Lunches in the Maelstrom

Ernst Jünger on horseback with German troops, Paris, 1941
Rue des Archives/Bridgeman Images
Ernst Jünger (on horseback) with German troops, Paris, 1941

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Some writers become imbued with the charisma of a history, well beyond the charisma of their writing, and one of these is Ernst Jünger. This was partly because he lived through the entire experiment in historical mayhem produced by the European twentieth century—he was born in Heidelberg in 1895 and died in 1998, at the age of 102. But the mystique he enjoyed and cultivated was really a product of early youth. Jünger ran away from school to join the Foreign Legion in 1913, and the following year enlisted in the German army to fight in World War I. He served with distinction on the Western Front, a landscape of spectral horror that he evoked in his first and best book, Storm of Steel, a celebrated memoir composed of raw chunks of close-up, uninterpreted detail whose emblem might be the corpses he depicted with such panache and such severity: “A headless torso was jammed in some shot-up beams. Head and neck were gone, white cartilage gleamed out of reddish-black flesh.” “One man had lost his head, and the end of his torso was like a great sponge of blood.”

Storm of Steel was a marvel of detached observation in the midst of catastrophe: “Rank weeds climb up and through the barbed wire, symptomatic of a new and different type of flora taking root on the fallow fields.” But it was also embellished with mini arias that tended to describe a theory:

Grown up in an age of security, we shared a yearning for danger, for the experience of the extraordinary. We were enraptured by war. We had set out in a rain of flowers, in a drunken atmosphere of blood and roses. Surely the war had to supply us with what we wanted; the great, the hallowed, the overwhelming experience…. Anything to participate, not to have to stay at home!

It was a German version of the romantic malady Baudelaire had diagnosed and examined with more ferocity: la grande maladie de l’horreur du domicile. The nineteenth century, with its medicine and machines and positive thinking, always had a shadow disdaining it: the reactionary dandy. Jünger was just a belated incarnation of the type. But his preferred term for it was “chevalier,” which he smuggled into a passage toward the end of Storm of Steel:

There was in these men a quality that both emphasized the savagery of war and transfigured it at the same time: an objective relish for danger, the chevalieresque urge to prevail in battle. Over four years, the fire smelted an ever-purer, ever-bolder warriorhood.

In the postwar era, Weimar Germany was all jazz and delirious freefall, but a kind of conservative resistance was incubated in the febrile atmosphere by…


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