Satellite Review / Literature / History

Death, metal: Ernst Jünger and Germany’s 20th century 

The German author of Storm of Steel was the greatest writer to come out of the trenches of World War I. It’s almost exactly a century since he first saw front-line action.

Jünger in the trenches: the front cover of the French edition of the War Diaries (Carnets de Guerre, published by Christian Bourgeois Editeur; 2014)

It was the abrasive but intoxicating prose of people like Jünger that contributed most to the tone of post-World War I society, and gestured suggestively towards the shape of things to come.

Afternoon. Picked up our iron rations. Had a medical examination for venereal disease.”

So began the First World War diaries of the 19-year-old Ernst Jünger, an inauspicious start for a writer who went on to produce Storm Of Steel (1920), the novelized autobiography that is nowadays regarded as one of the best books about combat ever written. 

More than any other conflict, the act of remembering the First World War has been shaped by the novels, poems, diaries and letters produced by the people who were actually there. Indeed it is hard to imagine a commemoration of the war that is not at the same time a commemoration of war writing.

Storm of Steel nevertheless seems to be at odds with what we expect Great-War writing to be. Unflinching in its portrayal of human suffering, morally ambiguous in its attitude to violence, it’s very different to the outrage, pacifism and pity expressed by the likes of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon or Robert Graves. 

However it wasn’t the readers of the war poets who ended up running European society in the decades that followed the “war to end all wars”.  It was the abrasive but intoxicating prose of people like Jünger that contributed most to the tone of post-war society, and gestured suggestively towards the shape of things to come. 

From Storm of Steel right through to his science fiction novels of the post-1945 period, Jünger’s works recognized the role of machines and mass mobilization in shaping the modern world, and pointed prophetically towards the society of high technology and mass coercion in which we now live. He lived to the ripe old age of 103, generating a century’s worth of fiction, theoretical prose and diaries, much of which seemed far removed from the militarism of his youth. However Jünger never made any apologies for his early radicalism, and his heritage remains deeply divisive. Even today, it’s difficult to publicly declare a love for Jünger without immediately adding that it’s the literature you’re attracted to, not the politics. 

Born into a middle-class family in Heidelberg in 1895, Jünger ran away to join the French Foreign Legion at the age of 17, only to be bought out at great expense by his father. He volunteered to join the German army immediately on the outbreak of the First World War, and after several months of training was sent to the front just after Christmas 1914. He was one of those rare soldiers who actually survived nearly four years on the Western Front, despite being seriously wounded several times and enjoying innumerable lucky escapes. Awarded the Iron Cross and the Knight’ Cross, he ended the war as the youngest ever recipient of the Prussian military’s highest order, Pour le Mérite (popularly known as the Blue Max).

Shrapnel bursts

Jünger kept a diary throughout the war, recording events straight after they happened, frequently scribbling page upon page of calm, composed, highly descriptive prose recounting a violent, terrifying battle he had just taken part in. It's the inclusion of large chunks of these diaries that provides Storm of Steel with its unique immediacy. 

Jünger rewrote Storm of Steel several times between 1920 and 1934, refining the style as he went, and it was the political climate of the 1930s, with Nazi sentiment at its peak, that turned the book into a best-seller. The diaries themselves were not published in their original, unadulterated form until autumn 2010, twelve years after the author’s death. 

Sent to the front line in April 1915, Jünger was initially quite flabbergasted to discover that so much of modern warfare was fought at long range by heavy armaments. “It was quite unlike what I had expected”, he wrote in the aftermath of his first battle, at Les Éparges. “I had taken part in a major engagement, without having clapped eyes on a single live opponent.” Despite a front-line existence spent in constant danger of sudden death from shrapnel bursts or sniper fire, Jünger’s first experience of genuinely close combat didn’t come until June 1917, when his scouting mission in no-man’s land encountered an enemy raiding party. “These moments of nocturnal prowling leave an indelible impression. Eyes and ears are tensed to the maximum, the rustling approach of strange feet is an unutterably menacing thing... The encounter will be short and murderous. You tremble with two contradictory impulses: the heightened awareness of the huntsman, and the terror of the quarry.”

Compare this with the rather more pragmatic enthusiasm for night patrolling expressed by Robert Graves in his memoir Goodbye to All That, published in 1929: “My best way of lasting through to the end of the war was to get wounded. The best time to get wounded would be at night and in the open… Best to get wounded, therefore, on a night patrol.” 

Storm of Steel is far from being an exercise in literary machismo: Jünger is quite honest about what it is like to feel terror, to run aimlessly like an animal when under fire, or to feel pity for the enemy soldier you have just shot. However he is also frank in describing the deranged state of elation that comes from experience of combat.  The point for Jünger was that the experience of war was uniquely intense; it provided men with a spiritual dimension that peacetime activities could not. 

“As we advanced, we were in the grip of a beserk rage”, he wrote of the German offensive of March 1918. “The immense desire to destroy that overhung the battlefield precipitated a red mist in our brains. We called out sobbing, and stammering fragments of sentences to one another, and impartial observer might have concluded that we were all ecstatically happy.” 

March 1918 was the one major offensive that Jünger took part in. The experience of jumping into enemy trenches and shooting enemy soldiers at point-blank range is described in stark detail. Indeed March 1918 was a turning point for Jünger, unleashing a “stunning” degree of violence that “had taken me for the first time into the depths of something that was more than mere personal experience… It was an initiation”.

Such ideas found further expression in War as Inner Experience (1922), a pseudo-philosophical glorification of combat and the new warrior caste it had produced. Such writings caught the mood of a German post-war society that couldn’t come to terms with the enormity of defeat. Many Germans believed that, far from losing the war, their army had been “stabbed in the back” by republican politicians in Berlin, eager to reach peace with the Entente powers in order to further their own revolutionary ends. 

Conservative revolution

Jünger had witnessed the collapse of the German army in person, and he knew very well that the stab-in-the-back theory was a right-wing invention. He nevertheless went on to argue that the shame of post-war Germany could only be redeemed through a renewal of its militaristic traditions. “The one thing we have left is the glorious memory of the most magnificent army that ever existed”, he wrote in the introduction to the first edition of Storm of Steel. “To nobly preserve this memory in our breast in this century of moral atrophy and denial is the proudest duty of all those who fought for Germany’s salvation”. 

Views like these were shared by a wide spectrum of war veterans, conservative politicians, and also by new social forces such as the nascent National Socialist German Worker’s Party, struggling to find a following under the leadership of Anton Drexler and his protégé Adolf Hitler. 

Jünger was a leading voice of what became known as the “conservative revolution”; the body of right-wing German opinion that remained anti-liberal, anti-democratic, and in search of strong traditionalist leadership throughout the 1920s. For the conservative revolutionaries, political legitimacy came not from Reichstag elections, parliamentary procedure or courts of law, but from blood sacrifice, Nordic codes of honour and the will to power.

In 1932 he wrote a theoretical tract called The Worker, in which he attempted to describe what society should look like in the coming age of masses and machines. The warrior elite he had eulogized in books like Storm of Steel now re-emerged as a ruling class of dedicated technocrats, watching over a disciplined society of clearly defined social groups. The most totalitarian text that Jünger ever wrote, The Worker synthesizes left- and right-wing extremes in a way that nowadays seems both absurd and chilling in equal measure.

The philosopher Martin Heidegger was so impressed by The Worker that he organized a post-graduate seminar devoted to its study. When the Nazis came to power in 1933 they closed the seminar down, fearing that the society envisaged by The Worker was far more radical than their own authoritarian vision.

Marble Cliffs

Jünger himself never joined the Nazi Party, and turned down their offer to lead a new academy of German literature. For Jünger, Hitler was a vulgar plebeian; Goebbels simply a writer far less talented than himself. 

Jünger increasingly pursued a policy of passive, non-involved opposition which he called ‘inner emigration’. He devoted more time to foreign travel; holidaying in Dalmatia in 1934 with his younger brother Friedrich Georg. Jünger’s dry account of the sojourn is largely lacking in entertaining anecdote, save for the following observation: “I imagined the Croats to be similar to how we remembered them from the time of the Seven Years War – a race of shameless barbarians with long moustaches and dark looks. To our surprise, we instead found them to be a pleasant, conscientious and cultivated people.”

The geography of Dalmatia certainly inspired the mountain-backed coast and bleak hinterland described in On The Marble Cliffs, the novel in which a civilized coastal world (“The Grand Marina”) is increasingly threatened by a wild hinterland ruled by The Head Forester. Written in 1939, the novel was enormously popular in German intellectual circles because the Head Forester was seen as a metaphor for Adolf Hitler. Jünger later hinted that he had written the novel in response to Kristallnacht, the anti-Jewish pogrom of November 1938. Descriptions of the gruesome tortures committed in the Head Forester’s hut served as a premonition of Nazi atrocities to come. 

Rejoining the army on the outbreak of World War II, Jünger was assigned to the German military administration in Paris, where he enjoyed a stimulating social life in the company of intellectuals of both right and left – Celine, Cocteau and Picasso among them He also kept a diary: the first volume, Gardens and Streets, was published in 1942 but soon withdrawn due to its ambiguous, Francophile tone. The second volume, Strahlungen (“Radiations”; not published until 1949), was deliberately written with a post-war audience in mind: Hitler was ridiculed as a malevolent little devil called Kniebolo; the Gestapo were dubbed ‘lemurs’ due to their propensity to creep around at night. 

Jünger was linked to the officer circles responsible for the 1944 Stauffenberg plot to assassinate Hitler, but he somehow escaped punishment. “Hitler had a soft spot for me” Jünger subsequently declared, “and that was that”. 

Post-1945, Jünger was an odd paradox: an increasingly backward-looking conservative with an uncanny instinct for spotting future trends. Characters in his 1949 novel Heliopolis used a pocket device called a phonophore, a “universal communicator” that nowadays looks very much like an early premonition of the smartphone. The security-obsessed chief of a high-tech company featured in The Glass Bees (1957) is surely the spiritual ancestor of today’s corporate management elites.   

Acid house

Jünger was no more enthusiastic about post-war Germany than he had been about Nazism. Already in 1929 he had written that “late-liberalism and parliamentarianism were obsolete and alien to the German people”, an outlook that seemed to remain constant throughout his life.  He reveled in the ambiguity of having followers on both left and right, while truly belonging to neither camp. His main preoccupation was no longer the overthrow of liberal democracy but the challenge of remaining true to oneself while living under a system you can no longer change. His post-apocalyptic novel Eumeswil (1977) revolved around a character called the “anarch”, who cultivated a state of personal autonomy independent of the ideological demands of those in power.

Jünger was every bit the anarch himself, remaining aloof from society and politics while retaining the ability to play Germany’s oldest enfant terrible.  From 1951 onwards he experimented with LSD together with Albert Hofmann, the Swiss scientist who had invented it. Jünger’s book of drug memoirs Annähenngen- Drogen Und Rausch (1970) won him a new generation of counter-cultural friends. 

When German dramatist Heiner Müller visited Jünger in 1990 he found a gracious old man who smoked Dunhill cigarettes when his wife wasn’t looking and drank  “an awful lot of champagne; so much that I couldn’t keep up with him; and this was for breakfast.”

Heiner Müller’s concluding judgment on Jünger was that his problem was the problem of the twentieth century: war was an experience that preceded experience of women. Indeed, hardly a single well-draw female character emerges from the author’s entire eighty-year stint at the typewriter. 

Jünger has always been a writer for the boys; especially the boys who are looking for a rebel pack to run with. A brief trawl of the internet reveals that he today enjoys widespread intellectual credibility alongside a rather more disturbing fan-base that includes radical conservatives, neo-fascists and Nordic suprematists, together with people who have simply spent too much time listening to death metal. The problem nowadays is not so much Jünger himself, as those who would seek to re-appropriate his work.  

© Jonathan Bousfield

An earlier version of this article appeared in Jutarnji list