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…