Most people, be they right-wing, left-wing or plain vanilla, seem to have some knowledge of Ernst Jünger, the German author who died in 1998. But aside from knowing that he wrote ”Storm of Steel” and cut a dashing figure in uniform, what do people know about him? In this paper I try to give my view of the man and his works, focusing on traits that might be controversial even to people who otherwise hold him in esteem.
André Gide said about ”Storm of Steel” that it was ”completely credible, for real, honest”. I can agree on that. This debut of Ernst Jünger’s, his western front memoir, can be read by all and sundry, even by heartfelt pacifists. As for Jünger himself he was something of a warlover but that doesn’t in any way cloud the narrative. It’s crystal clear, bordering on the pedantic, but as for action you can’t complain. Jünger didn’t sit idle during his three and a half years in the combat zone.
As a combat soldier Jünger was in his right element. In a Prussian, stiff-upper-lipped way he loved to fight. There’s no question about that. And that energy, that enthusiasm translates well into his first book. As for his other books on the first world war they don’t come together as well. Their ambition to interpret the battle experience in metaphysical terms might sound like a worthy enterprise, but the truth is it sometimes makes you cringe. Questions like, ”How does it feel to kill” and so forth are best left unanswered, at least in a forthright essay style. A tight, ”hard-boiled” narrative like that in ”Storm of Steel” answers most of what you need to know about battle, Jünger-style, so ”Feuer und Blut” and ”Der Kampf als inneres Erlebnis” are not essential reading. They are books for intellectual war-nerds, overstating their purpose.
In the 1920’s Jünger became a nationalist critical of the Versailles Peace Treaty, advocating a sort of military-style eternal revolution. Later on he left politics entirely, having lost out to the southern right wing faction, ”the München school of thought” (i. e. Hitler and his cronies) which had a more racialist, populist agenda. Details aside Jünger wasn’t too unhappy with having the Nazis in power, as they finally scrapped the Versailles Treaty and rebuilt the army to its former glories. – From the early thirties we find a remarkable piece of work by Jünger’s hand: ”The Worker” (Der Arbeiter), a curious mixture of analysis and prophecy. The growth of industrial sprawls and urban technotopias is here depicted with ill-concealed satisfaction. The vision is clear-sighted but as a reader you might ask, what does Jünger himself actually feel about it all? What does he feel about quaint old fountains and winding streets being replaced with parking lots and tower blocks, about traditional society giving way to this ”bulldozer-modernism”? Between the lines he actually seems to like it, seems to revel in this coming world of industrial armies led by The Worker, the new, cold, indifferent Homo Faber. Later on Jünger distanced himself from the all-too chauvinistic aspects of ”The Worker” – but the analysis itself is still valid, that of the Faustic spirit organizing and mobilizing the whole world and its resources just in order to make it profitable, dominating every single aspect of nature and transforming it into energy and goods.
The thirties was a decisive phase in Jünger’s development. It saw the drift from the old Jünger to the new, from the worshipper of force and violence to the quiet student of insects and plants. The books on war and pain, on technocracy and mobilisation of the whole of society could be seen as his Old Testament (he did so himself once) while the post-war books on beetles, tropical travels and Heliopolis-in-the-sun could be seen as his New Testament. And this dichotomy, this development from ”a tough guy” to a more mellow figure is fundamental for the understanding of Ernst Jünger. I shall return to draw some more conclusions on this, but as for now it can be said: the transition from Old to New, clearly an apalling change of attitude in itself, was made possible by the language, the style and the high level of abstraction and reflectiveness in his works. He could live through the transformation, could endure the changes in attitude because of the many-faceted nature of his works. They were not simple pamphlets, they were ambiguous works of art. He was a true German thinker in that he tried to get to the core of each phenomenon. He never took the easy way out, never resorted to the common sense way of thinking. And the advanced way of expressing himself thus made it possible for him to say that he had been misinterpreted in the past, in case he was accused of fascist ideas. In this way he could go from Old to New, from dark to light while just washing his hands of the whole deal.
I have already mentioned ”The Worker”. Its theme of industrial landscapes, technocracy and engineering heroes could make you think of novels like Huxley’s ”Brave New World” and Zamjatin’s ”We”. So why didn’t Jünger just a write a science fiction novel on the themes in question, thereby creating a work of more lasting, symbolic quality? But Jünger wasn’t a fiction writer by then, he didn’t picture himself as one. But he more or less had to go in that direction in order to reflect the mood of the times, in order to freeley express what he felt about the world. The first step as a prose writer was taken by the short novel ”Storm” (1923), depicting a combat zone first lieutenant, his conversations and experiences. It’s a rather advanced piece of work, abounding in reflections and clever observations; the trench scenery serves as a framework for ”everything under the sun”, everything that the author deemed fit to tell about in this jewel of a book.
More free form improvisations, in typically pedantic Jüngerian style, was offered in ”The Adventurous Heart” from 1929, with its memories, dreams, nature studies and stories, all of it clever and eye-opening, studied and, in a way, breath-taking – breath-takingly original in a both everyday and metaphysical way. He was both a down-to-earth scientific obeserver and a mystic with an en passant far-fetched interpretation of the cosmos. Some traces of the solider-writer and Arbeiter-author can be found here but mostly this is a Jünger pointing ahead to future vistas, future playgrounds and future haunts, embodied in the southern travels he begun at this time: Dalmatia, Italy, Spain and South America were his destinations. From tender age he had collected beetles and the interest for plants and ”things Linnéan” went with the territory. Even during his trench days he had collected coleoptera and noted geological traits and horticultural details around him – and now, slowly and with the guidance of his poet brother Friedrich Georg Jünger, he was led from a vita activa to a vita contemplativa.
In practical terms this was shown in the mid-to-late thirties when Ernst Jünger left Berlin, having respectively turned down an offer of becoming a Nazi member of the Reichstag and a seat on the Goebbelsian Deutsche Akademie der Dichtung. Jünger was happy to live with his family in an old parsonage in Kirchhorst outside Hannover, where he lived when war broke out in 1939.
As I’ve tried to show you Jünger had his Kehre these years, going from a nihilist to a more life-affirming point of view. Then again, the goody-good, ”hippie” traits shouldn’t be over-emphasized. He was still a traditionalist and conservative, still an officer in the Army Reserve. The traditional, metaphysical and slightly pagan/slightly Christian strains in ”On the Marble Cliffs” are also enough to render him ”fascist” in the eyes of a scholar like Thomas Nevin (q v ”Ernst Jünger and Germany – Into the Abyss”, 1997). And this might be a touchstone of Jünger’s originality, of the difficulty to peg him down as this-or-that. I mean, the textbook view of Jünger held even by conservative observers usually sounds like, ”Then Nazism came and it was Bad, but Jünger was against it so he was Good”. Now if you’re a staunch liberal and modernist like the aforementioned Nevin, then you hate both Hitler and Jünger, the latter because he opposes Hitler in the wrong way, not offering the trade-mark resort to Democracy, Free Trade and Tolerance. Liberals seem to hate Jünger because of his mystical side, his esoteric leanings in both ”On the Marble Cliffs” and later novels like ”Heliopolis” and ”Eumeswil”. They are too obscure, too discomforting to a transparent world view, a creed within the pales of Darwin, Freud and Marx.
We needn’t stay on the left to find voices critical of Jünger. I have no names to reel of here but I have a slight impression of people on the right being uncomfortable with the name of Ernst Jünger. In the literary and philosophical canons aired among "radical conservatives" I seem to find, concerning German names, a lot of Spenglers, Schmitts and Nietzsches, while the monicker ”Ernst Jünger” is conspicuously absent. And that, I guess, has got to do with him being a mystic and an esoteric, always going for the hidden meaning in natural phenomena, poetry and philosphy. But if the Right is going to conquer and persevere it has to have some metaphysical foundations, whether they be Christian, pagan or Jüngerian. Economism and HBD, political science and epistemology just aren’t enought to build a consistent world view on.
To fight the darkness within you isn’t easy. Or the darkness around you for that matter. You don’t go from worshipping Death to worship Life in the wink of an eye. The world war two diary of Ernst Jünger (”Strahlungen”, some 1000 pages) is a journey to the heart of darkness, sprinkled with that ever present light in the form of nature’s healing qualities, the solace of art and the company of good friends. If you find yourself in Dark Times you have to suffer through it, let the crisis reign before it can be defeated. Jünger served in the Nazi German Army most of the war, treading on the fringes of the Stauffenberg conspiracy, visiting the Eastern front at the time of Stalingrad and walking around in Paris and visiting Braque and Picasso and Parisian high society, dining in La Tour d’Argent while the people were starving. He wasn’t blind to the world of concentration camps and chambers of torture, to the suffering and misery; we get that too in his diary. But that doesn’t count in the eye of the PC critic who can only be enraged at certain passages capturing the allure of war, like when the author is standing on top of Hotel Majestic, seeing a group of bombers approaching in the sky, catching the fiery bursts through the glass of bourgogne he holds in his hand. Clearly a breech of the code that says war should only be caught in dull brown, black and grey tones.
Jünger was a sort of militarist, he adored the world of uniforms, organization and heroism which is the army life. How odd then – or how fitting, you choose – that his son Ernstel at the end of the war is sentenced to combat duty because of some snide remarks against Hitler. And, finally at the Italian front in 1944, Ernstel falls in combat. He was weak from his previous prison term and hadn’t had much soldiery training, so this death of his was more or less an execution. This hit Jünger in the nerve, in the essence of his being. His post-war diary always mentions how he commemorates the death-day of his son. There’s pain in those lines.
Pain and suffering and redemption: this was the time for Ernst Jünger’s New Testament, remember. Without becoming outright Christian (although he converted to Catholicism at the end of his life, in secret) there is an authentic, heartwarming sense of spiritual belonging, of metaphysical goodness, of more or less Christian creeds in his 1949 science fiction novel ”Heliopolis”. In this future city-state we find political intrigue and power struggles, essay-like reflections on art, history and mythology, but above all there’s the ambient light, the approprately named City of the Sun where it all takes place. Its lush and fecund surroundings truly catches the reader, makes a memorable scenery for all that the author has to say – which is, as always, a lot.
The post-war Jünger fought for a creed, a system of belief, a system that became a sort of tapestry of life, traditions and the joy of being here right now. Nihilism and atheism was his prime enemies, as seen in the essay ”Über die Linie” (1950). There he talks about the neccesity ”to seek out the oases around which Leviathan circles in anger”. If we find our essence, our true self in our own being, within us – then nothing can touch us. If we just abandon Titanic before the collision, then we can seek out our tropical island and watch the fall of civilisation in peace and quiet, in relative safety. That was one of the themes of his essay ”Der Waldgang” from 1951. The message isn’t exactly original – but it’s there and it’s centered on the individual. Unlike Carl Schmitt and Oswald Spengler the post-war Jünger doesn’t resort to ”meta-narratives”, to sociological and other explanations. He boils down everything to the person, the ”I”. The true existensialist.
And so, to sum it all up: beyond his rightist leanings, his traditionalist outlook you could call Ernst Jünger a solitary figure, a writer and thinker beyond cathegory. In other words, a Great Writer and a classic. He was up for Nobel Prize considerations several times but was, of course, dismissed every time for political reasons. The Swedish Academy spokesman Per Wästberg admitted as much.
Jünger and his works are beyond cathegory. But he’s an exciting read, he challenges you intellectually. Whether they are translated into English or not the central works in my view are ”The Adventurous Heart”, ”Eumeswil”, ”Heliopolis”, ”On the Marble Cliffs” and his diaries from world war two and post-1965 respectively. The latter is called ”Siebzig verweht” and consists of five volumes.
A Man of the Right