold others whom such a settlement would have placed under his care.

The Allies could have tried to arrange a compromise to save Jewry, but it is unlikely that Hitler would have negotiated with a defeated Europe. This fact highlights Baker’s other major oversight. “If the armistice plan failed, then it failed,” he writes. Such an argument is irreconcilable with absolute pacifism. Falling back on warfare would never have been an option for Vera Brittain, Abraham Kaufman, Dorothy Day, or Jessie Wallace Hughan. But Baker does not provide a serious sense of the course pacifist leaders might have suggested the Allies take in the face of Hitler’s probable intransigence.

Ultimately, the “Hitler problem” that pacifists must confront is not really a problem about Adolf Hitler but a problem about the more abstract constructs of evil and power. Because even had the pacifist strategy succeeded during World War II, the next enemy of humanity might have been all the more hateful.

Blake Slonecker
Forest City, Iowa

Nicholson Baker responds:

What impresses me about World War II pacifists such as Brittain and Kaufman is their steady, and I think correct, intuition that some kind of temporary or permanent “pause in the fury of hostilities”—a negotiated armistice or attempt at reconciliation—would, especially in the case of an irrational, suicidal hostage-taker like Hitler, have saved the lives of millions of people. The pacifist’s aim is always to slow the spread of retributive rage. Ethnic cleansing and other horrors emerge from the chaos of prolonged conflict; the moment firebombs stop falling and making people crazy, the moment armies stand down, new possibilities are revealed. Dictators lose power in peacetime, not in wartime.

Blake Slonecker thinks that an Allied offer of an armistice—­conditional on the safe passage of refugees—would have failed. This was an argument made at the time, to which Hughan and others responded by asking whether, with so many lives at immediate risk, it might make sense to test the assumption. Gene Ostrovsky’s thoughtful letter describes Hitler’s invasion of Russia, which came nearly two years into the war. Churchill smiled on hearing the news and said on the radio that it was time to step up the bombing of Germany so that the German people might “taste and gulp each month a sharper dose of the miseries they have showered upon mankind.” The pacifists believed that Churchill’s unrelentingly violent response to Nazi violence helped prop up and prolong Hitler’s regime. Since we actually know how the war turned out—horribly ­everywhere—we owe it to history to take the specifics of the pacifist position seriously.