Obituary: Ernst Junger
Wednesday 18 February 1998
All this is described in Zwei Mal Halley ("Halley Twice", 1988), a book filled with Junger's characteristic meditations on time and place, on dreams, nature, crystals, stars, mountains, the sea, wild animals and insects, especially butterflies, a passion he shared with Nabokov. Throughout his very considerable body of work, there is an obsession with time, with dates, with temporal coincidences, with the fatidic power of numbers over our birth and death. In a volume of his journals covering the years 1965- 70, Siebzig verweht ("Past Seventy", 1980), he makes this revealing entry at Wilfingen, his home between the Danube and the Black Forest, in sight of the castle of Stauffenberg, on 30 March 1965:
I have now reached the biblical age of three score and ten - a rather strange feeling for a man who, in his youth, had never hoped to see his 30th year. Even after my 23rd birthday in 1918, I would gladly have signed a Faustian pact with the Devil: "Give me just 30 years of life, guaranteed, then let it all be ended."
A similar expression of his fascinated awe of time and numbers appears in an earlier work, An der Zeitmauer ("At the Wall of Time", 1959). But one of the most extraordinary examples of this obsession can be found in a journal entry for ``Monday, 8.8.1988" -
a date with four units. 8 is special (four 8's, and a fifth one by subtracting the 1 from the 9). Odin rides an 8-legged horse . . . Dates have often brought me surprises.
One of his many hobbies was the collection of antique sandglasses, on which he was an authority. He also collected sundial inscriptions.
Ernst Junger's birth at Heidelberg is recorded precisely. It fell on 29 March 1895 on the stroke of noon, under Aries, with Cancer in the ascendant. He was the eldest of seven children, one of whom, his beloved brother Friedrich Georg (who died in 1977), was also a writer, a poet and philosopher.
Junger spent the greater part of his childhood and adolescence in Hanover, where his prosperous parents settled shortly after his birth. They possessed a beautiful villa by a lake, where Ernst made his first entomological investigations. He soon developed a dislike for bourgeois life, and spent a couple of unhappy years in boarding schools, whose reports complain of his dreaminess and lack of interest in the boring curriculum. He was later to write:
I had invented for myself a sort of distancing indifference that allowed me to remain connected to reality only by an invisible thread like a spider's.
He spent hours reading unauthorised books, and with his brother lived in an exalted universe of their own. They would go wandering round the countryside, and Ernst struck up happy friendships with tramps and gypsies. He was already the Waldganger (wild man of the woods), the anarchist hero of his 1977 novel Eumeswil.
It was the beginning of an unending passion for travel and exotic lands. He took the first big step in 1913 by running away from home to join the Foreign Legion, in which he saw service in Oran and Sidi-Bel-Abbes. After five weeks, his father bought him out. Ernst was to write about this escapade in Kinderspielen ("Children's Games", 1936). His father promised that if he passed his Abitur (school-leaving examination) he would be allowed to join an expedition to Mount Kilimanjaro. So Junger swotted away at the Gildermeister Institut, whose grim atmosphere is evoked in Die Steinschleuder ("The Catapult", 1973), a novel in the great tradition of German school stories.
Junger passed his exam in August 1914 and at once volunteered for the army, in which he fought on the French front with exceptional courage all through the First World War. Wounded four times, he received the highest German military honour, the Order of Merit created by Friedrich II: he outlived all those who also received it. Out of his wartime experiences was born Stahlgewittern ("Storm of Steel", 1920), which he had to publish at his own expense. This story of the horrors of modern warfare was drawn from his wartime notebooks, often written in the heat of battle on the Western Front. It remains one of the greatest works about the First World War, along with those by Erich Maria Remarque, Henri Barbusse, e.e. cummings, David Jones and Lucien Descaves.
Junger stayed in the army until 1923, when he left and began studying zoology at the University of Leipzig and at Naples. He married Gretha von Jeinsen and his son Ernst was born in 1926. In 1927 they moved to Berlin, where he became a member of the national revolutionary group led by Niekisch (arrested by Hitler in 1937 and kept in a concentration camp until the end of the Second World War). He also got to know Ernst von Salomon, Bertolt Brecht, Ernst Toller and Alfred Kubin, as well as the publisher Rowohlt. He began travelling widely, to Sicily, Rhodes, the Dalmatian coast, Norway, Brazil and the Canaries, and made the acquaintance of Andre Gide in Paris. These travels had a great influence on all his writings, most noticeable in his superb novel Heliopolis (1949) - the most elegantly learned, eloquently written and hauntingly convincing science- fiction story ever written.
Goebbels tried in vain to draw him into the ranks of the Nazi hierarchy in 1931, and he refused to be elected to the German Academy of Letters because it was dominated by national socialist timeservers. In 1932 Junger produced a very significant book, Der Arbeiter ("The Worker"), which is nevertheless one of his least-known works. It was long out of print until Martin Heidegger, himself besmirched with Nazi collaboration, persuaded him to risk letting it be reissued in 1963. It presents the mythical figure of standardised modern man as "The Worker" whose pragmatism and nihilism destroy the old traditional categories of peasant, soldier and priest, foretelling an unprecedented reversal of temporal power in our collapsing cultures where an intellectual and artistic elite has no place.
Related to this theme is a later work, Das Aladdinproblem (1983), in which he asks who will rub the magic lamp of destructive science and dehumanising technology: "With the heavens empty, we live in the Age of Uranium: how can we believe our modern Aladdin's lamp will not produce some unimaginable monster?"
Der Arbeiter is also an important theoretical study of the political history of the Thirties in Germany, and has been considered by critics like Georg Lukacs and Walter Benjamin to have been the ideological matrix of national-socialist ideas. But Junger's links with national socialism were infinitely complex. He was a serving officer, partisan of the revolutionary right, a sort of conservative anarchist, hostile to the Weimar Republic, yet he refused all honours and promotions.
Unable to bear the rising tide of Hitlerism, he left Berlin for the quiet of the countryside at Kirchhorst, where in February 1939 he began the painful drafting of Auf den Marmorklippen. Its anti-Nazi tone is obvious, but the book was published in September, the month war was declared. On the Marble Cliffs was part of my wartime reading, and I well remember the excitement it caused when the translation was published by John Lehmann just after the war.
With the outbreak of war, Junger was given the rank of captain and took part in the invasion of France, during which he did his utmost to spare civilians and protect public monuments. Posted to Paris, he became a well- known figure in the literary salons of the time like the Thursday reunions of artists and writers at Florence Gould's. He made good friends of authors like the acid-tongued critic Leautaud and above all Marcel Jouhandeau, whose scholarly ease and wit in writing seemed to Junger exceptional at a time of growing artistic barbarity. Even after their condemnation for collaboration with the Nazis, Junger praised the characters and writings of Chardonne, Celine (whom he did not like), Brasillach and Drieu de la Rochelle, while his admiration for Cocteau, Sasha Guitry and actresses like Arletty was as sincere as that for artists like Braque and Picasso, whose studios he frequented.
His journals of this period are studded with all these famous names. However, he was indirectly implicated in Stauffenberg's attempt to assassinate Hitler in July 1944, and requested to leave the army and return home to Kirchhorst, where he spent the rest of the war, composing a text on Die Friede ("Peace"). His son Ernst, in prison for opposition to Hitler, was despatched to the Italian front and killed on 29 November in the marble quarries at Carrara by Allied snipers.
After German defeat and capitulation, despite his firm denials of having supported Nazism, Junger encountered the shrill hostility of Marxist and so-called liberal critics who accused him of being its predecessor. They even criticised his scholarly, noble, refined style, calling it frigid, elitist and academic.
He writes of his experiments with drugs in Annaherungen ("Approaches", 1970), influenced by Aldous Huxley's works on the same subject. He finally settled at Wilfingen in the house of the Master Forester attached to the ancestral home of his executed friend Graf Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg, where in 1959 he founded the literary review Antaios with Mircea Eliade. By 1977, his father, mother, brother and wife had all died. He remarried, taking as his wife Liselotte Lohrer, a professional archivist and literary scholar.
All through the Seventies and Eighties Junger travelled widely. In 1979, he visited Verdun and was awarded the town's Peace Medal. In 1982 he received a final literary consecration with the award of the City of Frankfurt's Goethe Prize, which aroused violent protest among his detractors. In 1984, he again made a pilgrimage to Verdun, with Chancellor Helmut Kohl and President Francois Mitterrand to pay homage to the victims of two world wars.
In 1992, there was extraordinary confirmation of Junger's anti-Nazi stance with the discovery of a top secret document proving that his fate was in the balance just before the Third Reich's capitulation and during the final days Hitler spent in the Wolfs-Schanze, the very headquarters where he was wounded by the Stauffenberg bomb.
The document is dated December 1944. It is addressed by Dr Freisler, president of the Volksgericht (People's Court) to Martin Bormann, Hitler's right-hand man. Freisler informs Bormann that the proceedings to be taken against Captain Junger are to be cancelled. Junger had been indicted on account of his novel On the Marble Cliffs and the "defeatist" opinions he had expressed at his old colleague Commandant Stulpnagel's HQ in Paris, not long before the latter's suicide. Freisler reveals that on 20 November 1944 the Fuhrer himself had given the order by telephone from the Wolfs- Schanze that the matter was not to be pursued any further. Freisler ends his letter with "Heil Hitler!", then adds a postscript: "I am sending you three dossiers on the affair. The Fuhrer wishes to have his orders executed immediately."
In his Journals, Junger notes that the Gestapo had described him at that period in Paris as "an impenetrable, highly suspect individual". He comments in a 1992 interview:
It was no surprise to me. After all, it conformed to the pattern of my horoscope. Ever since my schooldays I've been accustomed to that kind of unpleasantness.
Ernst Junger's work is all of a piece - highly literary, beautifully sonorous, excitingly visual, intellectually profound and stimulating. It is the life work of an aristocrat of letters, and one of the best tributes to it has been made by another literary patriarch, Julien Gracq:
The hard, smooth enamelling that seems to armour his prose against the touch of too great a familiarity would seem to us perhaps a little frigid if we did not know, and if we never lost consciousness of the fact while reading, that it has been tempered in an ordeal of fire.
That is a fitting eulogy for one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.
Ernst Junger, writer: born Heidelberg, Germany 29 March 1895; married 1925 Gretha von Jeinsen (died 1960; two sons deceased), 1962 Liselotte Lohrer; died Wilflingen, Germany 17 February 1998.
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