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An Aesthete at War

Jardins et Routes, Diaries, Vol. I: 1939-1940

by Ernst Jünger
Christian Bourgois (Paris), 254 pp., 60 francs

Premier Journal Parisien, Diaries, Vol. II: 1941-1943

by Ernst Jünger
Christian Bourgois (Paris), 319 pp., 56.10 francs

Second Journal Parisien, Diaries, Vol. III: 1943-1945

by Ernst Jünger
Christian Bourgois (Paris), 427 pp., 70.10 francs

The Storm of Steel (In Stahlgewittern) currently available in English.)

by Ernst Jünger, translated by B. Creighton
reprinted by Howard, Fertig, New York, 1975. (Jünger’s only work

Sur les Falaises de Marbre (Auf den Marmorklippen) published in 1947 by introduction by

by Ernst Jünger, The English translation of On the Marble Cliffs was John Lehmann, again in 1970 as a Penguin Modern Classic, with an George Steiner
Gallimard, Paris, 1942 (available), (both out of print)

Ernst Jünger: A Writer of Our Time

by J.P. Stern
Yale University Press

On June 18, 1940, Mr. Churchill ended his speech to the Commons with the words “This was their finest hour!” and, that evening, a very different character, in the gray officer’s uniform of the Wehrmacht, sat in the Duchesse de la Rochefoucauld’s study at the Château de Montmirail. Her uninvited guest was a short, athletic man of forty-five, with a mouth set in an expression of self-esteem and eyes a particularly arctic shade of blue. He leafed through her books with the assured touch of the bibliomane and noted that many bore the dedications of famous writers. A letter slipped from one and fell to the floor—a delightful letter written by a boy called François who wanted to be a pilot. He wondered if the boy was now a pilot. Finally, after dark, he settled down to write his diary. It was a long entry—almost two thousand words—for his day, too, had been eventful.

In the morning, he had discussed the risks of getting burned alive with a tank driver in oil-soaked denims: “I had the impression that Vulcan and his ‘ethic of work’ was incarnate in such martial figures.” After luncheon, he had stood in the school playground and watched a column of ten thousand French and Belgian prisoners file past: “…an image of the dark wave of Destiny herself…, an interesting and instructive spectacle” in which one sensed the “mechanical, irresistible allure peculiar to catastrophes.” He had chucked them cans of beef and biscuits and watched their struggles from behind an iron grille: the sight of their hands was especially disturbing.

Next, he had spotted a group of officers with decorations from the Great War, and invited them to dine. They were on the verge of collapse, but a good dinner seemed like a reversal of their fortunes. Could he explain, they asked, the reasons for their defeat? “I said I considered it the Triumph of the Worker, but I do not think they understood the sense of my reply. What could they know of the years we have passed through since 1918? Of the lessons we have learned as if in a blast furnace?”

The absent duchess had reason to thank the man who nosed in her private affairs. Captain Ernst Jünger was, at that moment, the most celebrated German writer in uniform. No catastrophe could surprise him since for twenty years his work had harped on the philosophical need to accept death and total warfare as the everyday experience of the twentieth century. Yet he tempered his assent to destruction with an anti-quarian’s reverence for bricks and mortar, and had saved the château.

Indeed, he had saved a lot of things in the blitzkrieg. A week earlier, he had saved the Cathedral of Laon from looters. He had saved the city’s library with its manuscripts of the Carolingian kings. And he had employed an out-of-work wine waiter to inspect some private cellars and save some good bottles for himself. Bombs, it was true, had fallen in the La Rochefoucaulds’ park. A pavillion had burned out, leaving in one window a fragment of glass that “reproduced exactly the head of Queen Victoria.” Otherwise, after a bit of tidying up, the place was just as its owners had left it. Moreover, Captain Jünger had other reasons for feeling pleased with himself.

The Maxims [of La Rochefoucauld] have long been my favorite bedside reading. It was an act of spiritual gratitude to save what could be saved. For properties of such value, the essential is to protect them during the critical days.”

Easier said than done! “The route of the invasion is strewn with bottles, champagne, claret, burgundy. I counted at least one for every step, to say nothing of the camps where one could say it had rained bottles. Such orgies are in the true tradition of our campaigns in France. Every invasion by a German army is accompanied by drinking bouts like those of the gods in the Edda.”

A junior officer remarked how strange it was that the looting soldiers destroyed musical instruments first: “It showed me in a symbolic fashion how Mars is contrary to the Muses…and then I recalled the large painting by Rubens illustrating the same theme….” How strange, too, that they left the mirrors intact! The officer thought this was because the men wanted to shave—but Jünger thought there might be other reasons.

I

These diaries—three volumes of them—have recently reappeared in France, where the translation of Jünger’s work is a minor literary industry. To English-speaking readers, however, he is known by two books—Storm of Steel (1920), a relentless glorification of modern warfare, and On the Marble Cliffs, his allegorical, anti-Nazi capriccio of 1939 that describes an assassination attempt on a tyrant and appears, in retrospect, to be a prophecy of the von Stauffenberg bomb plot of 1944.

Yet Jünger’s partisans—more French perhaps than German—claim for him the status of “great writer,” a thinker of Goethean wisdom, whose political leanings toward the extreme right have robbed him of the recognition he deserves. Certainly, the scale of his erudition is titanic: his singularity of purpose is unswerving, and even at eighty-five he continues to elaborate on the themes that have held his attention for over sixty years: He is—or has been—soldier, aesthete, novelist, essayist, the ideologue of an authoritarian political party, and a trained taxonomic botanist. His lifelong hobby has been the study of entomology: indeed, what the butterfly was to Nabokov, the beetle is to Jünger—especially the armor-plated beetle. He is also the connoisseur of hallucinogens who took a number of “trips” with his friend Albert Hofmann, the discoverer of lysergic acid.1

He writes a hard, lucid prose. Much of it leaves the reader with an impression of the author’s imperturbable self-regard, of dandyism, of cold-bloodedness, and, finally, of banality. Yet the least promising passages will suddenly light up with flashes of aphoristic brilliance, and the most harrowing descriptions are alleviated by a yearning for human values in a dehumanized world. The diary is the perfect form for a man who combines such acute powers of observation with an anaesthetized sensibility.

He was born in 1895, the son of a pharmacist from Hanover. By 1911, bored by the conventional world of his parents, he joined the Wandervogel Movement and so became acquainted with the values of Open Air, Nature, Blood, Soil, and Fatherland: already he was the expert beetle-hunter who spent many happy hours with his killing bottle. Two years later, he ran away to the Sahara and joined the Foreign Legion, only to be brought back by his father. In 1914, on the first day of war, he enlisted in the 73rd Hanoverian Fusiliers and emerged in 1918 “punctured in twenty places,” with the highest military decoration, the Croix pour le Mérite, an enlarged sense of personal grandeur, and in possession of a meticulous diary that recorded the horrific beauty of trench warfare and the reckless gaiety of men under fire. The Fall of Germany was thus the making of Jünger.

Storm of Steel made him the hero of a generation of young officers who had given all and ended up, if lucky, with the Iron Cross. Gide praised it as the finest piece of writing to come out of the war. Certainly, it is quite unlike anything of its time—none of the pastoral musings of Siegfried Sassoon or Edmund Blunden, no whiffs of cowardice as in Hemingway, none of the masochism of T.E. Lawrence, or the compassion of Remarque. Instead, Jünger parades his belief in Man’s “elementary” instinct to kill other men—a game which, if played correctly, must conform to a chivalric set of rules. (In a later essay, “Battle as Inner Experience,” he sets forth his views on the innate gratifications of hand-to-hand fighting.) Finally, you end up with a picture of the war as a grim, but gentlemanly, shooting party. “What a bag!” he exclaims when they capture 150 prisoners. Or: “Caught between two fires, the English tried to escape across the open and were gunned down like game at a battue.” And how strange it was to gaze into the eyes of the young Englishman you’d shot down five minutes before!

Even in his early twenties, Jünger presents himself as an aesthete at the center of a tornado, quoting Stendhal that the art of civilization consists in “combining the most delicate pleasures…with the frequent presence of danger.” At Combles, for example, he finds an untenanted house “where a lover of beautiful things must have lived”; and though half the house gets blown to bits, he goes on reading in an armchair until interrupted by a violent blow on his calf: “There was a ragged hole in my puttees from which blood streamed to the floor. On the other side was the circular swelling of a piece of shrapnel under the skin.” No one but a man of Jünger’s composure could describe the appearance of a bullet hole through his chest as if he were describing his nipple.

After the war, he took up botany, entomology, and marine biology, first at Leipzig, then in Naples. Like so many others of his generation, he was saturated by the garbled form of Darwinism as doctored for nationalist purposes. Yet he was too intelligent to fall for the cruder versions of the theory that led members of the German scientific establishment to condone the slaughter of Gypsies and Jews—recognizing, as he did, that any theory is also the autobiography of the theorist and can but reflect an “infinitesimal part of the whole.” His pleasures in biology tended toward the Linnaean classification of species—aesthetic pleasures that offered him a glimpse of the Primordial Paradise as yet untainted by Man. Moreover, the insect world, where instincts govern behavior as a key fits a lock, had an irresistible attraction to a man of his utopian vision.

By 1927, he was back in Berlin where his friends were a mixed bag that included Kubin, Dr. Goebbels, Bertolt Brecht, and Ernst Toller. He became a founding member of the National Bolshevist Caucus—a zealous, extremist political party that flourished for a while in late Weimar, negligible in its effect on history, though not without interesting theoretical implications. These so-called “Prussian Communists” hated capitalism, hated the bourgeois West, and hoped to graft the methods of Bolshevism onto the chivalric ideals of the Junkers. Their leader, Ernst Niekisch, visualized an alliance of workers and soldier-aristocrats who would abolish the middle classes. Jünger himself was the ideologue of the movement and, in 1932, published a book that was to have been its manifesto.

The Worker (Der Arbeiter) is a vaguely formulated machine-age utopia whose citizens are required to commit themselves to a “total mobilization” (the origin of the term is Jünger’s) in the undefined interests of the State. The Worker, as Jünger understands him, is a technocrat. His business, ultimately, is war. His freedom—or rather, his sense of inner freedom—is supposed to correspond to the scale of his productivity. The aim is world government—by force.

  1. 1

    For a description of Jünger’s “tripping,” see Albert Hofmann, LSD—My Problem Child (McGraw-Hill, 1980), chapter 7, “Radiance from Ernst Jünger.”

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