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The Anarch at Twilight

Fascists, as well as the revolutionary socialists, were obsessed by the twin ideas of mass movement and self-elected elites—fighting vanguards to replace the aristocracy of the ancien régime. Before the Great War, the French syndicalist leader Emile Pouget believed it was the duty of a small elite to lead into action the mass of “human zeros,” as he so charmingly put it. Democracy, he said, was not only “vulgar,” but it would gum up the revolutionary works. Henri de Man (Paul’s uncle) began as a socialist writer and ended as a collaborator of the Nazis. He believed in heroism, sacrifice, collective action, and… “a superior class.” He wrote that “no society is possible without an aristocracy.”7 Jünger thought so too. In “Der Waldgang,” an essay published in 1951 (!), he observed that democracy inevitably leads to mob rule (Pöbelherrschaft). What was needed was a new nobility (Ritterschaft), to overcome the leveling forces of a new collectivist age. But Jünger set his standards high. In a reversal of (Groucho) Marx’s maxim, he once famously said he was so elitist that no elite was good enough for him. His ideal is what he calls the Anarch, the spiritual aristocrat, lifted by his noble spirit far above the mob to a higher sphere of absolute freedom and autonomy.

This is a constant theme in fascistic or anti-liberal thinking: a hatred of bourgeois individualism on the one hand, and a yearning to stand above the masses on the other. In his prewar writings, Jünger flirted with the ideal of a militarized elite, something between the Freikorps and the SS, a vanguard of hard, technical warriors. At the same time, he was a more traditional German intellectual of the type that Thomas Mann portrayed in his Reflections of an Unpolitical Man, the high-minded aesthete, whose purity would be sullied by the merest whiff of practical politics. When Hitler allegedly offered Jünger a seat in the Reichstag in 1927, Jünger is said to have turned it down, with the remark that the composition of one verse was of more value than representing sixty thousand “idiots” in parliament.8

So when during the 1930s Jünger finally recoiled in disgust at what Hitlerism had caused, he retreated into two towers of the finest ivory: the disengaged world of letters and the higher echelons of the Wehrmacht. Jünger spoke of a select Ritterschaft within the army, which remained aloof from Hitler’s terror. And Gottfried Benn said that joining the German army was tantamount to “inner immigration.” A doubtful view, if one thinks what this fine body of men did on the Eastern Front. But it might have been true in Paris, where the poet-soldiers, or at least the more cultivated officers, were sent to flatter the French intelligentsia into submission. Jünger adored Paris, the jewel saved from the wreckage. Indeed, the Paris of Jean Cocteau and General von Stülpnagel was perfect for him. He was far more at home there than in coarse and thuggish Berlin. In Paris he could buy fine antiquarian books, fill his diary with elegant aphorisms, and indulge in little jokes at the Hotel Raphael about those ghastly Nazis.

Quite when he turned against the brown tide, and why, is not easy to pinpoint. Not before 1938, at any rate. Or at least not openly. In an interview with Der Spiegel in 1982 (when he received the Goethe Prize), Jünger said he still absolutely agreed with the annexations of Sudetenland and Austria. On the Marble Cliffs is usually seen as the first public expression of his distaste. It became a best seller, and was much admired by Stephen Spender, among others. Thousands of German soldiers carried it in their knapsacks. Spender visited Jünger in 1946 and had his copy signed. The novel is indeed full of disgust for the violence and destruction unleashed by the Chief Ranger and his barbaric Mauretanians. This Hitler-like tyrant and his brown-shirt-like hordes are out to destroy the fair land in the Grand Marina, descriptions of which are reminiscent of the Blood and Soil (Blubo) literature of the time: “…as if the graves had opened, the dead rose up invisibly. They are always near to us when we look upon a land we love, in which an ancient culture has its roots….”9

But more interesting in the light of Jünger’s subsequent career is the behavior of the narrator and Brother Otho. The narrator is an entomologist, like Jünger himself. A visit to Jünger’s house includes a tour of his impressive collection of rare beetles, all neatly pinned down in wooden drawers. Jünger once said he hated power stations, because they destroyed insect life. Brother Otho, like Jünger’s brother, the poet Friedrich Georg, composes phrases in light meter, aiming “to fix a fragment of this world’s mosaic like a stone mounted in metal.” As these two aesthetes reflect upon the meaning of life, high up on the marble cliffs, the lands down below are threatened by the Mauretanians: “The time was ripe for terror. In this respect man-made order is like the universe—from time to time it must plunge into the flames to be born anew.”

It is a fine poetic sentiment to be sure, but there is something repellent about such musings, even as millions are killed. Why on earth must the universe plunge into flames from time to time? And was retreat into higher spheres really the proper response? Was it truly so noble to be above it all? But then there is something Neronian about Jünger. In his Paris diary there is a famous description of Jünger, in May 1944, standing on the roof of the Hotel Raphael, a glass of burgundy afloat with strawberries to hand, watching Paris burning in a bombing raid. The beauty of the spectacle inspires him to compare Paris to “a flower impregnated with deadly pollen.” Still, Neronian or not, there could be little doubt about Jünger’s disdain for the Nazis. As with many cultivated Germans, this was partly a matter of class, in the British as well as the American sense of the word. The Nazis were so terribly vulgar.

The wonderful diaries of Friedrich Percyval Reck-Malleczewen are a perfect illustration of this attitude (even though “Reck” was by no means as aloof from the world as Jünger). Like Jünger, Reck deplored the collapse of the old order, although, unlike Jünger, he had never applauded the new one. He was no democrat either. And he, too, was a sworn enemy of materialism and a believer in aristocracy, “our little phalanx.” But sprinkled among his fits of rage at the terrible deeds of the Nazi thugs are sniffy remarks about Hitler’s resemblance to a headwaiter, or Goering’s shocking taste, only to be expected in “the son of a Rosenheim waitress,” or Goebbels as “the limping haberdashery salesman.” Hitler, wrote Reck, rising to his theme, was a “middle class antichrist.”10

But it would be unfair to Jünger to ignore remarks in his Paris diaries that showed he was more than a snob. He did say, on June 7, 1943, that he felt ashamed to be in uniform, after seeing Jewish girls wearing the yellow star in the Rue Royale. This was after he had enjoyed a stimulating conversation with Paul Morand about American literature over lunch at Maxim’s.

Jünger tended to shy away from the out-and-out collabos in Paris. According to his diaries, he bumps into Drieu La Rochelle from time to time, but finds him tiresome. Henri de Man puts in an appearance, but Jünger thinks him a corrupted apparatchik. Of Marcel Déat, rabid ideologue of the Action Francaise, he observes that too much striving for power at any price “coarsens the skin.” And Robert Brasillach, the Nazified journalist, does not appear in the diaries at all. I asked Jünger about this. “Well,” he said, “one didn’t read the newspapers, and I disliked the man. Because of his bad table manners, chiefly.”

Jünger felt more at home with aesthetes like Montherlant and Cocteau, with whom he could discuss de Quincey’s opium dreams. Some of his Parisian friends, such as Jean Paulhan, even had connections in the resistance. But, says Jünger, “One never mentioned that, of course. We only spoke of literary matters.” Was this circle his idea of a Ritterschaft? “Indeed it was. A true elite is never active. It exists for cultivated conversations in exclusive drawing rooms.”

So, disdain, disgust, and elegant retreat, yes. But did Jünger’s political views really change? I think less so than some of his admirers would have us believe. It is a sign of honesty as well as consistency that he included all his prewar writings in postwar anthologies.11 Well, all but one article, published in 1930, entitled “Nationalism and the Jewish Problem,” of which, quite properly, he felt ashamed. All the rest he continued to regard as important. If one compares the postwar novels and essays with the older work, one finds that Jünger’s vision of the world remained essentially unchanged. He is still obsessed with the mechanical “titanic” age, which wiped out the old order, with all its values and virtues. A loyal disciple of Nietzsche and Heidegger to the end, he still frets about the nihilism of modern man. And he continues to loathe the leveling vulgarity of liberal democracy. When a plan to name a school in Germany after Heidegger came to nothing, Jünger wrote a letter to congratulate his old master on the absence of his name. “If we lived in ‘normal times,”’ he wrote, “the school would have borne your name.” One shudders to think what normal times would be in a Jüngerian Germany.

There is, however, one difference between Jünger’s postwar and prewar writings: what could still inspire occasional bursts of enthusiasm before the war—the new orders of technical samurai, etc.—filled him with despair after the war was over. He has an explanation for this, given in his Spiegel interview. He compared his earlier enthusiasm to being in a football match where you get carried away by the excitement, even if football does not interest you in the least. “The same thing happens,” he explained, “when I step into a political system. I have a weakness for systems of order, the Jesuits, for example, or the Prussian army, or the court of Louis XIV.” The thing about his prewar writing is, however, that he took a certain aesthetic pleasure in the spectacle of collapsing orders too.

But Jünger has also offered another explanation for his apparent change of attitude. Memories of Langemarck had still offered him visions of old-fashioned heroism. As he put it in his Spiegel interview: “The last real war was the First World War.” Then he still believed that man was stronger than matter. But now we know that “the technician has won and the old grades have dissolved.” The soldier, in Jünger’s view, ceased to be a warrior. Heroism no longer had a place in the “titanic wars” fought by industrial armies of technical workers.12 “When I’m called a glorifier of war,” Jünger said, “I do not disagree. Homer, after all, was a glorifier of war too, as were thousands after him.”

War as a destroyer of what Edmund Blunden called “degree” is a fearful thing to any conservative. Blunden wrote an elegiac book about England called Cricket Country in 1944. War, he worried, would damage the “harmony of life,” by which he meant the “principle of grades of society….” Jünger was concerned about this too, but the main source of his anguish was the loss of soldierly virtue, of honor. Jünger not only hates nuclear power for its threat to his beloved beetles. He hates it because it has removed the last vestiges of chivalry from war. The atom bomb, he has argued, erroneously alas, made obsolete “real wars,” where man fights man, and heroes die with the Deutschlandlied ringing in their ears.

One would expect this nostalgia for manly wars to appeal mostly to conservative romantics—Winston Churchill shared Jünger’s regret about the bomb. In fact, however, this side of Jünger also appealed to the Communist playwright and Brecht devotee Heiner Müller. Müller quoted Jünger in his argument that we must “restore meaning” to war. War “is the last refuge of what we call human.” 13 The bomb, like capitalism, is a product of rationalism, resulting in nihilism and industrial death. Like Jünger (and Nietzsche, Heidegger, T.S. Eliot, etc.), Müller is haunted by the idea of a spiritual void in modern man. Communism provided an answer. But since the iron curtain disappeared, “man has been delivered defenseless to the machine world.”

This theme runs through everything Jünger has ever written, during the Weimar Republic, during the war, and ever since. Müller’s (and Brecht’s) liking for Jünger is no accident. For Jünger is intellectually, or perhaps one should say spiritually, much closer to the Communists than to the mostly liberal writers of the Federal Republic. Even his utopianism has a familiar Bolshevist ring. In his essay “Peace” (“Der Friede”), written during the war but published after 1945, Jünger constructed a blueprint for the future world state. National democracies, he said, would be “overcome.” Technical problems—industry, housing, transport, trade—would be solved by an authoritarian world state. But the state would be inspired by a higher faith, transcending materialist concerns, a faith whose seeds were sown by the sacrifice of soldiers, and whose spiritual reservoir was still to be found in the nobility and Geist of the German people. In this essay, Jünger makes the rather astonishing remark that it took “courage to remain a German” during the war, a great deal more courage, that is, than was shown by the likes of Thomas Mann or Marlene Dietrich, who stood on the other side as German cities were flattened. (That such writers as Alfred Döblin and Lion Feuchtwanger had no choice in this matter, Jünger tactfully leaves unsaid.)

Living in the Federal Republic of Germany for almost fifty years has dulled Jünger’s taste for Utopia, and his novels more and more read like elegies. But his line on machinism, titanism, and the spiritual void has never wavered. Aladdin’s Problem, published in English for the first time last year by Marsilio Publishers, proves this point. Aladdin’s problem is the vacuousness behind the absolute power of modern man. Aladdin is the ultimate Arbeiter, omnipotent and without soul.

The hero of the story is a man rather like the author himself: Friedrich Baroh, a melancholic old soldier of aristocratic pedigree (four ancestors received the Pour le Mérite), disillusioned with the emptiness of modern materialism. He served in the East German army, a grim experience only made tolerable by his friendship with a like-minded young captain, whose build and demeanor were those of a proud horseman who could only regret the day the cavalry dismounted. Their conversations are rather like those Jünger recorded in his Paris diaries, between the author and von Stülpnagel, say, or the causeries of the narrator and Brother Otho in On the Marble Cliffs: cultivated, detached, above it all. Baroh defects to the West but not because he believes in freedom—“I am no liberal—at least not in the sense that people have to get together and vote on the matter.” A man “with a good mind will realize his potential in any regime.” A doubtful view, but one that might occur from the perspective of a very high ivory tower. Like all Jünger’s heroes, Baroh is an Anarch.

Westward, at any rate, he goes, there to get married and find employment in his uncle’s funeral business. The business grows into a huge, international enterprise, a bizarre caricature of modern corporate life. The fact that the nature of the business is death leads to a philosophical paradox which opens the way to much Jüngerian musing. For the business itself is meaningless, even nihilistic, but at the same time, “Culture is based on the treatment of the dead; culture vanishes with the decay of graves….” In a sense, then, Baroh’s business—of building a gigantic necropolis in Turkey—is God’s business. But we live in an age when

titanic forces in mechanical disguise are supplanting the gods. Wherever Zeus no longer rules, crown, scepter, and borders are becoming senseless; with Ares, the heroes are making their farewells; and with Great Pan, nature is dying.

There is really only so much of this one can take, however polished the prose, for Jünger pushes his line with the drilling insistence of an old club bore. And he has done so in book after book after book. At one point in the story Friedrich Baroh observes that 1888, the Year of the Three Emperors, marked “the onset of the labor pains of Titanism, the ahistorical era. That year, Nietzsche decided to build his work ‘toward the catastrophe.”’ It is in precisely that year that the second novel under review, first published in Germany in 1985, is set.

Paris, 1888. The machine age is upon us. The main, aristocratic characters are exhausted, out of harmony with the world, at the end of their tether, born a century too late. Captain Kargané, a naval officer who believed that “something irretrievable had been lost with the sailing ships,” is trapped in a loveless marriage with a bored and voluptuous countess, who amuses herself with young actors. The captain seeks solace in the Levant, but there too, “the last hour had unmistakably sounded; the triumphal march of universal platitude could no longer be checked.”

Ducasse, the decadent scion of an old family, “would have been more at home in the previous century, as the friend of princes who reveled before the deluge.” Now, in the soulless age of steam and light, he is reduced to being a mischievous arbiter of elegance at the doubtful tables of rich strangers. He contrives to arrange a tryst in an exclusive house of pleasure between the bored countess, mentioned above, and Gerhard, a young German dreamer sent to Paris to complete his sentimental education. A horrible murder follows and Inspector Dobrowsky enters the scene, a technical man, an Arbeiter, who “wore suits from the rack, impossible neckties, shirts and collars upon which the lye from laundries had tested its causticity.” Dobrowsky “had one of those faces which have become more common since the invention of the railroad: many faces leave their traces in it and become anonymous.”

This seemed an odd sentence: many faces leave their traces…. So I checked the German original. What it really says is “many races leave their traces….” Quite a difference. And it only shows, yet again, how at the core of Jünger’s melancholy philosophy lies the monumental snobbery—social, intellectual, racial—of the Anarch. Naturally, the mongrel Dubrowsky turns out to be the only winner in the story. It is his age, after all.

But the novel ends with a minor restoration of harmony. A duel is arranged between the captain and the German dreamer. Gerhard’s second is a drunken Rittmeister, who, like the others (except the mongrel detective of course), was born a century too late. But the duel restores some of his old pride, the prospect of honorable death revives him: “He had shaved and for the first time in a long good while felt good about himself again.” But, alas, the duel is prevented at the last minute by the clever inspector, who arrives with a fire engine with clanging bells. Kargané then saves his honor by shooting himself through the heart.

Culture is based upon the treatment of the dead. It would perhaps have been more Jüngerian to say it is based upon the way we choose to die. Like a true veteran of Langemarck, Jünger always remained faithful to the death cult of his youth. As one of the official celebrators of that battle said: “Happiness lies only in sacrificial death.”14 It is a ghastly philosophy, which has done untold damage to mankind. Blinded by his Angst of the spiritual void, Jünger, and many people like him, has missed the most important point about machines: it is not machines that threaten life, but the crazy beliefs of the men who operate them. Skepticism is far less corrosive of honor than a surfeit of irrational faith.

Yet it was the irrational that attracted Jünger all his life: the intoxication of drugs, of revolution, of war. This does not mean he was responsible for the rise and Rausch of the Third Reich. But neither can one say, as he continues to do, that his prewar works merely reflected the times, like a literary seismograph. For Ernst Jünger was one of the people who helped to shape those intoxicating times. I asked him what had been his proudest achievement. He answered that some people felt satisfied with their work, but that he was not one of them. “All my works are but approximations of the highest, of the sublime. What I mean to say is, my books are approaches to the absolute.” Another word for the absolute is death.


An Exchange on Ernst Jünger December 16, 1993

  1. 7

    Sternhell, Neither Right or Left, p. 138.

  2. 8

    The story is quoted in a special issue of Yang, a Belgian literary journal, dedicated to Jünger, April–September 1992.

  3. 9

    On the Marble Cliffs, translated by Stuart Hood (New Directions, 1947), p. 32.

  4. 10

    Diary of a Man in Despair, by F. P. Reck-Malleczewen, translated by Paul Rubens (Macmillan, 1970).

  5. 11

    This was not true of Thomas Mann, who quietly dropped passages from his Reflections of an Unpolitical Man which were as gushing about soldiers gladly meeting their deaths in World War I as anything Jünger wrote on that subject.

  6. 12

    Curzio Malaparte used precisely the same imagery to describe the war on the Eastern Front in his dispatches for the Corriere della Sera, later collected in a book called Il Volga nasce in Europa.

  7. 13

    Müller makes these points in an interview in Trans Atlantik, July 1990.

  8. 14

    Theodor Körner, Bundeslied vor der Schlacht, quoted by George L. Mosse in Fallen Soldiers.

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