The Magazine

Ernst Jünger


Perhaps the most interesting, and definitely the most threatening type of writer, is the one who not only defies conventional categorizations of thought but also offers a deeply penetrating critique of those illusions many hold to be the most sacred.

Ernst Jünger (1895-1998), who first came to literary prominence during Germany's Weimar era as a diarist of the experiences of a front line stormtrooper during the Great War, is one such writer. Both the controversial nature of his writing and its staying power are demonstrated by the fact that he remains one of the most important yet widely disliked literary and cultural figures of 20th-century Germany. As recently as 1993, when Jünger was 98 years of age, he was the subject of an intensely hostile exchange in the New York Review of Books between an admirer and a detractor of his work. On the occasion of his one-hundredth birthday in 1995, Jünger was the subject of a scathing, derisive musical performed in the former East Berlin. Yet Jünger was also the recipient of Germany's most prestigious literary awards, the Goethe Prize and the Schiller Memorial Prize. Jünger, who converted to Catholicism at the age of 101, received a commendation from Pope John Paul II and was an honored guest of French President Francois Mitterrand and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl at the Franco-German reconciliation ceremony at Verdun in 1984.

Ernst Jünger was born on March 29, 1895. His father was an academically trained chemist who became wealthy as the owner of a pharmaceutical manufacturing business, finding himself successful enough to retire while still in his forties. Jünger's parents' politics seem to have been liberal, though not radical, in the manner not uncommon to the rising bourgeoisie of Germany's upper middle class during the pre-war period. It was in this affluent, secure bourgeois environment that Jünger grew up. Indeed, many of Jünger's later activities and professed beliefs are easily understood as a revolt against the comfort and safety of his upbringing.

It was while attending a boarding school in 1913, at the age of 17, that Jünger first demonstrated his propensity for what might be called an "adventurist" way of life. With only six months left before graduation, Jünger left school, leaving no word to his family as to his destination. Using money given to him for school-related fees and expenses to buy a firearm and a railroad ticket to Verdun, Jünger subsequently enlisted in the French Foreign Legion. Jünger had no intention of staying with the Legion. He only wanted to be posted to Africa, as he eventually was. Jünger then deserted, only to be captured and sentenced to jail. Eventually his father found a capable lawyer for his wayward son and secured his release. Jünger then returned to his studies and underwent a belated high school graduation.

Warrior and War Diarist

Jünger immediately volunteered for military service when he heard the news that Germany was at war in the summer of 1914. He was afraid the war would end before he had the opportunity to see any action. This attitude was not uncommon among many recruits or conscripts who fought in the war for their respective states. Because of his high school education, Jünger was selected to train to become an officer. Shortly before beginning his officer's training, Jünger was exposed to combat for the first time. From the start, he carried pocket-sized notebooks with him and recorded his observations on the front lines. His writings while at the front exhibit a distinctive tone of detachment, as though he were an observer watching the scene unfold. In the middle part of 1915, Jünger suffered his first war wound, a bullet graze to the thigh that required only two weeks of recovery time. Afterwards, he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant.

Young Jünger

At age 21, Jünger was the leader of a reconnaissance team at the Somme whose purpose was to go out at night and search for British landmines. Early on, he acquired the reputation of a brave soldier who lacked the preoccupation with his own safety common to most of the fighting men. The introduction of steel artifacts into the war, tanks for the British side and steel helmets for the Germans, made a deep impression on Jünger. Wounded three times at the Somme, Jünger was awarded the Iron Medal First Class. Upon recovery, he returned to the front lines. A combat daredevil, he once held out against a much larger British force with only twenty men. After being transferred to fight the French at Flanders, he lost ten of his fourteen men and was wounded in the left hand by a blast from French shelling. After being harshly criticized by a superior officer for the number of men lost on that particular mission, Jünger began to develop a contempt for the military hierarchy whom he regarded as having achieved their status as a result of their class position, frequently lacking combat experience of their own. In late 1917, having already experienced nearly three full years of combat, Jünger was wounded for the fifth time during a surprise assault by the British. He was grazed in the head by a bullet, acquiring two holes in his helmet in the process. In March 1918, Jünger participated in another fierce battle with the British, losing 87 of his 150 men.

Nothing impressed Jünger more than personal bravery and endurance on the part of soldiers. He once "fell to the ground in tears" at the sight of a young recruit who had only days earlier been unable to carry an ammunition case by himself suddenly being able to carry two cases of missiles after surviving an attack of British shells. A recurring theme in Jünger's writings on his war experiences is the way in which war brings out the most savage human impulses. Essentially, human beings are given full license to engage in behavior that would be considered criminal during peacetime. He wrote casually about burning occupied towns during the course of retreat or a shift of position. However, Jünger also demonstrated a capacity for merciful behavior during his combat efforts. He refrained from shooting a cornered British soldier after the foe displayed a portrait of his family to Jünger. He was wounded yet again in August of 1918. Having been shot in the chest and directly through a lung, this was his most serious wound yet. After being hit, he still managed to shoot dead yet another British officer. As Jünger was being carried off the battlefield on a stretcher, a British bullet killed one of the stretcher carriers. Another German soldier attempted to carry Jünger on his back, but the soldier was shot dead himself and Jünger fell to the ground. Finally, a medic recovered him and pulled him out of harm's way. This episode would be the end of his battle experiences during the Great War.

In Storms of Steel

Jünger's keeping of his wartime diaries paid off quite well in the long run. They were to become the basis of his first and most famous book, In Storms of Steel, published in 1920. In Storms of Steel differs considerably from similar works published by war veterans during the same era, such as Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front and John Dos Passos' Three Soldiers. Jünger's book reflects none of the disillusionment with war by those experienced in its horrors of the kind found in these other works. Instead, Jünger depicted warfare as an adventure in which the soldier faced the highest possible challenge, a battle to the death with a mortal enemy. Though Jünger certainly considered himself to be a patriot and, under the influence of Maurice Barres, eventually became a strident German nationalist, his depiction of military combat as an idyllic setting where human wills face the supreme test rose far above ordinary nationalist sentiments. Jünger's warrior ideal was not merely the patriot fighting out of a profound sense of loyalty to his country nor the stereotype of the dutiful soldier whose sense of honor and obedience compels him to follow the orders of his superiors in a headlong march towards death. Nor was the warrior prototype exalted by Jünger necessarily an idealist fighting for some alleged greater good such as a political ideal or religious devotion. Instead, war itself is the ideal for Jünger. On this question, he was profoundly influenced by Nietzsche, whose dictum "a good war justifies any cause," provides an apt characterization of Jünger's depiction of the life (and death) of the combat soldier.

Indeed, Jünger goes so far as to say there were winners and losers on both sides of the war. The true winners were not those who fought in a particular army or for a particular country, but who rose to the challenge placed before them and essentially achieved what Jünger regarded as a higher state of enlightenment. He believed the war had revealed certain fundamental truths about the human condition. First, the illusions of the old bourgeois order concerning peace, progress and prosperity had been inalterably shattered. This was not an uncommon sentiment during that time, but it is a revelation that Jünger seems to revel in while others found it to be overwhelmingly devastating. Indeed, the lifelong champion of Enlightenment liberalism, Bertrand Russell, whose life was almost as long as Jünger's and who observed many of the same events from a much different philosophical perspective, once remarked that no one who had been born before 1914 knew what it was like to be truly happy.

A second observation advanced by Jünger had to do with the role of technology in transforming the nature of war, not only in a purely mechanical sense, but also on a much greater existential level. Before, man had commanded weaponry in the course of combat. Now weaponry of the kind made possible by modern technology and industrial civilization essentially commanded man. The machines did the fighting. Man simply resisted this external domination. Lastly, the supremacy of might and the ruthless nature of human existence had been demonstrated.

Conservative Revolutionary

Jünger's writings about the war quickly earned him the status of a celebrity during the Weimar period. Jünger was at his parents' home recovering from war wounds during the time of the attempted coup by the leftist workers' and soldiers' councils and subsequent suppression of these by the Freikorps. He experimented with psychoactive drugs such as cocaine and opium during this time, something that he would continue to do much later in life. Upon recovery, he went back into active duty in the much-diminished Germany army. Jünger's earliest works, such as In Storms of Steel, were published during this time and he also wrote for military journals on the more technical and specialized aspects of combat and military technology. Interestingly, Jünger attributed Germany's defeat in the war simply to poor leadership, both military and civilian, and rejected the "stab in the back" legend that consoled less keen veterans.

After leaving the army in 1923, Jünger began to study the philosophy of Oswald Spengler. His first work as a philosopher of nationalism appeared in the Nazi paper Völkischer Beobachter in September of 1923. Critiquing the failed Marxist revolution of 1918, Jünger argued that the leftist coup failed because of its lack of fresh ideas. It was simply a regurgitation of the egalitarian outlook of the French Revolution. The revolutionary left appealed only to the material wants of the Germany people in Jünger's views. A successful revolution would have to be much more than that. It would have to appeal to their spiritual or "folkish" instincts as well.

Over the next few years Jünger studied the natural sciences at the University of Leipzig and in 1925, at age 30, he married 19-year-old Gretha von Jeinsen. Around this time, he also became a full-time political writer. Jünger was hostile to Weimar democracy and its commercial bourgeois society. His emerging political ideal was one of an elite warrior caste that stood above petty partisan politics and the middle class obsession with material acquisition. Jünger became involved with the Stahlhelm, a right-wing veterans group, and was a contributor to its paper, Die Standardite. He associated himself with the younger, more militant members of the organization who favored an uncompromised nationalist revolution and eschewed the parliamentary system. Jünger's weekly column in Die Standardite disseminated his nationalist ideology to his less educated readers.

In an essay for Die Standardite titled "The Machine," Jünger argued that the principal struggle was not between social classes or political parties but between man and technology. He was not anti-technological in a Luddite sense, but regarded the technological apparatus of modernity to have achieved a position of superiority over mankind, which needed to be reversed. He was concerned that the mechanized efficiency of modern life produced a corrosive effect on the human spirit. Jünger considered the Nazis' glorification of peasant life to be antiquated. Instead, Jünger espoused a "metropolitan nationalism" centered on the urban working class. Nationalism was the antidote to the anti-particularistic materialism of the Marxists who, in Jünger's views, simply mirrored the liberals in their efforts to reduce the individual to a component of a mechanized mass society. The humanitarian rhetoric of the left Jünger dismissed as the hypocritical cant of power-seekers feigning benevolence. He began to pin his hopes for a nationalist revolution on the younger veterans who comprised much of the urban working class.

In 1926, Jünger became editor of Arminius, which also featured the writings of Nazi leaders like Alfred Rosenberg and Joseph Goebbels. In 1927, he contributed his final article to the Nazi paper, calling for a new definition of the "worker", one not rooted in Marxist ideology but the idea of the worker as a civilian counterpart to the soldier who struggles fervently for the nationalist ideal. Jünger and Hitler had exchanged copies of their respective writings and a scheduled meeting between the two was canceled due to a change in Hitler's itinerary. Jünger respected Hitler's abilities as an orator, but came to feel he lacked the ability to become a true leader. He also found Nazi ideology to be intellectually shallow, many of the Nazi movement's leaders to be talentless and was displeased by the vulgarity, crassly opportunistic and overly theatrical aspects of Nazi public rallies. Always an elitist, Jünger considered the Nazis' pandering the common people to be debased. As he became more skeptical of the Nazis, Jünger began writing for a wider circle of readers beyond that of the militant nationalist right-wing. His works began to appear in the Jewish liberal Leopold Schwarzchild's Das Tagebuch and the "national-Bolshevik" Ernst Niekisch's Widerstand.

Jünger began to assemble around himself an elite corps of bohemian, eccentric intellectuals who would meet regularly on Friday evenings. This group included some of the most interesting personalities of the Weimar period. Among them were the Freikorps veteran Ernst von Salomon, Otto von Strasser, who with his brother Gregor led a leftist anti-Hitler faction of the Nazi movement, the national-Bolshevik Niekisch, the Jewish anarchist Erich Muhsam who had figured prominently in the early phase of the failed leftist revolution of 1918, the American writer Thomas Wolfe and the expressionist writer Arnolt Bronnen. Occasionally, Joseph Goebbels would turn up at these meetings hoping to convert the group, particularly Jünger himself, whose war writings he had admired, to the Nazi cause. These efforts by the Nazi propaganda master proved unsuccessful. Jünger regarded Goebbels as a shallow ideologue who spoke in platitudes even in private conversation.

The final break between Ernst Jünger and the NSDAP occurred in September 1929. Jünger published an article in Schwarzchild's Tagebuch attacking and ridiculing the Nazis as sellouts for having reinvented themselves as a parliamentary party. He also dismissed their racism and anti-Semitism as ridiculous, stating that according to the Nazis, a nationalist is simply someone who "eats three Jews for breakfast." He condemned the Nazis for pandering to the liberal middle class and reactionary traditional conservatives "with lengthy tirades against the decline in morals, against abortion, strikes, lockouts, and the reduction of police and military forces." Goebbels responded by attacking Jünger in the Nazi press, accusing him being motivated by personal literary ambition, and insisting this had caused him "to vilify the national socialist movement, probably so as to make himself popular in his new kosher surroundings" and dismissing Jünger's attacks by proclaiming the Nazis did not "debate with renegades who abuse us in the smutty press of Jewish traitors."

Jünger on the Jewish Question

Jünger held complicated views on the question of German Jews. He considered anti-Semitism of the type espoused by Hitler to be crude and reactionary. Yet his own version of nationalism required a level of homogeneity that was difficult to reconcile with the subnational status of Germany Jewry. Jünger suggested that Jews should assimilate and pledge their loyalty to Germany once and for all. Yet he expressed admiration for Orthodox Judaism and indifference to Zionism. Jünger maintained personal friendships with Jews and wrote for a Jewish owned publication. During this time, his Jewish publisher Schwarzchild published an article examining Jünger's views on the Jews of Germany. Schwarzchild insisted that Jünger was nothing like his Nazi rivals on the far right. Jünger's nationalism was based on an aristocratic warrior ethos, while Hitler's was more comparable to the criminal underworld. Hitler's men were "plebian alley scum." However, Schwarzchild also characterized Jünger's rendition of nationalism as motivated by little more than a fervent rejection of bourgeois society and lacking in attention to political realities and serious economic questions.

The Worker

Other than In Storms of Steel, Jünger's The Worker: Mastery and Form was his most influential work from the Weimar era. In The Worker, Jünger outlines his vision of a future state ordered as a technocracy based on workers and soldiers led by a warrior elite. Workers are no longer simply components of an industrial machine, whether capitalist or communist, but have become a kind of civilian-soldier operating as an economic warrior. Just as the soldier glories in his accomplishments in battle, so does the worker glory in the achievements expressed through his work. Jünger predicted that continued technological advancements would render the worker/capitalist dichotomy obsolete. He also incorporated the political philosophy of his friend Carl Schmitt into his worldview. As Schmitt saw international relations as a Hobbesian battle between rival powers, Jünger believed each state would eventually adopt a system not unlike what he described in The Worker. Each state would maintain its own technocratic order with the workers and soldiers of each country playing essentially the same role on behalf of their respective nations. International affairs would be a crucible where the will to power of the different nations would be tested.

Among the Nazis

By the time Hitler took power in 1933, Jünger's war writings had become commonly used in high schools and universities as examples of wartime literature, and Jünger enjoyed success within the context of German popular culture as well. Excerpts of Jünger's works were featured in military journals. The Nazis tried to co-opt his semi-celebrity status, but he was uncooperative. Jünger was appointed to the Nazified German Academy of Poetry, but declined the position. When the Nazi Party's paper published some of his work in 1934, Jünger wrote a letter of protest. The Nazi regime, despite its best efforts to capitalize on his reputation, viewed Jünger with suspicion. His past association with Niekisch, Muhsam and Strasser, all of whom were either eventually killed or exiled by the Third Reich, led the Nazis to regard Jünger as a potential subversive. On several occasions, Jünger received visits from the Gestapo in search of some of his former friends.

Jünger's most significant work from the Nazi period is the novel On the Marble Cliffs. The book is an allegorical attack on the Hitler regime. It was written in 1939, the same year that Jünger reentered the German army. The book describes a mysterious villain that threatens a community, a sinister warlord called the "Head Ranger." This character is never featured in the plot of the novel, but maintains a foreboding presence that is universal (much like "Big Brother" in George Orwell's1984). Another character in the novel, "Braquemart," is described as having physical characteristics remarkably similar to those of Goebbels. The book sold 14,000 copies during its first two weeks in publication. Swiss reviewers immediately recognized the allegorical references to the Nazi state in the novel. The Nazi Party's organ, the Völkische Beobachter, stated that Ernst Jünger was flirting with a bullet to the head. Goebbels urged Hitler to ban the book, but Hitler refused, probably not wanting to show his hand. Indeed, Hitler gave orders that Jünger not be harmed.

Jünger was stationed in France for most of the Second World War. He received yet another medal, the Iron Cross, for retrieving the body of a dead corporal while under heavy fire. Jünger also published some of his war diaries during this time. However, the German government took a dim view of these, viewing them as too sympathetic to the occupied French. Jünger's duties included censorship of the mail coming into France from German civilians. He took a rather liberal approach to this responsibility and simply disposed of incriminating documents rather than turning them over for investigation. In doing so, he probably saved lives. As rumors of the Nazi extermination programs began to spread, Jünger wrote in his diary that the mechanization of the human spirit of the type he had written about in the past had apparently generated a higher level of human depravity. When he saw three young French-Jewish girls wearing the yellow stars required by the Nazis, he wrote that he felt embarrassed to be in the Nazis' army. In July of 1942, Jünger observed the mass arrest of French Jews, the beginning of implementation of the "Final Solution." He described the scene as follows:

Parents were first separated from their children, so there was wailing to be heard in the streets. At no moment may I forget that I am surrounded by the unfortunate, by those suffering to the very depths, else what sort of person, what sort of officer would I be? The uniform obliges one to grant protection wherever it goes. Of course one has the impression that one must also, like Don Quixote, take on millions.

An entry into Jünger's diary from October 16, 1943 suggests that an unnamed army officer had told Jünger about the use of crematoria and poison gas to murder Jews en masse. Rumors of plots against Hitler circulated among the officers with whom Jünger maintained contact. His son, Ernst, was arrested after an informant claimed he had spoken critically of Hitler. Ernstl was imprisoned for three months, then placed in a penal battalion where he was killed in action in Italy. On July 20, 1944 an unsuccessful assassination attempt was carried out against Hitler. It is still disputed as to whether or not Jünger knew of the plot or had a role in its planning. Among those arrested for their role in the attempt on Hitler's life were members of Jünger's immediate circle of associates and superior officers within the German army. Jünger was dishonorably discharged shortly afterward.

Following the close of the Second World War, Jünger came under suspicion from the Allied occupational authorities because of his far right-wing nationalist and militarist past. He refused to cooperate with the Allies De-Nazification programs and was barred from publishing for four years. He would go on to live another half century, producing many more literary works, becoming a close friend of Albert Hoffman, the inventor of the hallucinogen LSD, with which he experimented. In a 1977 novel, Eumeswil, he took his tendency towards viewing the world around him with detachment to a newer, more clearly articulated level with his invention of the concept of the "Anarch." This idea, heavily influenced by the writings of the early nineteenth century German philosopher Max Stirner, championed the solitary individual who remains true to himself within the context of whatever external circumstances happen to be present. Some sample quotations from this work illustrate the philosophy and worldview of the elderly Jünger quite well:

For the anarch, if he remains free of being ruled, whether by sovereign or society, this does not mean he refuses to serve in any way. In general, he serves no worse than anyone else, and sometimes even better, if he likes the game. He only holds back from the pledge, the sacrifice, the ultimate devotion ... I serve in the Casbah; if, while doing this, I die for the Condor, it would be an accident, perhaps even an obliging gesture, but nothing more.

The egalitarian mania of demagogues is even more dangerous than the brutality of men in gallooned coats. For the anarch, this remains theoretical, because he avoids both sides. Anyone who has been oppressed can get back on his feet if the oppression did not cost him his life. A man who has been equalized is physically and morally ruined. Anyone who is different is not equal; that is one of the reasons why the Jews are so often targeted.

The anarch, recognizing no government, but not indulging in paradisal dreams as the anarchist does, is, for that very reason, a neutral observer.

Opposition is collaboration.

A basic theme for the anarch is how man, left to his own devices, can defy superior force - whether state, society or the elements - by making use of their rules without submitting to them. ...

... malcontents... prowl through the institutions eternally dissatisfied, always disappointed. Connected with this is their love of cellars and rooftops, exile and prisons, and also banishment, on which they actually pride themselves. When the structure finally caves in they are the first to be killed in the collapse. Why do they not know that the world remains inalterable in change? Because they never find their way down to its real depth, their own. That is the sole place of essence, safety. And so they do themselves in. ...

The anarch may not be spared prisons - as one fluke of existence among others. He will then find the fault in himself. ...

We are touching one a ... distinction between anarch and anarchist; the relation to authority, to legislative power. The anarchist is their mortal enemy, while the anarch refuses to acknowledge them. He seeks neither to gain hold of them, nor to topple them, nor to alter them - their impact bypasses him. He must resign himself only to the whirlwinds they generate. ...

The anarch is no individualist, either. He wishes to present himself neither as a Great Man nor as a Free Spirit. His own measure is enough for him; freedom is not his goal; it is his property. He does not come on as foe or reformer: one can get along nicely with him in shacks or in palaces. Life is too short and too beautiful to sacrifice for ideas, although contamination is not always avoidable. But hats off to the martyrs. ...

We can expect as little from society as from the state. Salvation lies in the individual. ...