Europe's oldest man of letters is claimed by both radical nationalists and supporters of European union. Daniel Johnson describes how a German militarist became a symbol of Franco-German rapprochement and how his intellectual journey has mirrored the 20th centuryby Daniel Johnson / March 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Suppose that achilles had not been punished by the gods for killing Hector, but had written the Iliad and Odyssey and much else besides. Suppose he had lived to be far older than Nestor. Now place him in the 20th century. That is Ernst J ünger. Eighty years after the Great War, and a dozen shrapnel wounds long since healed, he still waits for the coup de grâce.
When J ünger celebrated his own centenary nearly two years ago, younger Germans were surprised to learn of the presence among them of Europe’s greatest living man of letters. The second edition of his collected works to be published in his lifetime will include some 60 books: novels, treatises, essays, travelogues, diaries, memoirs. He spans the century from Bismarck to Kohl like no other man. For many on the left, he is an unreconstructed fascist; for liberals, he has never fully atoned for his literary legitimation of the authoritarian right at a time when the enemy was at the gate. Indeed, J ünger was as much despised in the Weimar Republic as he is in the Bonn Republic.
But though he is still often denounced, he has lately been rediscovered by the growing number of young conservative intellectuals who want reunified Germany to walk tall. Their J üngerian manifesto, The Self-Assured Nation, last year caused a commotion among the liberal intelligentsia. Yet, the inspiration of young nationalists is also feted by some supporters of European unity. Because his work has been more highly esteemed in France than anywhere else, he has come to symbolise Franco-German rapprochement. He was, indeed, the literary adornment of the Kohl-Mitterrand friendship.
Born on 29th March 1895 in Heidelberg, J ünger is among the last survivors of the generation to grow up in an older European community: the “concert of Europe” created at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and which fell apart with the German invasion of France and Belgium in 1914. J ünger and his friends volunteered to fight in that wicked August having just left school. Their initiation into adult life coincided with the first experience of industrial carnage. War really did make men out of these boys. It was all they knew, and most thought it was all they needed to know. Few of them would find anything untoward when, a generation later, their fellow Frontkämpfer and Führer re-enacted that carnage across the scorched earth of Europe.
Of all the writers to emerge from the Great War with their military virtues intact, J ünger was the most realistic in depicting the horror, squalor and random destructiveness of the Materialschlacht, and unrepentant in celebrating sacrifice and defeat. The defence of the lost outpost is the noblest fate he can conceive: faced with imminent annihilation, “man conducts himself, not for the sake of his preservation, but of his significance.” TE Lawrence or Gabriele d’Annunzio are naive nationalists by comparison.
Like Adolf Hitler, only six years older, and countless thousands of their contemporaries, J ünger found the war liberating and exhilarating. The comparison with Hitler is illuminating. In some respects, their experiences were so similar that one cannot help asking: why did J ünger not become a Nazi? And why was it that J ünger-who became a literary celebrity before Hitler was heard of-did not become the leader of a political party representing young war veterans? What did Hitler have that the more obviously talented J ünger did not have?
Both men were rebels who had escaped from bourgeois respectability. Hitler had fled from Linz to Vienna, and thence from the hated Habsburg dominions to Bismarck’s Reich, and a penurious freedom in Munich. J ünger had run away from school the year before to join the Foreign Legion, only to be hauled back from North Africa by his father. J ünger came from the Bildungsbürgertum, the educated upper middle class, and had just sat his Abitur (A levels) at the classical Gymnasium. On the outbreak of war he was thus quickly commissioned as a lieutenant in the 73rd Hanoverian Fusiliers, an elite regiment which had fought for the British at Waterloo. Hitler was the son of a minor Austrian customs officer, educated only at the technical Realschule. He had therefore joined a Bavarian regiment as a private soldier, and never rose above the rank of corporal. The social gulf between Hitler and J ünger was thus translated into one of military rank. J ünger was a company commander, responsible for the lives of his men, while Hitler was only a trench courier, one of the self-sacrificial NCOs whom J ünger recalls in his war books. In a society as militaristic as Imperial Germany, this was a vast difference. As president, Field Marshal Hindenburg patronised Hitler by referring to him as “the corporal” even as he was appointing him chancellor.
Death, at least, was democratic: J ünger and Hitler fought in the same battles, and for both, the Somme was decisive. During it, Hitler was wounded and spent several months back in Germany. In Mein Kampf he describes his shock at discovering how critical of the war civilians had become. In disgust, he returned to the front as soon as he had recovered; but the experience politicised him, reinforcing his sense of mission. It also sowed the seeds of the “stab in the back” legend, the belief that the German army had never been defeated but only betrayed by the politicians.
For J ünger, by contrast, the Somme was a revelation and a portent of the era to come: the technology of destruction would, he believed, give birth to a new kind of humanity, to which he would later give the name Der Arbeiter, “the worker.” In The Storm of Steel, his first and most celebrated war book, J ünger interrupts his meticulous account of trench warfare to evoke the meaning of the Somme:
“And it seemed that man, on this landscape, became different, more mysterious and hardy and callous than in any previous battle. The spirit and tempo of the fighting altered, and after the battle of the Somme the war had its own peculiar impress that distinguished it from all other wars. After this battle the German soldier wore the steel helmet, and in his features there were chiselled the lines of an energy stretched to the utmost pitch.”
Hitler’s ambition was to become a leader of these new men; to become, in other words, what J ünger already, effortlessly, was. Both men were decorated: Hitler was one of the few enlisted men to win the Iron Cross First Class; while J ünger, wounded 13 times, was awarded the highest of all decorations, the Pour le mérite. Again, these medals had subtly different meanings. For Hitler, it made possible his acceptance as a German: his sacrifice in the field obliterated the memory of his Austrian birth; it made him ordinary. For J ünger, it compensated for the loss of years he might have spent at university by making him extraordinary-“for if doctors and professors, for all their correctness, do not look askance upon the stamp of an official title, why should the soldier refuse a visible sign of his gallantry?” J ünger’s membership of the elite of the warrior caste separated him from all but a handful of the intellectual elite; and in the end, he preferred to belong to a minority of one.
Besides the bestselling Storm of Steel, J ünger also published in the immediate postwar period one of his most notorious tracts: Der Kampf als inneres Erlebnis. This title translates as “struggle (or battle) as inner experience,” and appears to have an affinity with Mein Kampf, which it predates by several years. But Hitler’s “struggle” is his first and foremost: with his (and Germany’s) countless enemies. His worldview is pitiless, but it is also wildly subjective; where it is not paranoid, it is essentially self-justificatory. J ünger is interested in the subjective experience of war of soldiers like Hitler, but only to describe them as cold-bloodedly as possible. He is not interested in defending the German cause or his part in it, nor in glorifying war as such, but in contrasting its irresistible might with human weakness. He describes two soldiers apparently admiring a shop window in Brussels, stacked with precious china; but when he overhears them, they are discussing the effect an artillery shell would have-far more magnificent than the display. From this he concludes that war will never die in these men’s minds, “for it is stronger than they are.” This mixture of anthropology, psychology and metaphysics is not political but metapolitical-an example of the Neue Sachlichkeit (“new objectivity”) of the early Weimar culture.
Away from the battlefield, J ünger’s path and that of Hitler diverged. He flirted with the Nazis after defeat deprived his vocation as a soldier of meaning and obliged him to adopt the despised profession of journalism. Twice he wrote for the Nazi newspaper, the Völkischer Beobachter. In September 1923, a few weeks after J ünger left the army and shortly before Hitler mounted his putsch in Munich, an article by him appeared there entitled “Revolution and Idea.” According to J ünger’s latest biographer, Thomas Nevin (Ernst J ünger and Germany: Into the Abyss 1914-45, Constable), this was a call for an authentic revolution inspired by a new idea (unlike that of November 1918). But it did not espouse any specifically Nazi big idea, and it was not followed up. In 1925 J ünger sent Hitler, just released from prison, inscribed copies of three books (one dedicated to der Führer). Two years later, Hitler asked him to stand as a Nazi candidate for the Reichstag; J ünger refused. Nevin argues that Hitler thereafter made up his mind to leave J ünger alone. “Nothing must happen to J ünger,” he reportedly said when there were calls for his arrest after his withering allegory on Nazi Germany, On the Marble Cliffs, appeared in 1939. Even after his dismissal from the Wehrmacht in 1944, when Jünger expected arrest and a house search which would have discovered his treasonable tract, The Peace, which he had been revising since 1941, Hitler did not permit it.
Under the Weimar Republic, J ünger moved in surprisingly varied literary circles; some of his friends, such as the communists Bertolt Brecht and Ernst Toller, the anarchist Erich Mühsam or the “national bolshevik” Ernst Niekisch, were anathema to the Nazis. But he met Nazis as well: he liked the party’s rare subversives such as Otto Strasser: there was talk of his founding a party with J ünger, but when Strasser fell out with the Nazis and went into exile, they lost touch.
Then there was Dr Goebbels. An admirer of J ünger as “the evangelist of war,” Goebbels had high hopes of recruiting this useful propaganda tool. But though J ünger was impressed by Goebbels’s theatrical rallies in Berlin, he found the content of the doctor’s rhetoric either banal or sinister. Goebbels, for his part, wrote off J ünger in 1929 after reading The Adventurous Heart: J ünger’s most experimental work to date and the first sign that he was putting “struggle as inner experience” behind him. “It’s a pity about this J ünger, whose Storm of Steel I have just reread. That is grand and heroic. Because a bloody experience lay behind it. Today he cuts himself off from life, and his writing is therefore becoming merely literary.” Goebbels thought J ünger too vain and too aloof to have political impact.
J ünger’s estrangement from the Nazis had much to do with his revulsion at their ever more extreme anti-Semitism. But was J ünger himself innocent on this score? In The Total Mobilisation, written in 1930, J ünger himself singles out for criticism Walter Rathenau, the capitalist who organised the German war effort and became foreign minister of the Weimar Republic, and Maximilian Harden, a celebrated critic of the Kaiser. Both were accused of being turncoats. Both were the targets of nationalist assassins. J ünger did not need to point out that both were Jewish. If Jünger never endorsed anti-Semitism during the Weimar years-“it is not a necessary part of nationalism,” he wrote-neither did he publicly condemn it.
But as the full horror of the Nazi campaign against the Jews unfolded during the 1930s, J ünger came to identify with them. He steeped himself in the Old Testament, visited and wrote about Jewish cemeteries, and during the war he rediscovered the Judaic roots of his own Protestantism by attending a Wehrmacht Bible study group in occupied Paris. In On the Marble Cliffs, he foresaw the horrors of the extermination camps (which did not yet exist in 1939) in a hideous passage of great power. But in his postwar reflections on tyranny, such as The Gordian Knot of 1953, he sees the Nazi crimes as an incursion of oriental or Asiatic norms into European life. Hitler is thus alien to German history, but still comparable to Frederick the Great, say, or the Roman emperors-a judgement which reflects his inability to loathe his fellow veteran with any passion. J ünger sees clearly the nihilistic amorality underlying the Third Reich, and is conscious of his own affinity to it; yet that very nihilism prevents him from condemning or expressing remorse in any but the most indirect way. Perhaps, as JP Stern argued a generation ago, the violence which made him so compelling a writer entered into his very language, numbing his moral sensibilities and denying him the distance necessary to criticise his own tradition. It was left to the literary generation after J ünger’s-that of Heinrich Böll and Günter Grass-to undertake the necessary work of mourning and restitution.
J ünger’s political views are both opaque and changeable, one reason why people of such diverse opinions are attracted to him. Take The Worker, his terrifying vision of the destiny of man under a totalitarian order, published in 1932 just before the Nazis came to power. Though often likened to contemporary dystopias such as Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, it was in fact a gigantic polemic against parliamentary democracy and in favour of a “worker’s state” based on planning. It appeared just as the last chancellor before Hitler, General von Schleicher, sought in vain to forge a corporatist alliance of business, trade unions and the army. If Schleicher had been permitted to set up a military dictatorship, as he wished, then Germany would have had, instead of Nazi totalitarianism, some such authoritarian corporatism. But J ünger was more radical than advocates of the corporatist Sandestaat, such as Othmar Spann, who were then influential in Mussolini’s Italy and Dollfuss’s Austria. Like his friend, the “decisionist” jurist Carl Schmitt, J ünger wanted to look forward, not back beyond 19th century liberalism to a conservative utopia of pre-industrial estates. And in the context of 1932, “forward” meant totalitarianism on either the Soviet or the Nazi model. In the end, many Germans had to endure both. No wonder that after 1945 J ünger was reluctant to have The Worker reprinted in his collected works, and that he added his own gloss, a weighty appendix, to this uncharacteristically prolix text. I doubt whether Helmut Kohl read it before his cordial meetings with J ünger, but as a manifesto it is the antithesis of modern Christian Democracy.
Martin Heidegger, the leading German philosopher of the age, was the only one of J ünger’s intellectual peers who understood that The Worker was really intended, not as a manifesto, but as (in Schmitt’s terminology) a political theology. As such, the worker’s state was prophetic: not of the Nazi or communist German states, with which it superficially had much in common, but of the Federal Republic. If postwar West Germany worshiped at any altar, it was that of work. For Helmut Kohl’s generation, the “economic miracle” was an article of secular faith. Between the wars, J ünger’s archetypal figure was the Unknown Soldier; but the Worker-embodying the 20th century’s apotheosis of the impersonal, the objective, the detached-was more appropriate to the postwar era.
But for J ünger, as for others like him, the economic miracle quickly came to resemble a curse. He felt the need to revoke his metaphysical farewell to individualism. In 1951 he added a third metaphysical Gestalt, which a generation later was to prove prophetic of the Green movement. Der Waldganger, the Woodsman, is the individualist who resists and survives the hegemony of the Worker and whose inner freedom enables him to ignore the prevailing work ethic and to go his own way.
Heidegger’s works follow a similar path to J ünger’s: first welcoming the death and then the resurrection of individualism; first embracing and then turning away from the world of politics and technology. The two became friends and remained so till Heidegger’s death in 1976. Heidegger’s influence helps to explain why French intellectuals-upon whom Heidegger left such a mark-felt so at home with J ünger’s works after 1945.
The most obvious reason for J ünger’s reputation in France is, however, biographical. His period in Paris during the war enabled him to meet many of the leading writers there. His war diaries, Gardens and Avenues and Radiations, display an almost surrealist detachment from the turmoil which greatly appealed to the existentialist generation of Sartre, Camus and Malraux. At the opposite end of the political and emotional spectrum from the wartime writings of Simone Weil, J ünger, like Weil, captured the essence of occupied France. His favourite concept of désinvolture, the cheerful nonchalance of the intellectual aristocrat, seemed the appropriate response to a new and base form of tyranny. Above all, J ünger is a German who has reinforced the French view of what Marc Bloch called “an honourable defeat.” Not a good German, exactly, though he had been close to the anti-Nazi commandant in Paris, St ülpnagel, executed for his participation in the failed coup against Hitler. But a German soldier of a sympathetic type familiar from French history: “Napoleon would have made you a marshal,” François Mitterrand told J ünger when they met in 1984.
But the French president was guilty of an anachronistic assumption that glory meant more than nationhood. J ünger identified with the Prussian-German nationalism born out of the wars against Napoleon. He took up arms for the Third Reich partly because in the Wehrmacht he was safe from the Gestapo, but also because it would never have occurred to him not to fight the French. Only after he visited the Russian front and was confronted with the reality of the death camps did he grasp that the Prussian military ethos had been vanquished by Hitler’s all-consuming racial ideology.
John Keegan recently launched a scathing attack on J ünger as the apologist for two nations that suffered moral as well as military defeat in the war. “J ünger’s complicity in their shame, and his ability to elevate it to the plane of tragedy through tergiversation, makes him an ideal celebrant of the hollow friendship through which the two countries have chosen to rebuild their European standing.” This is a charge that should be answered: not by J ünger himself (at the patriarchal age he has now attained, he is entitled to let his life and works speak for themselves), but by his young German acolytes and perhaps also by others. If, as I have suggested, the interpretation of J ünger as a good European endorsed by Kohl and Mitterrand is at the very least highly selective, then it is time for a more sceptical reading of his vast output.