The semi-detached conscience: Books
ERNST JNGER AND GERMANY: Into the Abyss, 1914-1945 by Thomas Nevin, Constable pounds 20
Sunday 02 February 1997
Born in 1895 and growing up around Hanover, he kindled early his lifelong passions - for botany, literature and the cult of the warrior. At 17, he ran away to join the Foreign Legion in Africa, though his wealthy father (a retired chemical engineer) urged him to come home and complete his education. Junger returned to Germany and graduated from school, but never took up his place at the university of Heidelberg. Instead, from 1914 to 1918, he fought courageously in the trenches as a stormtroop lieutenant, being wounded seven times and awarded Germany's highest military decoration, the Pour le merite.
Karl Marx had asked: "Is Achilles possible with gunpowder and lead?" Junger sought to answer "Yes!" with In Storms of Steel (1920), a neo-Homeric celebration of chivalry in the mud and smoke of mechanised battle. It has been called by George Steiner "the most remarkable piece of writing to come out of the First World War", and it catapulted Junger to literary fame. However, the revised edition of 1926 introduced such dismally quasi- fascist statements as: "Life has deeper meaning only through sacrifice for an idea, and ... there are ideals compared to which an individual's life or even a people's count for nothing." Goebbels pronounced it "a great book".
Junger went on throughout the Twenties and Thirties to write journalism and essays preaching total military mobilisation, the joys of Dionysian atavism in war, a jejune brand of inferno aesthetics, and contempt for democracy (which, with Plato, he considered a degenerate form of government). In a 1923 piece for the NSDAP's Volkischer Beobachter, he foresaw, thrilled, a dictatorship that would "substitute deed for word, blood for ink, sacrifice for phrase, and sword for pen".
The controversy of Junger's life, which even today preserves him as an obscure shibboleth for neo-fascists and anti-fascists alike, is whether he was a Nazi writer. There is no doubt that in the early days, Junger was excited by the NSDAP. In about 1925 he sent copies of his war memoirs to Hitler - one inscribed to the man as "Fuhrer" - and received the egomaniac's routine blessing, a copy of Mein Kampf, in return. Thomas Nevin's book, the first major study of Junger in English (and by that token, as well as the fact that it draws on Junger's previously untranslated writings, an important work) denies that it aims to be a whitewash, but its strategies at this difficult period, when Junger was openly flirting with Nazism, become disingenuous. For instance, the text tells us baldly: "When Hitler offered [Junger] a party seat in the Reichstag in 1927, he declined." It is only if you bother to excavate the note to this declaration, hidden at the back of the book, that Nevin reveals somewhat shamefacedly the reason for Junger's refusal: far from political abhorrence, it was simply motivated by inertia - Junger loved his study and garden, and didn't want to have to travel to meetings.
In fact Junger rapidly became disillusioned with the Nazis, if only because of social and intellectual snobbishness - they were "not sufficiently metaphysical", and Junger stood for the soldierly elite against Hitler's brilliant mobilisation of the people (Junger's austere revulsion from the masses can be traced back through Nietzsche to Aristotle). But Nevin overstates his extenuative case embarrassingly. He writes that Junger never shared the Nazis' anti-Semitism, yet the clear- as-day message from Junger's 1930s writings is that Jews should assimilate totally or get out of Germany. Junger wrote: "The Jew ... cannot play a creative role, either good or bad, in anything that concerns German life." Poor Nevin takes his eye off the ball for a disastrously long moment here, for he is able, incredibly, to deduce: "Junger was staunchly opposed to the Nazis' racism."
Later on, when Junger was serving in occupied Paris, it is clear that he knew about Hitler's extermination policies in 1942: he refers to "the decimation of Jews", along with the sterilisation of the mentally ill and the murder of beggars. Junger objects to such actions not because of their immorality, but on purely pragmatic grounds: "One doesn't extinguish archetypes by extermination; rather, one liberates them." It is true, as Nevin wants to say, that Junger did not buy into the Nazi brand of annihilatory racism, but neither was he a thoroughgoing philo-Semite. Instead, Jews were to Junger rather like the insects he studied so keenly: interesting parts of Nature, neither good nor evil in themselves - but he would never dream of inviting them to his lavishly spread table for political discussion.
Yet it was Hitler's war which afforded Junger the opportunity for a unarguable display of semi-detached heroism. Already, in the autumn of 1939, he had published On The Marble Cliffs, an eccentric, anti-totalitarian but resolutely anti-moralising allegory that bitterly celebrated the despot's final immolation even while it evinced a pyromaniac glee in the wholesale razing of his fatherland. "It is better to fall alone with the free than go in triumph with the slaves." Amazingly, he was not arrested (Junger was a war hero and Germany's greatest literary celebrity, but Nevin also adroitly speculates on Hitler's deferential regard for creative types such as Junger and Speer, since the Fuhrer himself was a painter manque), and the book was banned only after it had sold 250,000 copies.
Junger did not, however, refuse military service, and he is often criticised for his aesthete's lifestyle in Paris during the war, revelling in entomological expeditions and retreating into a private, solipsist's battle against the hardening of his own heart. All this granted, Junger did in fact stick his head above the parapet. His risky pamphlet, "The Peace", proposing an end to the war and a united, pluralist, Christian Europe, was delivered to Rommel in 1944 and became the set text for members of the July 20 plot to assassinate Hitler. Again, Junger somehow escaped arrest. There is no doubting his horror at what Hitler was doing in the name of his beloved Germany.
Junger is a writer who flirts with genius, and it is precisely his icy remove in the face of hellish gore that makes him such a valuable witness of his times. His individualism explains, even if it does not extenuate, his lack of active resistance, as formulated in a later book, Aladdin's Problem (1983): "One carries freedom inside oneself; a man with a good mind will realise his potential in any regime."
Nevin's useful book is nevertheless at times dismayingly dishonest, and stops at 1945, ignoring Junger's large corpus of writing since - especially those works that continue his serious, modern argument about the uses of technology, which make him an essential adjunct to such as Heidegger and Lyotard. Perhaps a second volume is in the pipeline. If so, one hopes that Nevin will cease to hide behind such exotically nonsensical locutions as "a kind of fault line in his consciousness", "the almost pointillist precision of his images", or even: "The yoking of the empirical to the mythic and oneiric allowed him to penetrate recondite strata of reality." (This last being an athletically silly tactic to excuse Junger's withdrawal from politics into fantasy after 1933.)
It is also a shame to see Nietzsche so roughly travestied: Nevin several times assumes that the Nietzschean amor fati is the same as stoicism. It is not; Junger is with the Stoics, in their belief in the revelation of a divinely ordered cosmos. At the end of this short study, the reader feels that Junger still awaits a commentator who is not afraid of this singular writer's perilous complexities.
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