Storm of Steel Ernst Jünger, trans. Michael Hofmann

Horror and fascination on the Western Front

Henning Hoff
Saturday 28 September 2013 04:16

There are not many German writers more controversial than Ernst Jünger. Although he died in 1998, aged 102, he is still able to provoke heated arguments. At his death he had (again) become a respected figure who could count Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand among his admirers. Earlier this summer, a memorandum surfaced, which Jünger wrote in 1942 when he served as a Wehrmacht officer in Paris. It documents the revenge killing of French hostages, perpetrated by the German army on Hitler's orders. His precise, unemotional style re-opened the debate on his character.

Jünger was no Nazi, although he had contacts in the party during the 1920s and even exchanged signed copies with fellow author, Adolf Hitler. At that time he believed in a right-wing, nationalist revolution to overcome the "hated democracy", but the Third Reich wasn't his. He passed it in "inner emigration" and had connections with Hitler's adversaries in the Wehrmacht. Nevertheless, Jünger's "aesthetics of violence" certainly overlapped with Nazi ideology.

His reputation is mainly based on this first book, written in 1920 when he was 25. Storm of Steel is an account of his fighting on the Western Front during the First World War. The book is famous, and notorious, among the literature on the Great War. While later writers such as Sassoon, Graves and Remarque turned away disgusted by the slaughter, Jünger had a very good look. His detailed descriptions of battlefields in France and Flanders surpassed those of his fellow-writers: he provided the most complete picture of the realities of industrially organised warfare.

Storm of Steel now has an outstanding new translation by Michael Hofmann. For the last 70 years, it has only been available to English readers in a faulty translation dating from 1929. In addition, that edition was based on the most nationalist version Jünger produced. In his preface to the 1929 translation, Jünger mentioned Waterloo and other instances of former Anglo-German comradeship-in-arms. He called English troops "not only the most formidable but the manliest and the most chivalrous". It is doubtful, however, that the many descriptions of him killing his British adversaries in not always chivalrous ways endeared him to English readers.

Hofmann's superb translation, simple, precise and elegant, is based on a version Jünger produced in the 1960s. In parts, it dampens some deeply chilling effects of the German original. Jünger is an accomplished diarist: his telling of the soldiers' life, of his many wounds, of the brutality of trench warfare and body-maiming battles, evoke the strange fascination that lay at the heart of the horrors of the Western Front.

Jünger extensively dealt with the experience of killing, or what happened to human beings when committing the most inhumane acts. At the same time, his reflections never rise above the smoke and noise of the battlefield and quiet moments in the hinterland. The ending is characteristic. On 22 September 1918, Jünger receives a telegram with the news that the Kaiser has bestowed on him Germany's highest distinction for military bravery. Two months later, Germany had lost the war. Jünger fails to mention that.

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