Ernst Jünger’s The Storm Of Steel

I have a special fascination with war. My grandfather fought in World War I, and two of his sons – my uncles – served in World War II. I think of them every time I read a war novel or memoir, and the subsequent thought is always some variation of: how lucky I am to have escaped that. Reading Ernst Jünger’s The Storm Of Steel, perhaps the single most celebrated account of the German experience of WWI, was the very first time I felt not guilt or gratitude but envy. In that, I am not alone: generations of readers have been inspired by Jünger’s recollections, and generations of publishers and editors have sought to undermine what they saw as the book’s glorification of conflict. I knew of this controversy before I had read the memoir for myself, but nothing in the book’s reputation prepared me for the experience of reading it.

Let’s dispense with one thing from the beginning: this is not a white-washing of the horrors of war or a naive, jingoistic tract extolling the virtues of killing. I have by now read a great many war novels, watched vivid television and movie adaptations of the realities of combat, and nothing I have yet read or seen equals this book for the sheer ferocity of what it depicts. Jünger enlisted in 1914 (with “the courage of ignorance”), saw some of the bloodiest fighting of the war, and fought until a near-fatal chest wound finally retired him from combat in 1918. His depictions of the many dead and dying are hauntingly evocative. In one memorable scene, he is forced to listen to the pleas of a wounded soldier slowly drowning in three feet of mud, at the base of a shell crater, while he and his men take heavy enemy fire. In another, he describes the experience of being shelled, forced to simultaneously pump ditch water out of their position while their protective barricades collapse on top of them – revealing the dead bodies of their fallen comrades, now exhumed by the sheer force of the blows. What Jünger does depict is the sense of exhilaration, camaraderie and purpose that combat brings.

Around us in heaped-up mounds of earth lay the bodies of fallen comrades. On every foot’s breath a drama had been enacted. Behind every traverse fate lay in ambush, day and night, to snatch a victim. And yet all of us felt a strong attachment to our sector and had almost grown to be a part of it. We knew it when it ran as a black band across a landscape covered with snow, when at mid-day the flowery wilderness around pervaded it with drowsy scent, or when the eerie paleness of the full ghostly moon caught in its web those dark corners where the squeaking companies of rats carried on their secret existence. On the long summer evenings we sat on its fire-steps while the balmy air carried the busy hammerings of the songs of home across to the enemy; we fell over timber and broken wire when Death drummed with his steel club on the trenches and a heavy vapour crept out from their shattered walls. Often the general wanted to give us a quieter part of the regimental front. Each time the company begged as one man to stay in sector C.

The daily miseries of a soldier’s existence – the rat-infested trenches, the lice, the deafening boom of the guns and the fraying of the nerves that attends them – are all here, as in every other account of the war, but there is also the satisfaction of having done one’s duty, spent one’s self in a worthy cause, and Jünger doesn’t blush to note this sensation either. “At night when I lay down on my plank bed I had always had the pleasant consciousness of having in my sphere fulfilled the expectations those at home had of me. I had given all my energies to the defence of my two hundred metres of the front line, and cared for the well-being of my sixty men.” In one of the book’s climactic scenes, Jünger finds himself facing the concentrated power of the British guns:

The earth rocked and the sky boiled like a gigantic cauldron. Hundreds of heavy batteries were concentrated on and round Combles. Innumerable shells came howling and hurtling over us. Thick smoke, ominously lit up by Verey lights, veiled everything. Heads and ears ached violently, and we could only make ourselves understood by shouting a word at a time. The power of logical thought and the force of gravity seemed alike to be suspended. One had the sense of something as inescapable and as unconditionally fated as a catastrophe of nature.

This vision of war, as something elemental and therefore impersonal, informs his vision of the British soldiers who are trying to kill him. He doesn’t hate them or despise them or dehumanize them. On the contrary, he admires them. Here he is describing a luckless British officer: “The sergeant had both legs nearly torn off by a bomb; nevertheless, he clenched his short pipe between his teeth with stoical calm until he died. Here, as always, whenever we encountered the English we encountered brave men.”

What, then, provoked such a negative response, both in the 1930s and in the aftermath of World War II? There is a great deal of description of war as a testing ground, a chance to prove one’s character. For the soldier, “[d]anger is the supreme moment of his career, his chance to show his manhood at its best.” Or this: “I have always pitied the coward, in whom battle arouses a series of hellish tortures, while the spirit of the brave man merely rises the higher to meet a chain of exciting experiences.” At the book’s conclusion, when the war is ended, he offers some concluding remarks that summarize his experience in terms of gratitude, not bitterness or remorse:

I was gripped by the sad and proud feeling of being more closely bound to my country because of the blood shed for her greatness. Why should I conceal that tears smarted in my eyes when I thought of the end of the enterprise in which I had borne my share? I had set out to the war gaily enough, thinking we were to hold a festival on which all the pride of youth was lavished, and I had thought little, once I was in the thick of it, about the ideal that I had to stand for. Now I looked back: four years of development in the midst of a generation predestined to death, spent in caves, smoke-filled trenches, and shell-illuminated wastes; years enlivened only by the pleasures of a mercenary, and nights of guard after guard in an endless perspective; in short, a monotonous calendar full of hardships and privation, divided by the red-letter days of battles. And almost without any thought of mine, the idea of the Fatherland had been distilled from all these afflictions in a clearer and brighter essence. That was the final winnings in a game on which so often all had been staked: the nation was no longer for me an empty thought veiled in symbols; and how could it have been otherwise when I had seen so many die for its sake, and been schooled myself to stake my life for its credit every minute, day and night, without a thought? And so, strange as it may sound, I learned from this very four years’ schooling in force and in all the fantastic extravagance of material warfare that life had no depth of meaning except when it is pledged for an ideal, and that there are ideals in comparison with which the life of an individual and even of a people has no weight. And though the aim for which I fought as an individual, as an atom in the whole body of the army, was not to be achieved, though material force cast us, apparently, to the earth, yet we learned once and for all to stand for a cause and if necessary to fall as befitted men.

And how could it be otherwise? There is a memorable scene in the movie Fight Club in which one of the perverse lessons of the main character involves staging an armed robbery and shoving his gun in the face of a hapless store clerk, scaring him half to death, and then letting him live – on the condition that he returns to school to pursue his dreams. “Tomorrow will be the most beautiful day of Raymond K. Hessel’s life …” The entirety of The Storm Of Steel is written in that spirit: that far from cheapening life, the experience of so much death can reveal how precious it is, how profoundly valuable is every moment above the ground. “Hardened as scarcely another generation ever was in fire and flame, we could go into life as though from the anvil; into friendship, love, politics, professions, and into all that destiny had in store. It is not every generation that is so favoured.”