Lead book review

Ernst Jünger — reluctant captain of the Wehrmacht

19 January 2019

9:00 AM

19 January 2019

9:00 AM

Ernst Jünger, who died in 1998, aged 102, is now better known for his persona than his work. A deeply confusing and controversial figure who loathed democracy and glorified German militarism, yet despised the Nazis, he not only bore witness to the industrial flesh-mangles of two world wars, but almost the entirety of the 20th century. His writings and insights have long earned him sage
status in Germany. This, the first publication in English of his diaries from 1941–45, heightens his complexity but also makes him a more rounded figure.

This will come as a surprise to those who know him as the ruthless young warrior of the infamous Great War memoir, Storm of Steel, in which Jünger narrates one mass slaughter after another with calm detachment, even coldness — comrades repeatedly blown to bits or shot in the head. The book bristles with militarism, with no room  for individual suffering. Men are briefly sketched and swiftly killed, to be replaced by new faces indistinguishable from those before.

Critically wounded 14 times leading raids on British trenches for the Fatherland, Jünger earned the highest military honour in Germany, Pour le Mérite, aged just 23. He becomes a romantic hero, willing to lay down his life for a just cause that bonds men in a firm camaraderie: ‘Battle brings men together, whereas inactivity separates them.’ A bestseller in 1920, it was said to be one of Hitler’s favourite books.

But by 1941 times had changed. Jünger abandoned German nationalism after 1933, forbidding Goebbels to use his work for propaganda purposes, and the Gestapo raided his Berlin flat. He despised the Nazis’ implementation of violence to eliminate the weak, chivalrously believing in its use to protect them — a constant theme of Storm of Steel. He was convinced that women and children at home would benefit from his sacrifice.

Jünger feared that the rise of Nazism would lead to a bloodbath. By 1939 he had published a novella, On the Marble Cliffs, in which an unnamed botanist and scholar continues his work studying plants and beetles while an ogre-like ‘Head Forester’ (modelled on Göring) corrupts the surrounding country. Those with the power to stop this are too apathetic or selfish to resist. The result: total destruction. The protagonist is one of the few survivors, founding a new society, one bolstered by knowing the value of freedom through the struggle to earn it. ‘From time to time,’ he muses, the world ‘must be plunged into the flames to be born anew.’

The year 1941 sees Jünger’s life turned into art. He is the proud victor of Blitzkrieg, sampling the delights of Paris from a comfortable office, among colleagues equally doubtful about the regime. The journal he begins writing becomes a hedonistic carousel, as he frequents theatres, salons and bookstalls along the Seine, as well as meeting Picasso, Braque and Cocteau.

Whereas Storm of Steel’s narrative distils the author’s best ideas, sieved through hindsight, the journal is a jumble of both perfectly formed and half-baked ones. Not every thought a man has is going to be worth reading, whatever his intellect. But gold shines amid the dross. While Jünger is on a tour of the eastern front over Christmas 1942, a loudspeaker plays ‘Silent Night’ to a backing track of pounding mortar shells echoing through the dark. His ability to sum up war’s jarring juxtapositions remains chillingly precise.

One by one, the daily entries are single images on a reel of film. Spool through, and you witness the process of decay. From 1943, hardship and loss slowly drip into the Parisian dream. The fronts grind ever closer, friends are killed and cities known since childhood are obliterated. ‘The days now pass over us like the teeth of a saw.’

Bombing raids become a rising leitmotif, as do ominous rumours of genocide. Jünger loses both the past and the future in the deaths of his father and son. He is depressed, eats little and is unable to sleep. One coping mechanism is to try to remind himself of the transience of human suffering by turning to the eternal beauty of the natural world. The blackouts make the stars brighter than he has ever seen them: ‘What are we human beings and our earthly years before such glory? What is our fleeting torment?’ But by the beginning of 1945 he has prepared for death, having been forced to leave Paris and return to his home in Hanover. He finds solace in his favourite pastimes —‘oases in a world of carnage’. The journals descend into rounds of books, beetles, the Bible and bombings.

Jünger is now powerless and afraid — more fearful of consequences than in the first war. Then ‘I was alone and free; I am going through this second one with all my loved ones and all my belongings’. He has a dream of his small children playing among shells in blood-spattered trenches. Two years later he is trying to herd his nine-year-old son out of the house while the bombers drop their loads overhead. The innocent are now in the front line. ‘The presence of the children made the events more intense, more human, than anything familiar to me from the bunkers of the first world war.’ The man who believes that violence should only be used to protect the weak is unable to shield his own family.

Jünger’s position as an army captain gave him a panorama of the war that left no room for heroes. Violence became a grim leveller that made ideologies interchangeable. Germans on the eastern front were reading On the Marble Cliffs as a condemnation of Soviet Russia rather than of Nazi Germany. Hitler had unleashed a dehumanising force on the world, one that made Russians, Germans, the French Resistance and Allied pilots all look the same, locked in an escalating cycle of cruelty. Jünger witnessed Allied planes strafing screaming children in the streets, releasing bombs timed to explode while presents were handed out on Christmas Eve. Accounts drifted in of Parisian friends, who had once tried to transcend national boundaries with him through measured discussion in the salons, being harassed as collaborators. His summary of this second war could have been a reverse of the first: ‘Inactivity brings men together, whereas battle separates them.’

In many ways, the journals are On the Marble Cliffs made flesh — Jünger’s ‘I told you so’. He paints himself as the detached botanist-scholar, determined to survive and help the world recover in peacetime. For him, the best way to avoid being sucked into the vortex of violence was to disconnect from emotion and group mentalities: to feel nothing and be on no one’s side, only bearing witness. An eye in the storm. While violence raged all around, Jünger continued his secret diary, for publication after the war. This ended for him when American tanks rumbled through his village in April 1945, Jünger proclaiming that the deeper the fall, the greater the ensuing rise.

But he tweaked reality to create this image of detachment. With his constant  stories of indulgence in Paris, the reader might assume he had no job while he was  there. In fact he was censoring letters and newspapers, a cog in the Nazi machine he so despised. He omits anything that would make him appear a villain. An ongoing extramarital affair in Paris is barely hinted at. But neither does he try to look a hero, omitting how he passed on to Jews information of upcoming deportations, buying them time to escape.

Should he have continued to enjoy his life as a flâneur for so long? He had solid proof of what was going on, debriefed as he was on the mass shootings and death camps on the eastern front. Throughout his career he had railed against inertia, lauding men of action who sacrificed themselves for a just cause. And then such a cause presented itself. Jünger’s colleagues in Paris were involved in the Stauffenberg plot of 1944, and asked for his help. He was one of the most influential conservative voices in Germany at the time, one of the few that Hitler’s followers might have taken seriously. Yet he refused to commit himself during the chaos, when many believed Hitler dead and change in the air.

Perhaps sacrificing himself in the plot would have been pointless. If Hitler had been assassinated, a replacement for him could have been quickly found within such a corrupted system, and with Jünger executed, there would have been one less voice of inspiration to help rebuild Germany. Instead, Jünger waited for evil to destroy itself: a fireman who fought the blaze by waiting for the building to burn down. As usual, he inhabits a grey area.

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