Monday, January 20, 2014
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.
“STORM OF STEEL” by Ernst Junger (“In Stahlgewittern” first published in German 1920; revised by the author many times; first English translation by Basil Creighton, 1929); “ON THE MARBLE CLIFFS” by Ernst Junger (“Auf den Marmorklippen” first published in German 1939; English translation by Stuart Hood, 1947)
I think it is important to take up and read, as often as we can, books written by people we know to have temperaments and values quite different from our own. If we read only things that are immediately congenial to us, how would we ever expand our minds or learn what writing is capable of expressing?
I begin in this way because I know I have virtually nothing in common with Ernst Junger in terms of beliefs. I am a completely unmilitary person (despite having two brothers who chose to join the armed forces). Ernst Junger was almost the template of the happy warrior – a man who positively enjoyed being a wartime soldier and prided himself on his martial skills. I am of the generations who regard enthusiastic nationalism and patriotism with some suspicion. Ernst Junger belonged to the generations who saw patriotism and love of country (in his case, Germany) as the highest possible virtues. Yet Ernst Junger had one great virtue that anybody should celebrate. He could write, and sometimes write extremely well.
Some facts about the man first of all. Born in March 1895, Junger died in February 1998, one month before his 103rd birthday. He ran away from home at the age of 18 and joined the French Foreign Legion. He volunteered for the German army almost as soon as the First World War broke out, when he was 19, and basically served the whole four years of that war as a front-line soldier on the Western Front, sometimes in sectors where his regiment faced French troops and sometimes where they faced British troops. By the end of the war he had been wounded and concussed and physically damaged many times, but he had survived, he revelled in being a professional soldier, and he had been awarded both the Iron Cross, First Class and the more prestigious Pour le Merite. He finished the war, aged 23, as a lieutenant in charge of storm troops. This term now has to be explained. When we hear of ‘stormtroopers’ we are likely to think of brown-shirted Nazi thugs. Storm troops were those heavily armed German infantrymen who, in the last stages of the First World War, were specially trained to lead surprise attacks on enemy positions in the hope of pushing the enemy back by sheer audacity. This was especially true in the last German offensive in mid-1918.
In the early 1920s, when he was still in his twenties, Junger wrote two autobiographical books based on his wartime experiences, the more famous Storm of Steel (In Stahlgewittern) and the less-known Copse 125 (Das Waldchen 125). Junger lived on through the Weimar Republic and the Nazi era, having an ambiguous relationship with the Nazis (of which more later). In the Second World War he served in the Wehrmacht, mainly doing office duties in occupied Paris. He wrote many books in the half century after the Second World War and ended up as a revered European intellectual. And yet, for very good reasons, there were always some question marks hanging over him.
Storm of Steel was first published in 1920, but was extensively re-written by Junger in 1924, and indeed was worked over again two or three times by Junger in later decades. I know it has appeared in various English translations, including a Penguin Classics one I have not read. The translation I have read, by Basil Creighton, appeared in 1929, and follows Junger’s 1924 text. It is subtitled “From the Diary of a German Storm-Troop Officer on the Western Front” and identifies Junger on the title page as “Lieutenant, 73rd Hanoverian Fusilier Regiment”. It is a very battered first edition of this 1929 translation that sits on my shelf, and from which I take all my page references.
Storm of Steel both opens and closes on the battlefield. Junger gives us nothing of his earlier life or enlistment etc. With the occasional heavy-handed philosophical interlude, this book is very much a worked-up diary. It takes us through Junger’s earlier experiences on a relatively quiet sector opposing the French in 1915; what he did before and during the Battles of the Somme in 1916 and Ypres and Cambrai in 1917; and the final big German Spring Offensive (Kaiserschlacht) in 1918. On the last pages, as German troops around him are surrendering towards the end of 1918, Junger still wants to fight on.
For sheer horror, some of the things he narrates stick in the mind. There is, for example, the early episode where he casts away his gasmask during a gas attack because its windows keep fogging up and he can’t see where he is running. He believes that he can run through the gas cloud swiftly enough not to be affected. He survives, but his lungs ache.
It takes Junger some time to get used to the sheer ferocity of the war. Here, for example, is his first reaction to coming across enemy dead:
“My attention was caught by a sickly smell and a bundle hanging on a wire. Jumping out of a trench in the early morning mist, I found myself in front of a huddled up corpse, a Frenchman. The putrid flesh, like the flesh of fishes, gleamed greenish-white through the rents in the uniform. I turned away and then started back in horror: close to me a figure cowered behind a tree. It wore the shining straps and belt of the French, and high upon its back there was still the loaded pack, crowned with a round cooking utensil. Empty eye-sockets and the few wisps of hair on the black and withered skull told me that this was no living man. Another sat with the upper part of the body clapped down over the legs as thought broken through the middle. All round lay dozens of corpses, putrefied, calcined, mummified, fixed in a ghastly dance of death. The French must have carried on for months without burying their fallen comrades.” (pp. 21-22)
Later in the war, however, he is virtually inured to its horrors and is enthusiastic in planned slaughter. Take, for example, this passage of furor milensius during the Battle of Cambrai:
“Then came the climax. The enemy hard pressed, and with us always on his heels, made ready to retire to a communication trench that turned away to the right. I jumped on to a fire-step and saw that this trench for a good stretch ran parallel to ours at a distance of only twenty metres. So the enemy had to pass by us once more. We could look right down on the helmets of the English, who stumbled over each other in their haste and excitement. They started back and crowded on those behind. Now began an indescribable carnage. Bombs flew through the air like snowballs till the whole scene was veiled in white smoke. Two men handed me bombs to throw without a moment’s pause. Bomb flashed and exploded among the mob of English, throwing them aloft in fragments with their helmets. Cries or rage and terror were mingled. With the fire in our eyes we sprang with a shout over the top.” (pp. 233-234)
There is a similar instance during the Spring Offensive of 1918:
“The turmoil of our feelings was called forth by rage, alcohol and the thirst for blood as we stepped out, heavily and yet irresistibly, for the enemy’s lines. And therewith beat the pulse of heroism – the godlike and the bestial inextricably mingled. I was far in front of the company, followed by my batman and a man of one year’s service called Haake. In my right hand I gripped my revolver, in my left a bamboo riding-cane. I was boiling with a fury now utterly inconceivable to me. The overpowering desire to kill winged my feet. Rage squeezed bitter tears from my eyes.” (p.255)
In this latter example, Junger at least shows his awareness that the ferocity and “heroism” of battle involved the “bestial”, that alcohol and sheer rage played their part, and that the fury he felt was “inconceivable” to him on later reflection. In other words, there is a rational man inside the enthusiastic warrior.
Towards the end of the war, after seeing another battlefield atrocity, he remarks:
“I felt the look of horror in the eyes of a new recruit, a seminarist, who was gazing at me. Looking along the channel of his thoughts I had a shock when I realized for the first time how callous the war had made me. One got to regarding men as mere matter.” (p.294)
He knows his experience has to some extent brutalised him.
The landscape that Junger describes is the grassless, treeless one of craters and mud and unburied corpses that we are used to from so many photographs of the conflict:
“Once seen, the landscape is an unforgettable one. In this neighbourhood of villages, meadows and woods and fields, there was literally not a bush or even the tiniest blade of grass to be seen. Every hand’s-breadth of ground had been churned up again and again; trees had been uprooted, smashed and ground to touchwood, the houses blown to bits and turned to dust; hills had been levelled and the arable land made a desert.” (p. 108)
Or again in Flanders:
“The vast field of shell-holes had been turned into a sea of mud by the heavy rain of the last days. Its depths were particularly dangerous in the low-lying ground of the Paddebeek. On my zigzag course I passed many a lonely and forgotten corpse. Often only a head or a hand projected from the shell-hole whose circle of dirty water reflected them. Thousands sleep like that, without one token of love to mark the unknown grave.” (p.210)
When he gives his versions of what is humorous on the battlefront, Junger can make us particularly uneasy. Is the following particularly funny? Is it really “savage humour”? Personally, I would hate to be the stammerer, or face the drunkard who had a rifle:
“During this time a fairly lively activity prevailed in front of the wire, and sometimes it was not without a certain savage humour. One of our fellows on patrol was shot at because he stammered and could not get out the password quick enough. Another time one of the men, returning at midnight, after a festive evening at the kitchen at Monchy, climbed over the entanglement and opened fire on his own trench. When his ammunition was exhausted he was hauled in and soundly thrashed.” (p.63)
It is even more difficult to see the humour in what Junger calls “irresistibly comic”:
“On the 15th and 17th we had two more gas attacks to go through. On the 17th we were relieved and were twice shelled in Douchy – once while Major von Jarotzky was addressing the assembled officers in an orchard. It was irresistibly comic, in spite of the danger, to see how the company flew apart, nearly falling on their noses in their extreme haste to get through the fences and vanish like lightning wherever cover was to be found. In the garden of my billet a little girl of eight years old was killed by a shell while rummaging for rubbish in a pit.” (pp.87-88)
I know that laughter is something which helps soldiers survive, but the mention of a killed child at the end of this seems particularly gross.
When he deals with the enemy, Junger does remark a number of times that aluminium-headed British bullets are really the same as the outlawed dum-dums and he does criticise French plumbing, but he has the admirable quality of never ridiculing the enemy, even if in the following passage he seem to take no account of the fact that the war was being fought over occupied French territory:
“It has always been my ideal in war to eliminate all feelings of hatred and to treat my enemy as an enemy only in battle and to honour him as a man according to his courage. It is exactly in this that I have found many kindred souls among British officers. It depends, of course, on not letting oneself be blinded by an excessive national feeling, as the case generally is between the French and the Germans. The consciousness of the importance of one’s own nation ought to reside as a matter of course and unobtrusively in everybody, just as an unconditional sense of honour does in a gentleman. Without this it is impossible to give others their due.” (p.52)
The enemy are simply fellow warriors who take the same risks and wreak the same destructiveness as the author praises in his German comrades. This “sporting” attitude does mean that Junger often approaches warfare like a schoolboy playing a particularly exciting game. The attitude to soldiers’ leisure and to sex in the following is also interesting:
“In this little retreat the bottle went round faster than ever. At night when walking late through the narrow streets, one heard the sounds of carnival in every billet. Everything in wartime goes without reckoning, and hence came the preference of the soldier at the front for alcohol in its most concentrated forms. Our relations with the civil population, too, were, to a great extent, of an undesirable familiarity; Venus deprived Mars of many servants.” (p.119)
I am not sure here is “Venus deprived Mars of many servants” doesn’t refer to soldiers crippled by STDs.
In terms of Junger’s moral perspective, two passages in Storm of Steel gave me particular pause. Here is the first, concerning the German army’s deliberate destruction of civilian property in their retreat to the Somme, late 1916, early 1917:
“Every village up to the Siegfried line was a rubbish-heap. Every tree felled, every road mined, every well fouled, every water-course dammed, every cellar blown up or made into a death-trap with concealed bombs, all supplies or metal sent back, all nails ripped up, all telephone wire rolled up, everything burnable burned. In short the country over which the enemy were to advance had been turned into an utter desolation.
The moral justification of this has been much discussed. However, it seems to me that the gratified approval of armchair warriors and journalists is incomprehensible. When thousands of peaceful persons are robbed of their homes, the self-satisfaction of power may at least keep silence.
As for the necessity, I have of course, as a Prussian officer, no doubt whatever. War means the destruction of the enemy without scruple and by any means. War is the harshest of all trades, and the masters of it can only entertain humane feelings so long as they do no harm. It makes no difference that these operation which the situation demanded were not very pretty.” (pp.126-127)
Note the dire ambiguity here. On the one hand, Junger says he questions the “moral justification” of what the army did. Yet he goes on to argue military “necessity” as overriding moral considerations. It is as if he wants to separate himself from crude and vulgar judgments while at the same time endorsing them.
Later, there is a similar, and even more shocking, moral ambiguity when he speaks about shooting surrendering English soldiers during the 1918 Spring Offensive:
“No quarter was given. The English hastened with upstretched arms through the first wave of storm troops to the rear, where the fury of the battle had not reached boiling point. An orderly… shot a good dozen of them or more with his 32 repeater.
I cannot blame our men for their bloodthirsty conduct. To kill a defenceless man is a baseness. Nothing in the war was more repulsive to me than those heroes of the mess tables who used to repeat with a fat laugh the familiar tale of the prisoners marched in: ‘Did you hear about the massacre? Priceless!’
On the other hand, the defending force, after driving their bullets into the attacking one at five paces’ distance, must take the consequences. A man cannot change his feelings again during the last rush with a veil of blood before his eyes. He does not want to take prisoners but to kill. He has no scruples left; only the spell of primeval instinct remains. It is not till blood has flowed that the mist gives way in his soul. He looks round him as though walking from the bondage of a dream. It is only then that he becomes once more a soldier of today and capable of addressing himself to the next problem of tactics.” (pp.262-263)
Note that it is at once a “baseness” to shoot unarmed and surrendering men, and yet justified it in terms of how fully worked-up for slaughter men in battle are.
In the end, Junger, the sensitive and very intelligent observer, allows his ideal of military professionalism to take precedence over every other consideration. For ultimately Storm of Steel, the most vivid First World War soldier’s memoir I know, is a book in praise of the character-forming qualities of war. Junger praises men who go down fighting, as in such brief epitaphs (and there are many of them in this book) as:
“Our company commander at that time was Lieutenant R. Brecht, who had hurried across from America at the outbreak of the war, and a better man for the defence of such a position could not be found. His fighting spirit was never behindhand, and it brought him at last a glorious death.” (p.37)
In the book’s very last paragraph, then, there is this particular idealisation of the dead and of patriotism:
“We stand in the memory of the dead who are holy to us, and we believe ourselves entrusted with the true and spiritual welfare of our people. We stand for what will be and for what has been. Though force without and barbarity within conglomerate in sombre clouds, yet so long as the blade of the sword will strike a spark in the night may it be said: Germany lives and Germany shall never go under!” (p.319)
Near the very beginning, Junger has given his ideal of what soldiers should be – enthusiastic boys led by professionals:
“The notion that a soldier becomes hardier and bolder as war proceeds is mistaken. What he gains in the science and art of attacking his enemy he loses in strength of nerve. The only dam against this loss is a sense of honour so resolute that few attain to it. For this reason I consider that troops composed of boys of twenty, under experienced leadership, are the most formidable.” (p.4)
In the introduction to the English translation I read (published in 1929, remember) the novelist R.H.Mottram notes that, even at the end of the war, Junger “seems to imagine that a sort of Nietzschean-Wagnerian atmosphere of heroics translated into terms of gas and tanks can be re-created out of the wreckage of empire.” (p.vi)
I remember that when I was a teenager, my professional soldier brother (the late Lieutenant-General Piers Martin Reid) read both Storm of Steel and Copse 125, and when he got to the last paragraph of one or the other of them, he said to me “God, it could almost be an advertisement for the Nazi Party”. In the context of the Germany of the 1920s and the 1930s, Junger’s extreme and heartfelt nationalism and his glorification of the warrior virtues were the very things prized by Germany’s extreme Right including, eventually, the Nazis. And indeed, once they were in power, the Nazis did their best to enrol Junger in their cause. The people who burned copies of Remarque’s anti-war Im Westen Nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front) wanted to build up Junger, the exemplary, brave and much-decorated German soldier, as the official anti-Remarque.
And so at last I come to the question marks still hanging over Junger.
Junger never joined the Nazi party. He did some honourable things, such as refusing to allow the Nazi party newspaper to print extracts from his books, and withdrawing his membership from a veterans’ association when it expelled its Jewish members. There seems to be evidence that, when filling a desk job in occupied Paris in the Second World War, he had a distant connection with the bomb plot to kill Hitler. It is sometimes argued that the only reason the Nazis didn’t touch him was that he was such an icon of Germany military fortitude that it would have been embarrassing for them to have done so.
Yet there is still this uncertainty about the man. After all, while he was not anti-Semitic, many of his values were the very ones the Nazis promoted.
Chief article of evidence for the defence in this case is Junger’s novella (little more than 100 pages) Auf den Marmorklippen (On the Marble Cliffs), which was published in Germany in 1939. It is a fantasy story set in a world which has elements of traditional Europe in place names and descriptions, but also purely fantastic elements. Told in the first person, most of the action takes place in a peaceful, bucolic area where the narrator and his immediate family spend most of their time studying plants, talking philosophy and living an almost monastic life. But out of the dark forests comes the “Chief Ranger” who succeeds in stirring up and leading the uncouth mobs who wish to destroy this idyll. So there is war – presented in almost “Lord of the Rings” medieval terms. People are slaughtered, towns are destroyed and ruin is brought to what was once beautiful.
Remember, this novella was published in Nazi Germany, and was not censored. Vigilant members of the regime presumably saw it as mere fantasy. But subsequently, it has often been read as a covert protest against Nazism, and there are indeed some isolated passages that can be read this way. The “Chief Ranger” is the dark, irrational force opposing beauty and scholarly study; the force that can corrupt and lead the masses. We see him as Hitler.
I must admit that, having had On the Marble Cliffs often described to me before I actually read it, I found the reading itself a disappointment. Junger’s style is almost baroque – lots of leisurely and detailed description while very little happens – and the satirical intent (if indeed it is such) is buried in much irrelevant detail. Indeed, for such a short work, it is possible to forget which character is which, they are so badly differentiated. It is certainly not as clear-cut as my little synopsis.
I appreciate that any protest in Nazi Germany was a courageous act, but I note that even after the Nazis were long gone, Junger refused to identify On the Marble Cliffs as a criticism of the regime, and spoke of it in more general terms as a comment on “tyranny”. Its chief impact remains a murky ambiguity.
The “case” of Junger remains unresolved.