Thursday, February 14, 2008

A Memoir of Total War

Ernst Junger, who lived to a ripe old age of 103, was lucky to have gotten out of youthful manhood, judging from his memoir of the First World War, Storm of Steel. At the end of the book, he makes a tally and reveals that he was hit a total of fourteen times (leaving out "ricochets and grazes") in the course of the conflict, including 5 bullet wounds. He relates these injuries, as he relates most other information regarding the war, with a certain sang-froid, clinical in his assessment to an almost inhuman degree. Despite how one may feel about how Junger describes the conflict and the enthusiasm of men under fire (many see it as a glorification of war), Storm of Steel is a classic and harrowing first hand account of total war.


The German Junger was a controversial writer, politically to the right for most of his life, with a Spenglerian pessimism regarding the fate of man in the 20th century. Storm of Steel, his first published work (which he revised several times throughout his life) is an exhilarating, if curiously detached, view of trench warfare. The bloodlust which apparently characterized earlier editions has been largely expunged, still, for Junger, the 20th century was to have been an apocalyptic one, full of blood and violence, and in these he is in his element. The term "Homeric" comes up in the translator's introduction, and one does feel at times that we are with Achilles or Hector in the trenches. Walls of fire and thunderous shell-bursts transform the Belgian landscape into a vision of hell; warriors die valiantly, on their feet and never in retreat. A more apt comparison than Homer might be the Teutonic Valhalla, where warriors die a thousand deaths, to feast in the afterlife and return, reborn, to the fray.


In 1918, Junger received Germany's highest military honor, the honor pour le Merite (the Blue Max) for his leadership and heroism in battle. His honors were to provide some protection against the Nazis. After some anti-Hitler statements in the late 30's*, he was compelled to don the uniform again, serving as a kind of cultural attache or intelligence officer in occupied Paris. Bruce Chatwin's essay on Junger's life and work (see Chatwin's What Am I Doing Here) notes that as the Second World War wore on, Junger became disgusted at the perversion of the military ethic under the Nazis. It is noted that one of the rare instances when Junger seems to be truly ashamed to wear the uniform is when he sees three women walking down a Paris boulevard arm in arm, wearing the yellow star. Still, in his written work, the young gentleman who read Tristam Shandy in the muck and mud of the trenches, and who carefully picked through the finest wine cellars of occupied Paris in his middle-age comes across as fairly oblivious to the suffering of others.


Reading Chatwin's essay on Junger in the early 1990's compelled me to search out Storm of Steel. Once in the parking lot of a rare book shop in suburban Maryland, an austere and strange gentleman offered me his card after hearing me make inquiries about the book. Penguin finally issued a new translation of Storm of Steel in 2004. Ernst Junger was the author of more than 50 works, and was one of only a handful of German authors (Goethe included) who saw publication of his Collected Works while still among the living. He also enthusiastically pursued entomology (beetles to Nabokov's butterflies) and included hallucinogens amongst his enthusiasms. His novels On the Marble Cliffs, The Glass Bees, and Aladdin's Problem have all been translated into English. One day, I hope to find an English edition of his Parisian Diaries.

*Junger had also written On the Marble Cliffs, a grotesque fable reputed to have been anti-Hitler, but enjoyed Hitler's protection, even though he never became a member of the Nazi Party. Junger was also a peripheral (and unpunished) character in the unsuccessful "General's Plot" to assassinate Hitler.

2 comments:

  1. So who was the strange and austere gentleman in the parking lot?

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  2. Good question. He seemed as though he might have been a little too into the German military thing.

    Anyway, I try to stay away from strange gentlemen in D.C. area parking lots.

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