“History…it is still in some way a fantastic world, a world in which you enter only to subsequently leave.”
Ernst Jünger in the interview, 102 år i europas hjärta (102 Years in the Heart of Europe)
Imagine for a moment an iconic individual such as John Wayne and all that he represented in his distinctive swagger, his clipped speech pattern; or better yet, imagine the monosyllabic ‘Yep’ of Gary Cooper; or the steady gaze of a James Dean, hat cocked back, thumbs tucked behind the belt over the blue jeans; or imagine the medal-strewn, memory-plagued Audie Murphy; or the aw-shucks humility of Sergeant Alvin York. Pretty all-American, huh? Now consider another image: quiet, reserved, the intent face of a man who lived to be 102, who outlived the calamities of a century, its monsters and the monstrous, wrote about all of it in terse, unapologetic language in his journals or transmuted it into fiction, and who served in two world wars, earning his country’s top military decorations, including the equivalent of the Congressional Medal of Honor when he was twenty-three years old. In addition to all that writing he studied the sciences and contributed to entomology, the study of insects. The man is obviously not American; he is German. He is Ernst Jünger (1895-1998).
Odds are that if you do know the name you owe that knowledge to Storm of Steel (In Stahlgewittern, 1920), which remains controversial, not so much for its unflinching manner of conveying martial enthusiasm and fervor, which some readers can forgive since the book was written by a twenty-year old man who had managed to survive The Great War’s bloodiest engagements, but rather for the fact that Jünger had taken a philosophical stance to it. The youthful enthusiasm that some readers detect is no doubt a mix of nationalism, fear, adolescent hormones and bravado; but that is not what is frightening about his memoir. What is is that Jünger had accepted war; he was there and he hunkered down in the trench, knowing that he had no choice but to deal with it. Bitching and moaning would have served no purpose as men were dying left and right around him. Jünger miraculously survived, but he doesn’t accept it as a badge of honor, along with the decorations. The man had been wounded several times. Looking over his shoulder, he said that war “was an incomparable schooling of the heart.”
Readers, then and now, have read that line and interpreted it as glorifying war short of pulling the pin out of a grenade with the teeth, which John Wayne did in numerous films, but impossible to do in the real world. It is generally accepted – a tacit rule of etiquette – that it is bad form to talk about war, let alone consider it virtuous. The rule goes like this: men who have seen death and combat do not discuss it; they mumble and grumble, demur, and change the subject, because it is too painful. That might be true; but it is also considered gauche for someone to bring up the subject with someone who had lived through the hell because the simple truth is that discussing death is morbid, like having a conversation with a cannibal. You know they exist, but nobody wants to talk to them, though one might be curious about them. The other option is to presume that they are deranged, like Hannibal Lechter and his musings on fava beans and Chianti wine.
There is one other possibility: discourse, prefaced with remorse. The message is: War is bad. War is inhuman. War is Evil. Limiting ourselves to the war literature of World War I, there are plenty of novels that hammer home the horrors and inanity of trench warfare: Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (German, 1929), Dorgelès’s Wooden Crosses (French, 1919), Graves’s Goodbye to All That (British, 1929), and Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (American, 1929). Storm of Steel does none of that; it does not apologize for the narrator’s having been part of it, nor does it glorify war, in my opinion. In fact, it bludgeons the reader with unspeakable images and makes it very clear that sustained violence desensitizes combatants. But Jünger does not preface his experience; quite the contrary, he concludes that it was the formative experience of his life, and he is grateful for it.
I suspect that readers have had a hard time with this lack of remorse: it does not square with our perception and our understanding of what is a proper attitude and response to war, yet it must be stated that Jünger did not commit atrocities. He did not drink blood. I believe that the other reason readers have had difficulties with the man is that he was German; and all the more so since we know what came next, in 1939. Jünger did not criticize Hitler and many people have interpreted that lack of criticism as some form of approval. I suspect few people survived criticizing Hitler. Jünger is on record for despising and equating Hitler’s ‘Brown Shirts’ to street thugs. Was Jünger right-wing and conservative? I believe that he was for a time, as a person searching his way through possibilities.
Jünger did not believe that democracy was possible, based on his experience of the Weimar Republic, and he disliked parliamentary government, because he looked at the familial connection between the British, the Germans, and the Russians and concluded that if the lot of them had kept it all as a matter of business, the War would not have happened. He, like most Germans, disliked the Treaty of Versailles, and had suffered in the rampant inflation after the war. But right-wing and conservative does not mean that he supported Hitler. The best way to produce evidence for the man’s beliefs is to examine the man’s actions. In 1927 Goebbels, the future Reich Minister of Propaganda, had offered Jünger a parliamentary seat. Jünger declined the offer. He wrote: “I’d rather write one good poem than represent 60,000 idiots.” When Hitler became Chancellor on January 30th 1933, he was offered a seat in the Reichstag. Jünger not only refused, he left Berlin. The Gestapo descended on his house.
Was Jünger anti-Semitic? In On Nationalism and the Jewish Question (Über Nationalismus und Judenfrage, 1930) Jünger addressed ‘the question’ that all German-speaking intellectuals were discussing. He concluded that it was impossible for Jews to stay safe in Germany, because German culture had turned against them. He had hoped that Jews could assimilate into German culture, but Hitler’s rabid antisemitism would prevent it. Again, his actions speak: he refused membership in the Prussian Academy of Writers; insisted that the Nazi Party not publish any of his writings in their official newspaper, Völkischer Beobachter; refused to speak on Goebbels’s radio; and as Hilary Barr adds to the record: “he and his brother Friedrich Georg quit the ‘Traditionsverein der 73er’ (a veterans organization of the Hanoverian regiment they had served during World War I) when its Jewish members were expelled.” Jünger would novelize the Nazi ascent to power in On the Marble Cliffs (Auf den Marmorklippen, 1939). His role in the failed July 20, 1944 assassination attempt on Hitler remains unclear, although his secret essays that became the book The Peace had inspired the conspirators. Jünger knew all of them, but he had not participated. His son, however, did speak out against Hitler; he was arrested, detained, and then sent off to Italy where he was killed. After an investigation and upon Hitler’s direct order, Jünger was dismissed from the army. Jünger had been at the time a captain stationed in occupied France, where he spent his days talking to Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Jean Cocteau, and Bertolt Brecht. While in France, Jünger started to see the implementation of the “Final Solution.”
I have written a little over a thousand words as a preface to discussing one of Jünger’s works, Glass Bees (Gläserne Bienen, 1957). In the introduction to the New York Review Book Classic edition, Bruce Sterling praises the slim novella for its prescient descriptions of technology and robots. The novel is about a former cavalry veteran’s desperate search for a job in high-tech. Jünger’s concept of robots is very, very different than Asimov’s. His robots are essentially nanobots. The seemingly hapless Captain Richard is to be interviewed by Zapparoni, whom Sterling describes as “a hybrid of Bill Gates and Walt Disney.” I would suggest Steve Jobs and Rupert Murdoch. I agree with Sterling: “Jünger understands that technology is pursued not to accelerate progress but to intensify power. He fully grasps that popular entertainment comes with a military-industrial underside.”
Sterling is right, but I’d take it one step further. Jünger was a friend of Martin Heidegger; in fact, he co-authored Crossing the Line or Over the Line (Über die Linie, 1950). The book is a “dialogue” on nihilism. Their friendship and their shared conversations over Nietzsche are background music to The Glass Bees and to understanding Jünger’s position on technology. Jünger views technology as a seductive tool that those in power will use to determine morality. The seduction is that technology is forward progress and with it is encoded a higher purpose that requires the individual to subordinate his or her personal will. Technology’s illusion is that it creates leisure and luxury. In reality, it creates continuous obligation, continuous anxiety, continuous subordination, which Jünger says is a form of spiritual death, not freedom. Jünger had lived through the uses of technology, its improvisations, to kill soldiers and to automate genocide.
Jünger’s writings between two world wars speak to a “loss of values,” a lack of foundation for the individual in the world and in society. He turned to Nietzsche. It may not have been the best choice, but Jünger’s conservatism should not be confused with nostalgia. This was not a veteran who wished for the Prussian spiked helmet, bright plumes, and cavalry charge, but one who had seen that modern war had become a great motorway of death, where nobody questions the destination, although they know the fate of some of their fellow travelers. He is questioning technology as perpetual distraction without solving any existential or social problems. Were he alive today, Jünger might look out at the street and see all of us with our handheld devices and the homeless person on the corner, isolated and deprived, and ask how it is possible that technology enables unrelenting communication, yet cannot manage to solve the plight of one destitute person. Jünger was also decadent enough to imagine that technocrats would put a cell phone into the hand of the homeless person, too. The technocrat invents or deploys technology without thought to the consequences. Jünger’s example is rocket scientist Werner von Braun, who would say that his job was to build rockets and that it was the job of politics to decide where they landed. A technical society is potentially nothing more than a hive with mindless drones.
Ernst Jünger was a student of nature. There is even a scientific prize for the study of insects named after him: [in German] der Ernst-Jünger-Preis für Entomologie. His novel presents the glass bee, an insect known for its capacity for hard work, and for its hive culture and its hive mentality. We tend to think of “worker” as subordinate, lesser, and exploited. Marxist theory does not help here, with its use of the word, ‘Proletariat.’ Jünger does not see it that way: he returns instead to Greek mythology, the idea of ‘gods’ and ‘titans.’ In Glass Bees, he may view technology with suspicion, see it as the tool that controls the user, but he is nudging the reader: Zapparoni is the god, but you and I are the titans who have been usurped, forgetting that we are dormant, asleep, and powerless because we are asleep. Zapparoni is sinister because he displaces nature, offers seduction so real that it keeps others enslaved in an artificial world of technology and entertainment. The novel concludes with Captain Richard having to make a decision.
Jünger would outlive the Kaiser and Hitler, see Germany divided, and live to see it reunited. In his long life he would write about experiments with hallucinogenic drugs, pen more essays, and many more novels. Most Germans of his generation and those after him are conflicted between love and pride for their country and culture, and a sense of guilt over World War II and the Holocaust – die deutsche Schuld, the famous German guilt, but Jünger was different, a real rarity. He used the term ‘anarch’ in his novel Eumeswil (1977) to describe an individual aware of his ambivalent relationship with authority but who remains committed to facts and not ideas, to the concrete. The ‘anarch’ keeps that awareness alive, never buying into the illusions around him, or destroying himself by becoming a man of action, the anarchist. This sense of detachment is what horrified readers of Storm of Steel because it is misconstrued as psychosis or indifference, when in fact Jünger understood war as existential and not sociopolitical, as a liminal experience that takes the individual out of his deepest Self. Combatants may not speak precisely because the experiences beggar belief, or they do not want to confront what they saw or became out of necessity. Jünger was rare: he could speak because, as he admitted in his journals and interviews, he was not afraid of death.