Feted author marks century of good karma

Germany/ Ernst Jnger
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The Independent Online
HE IS revered and reviled in almost equal measure. The German chancellor, Helmut Kohl, and the German president, Roman Herzog, both braved a violent snowstorm to wish him a happy 100th birthday last week at his home in south-western Germany. But he remains as controversial as ever. And that, it seems, is the way he likes it.

The author Ernst Jnger is scarcely known in Britain. In France, by contrast, he is a name to be conjured with. Indeed, as one German newspaper argued last week, "His fame reached us [in Germany], in past decades, by way of France." President Franois Mitterrand, who has been to pay personal homage in past years, sent a birthday message last week.

Jnger is a man who has lived through everything. He saw Halley's Comet in 1910, and again in 1986. He fought in two world wars, and was personally decorated by Kaiser Wilhelm II.

In France, at least, he is a kind of literary hero. In Germany, however, feelings are more ambiguous. In the words of Stern magazine: "He is the most controversial German author of the present day." Not bad, some would say, for a 100-year-old. Or, as the Frankfurter Rundschau noted: "At the age of 100, he polarises people as much as ever. And he seems to enjoy it."

Jnger seems ready to confirm that view. In a brief birthday speech, he said: "Thank you to my friends and enemies. They are part of one's karma. Without them, one has no profile."

Part of the problem is deciding what it is that Jnger stands for. But Mr Kohl, a devoted admirer, has no truck with such agonising. "You find me the person who, after 100 years, can say that he has always been consistent!"

In the 1920s, Jnger held an unambiguously nationalist position, and talked with apparent pleasure of "the next war". He declared: "I hate democracy, like the plague." His notorious book Storms of Steel appears to glorify the violence of war.

But the contradictions continued. On the Marble Cliffs, for example, which was first published in 1939, was sold in a special army edition. None the less, it was seen by many readers as containing hidden references to the totalitarian reality of the Third Reich. Hitler's aides pointed this out to the Fhrer, but to no effect.

Jnger was not an obvious loyalist - but neither was he an obvious freethinker. The apparent bloodthirstiness of parts of Storms of Steel is matched by his eagerness to go to war when he arrived in France with Hitler's invading army ("Herr General, may one hope that one will come under fire, once more?"). In Paris, he stayed in one of the luxury hotels occupied by the Nazis. In his diary, he wrote: "Air-raid alarm. We sat together, and drank 1911 champagne." (Plundered, naturally.)

Even long after the war was over, Jnger seemed reluctant to come to terms with post-war democratic realities. In an interview with Der Spiegel, at the age of almost 90, he observed that the Federal Republic was, for him, not entirely real. "For us, the reality is the German Reich." Hitler, he suggested, had been right to annex the Sudetenland..

With a history like that, many Germans are queasy. In the words of Die Woche: "That's the fascination of Ernst Jnger. He experienced our violent century - and yet remained un- touched by it. He thought what others, who carried out actions, were responsible for; he had the leisure to write, while others died on battlefields and in extermination camps."

And yet, the author and enthusiastic insect-collector (he has more than 40,000 beetlesfrom the Mediterranean and Africa pinned into boxes at his home) continues to have many devoted admirers. Rolf Hochhuth, an author of impeccable anti-Nazi credentials, turned on a television reporter who tried last week to ask questions about Jnger's past association with the Nazis. "You wouldn't have been any cleverer yourself." In some respects, Jnger's ambiguities are those of Germany itself.

Even leaving politics aside, Jnger is a difficult man to pigeonhole. At the age of 75, he wrote about experiencing mescalin and LSD. At the age of 90, he tried his hand at a mildly erotic thriller. And he hasn't finished yet: a fourth volume of his autobiography is due to be published soon.