Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Ernst Junger and the Storm of Steel

"Of all the stimulating moments in a war, there is none to compare with the encounter of two storm troop commanders in the narrow clay walls of the line. There is no going back, and no pity. And so everyone knows who has seen one or another of them in their kingdom, the aristocrat of the trench, with hard, determined visage, brave to the point of folly, leaping agilely forward and back, with keen, blood thirsty eyes, men who answered the demands of the hour, and whose names go down in no chronicle."

Ernst Jünger (1885 - 1998) was an elite storm troop commander during the first world war, and an author whose aestheticization of industrial violence earned him a solid if uncomfortable place in twentieth century literature. He volunteered as a private in 1914, participated in daring raids on the enemy lines, was wounded over a dozen times, finished as a captain, received practically every honor the German military could bestow, and died at the ripe old age of 103.

In The Storm of Steel (1923) he recorded his experience of the war as a sublime crucible which had forged a new kind of fighting man. Unlike a normal soldier, who was motivated by fear and prejudice, in whom war provoked feelings of hatred, shame, and remorse, and who only wanted to get out alive, the new man was a remorseless killer who had risen above the petty concerns of comfort, safety, and ideology, and who was utterly indifferent to danger. In war artificial distinctions based on wealth, class, and nationality were swept aside, and replaced by an egalitarian Trenchocracy in which only bravery, fortitude, and battlefield prowess counted. The petty frustrations, the boredom, and the aimlessness of civilian life also vanished, and were replaced by an all consuming do or die struggle that forced men to live at the very limits of perception, and made every brave fighter a hero.

Jünger's description of the war is characterized by isolation and anonymity. Only the author's private experience seems to matter, and other soldiers are mentioned only in connection to his particular part of the battle. Usually they have been killed off after a few sentences, and we learn almost nothing of their background or personality - only that they were brave men who loved danger, and what kind of wound laid them low. Cowards and ordinary soldiers do not even merit a mention. For Jünger they do not exist. Similarly absent is any detailed description of the noncombat aspects of the war - politics, ideology, strategy, leaders, marches, training, recuperation after injury, and the minutiae of trench life are almost all passed over in silence - even Hindenburg and the Kaiser are only mentioned once, when they pin a medal on Jünger's chest as the war draws to a close. Here Jünger's attitude toward his "superiors" becomes clear - the Kaiser wasn't in the trenches, and he only counts when he's honoring a man who was. At no point does Jünger show the slightest interest in his place within the larger war - only the maelstrom of blood and shrapnel can hold his attention.

Aesthetically the book is characterized by terse, jagged, matter of fact prose. Machinery and death feature on every page, and human characters seem to crawl across an ashen landscape like so many ants, crushed one after another by great hammer blows of artillery. The impression one is left with is of the awesome destructive power of industrial warfare, and the pitiful insignificance of human life before it. According to Jünger, man is nothing - but if he is brave, he can become something, if only briefly, by risking his life in battle.

While many authors, such as Hemingway, Graves, and Remarque, condemned the war as a pointless slaughter and mourned a lost generation of European youth, Jünger spoke for a small minority of soldiers who had learned to love the war, and who were, frankly, sorry that it was over. Among them was a young Austrian corporal, recovering from a gas attack in a Berlin hospital. He wept tears of rage when he was told of Germany's surrender, and swore that his country would rise again...


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