Saturday, November 13, 2010

Storm of Steel

The First World War diaries of Ernst Jünger, a German soldier who became a revered literary figure, have just been published for the first time. The diaries are of historical significance because they were the source material for Jünger’s first book - Storm of Steel - which became famous as a right-wing tract in favour of war, much favoured by the Nazis, even though he himself did not support Hitler’s regime. Throughout his long life - he lived to be 102 - he refused to allow the original diaries to be made public.

Jünger was born in Heidelberg in 1895 to a middle class family, the son of a pharmacist. He was brought up in Hannover; but, when still a teenager, he ran away to join the French Foreign Legion, and served briefly in North Africa. During World War I he joined the Imperial German Army on the Western Front, where he distinguished himself: he was awarded an Iron Cross, and then Prussia’s highest military decoration, the Pour le Mérite (Blue Max).

Soon after the end of the war, Jünger self-published In Stahlgewittern (Storm of Steel) which argued that Germany’s tribulations in the war were a prelude to rebirth and victory. Thereafter, he studied philosophy and natural sciences at the universities of Leipzig and Naples and became a well-known entomologist. In 1925, he married Gretha von Jeinsen and they had two children. In the 1920s, Jünger continued to publish right-wing ideas, though it was largely thanks to In Stahlgewittern that he became something of a hero to the Nazis. Nevertheless, he remained ambivalent towards the fascist regime, not criticising it, but not joining the National Socialists either. Moreover, he refused important academic appointments offered him following the Nazi Party’s ascension to power.

Jünger lived in Berlin from 1927 until 1933, when the Gestapo searched his house. In 1939, he published Auf den Marmorklippen (On the Marble Cliffs) an allegory critical of the situation in Hitler’s Germany. During the Second World War, he served as army captain, and was assigned an administrative position in Paris. Though not directly connected with the plot by fellow officers to kill Hitler, he is considered to have been an inspiration to the Prussian anti-Nazi conservatives in the German army who carried out the plot.

After the war, Jünger was banned from publishing in Germany for several years by the British occupying forces - for not resisting the Nazi regime enough. He was, however, rehabilitated by the 1950s, and went on to become a towering figure of German literature, producing innovative fiction such as Gläserne Bienen (The Glass Bees), a forerunner of the magical realism style. The publisher Klett first issued his collected works in ten volumes in 1965.

Jünger lived to be over 100 years old, and died in 1998. Further biographical information is widely available, from Wikipedia, and Kirjasto, for example, as well as from obituaries online at The Independent and The New York Times.

In the 1940s, according to Wikipedia, Jünger published various volumes of his diaries. His early time in France is described in the diary Gärten und Straßen (Gardens and Streets); and his diaries from 1939 to 1949 were published under the title Strahlungen (Reflections). In 1993, the Journal of European Studies published A Certain Idea of France: Ernst Junger’s Paris Diaries 1941-44 by Richard Griffiths.

However, it is Jünger’s diaries written during the First World War which are the most famous. This is because his first book, the famous Storm of Steel is based on those diaries. The original English version - translated by Basil Creighton and published in 1929 by Chatto & Windus - was subtitled ‘from the diary of a German Storm-Troop officer on the Western Front’. Jünger, throughout his life, however, refused to make public those diaries, and it is only very recently that his widow, Liselotte Lohrer (who has since died), gave permission for them to be published.

Dr John King who runs the very informative website called Ernst Jünger in Cyberspace did his doctoral thesis on the German writer, and one chapter of that thesis looks carefully at the diaries. King says this, for example: ‘Jünger used the diaries to support two different public personae. On the one hand, he used them to guarantee the authenticity of his war books. But, faced with the increased critical interest in his work after 1945, Jünger adamantly refused to allow access to them.’

Now, though, the original First World War diaries have been published, in Germany as Kriegstagebuch 1914-1918, and will be published next year in English as War Diary - 1914-1918. Meanwhile, the German magazine Der Spiegel has just made a few extracts from the new book available on its English-language website. ‘I am not aware of any comparable diary, either in German, French or English, that describes the war in such detail and over such a long period,’ Jünger’s biographer Helmuth Kiesel, who arranged its transcription and publication, told Der Spiegel. ‘All other diaries are usually far shorter and span just a few weeks or months.’ Here are a few of extracts from Der Spiegel.

1 July 1916
Monchy, near Arras: ‘In the morning I went to the village church where the dead were kept. Today there were 39 simple wooden boxes and large pools of blood had seeped from almost every one of them, it was a horrifying sight in the emptied church.’

26 August 1916
Guillemont, Somme region, northeastern France: ‘In front of my hole lies an Englishman who fell there yesterday. He is fat and bloated and has his full pack on and is covered in thousands of steel blue flies.’

28 August 1916
‘This area was meadows and forests and cornfields just a short time ago. There’s nothing left of it, nothing at all. Literally not a blade of grass, not a tiny blade. Every millimeter of earth has been churned up and churned again, the trees uprooted and torn apart and ground to sludge. The houses shot to pieces, the bricks crushed into powder. The railway tracks turned into spirals, hills flattened, everything turned to desert. And everything full of corpses who have been turned over a hundred times. Whole lines of soldiers are lying in front of the positions, our passages are filled with corpses lying over each other in layers.’

3 September 1916
‘I have witnessed much in this greatest war but the goal of my war experience, the storming attack and the clash of infantry, has been denied me so far (. . .) Let this wound heal and let me get back out, my nerves haven’t had enough yet!’

22 March 1918
‘. . . there was a bang and he fell covered in blood with a shot to the head. He collapsed into his corner of the trench and remained there with his head against the wall of the trench, in a crouching position. His snoring death rattle came at lengthening intervals until it stopped altogether. During the final twitches he passed water. I crouched next to him and registered these events impassively.’

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