Book review / Disquiet on the western front

Ernst Junger and Germany: into the abyss, 1914-1945 by Thomas Nevin, Constable, pounds 20
It would be impossible to find a parallel in Britain, or indeed anywhere, to the career of the German writer Ernst Junger. Born into a comfortable but atheist middle-class home, he served the whole of the First World War as a junior officer on the Western Front. A commander of shock troops, conducting raids across no man's land, he was repeatedly wounded and received the German Empire's highest military award, the Pour le merite - the Blue Max.

He remained in the army after the war before becoming a writer, but also wrote his memoirs. In Storms of Steel is Junger's most famous book on the experience of trench warfare. He became a spokesman of extreme right- wing opinions, elitist and anti-bourgeois. His work of this time amounts to a justification of the sacrifice of his generation. It refuses an anti- war position, but glories in the human body's capacity to survive amid the worst that modern technology can throw at it. He converts the Western Front into a Homeric battlefield in which fighting is its own justification.

Junger was an early supporter of the Nazi party. By the end of the Weimar Republic, however, he was no longer close to it. He had become something of a salon nationalist, with friends on the left as well as the right. He travelled, collected beetles, experimented with drugs. (Later, he was one of the first to take LSD.) His writing became fragmentary, aphoristic, hardly of use to the dictatorship which took power in 1933. He disdained the plebiscitary, mass nature of Nazism.

However, if the Nazis viewed him with suspicion, he was still allowed to publish (notably On the Marble Cliffs, an allegory of totalitarianism) and continue his privileged bohemian life. He did not leave Germany. Called up in 1939, he spent most of the war in Paris, carrying out undemanding desk jobs; he becomes a flaneur in wartime.

This period is recorded in the diaries used as the basis for Edgardo Cozarinsky's film One Man's War. These show his disregard for the Nazis turning to shame at the uniform he wears and of which he he been so proud. They also display an incomprehension of the Resistance, which threatened the collaborationist circles (including figures such as Cocteau, Montherlant, Celine and Sacha Guitry) in which he moved.

Having been close to the officers of the 20th July 1944 plot against Hitler, Junger was probably lucky to escape with his life. Instead he was given a dishonourable discharge from the army. After the war, he retreated to a village in Southern Germany to devote himself to his garden, to entomology and to writing. He refused to pretend he was a resister or to co-operate with the deNazification process. (Because of his inter-war writing, he was quite rightly suspected as an anti-democrat.) Nevertheless, it was in the 1950s and 1960s that his position as a German writer was least challenged, until the generation of 1968 revived the attack on him as a precursor of Nazism.

Astonishingly, Junger is still alive: he will be 102 this year. He still gives interviews and published major work in his nineties. And he is still a disputed figure. The battle is not simply one of left against right. Some of his most articulate defenders have been on the left, commending his unsentimental insights into war and into the generations of men in the 20th century who were turned into trained killers.

Thomas Nevin's book is part of a revival of interest in Junger's work. Three of his novels have been published in English in the 1990s; the Paris diaries are being translated and further books on his controversial career and talents are in preparation.

Nevin, an American academic, is good on the uncomfortableness of Junger's vision, particularly for those who expect a pacifist and humanist account of war. He draws out both the eccentricity and representativeness of Junger as a member of the generation of 1914. He is good too on his position in Germany today as a discomfiting reminder of a recent past which has become virtually incomprehensible. Inexplicably, however, the book's detailed discussion ends at 1945 and it fails, partly because of the quality of the translation from Junger's own work, to give much sense of why we should be interested in him as a writer.

Junger's reputation in English will probably be finally established by the publication of the Paris diaries. They will provide the vantage point from which to assess a witness to the century who stands outside all conventional literary currents and categories.