Martin Venator, the narrator of Ernst Jünger’s 1970 novel Eumeswil, is chief steward to the reigning Tyrant of the small city state of that name. He also serves as a reference librarian to the Tyrant’s chief of staff. In neither capacity is he overworked, and he has plenty of time to indulge his own historical interests and to ruminate on the character and problems of power, on the rise and fall of demagogues and dictators, on nihilism and anarchism, and on nature and its mysteries. He has all but broken with his father and brother, who, as old liberals and supporters of the elective monarchy overthrown by the Tyrant, disapprove of his choice of career. This does not greatly concern him. He does not believe in the possibility of a return to the past and as a fatalist has no expectation of an indefinite perpetuation of the present regime. Meanwhile, he is happy to serve the Tyrant, although with no deep commitment to him. Referring to himself as an anarch, he says: ‘I am in the service neither of the political present nor of tradition; I am a blank page. I am open and potent in every direction.’
Readers who came to the novel with a prejudice against jünger for his anti-republican politics during the Weimar period and his service under Hitler may have seen in Venator a defiant self-portrait. Thomas Nevin, in what might be an oblique reference to the passage, reminds them that there is a difference between literature and politics and that ‘the Autor, the anarch, is a Rousseauist construct, safeguard of an egoism that takes itself as the only possible society.’ And in any case, he adds, ‘to a degree ... Jünger’s extraordinary personality, his dazzling acuity of perception, the range of his life’s experience as a soldier, world traveller, and (not least) as a reader, seem to warrant the Olympian self-removal.’
Nevin’s book is essentially a study of Jünger’s writing rather than of his politics, although it by no means diminishes the importance of the latter and is acute in its analysis and criticism of it. But the Jünger who interests him chiefly is the writer whose primary themes are ‘that warfaring is an ineradicable part of our psyche, that technology’s gifts to us are sinister, and that beauty in nature’s order is our stay against confusion and despair’. He makes clear at the outset his conviction that
Jünger has carried out a mission far more arduous than his death-dealing in enemy trenches; he affirms an intelligible cosmos of constantly unfolding mystery and beauty, and he affirms the human mind as its worthy celebrant. That is so from his first writing to the present, and the more remarkably since he has experienced the terror and tyranny that could justify a negative verdict on humanity and its future.
This will clearly not satisfy those who are troubled by other aspects of Jünger’s career.
Jünger was born in Heidelberg in 1895, the son of a pharmacist, who early awakened in him an interest in biology and entomology, and encouraged his reading. A romantic interest in Africa led him in 1913 to run away from home and enlist in the French Foreign Legion, but his father was able to abort this enterprise, and Jünger returned and finished gymnasium before the outbreak of war in 1914. He immediately enlisted in the 73rd Hanoverian Fusiliers, was advanced to lieutenant of a company of storm troops, fought with distinction on the Somme, at Cambrai and in Ludendorff’s Offensive in 1918, was wounded seven times, and in 1918 was awarded the order Pour le Mérite, the Army’s highest decoration. After the end of hostilities, he served in the Reichswehr until 1923, briefly studied marine biology in Naples, and then turned to literature.
He had already published his memoir of the war, In Storms of Steel, to enormous success. This work, which anticipated and encouraged the flood of war literature that engulfed Germany in the mid-Twenties, like its successors, Copse 125 (1925) and Fire and Blood (1925), gave a realistic picture of a new kind of war in which technology had transformed the traditional role of the warrior and, in Jünger’s view, fashioned a new race of men. At the same time, the books tended to glorify war, an experience, according to Jünger’s book-length essay Battle as Inner Experience (1922), that dissolved all the tensions and inhibitions of peacetime experience in ‘shattering exaltation’ and showed men the way back to the sources of life, to true being. War was fulfilment but also preparation:
This war is not the end, but the chord that heralds new power. It is the anvil on which the world will be hammered into new boundaries and new communities. New forms will be filled with blood, and might will be hammered into them with a hard fist. War is a great school, and the new man will be of our cut.
This rhetoric doubtless owed much to Spengler, whose talk about destiny and world-becoming made a great impression on Jünger. It was influenced also, as Nevin says, by ‘the vaunting posture of German Expressionism, with its cultivation of an internal dynamic that is supposed to discharge itself with stunning energy’. It was none the less mischievous, contributing as it did to the nostalgia for action and the general dissatisfaction of German conservatism in the Weimar years. Moreover, encouraged by the tremendous success of his war books, Jünger became an active associate of such enemies of the republic as Moeller van den Bruck, Carl Schmitt, Rudolf Pechel, Arnolt Bronnen, Ernst von Salomon and Otto Strasser, who, in a steady stream of articles, attacked the basic premises of parliamentary government and insisted that a radical change in the political system was necessary.
Unlike most of these writers, Jünger had no very precise political programme, and his first piece of journalism, an article entitled ‘Revolution and Idea’, published in the National Socialist Völkischer Beobachter in 1923, made this clear, invoking a revolution whose modalities and goals were never defined. Perhaps the most striking thing about the essay was his identification of the NSDAP as a mystique of blood which ‘binds the nation in secret streams and prefers to flow rather than be enslaved’, and which, by begetting ‘our new values’, would ‘create the freedom of the whole under the sacrifice of the individual’. The Nazis probably profited from this support from the nationally recognised war hero and author, but, as Nevin points out, it did not last. Jünger admitted that he had been inspired by Hitler’s November Putsch in 1923, but the Nazis’ subsequent emphasis on vote-getting and the petty-bourgeois nature of their membership alienated his élitist proclivities, as did, it must be said to his credit, their racism. In an article of 1929, he wrote that a nationalist did not become more impressive because he ‘eats three Jews for breakfast. Anti-semitism ... is not an essential issue.’
Jünger’s rejection of the Nazis was clear enough, and yet his ruminations over the condition and future of Germany led him to conclusions not dissimilar to those preached by the Party. This was particularly true of the muddled and incomplete essay, The Worker, published in 1932. Here Jünger argued that the world Depression of the Thirties had ushered in a new age of danger, ‘as though it had broken in from primitive times and great distances. Spirits have arisen from the fire-torn, blood-drunk earth who will not depart with the cannon’s silence. They flow weirdly over all values, and give them a transformed sense.’ This situation would, in ways not yet clear, bring about the creation of a state of total mobilisation, under the direction of an élite of soldier-workers pledged to obedience and technology, which had swept away all the outworn ideologies. Jünger made no attempt to appeal to history or causal logic in predicting this future; and, in his brilliant chapter on The Worker, Nevin says that he was propelled by a ‘vatic amateurism that shows itself to advantage only in brief, aphoristic passages’. Still, the book cannot be dismissed as inconsequential, for it did go far ‘to proclaim a sombre and daimonic totalitarianism such as engulfed Germany’ within months of its publication.
During the peacetime years of the Third Reich, Jünger had no contacts with the Nazis and even refused to accept election to the Academy of Poetry. His war books continued to be popular, and he spent a good deal of time travelling abroad, a privilege not available to the ordinary citizen and one that, as Nevin notes, gave him a critical perspective on the Nazi Reich that others were unable to attain. This doubtless influenced the two important books that he wrote in these years: the revised and completely reworked The Adventurous Heart and the novel, On the Marble Cliffs. The first of these was a collection of travel sketches, nature studies, essays on occasional themes and dream landscapes, including a cruel little story about a gourmet shop selling violet endives, which could only be eaten with human flesh. The flesh was kept in a cold-storage locker below, where people were ‘hanging on the walls like rabbits in front of a meat-merchant’s shop’ and ‘hands, feet and heads’ were ‘set out in particular dishes and planted with little price labels’. These Goyaesque capriccios are told in a detached but meticulous style, which lingers on every horrific detail without expressing any emotion whatsoever. Nevin suggests that they are a reflection of life in Nazi Germany, representing what lies in the subconscious of a people that accepts official brutalities because they are unaffected by them, but one suspects that they have less to do with the evils of totalitarianism than with Jünger’s curiosity about how far the description of the horrific can be carried and how free of moral considerations it can be kept.
Equally ambiguous was the more famous On the Marble Cliffs. As late as 1980, Dolf Sternberger called it ‘the most daring production of German literature’, adding: ‘In secret language it delivered the verdict on our miserable rulers ... and in one unforgettable glimpse seemed to sum up the world of the concentration camp and the sphere of secret terror.’ Josef Goebbels seemed to agree, for he wanted to have Jünger imprisoned and was prevented only by Hitler, who ordered him to leave the writer alone. Yet, as Nevin admits, the book is an odd affair, the story of the destruction of an idyllic community by a vicious Chief Forester, recollected in tranquillity by a narrator who seems to take a detached pleasure in the holocaust because of the opportunities it will give for new growth. The book is almost completely unpolitical, half of it being given over to reflections on botany. Indeed, in the scene referred to by Sternberger, the narrator and his brother discover the Chief Forester’s torture hut at Köppels-Bleek while searching for a rare orchid, and they are more concerned about saving the flower for their collection than about reacting in any positive way to their discoveries. It is difficult to make any judgment of the book that goes beyond Nevin’s own, that it is ‘an allegory that does not moralise: its hermeticism is inviolable and inimitable’. Certainly it cannot be simplified into a novel of resistance; and Jünger was later to say that it was intended to show that attentats against dictators were ineffective.
Jünger spent most of the Second World War as a staff officer in Paris, and the diaries that he left behind have had a more inflammatory effect on his critics than anything else he wrote. In a distinguished study, J.P. Stern, while admitting Jünger’s importance as a writer, attacked his style and his much discussed ‘preoccupation with the existential moment’ as being devoid of feeling and little more than the triumph of the voyeur. Of the Paris diaries, Stern writes:
Scenes of violence alternate with entomological still-lifes; warriors retire into monastic cells to devote themselves to botanical studies; an Allied bombing raid on Paris is observed through a glass of Burgundy; or again, witnessing a deserter’s execution, Jünger’s attention is now on the man, now on a tiny fly that hovers about the man’s now twitching and now dead face; similarly Jünger’s prolix accounts of his reading – an enormous jumble of exquisite horrors and second-rate poetry, a dusty pile of ‘erotica’ interlarded with tags from Boethius, de Sade, a life of St Polycarp, Clausewitz, Angelus Silesius, Céline, Heraclitus, Léon Bloy, Thornton Wilder, and of course E.A. Poe. And all these at first sight incongruous lapses from taste are wholly consistent with the radically defective sensibility from which they issue.
Nothing that Nevin says quite answers this damning judgment. Yet the Paris Diaries are not only a fascinating document of the war, for the light they throw on the German Occupation, but are also highly self-revelatory, showing all the illusions that Jünger suffered from as he swanned about the Paris he loved (which was not the same as the Paris that represented the real France), moving from fashionable salons to bookish conversations with intellectual collaborateurs to the table ronde of German staff officers in the Georges V, trying to persuade himself that the French were beginning to love the Germans, and then being startled by a look of hatred on the face of a shop-girl. He is reminded constantly by reports from friends on the Eastern Front that Kniébolo (his name for Hitler) was moving to ever greater levels of bestiality, and is aware that he is himself in danger; on 14 November 1941, he writes, echoing a poem by Eichendorff: ‘The hour of twilight [Zwielicht] – the night announces itself like a flood that, murmuring and almost imperceptibly, sends out its first waves. Strange beings rise with it. It is the hour in which the owls prepare their wings for flight and the leprous ones go into the streets.’ Yet he disregards all this with that désinvolture which was his stock in trade.
Jünger knew about the preparations for an attentat against the Tyrant, but was neither pan of it nor a believer in its success. ‘The generals are mostly energetic and stupid,’ he wrote on 31 May 1944: ‘that is, of that active and well-organised intelligence that any superior telephonist has and which gains a stupid admiration from the masses. Or they are cultivated, and that goes at the expense of the brutality that’s part of their trade. So something is always lacking somewhere, either in will or in lucidity. It is very seldom that one finds that union of strength of will and cultivation which one saw in Caesar and Sulla or, in our time, in Scharn-horst and Prince Eugene.’ He knew they would botch the job of removing Hitler, and, like the hero of Eumeswil, remained uncommitted, thus escaping to continue his long postwar career in the new Germany.
That he was aware of his complicity in the crimes of National Socialism, and was on occasion ashamed of it, there is little doubt. In June 1942, in the rue Royale, he encountered three young girls wearing the Yellow Star and was, he wrote, embarrassed to be in uniform. But such moments were rare, and his shame was quickly overcome by his usual insouciance. Hearing details of atrocities in the camps in September 1943, he disclaimed any responsibility for them: ‘I feel unfortunately that the knowledge of such things is beginning to affect my relationship, not to the fatherland, but to the Germans.’
Nevin is hardly more troubled by this easy attitude than Jünger himself. At the end of his book, he writes: that Jünger is, ‘in the compulsive terms of current fashion, the politically incorrect writer par excellence will not eventually count for much. His writing does us the inestimable service of all truly worthy literature: it breaches our puny, comfortable assumptions about the world, forcing us to see differently and at some risk by confounding what we want reality to be.’