The beauty and savagery of Ernst Jünger’s wartime diaries

The publication of these extraordinary, sometimes hallucinatory diaries reveals one of the great witnesses to 20th-century Europe’s catastrophe.

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Ernst Jünger’s Second World War was less dramatic than his first; it could hardly be otherwise. In the First World War, the man who was to die in his bed in 1998 at the age of 102, revered as a German literary giant, fought from early 1915 to the conflict’s end as an infantry soldier in the Hanoverian Fusiliers. He was wounded 14 times, often seriously, but somehow survived. In the final days of the conflict, he was a storm trooper – the specialist assault troops who represented imperial Germany’s last throw of the dice – becoming the youngest officer to be awarded his country’s highest military honour, the Pour le Mérite.

Storm of Steel, Jünger’s account of his experiences, published in 1920, is arguably the finest, most visceral account of battle since the Iliad. Its unpitying, relentless narrative, Nietzschean in tone, has little in common with the nostalgic regret of Britain’s war poets and their Christian notions of sacrifice and pity. Conflict, for Jünger, is to be relished, the ultimate test, life enhanced by the proximity of death.

This was just the first stage in one of the most extraordinary lives of the 20th century. Jünger, the son of a chemical engineer and a mother of artistic bent, had inherited both aspects of his parents’ make-up. He hinted at his own contribution – that of the warrior – when he ran away to join the French Foreign Legion at the age of 18. He was drawn back by his father’s promise of a trip to Mount Kilimanjaro. Two years later, Europe went to war and Jünger fulfilled his calling. This time his parents could do nothing about it.

A lifelong opponent of liberalism and democracy, after Germany’s defeat he became enveloped in far-right politics, inhabiting the same paramilitary milieu that produced Adolf Hitler and the Nazi movement, though Jünger looked down on the vulgar Austrian corporal and his anti-Semitism. Moving to Berlin at its cultural peak in 1932, on the eve of the Nazi takeover, he wrote The Worker, in which he outlined a world of passive proletarians guided by an elite of warrior-poets (who could he have had in mind?). This blueprint for national Bolshevism owed something to Sparta and the thinking of his long-time friend Carl Schmitt, a similarly caustic opponent of liberal democracy, who has become a fashionable figure to cite in our age of uncertainty. Schmitt is the theoretician to Jünger’s practitioner and crops up again and again in Jünger’s Second World War diaries, begun in 1941 and now published in English for the first time.

Jünger is a captain in occupied Paris when the diaries begin, with responsibilities for censorship, something he had recent experience of. Jünger’s loathing of Hitler had been made dangerously explicit in his fable On the Marble Cliffs, written in 1939, which owes much to HG Wells’s War of the Worlds in its account of a peaceful, lotus-eating, culturally sophisticated people crushed by monstrous brutes. When it approached best-seller status, it was suppressed by Goebbels, an act made more painful for Jünger by the parallel success of Mythus, an anti-Catholic, racist rant by the Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg, which Jünger judged “the dullest collection of platitudes imaginable”. Even Hitler objected to its paganism.

In love with Paris and an ardent Francophile, Jünger did not seek the typical spoils of the conqueror. He enjoys the company of Sacha Guitry, the French actor and director, who invites him to his apartment where he presents him with letters by Mirbeau, Bloy and Debussy. Friends include Braque, Picasso and Cocteau – “like someone who dwells in a special but comfortable hell” – though he disliked the rabidly anti-Semitic Celine.

His affair with the “Doctoresse” – the physician Sophie Ravoux – aroused suspicion in his wife Gretha, whom he referred to as “Perpetua”. Neglected in Germany, she threatened him with divorce. Much wine is drunk and, for a while, the cuisine maintains prewar standards. A bibliophile and aesthete, Jünger wanders the bookshops of the Right Bank, often, sensibly, out of uniform: the threat of assassination was real, the everyday resentment tolerable. His purchases included a print of the Temptation of St Anthony by Jacques Callot, best known, appropriately, for his grim depictions of the Thirty Years War.

Jünger’s fascination with beauty and savagery – the beauty of savagery, even – may explain his love of the animal world, that of insects in particular. He was to become a lepidopterist and coleopterist of international standing; he often looks on people as he looks at butterflies and beetles.

He has “an exaggerated curiosity” to witness an execution of a deserter. He observes the blowflies resting on the ash tree to which the condemned will be bound for the firing squad. “No place of execution can be sufficiently sanitised to efface all vestiges of the knacker’s yard,” he judges in cold prose.

Slowly, however, something nags at him. In a Parisian cinema, newsreels of German tanks and other “weapons of annihilation”’ grinding through North Africa and the Balkans remind him of the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, and he describes them as an arsenal of “life-forms that harden like crustaceans, toads, crocodiles and [inevitably] insects”. Kniébolo, his cautious nickname for the Führer, crops up with increasingly bitter and contemptuous frequency in the diaries (Jünger was on the fringes of the Valkyrie plot to assassinate Hitler, though ultimately he disapproved of such schemes).

As the deportations begin in Paris, in July 1942, he recalls the cries of Jewish children separated from their parents. “Never for a moment,” he records, “may I forget that I am surrounded by unfortunate people who endure the greatest suffering… This uniform obligates me to provide protection wherever possible.” Just three days later, however, normal service resumes: “Called on Picasso in the afternoon.”

Similarly, the wife of his local pharmacist is deported. Jünger again expresses his disgust at the blind eye turned to the “sufferings of the vulnerable”. But a stroll up the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, to its bookshops, is his antidote: “Looking at pictures does me good when I’m upset.”

The absence of pity in such passages is striking, but Jünger is, at the same time, feeling his way to Christianity in a not altogether successful attempt to introduce pity into his world-view. His mission to read the Bible in its entirety, detailed in the Diaries, is, at first, typically systematic: Psalm 139, becomes, for example, an “expression of divine physics”. But Christianity begins to inform his observations in a more profound way. In November 1942, posted to the Caucasus as the disaster of Stalingrad begins to unfold, he ponders the miracle of vaccination – typhus was rife – and considers it in explicitly Christian terms: having compared it to baptism, he decides “the more precise analogy to the spiritual world is perhaps represented by holy communion. We use the living experience that others have collected for us through sacrifice… The lymph of the lamb that has suffered for us.”

Other images he conjures of the Caucasus are biblical in another sense – of plague, of smiting – but also hark back further. He visits a market, barely functioning: “The prices are those of famine times… Listeners were crowded around a singing beggar with a freshly bandaged arm stump. It seemed that they were listening less to the music than to the long, drawn-out text. It was a Homeric image.”

Trying to make sense of the horror, he turns, too, to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the classic description of the “transformation of civilised optimism into utter bestiality”. It leads to some revealing insights on the differences between England and Prussia, and the Anglo-Saxon gift for “constancy in transitional situations”, which Kipling, he asserts, missed, but Conrad, the outsider, grasped. The difference, Jünger claims, “lies in the fact that the Englishman can tolerate a significantly greater dose of anarchy” than the Prussian. It is, he continues, “the advantage of the seaman over the landlubber”.

As those Anglo-Saxons and their allies advance eastward into Germany, Jünger has visions – he is a devoted recorder of dreams – of Europe’s ancient settlements replaced by “cities that are the brainchildren of engineers”. Like many pan-Europeans, he is firmly anti-American, loathing the prospect of a mass consumer society. Looking out on the ruins of Düsseldorf and Cologne, he envisages a “stepping stone to Americanism”. He would prefer that only herds of sheep graze among the ruins, a mirror of the plan put forward by Henry Morgenthau, the US treasury secretary who wished to maintain postwar Germany as a purely agrarian affair, never again to put its industry at the service of war – a theme explored more recently by the German artist Anselm Kiefer.

Jünger’s son Ernstel, accused of “defeatist” remarks, is posted to northern Italy in late 1944, where there is bitter fighting. It turns out to be a death sentence. This is the Gotterdämmerung (Jünger is a Wagnerian who seems to grasp, as so many leading Nazis did not, the warnings inherent in the composer’s work). Who cannot recall at this point Hans Sachs’s declaration at the end of Die Meistersinger that: “Even if the Holy Roman Empire should dissolve in mist, for us there would yet remain holy German art!”?

Jünger, amid the twilight, is an embodiment of it as he desperately seeks a pattern in Europe’s history, which ultimately becomes a lament: “Intense air raids in the night: La frousse. Then comes the reckoning: from Charlemagne to Charles V, from the Reformation to the chaos of World War One.”

With the publication of these extraordinary, sometimes hallucinatory diaries. English speakers have the chance to read one of the great witnesses to 20th-century Europe’s catastrophe. One whom, they may judge, cast too cold an eye, on life, on death. 

Paul Lay is editor of History Today

A German Officer in Occupied Paris: The War Journals, 1941-1945
Ernst Jünger, translated by Thomas S Hansen and Abby J Hansen
Columbia University Press, 496pp, £30

This article appears in the 22 February 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Islamic State