Ernst Jünger’s World War I narrative Storm of Steel was first published in 1920. Other titles appearing that year include Sigmund Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, and D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love; T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land was just around the corner. It was the high tide of modernism—a world in ruins, incubating strange new blooms.
Storm of Steel belongs in the company of Eliot and Lawrence as a self-contained work of art. The same things that some readers find problematic about the book also mean that it still reads raw on the page. Critics have said that Jünger’s book is too distant from the horrors of the Great War, that it amounts to an uncritical celebration of men at war. But it is far odder than that, and more memorable than such readings suggest. A century on, it is no mere time-capsule curio of embattled soldiers in boggy trenches, a burnished classic we read in order to have the requisite dutiful responses—angry, melancholy, disturbed. Storm of Steel is a ticker tape from the front line: Jünger launches straight in, with no contextual scene-setting or framing psychology or special pleading. It feels more modern than many subsequent films about the war, like the recent and much-praised All Quiet on the Western Front. Paradoxically, the cinematic but unsentimental Storm of Steel would be far harder to turn into a sympathetic film.
Born the year the Lumière brothers invented cinema (1895), Jünger seems more deserving of the phrase “I am a camera” than Christopher Isherwood ever did. His gaze is unblinking. He writes about war the way other modernist writers mapped the city: as a barrage of shocks. He surveys the battlefield from on high, and down in the soil. The book is both shocking and searingly beautiful: “Thousands of flashes turned the western horizon into a sea of flowers.”
The Great War of 1914–18 was not, it transpired, the “war to end all wars” but a sketch for even worse horrors ahead. This was a new form of military attrition, relentless and disorienting. For youthful combatants like Jünger, brought up on seductive notions of chivalry, the experience was disillusioning. The steel in Jünger’s title is not that of a chivalrous blade but the unceasing fall of munitions. The only victor in this war is technology itself, and this is its ascendant moment, its dehumanizing dawn. Of course, the war resulted in the disappearance of millions of young men; it also announced a grave new world.
Jünger was 25 when his memoir appeared; he lived to be 102. When he was born, Germany was ruled by Kaiser Wilhelm II, the last German emperor and king of Prussia; when he died, Helmut Kohl was chancellor of a reunified Germany. Jünger was the youngest-ever recipient of the great Prussian military honor, the Pour le Mérite; in 1984, he spoke at the Verdun memorial, standing beside Kohl and one of his other great admirers, French president François Mitterrand. Does such longevity bestow unquestionable authority, tout court?
Jünger’s life straddled worlds. He was decorated by Germany’s last kaiser, and he socialized with Joseph Goebbels; he discussed art with Picasso, and he took one of the first LSD trips, with Albert Hofmann. He numbered among his Weimar-era friends the very right-wing Carl Schmitt and the very left-wing Joseph Roth. In 1985, the German state of Baden-Württemberg established the Ernst Jünger Prize for Entomology, for outstanding work in the field. He was “multidisciplinary” before that term had currency. He was a soldier, scientist, philosopher, ideologue, mystic, and the very model of a hungry autodidact. He influenced Martin Heidegger and was admired by Bertolt Brecht.
In Germany, Jünger is today a revered figure, seen as a modern-day Goethe, a Renaissance man who lived long enough to see his complete works published twice. In France, he has always had a substantial readership, especially for his wartime diaries; at one point, 48 of his translated books were in print there. In the English-speaking world, though, with only scraps of his outsize catalog in translation for decades, many otherwise literate people may not even have heard of him. I first read about Jünger via a 1981 profile by Bruce Chatwin. Over the years, I managed to pick up just two titles, both secondhand. His most renowned book, On the Marble Cliffs, was almost impossible to find and prohibitively expensive, even in paperback. Until recently, any kind of proper reckoning with Jünger in the English-speaking world had to be, of necessity, postponed.
Jünger has always been a divisive figure; even some enthusiasts feel as though they must hedge their bets, ring-fencing his Old Right politics. Words like “aristocratic” and “aloof” are deployed as euphemisms for an unfeeling reactionary. Perhaps the problem is fundamental—he was a soldier first and a writer second, so a certain confusion pertained from the first. Critics couldn’t conceive that a military man, and an archconservative, at that, might also be culturally nutritious. We no longer have working models for someone who is both professional soldier and abstract thinker.
Jünger represented older ideas of a well-rounded education—when the movement of the stars, algebra, rhetoric, and applied mysticism were not regarded as far-distant islands. A samurai ethic: the self as something to be artfully cultivated. He brings to mind a different epoch, one when both soldiering and philosophy held a vastly different status in civic life. In an excellent Swedish TV documentary from 1998, Jesper Wachtmeister and Björn Cederberg put it like this: “Meeting Jünger is like looking into a time machine . . . a consciousness that was formed right on the cusp of modernity before modern ideologies and modern democracy had become accepted. . . . He was raised in a time so distant that it is almost incomprehensible today, where the Kaiser and military officers were hailed as gods.”
Because so little Jünger was available in translation for so long, it was hard for English-readers to get a true sense of him as artist or ideologue or thinker. The image of the snob-sage Jünger—a forbidding kind of crypto-fascist, who just happened to write like an angel—became cast in marble. Recently published translations, including a new rendering of On the Marble Cliffs and a later collection of reflections, Approaches, should begin to change that narrow understanding. One now has the additional problem of knowing where to begin: Jünger’s sprawling back catalog encompasses fiction, philosophy, essays, diaries, science fiction, and political allegory. In this eclecticism, he perhaps doesn’t perfectly suit Anglo-American tastes. He skips and mingles, ranges too far and high and wide. He is not one of those fragile neurotics from the approved canon of modernity: maladjusted seers, wraith men, wounded souls. There is no sense in him of personal bitterness or xenophobia or lurking masochism, as with, say, Louis Ferdinand Céline. Even a phrase such as “the teenaged Jünger dreamed of adventure” seems to belong to a faraway time. Who would use such a phrase of a young writer today—or, indeed, of anyone?
Jünger was born in Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany in 1895, in the Grand Duchy of Baden. Despite a mistaken characterization repeated down the years, he was not a scion of the aristocracy. His father was a chemical engineer (some sources say “chemist” or “pharmacist”) and a successful businessman. In 1913, the son fled home to enlist in the French Foreign Legion and had to be dragged back by his father. He joined up on the first day of World War I and emerged extensively wounded and highly decorated at its end, earning the Iron Cross first and second grade, the House Order of Hohenzollern, and, finally, the Pour le Mérite.
Jünger also had 18 notebooks filled with details of life under fire. Storm of Steel is sometimes called a memoir, but it is more like a series of dispatches in a documentary—Jünger observing himself amid the carnage, making a kaleidoscopic film written with words that can feel at times like a hail of bullets. He doesn’t tell you who he is or why he’s there. He doesn’t editorialize or provide background on why the war is being fought. Storm of Steel carries a sense of ever-present pain and the threat of death—and yes, here and there, a kind of nervy exhilaration.
Storm of Steel has always faced criticism for being too unashamed in its “celebration” of war, but it is stranger than that. It puts you in the pit of daily warfare, like a dream where you’re always fleeing but never escape. Life in the trenches is both interior and exterior, exposed and buried. Jünger renders bodies (and corpses) as if in a hard-edged collage or photo montage. What distinguishes Storm of Steel from other writing about World War I is its affinity with the new realm of cinema and photography. Among the matériel used in the war were not just new kinds of weapons but airplanes and cinematographers, and Jünger’s writing reflects this shift. (Between 1928 and 1934, he published several books of and about war photography.) And the book’s lack of sentiment is the very thing that keeps it fresh. Reading it today in tinderbox Europe, it feels of the moment, without illusion.
For Jünger, chivalry wasn’t some wispy ideal but a hard, ethical way of living—and dying. What he found at the front was an open-air death factory; a monstrous technology obliterating men, blackening the horizon, poisoning the air. The old class of professional soldiers were appalled by this reality. Jünger witnessed it as both a cowed body in the trenches and as an apprentice philosopher of future shock. These were the first signs of a technological turn that he would come to execrate—individual chivalry replaced by industrialized extermination, a noble code shattered, a hard-fought ideal replaced by brutal automation: a battle waged by grotesque puppets, set to repeat. Jünger intuited that the horrors of World War I would descend into the deeper obscenity of Nazism. Technology would change not just the way war was waged but our whole way of being.
There looks to be a vast distance between Storm of Steel and Jünger’s lush 1939 allegory, On the Marble Cliffs. One is jagged with the sound of pounding artillery; the other is moss, meadows, lakes, and leaves. Both books frame an apocalyptic violence. The elevated cliffs of the later title are both dreamily abstract and alluringly concrete. They might almost be the embodiment of a couplet from one of Jünger’s favorite writers, Baudelaire: “Nature is a temple where we live ironically / In the midst of forests filled with dire confusions.”
In the 1939 book, two ex-military brothers pursue an idyllic pastoral existence working as botanists; suddenly, their tranquil life of research and classification is threatened by an unleashed barbarism, rising up from the chthonic depths. In nearby woods, they find a beautiful, rare orchid; they also find horror, in the shape of a flaying hut displaying a range of human trophies. Jünger’s writing has a comparable feeling with certain alchemical emblems: still waters, wise vipers, and black dogs. One encounters a blissed-out feel for the natural world here, but also terrible foreboding. On the Marble Cliffs is a warning of what lies up ahead.
A different kind of prognostication is to be found in Jünger’s 1957 science fiction allegory The Glass Bees, one that now feels unnervingly prescient. Jünger’s future-shock vision (here and in the postapocalyptic novel Eumeswil, from 1977) anticipates pollution and climate change; nanotechnology and downloads; smartphones, bots, and drones. The microscopic “glass bees,” more efficient than their natural counterparts, suggest the ominously ambiguous breakthrough of AI. We see here, as through a Zoom call darkly, a restatement of some persistent Jünger themes, predominantly war and technology as motors of historical change, for good and ill. As elsewhere, Jünger seems deeply ambivalent about choosing between a past he loves (men on horseback, chivalry, militaristic order) and a future he accurately predicts—a world in which the insidious creep of new technology means that there is little difference between information, politics, and entertainment. “Technical perfection strives toward the calculable, human perfection toward the incalculable.”
Jünger typically takes the long view—the “storms of time in which we drift like the shipwrecked on a dark sea.” Meditative detachment is a good quality for a stern, beady-eyed historian, pondering epochs and cycles; it may also be a convenient way to avoid seizing hold of history and shaping its outcome. Both sides of the political divide tend to agree on the problem embodied in Jünger’s notion of the “anarch,” as explicated in Eumeswil: a sovereign individual who holds himself above the fray but might easily be confused with any self-serving courtier. This was the criticism of Jünger’s actions (or rather, lack of them) in World War II—that he managed to be (or to suggest) all things to all people.
He had a nice war in Paris, too, as an “officer with special mission attached to the military command,” or, in less elevated terms, a censor. He traveled in artistic and literary and collaborationist circles; he bought antiquarian books and specimens of rare beetles; he dined well. He also mixed with some of the aristocratic German military set, among whom plots to do away with Hitler were discussed. Nazi higher-ups were deeply suspicious of Jünger, but his eminence and unrivaled honors protected him. Jean Cocteau remarked: “Some people had dirty hands, some people had clean hands, but Jünger had no hands.”
During the interwar Weimar years, Jünger acted as vanguard theorist for a new political party, the strange National Bolshevist Caucus. Led by Ernst Niekisch, it rejected equally the ideals of bourgeois democracy, parliamentarianism, and capitalism, and sought to combine ultranationalism with Communism. Jünger’s sympathies always lay with the base and the superstructure, workers and aristocrats; he disavowed the edgeless, bourgeois middle. In truth, his politics make little sense in today’s political scene. A conservative elitist sympathetic to Communist centralization? A friend of György Lukács, now hailed by Henry Kissinger? A drug proselytizer in a crisp Wehrmacht uniform? Nothing joins up: he foxes every attempted reclamation.
The image of Jünger as an overrefined old cynic turns out to be inaccurate and does not do justice to his complexity. In the Wachtmeister and Cederberg documentary, made just before his death, he presents as sharp and amused and wry, and not at all like someone living off accumulated capital. Jünger maintained an inquiring mind until the end of his days. Approaches (written when he was a mere stripling of 75) finds Jünger checking out Tom Wolfe’s writing and Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice.
One of the revelations of Approaches is that Jünger emerges as a social animal: he works at maintaining a range of friendships, old and new, of all ages and backgrounds, and values the sodality of the taverns. He can make a drinking session sound like spiritual duty, the unlikely meeting across a pub table of Kingsley Amis and Carl Jung:
A fool begins to rule the world—this is an echo, an afterglow from earlier times in which gods entered and sat at the table with us. Great Pan comes nearer; fauns and satyrs lean in over the hedge. A gnomelike being, close to the earth, unites with higher illumination. Something returns that had long disappeared; behind the cries and capers, the coverings and masks, something is recognized in shadowy outlines.
There also emerges in Approaches a Jünger who is something of an ecstatic, who lovingly discourses on plants, bees, and the “cosmogenic eros,” and reads Böhme and Boethius alongside Spengler and Rochefoucauld. This Jünger speaks the language of alchemy and has a place marker in the book of nature. He is a seeker and an epicurean. In everything, he appears guiltless: far more a pagan than recognizably Catholic or Protestant.
Approaches is a patchwork of memories and reflections, interspersed with references to favorite authors. Jünger has his German passions (Nietzsche, Goethe, Wagner) but exhibits also a more contemplative, idling side, which feels almost southern European. (He lived for a time in Naples.) His reading is rarely predictable. It’s no surprise to find Melville and Spengler and Cervantes, but we also find names such as Gurdjieff, Eliade, Novalis, Heraclitus. He writes beautifully on Baudelaire.
Approaches reads like a narcotic pillow book, a stoned, upbeat Anatomy of Melancholy. Bruce Chatwin observed that the diary seemed the perfect form for Jünger’s sensibility; his translator Michael Hofmann echoes this, seeing him as “at his best over medium distances, as a writer of passages rather than of books or sentences.” Jünger dropped out of university and displays both the virtues and occasional flaws of the autodidact. He can let a line of thought drift a little too far out to sea: “In the meantime, what sought for philosophical expression from the voluptuous torments of his intuition has, through the vicissitudes of time, acquired form in unprecedented agglomerations and a horrible softening.” But generally, the sunlit uplands outnumber the thickets and bogs. He has a way of slowly circling a thought, apparently rambling off track, only to return triumphantly to his initial theme.
From the handful of references I’d seen, I assumed that Jünger’s involvement with LSD was an isolated day trip, done in the spirit of scientific inquiry. But as Approaches makes clear, his relationship to intoxicants, narcotics, and psychedelics is more involved. Laying out his stall, he almost sounds like the old master addict William S. Burroughs: “Infusions and concentrates, decoctions and elixirs, powders and pills, ointments, pastes and resins. . . . The substance can be a solid, fluid, smoke, or gas; it can be eaten, drunk, rubbed into the skin, inhaled, smoked, sniffed or injected.” In terms of his own pharmacopeia, Jünger prefers slow-acting, subtle, hypnotic, and transporting drugs to a whack round the skull; the “dignified darkness of opium” to cocaine’s “sterile shimmer.”
On cocaine’s bestowed sense of vigorous omnipotence: “I sensed how my powers of representation grew and yet, by that very increase, became incapable of representing anything. . . . I managed one good phrase. . . . A couple of impressions followed, already under tension, then some illegible script like a racing seismic readout.” If cocaine disappoints, the “waking dream” of laudanum is more to his taste: “I had an immeasurable supply of time at my disposal and could stretch this delectable night to the limits. . . . The night was a cloak that provided warmth and security; I pulled it close around my body. Time became space, as snug as a narrow chamber no longer in the heart of the pyramid but deep beneath it. There was no more happening, only peaceful silence, impregnable solitude.”
It’s not all nightshades and forbidden trails, as Jünger ranges over every kind of intoxication. “In vino veritas—this does not mean that the truth is hidden in wine. The words rather mean that wine allows a glimpse of something ever-present, even without it. Wine is a key—it is the present itself that supervenes.” He is also acute on the social ballast of drinking and smoking. “[F]rom another perspective, we could also associate smoking with certain benefits. . . . We might think of how a cigarette facilitates conversation, shortens a tedious moment or softens a sad one, awakens an association or is evocative of happy moments as such.” (Here, as elsewhere, he is prescient: “By the way, it is conceivable that tobacco too will suffer a setback . . . and that the real era of smoking will come to an end.”)
For such a Dionysian subject, most writing about drugs tends to follow well-worn paths: primrose or straight to hell. It’s rare to be surprised; you know where the narrative is headed. What is even rarer is to find any consideration of drugs (and the value of drugged states) from an avowedly conservative sensibility. Jünger isn’t a blithe enthusiast—he does ask whether the risk of being “shipwrecked on a dark sea” is worth it to bring back “marvellous insights.” Unexpectedly, his sympathy in Approaches is on the side of youth and the gypsy-ish 1960s counterculture. Once again, he views things from above—mass movement, wave form, social pattern. The ostensible subject is limned in the subtitle of Approaches—Drugs and Altered States—but Jünger has his gaze on wider horizons: uncanny experiences of time, personal epiphanies, and collective dreaming. Jünger here is like a readable Heidegger, or a less credulous Jung. No matter how occult or supernal his reflections get, they are anchored in real landscapes and social history:
It is important for us as humans to occasionally be brought to the boundaries of our humanity; this was the original sense of the festival. All through history festivals can be divided into two great hopes: the wish to become identical with the animal and the hope that the gods would enter. The condition for such approaches is that man holds himself open.
I suspect that this sort of thing will enchant some readers and alienate others. I have to say, I’m addicted. At a time of fractured politics, I find Jünger’s long historical view mind-clearing. As he says at one point in Approaches: “Whether Nietzsche’s observations . . . are ‘correct’ or not is irrelevant here. They have value in themselves as models of a superior quality of thought.”
The characteristic irony is that Jünger, apostle of Linnaeus, remains impossible to classify. Russell A. Berman and Thomas Friese (for Approaches) and Jessi Jezewska Stevens and Tess Lewis (for On the Marble Cliffs) do superb work in providing illumination and context. As new translations like this arrive, they will bring further light and shade. We will be able not only to make out Jünger’s crystalline peaks and dark woods but also to discern a better sense of the shape of his entire journey.
Top Photo: By the end of Jünger’s long life—he died in 1997, at 102—Germans regarded him as a modern Goethe. (UNITED ARCHIVES GMBH/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)